This cookbook is a mirror into the reader's own attitude toward cooking.
If you are a professional with all the expensive equipment, a demanding clientele and a pioneering spirit, this book will quickly become an essential reference. If you are a casual home cook curious about sous vide wizardry and perhaps interested in toying with the techniques, you will find this book intimidating and useless. For foodies who have been intrigued by "molecular gastronomy" restaurant offerings, this book may answer a few "How did they do that?" questions. Given the level of creative energy between this book's covers, it is an outstanding value for the listed Amazon price. Understand, however, that as Keller states on p. 38, this book is
"written for the professional kitchen, from one chef to another. No modifications have been made
to accommodate cooks preparing [these recipes] at home, even though some of them certainly can
be done at home with the right equipment"
Recipe mise-en-place is organized by component in a division-of-labor professional kitchen style (not chronologically). All recipes use metric weights, so a digital scale is essential. These stylistic choices are sensible for Keller's audience, but may be offputting to a home cook more familiar with traditional American home cookbook presentations.
Sous vide is, in important ways, both easier and safer than other cooking methods. Some of the advantages include ultra-precise control (and corresponding prevention of cooking errors and waste), extended hold times, intensified flavor, more efficient usage of labor, space and ingredients, and the ability to accomplish certain end results that are impossible with any other approach. Romantics who complain that sous vide reduces the artistry of cooking are ignoring the subjective, analog, soulful decisions that the chef must make concerning ingredients and method before and after bag cooking. In an introductory essay, Keller considers the sense of loss at the diminution of artisanal craft as technology supplants it. This was great writing, truly an artist at his best.
One minor complaint I have with the book is its layout. Too many pictures of serious chefs at work are uncaptioned. Who am I looking at? What am I supposed to learn from this picture? Photos of finished recipes are often a page or two away from the recipe or even from their own caption. There are also artsy "backstage" pictures mixed in, producing a momentary confusion as to what one is contemplating. This is perhaps illustrative of the tone of the book. It's assumed that the reader is going to have the culinary chops to recognize these people (or ones like them) and fit right in next to them cooking obscure ingredients comfortably in a professional setting. Perhaps the effect sought is a coffee table book for professional chefs. I was also a bit disappointed with the layout's trendy approach of having more empty space (big white margins) bordering smaller, lighter type. Bring your reading glasses and good light when you sit down with this text.
Following introductions on philosophy, science and history by Bruno Goussault, Harold McGee, Keller, Jonathan Benno, Corey Lee and Sebastien Rouxel, there in an extended section on Fundamentals, including what sous vide can achieve, basic principles and techniques, safety, use in the professional kitchen, and use in the home kitchen. I found the section on food safety to be particularly valuable and accessible to the home cook.
Over sixty recipes are roughly equally divided into five major categories: Vegetables and Fruits, Fish and Shellfish, Poultry and Meat, Variety Meats, and Cheese and Desserts. Perplexingly, the table of contents lists only these categories and does not itemize the individual recipes. Each recipe generally takes two to three pages, plus a full-page photograph, and involves two or three dozen ingredients, divided into dish components (remember these are complex, composed dishes offered in Keller's restaurants, The French Laundry and per se). An example? "Grilled Octopus Tentacles, Chorizo, Fingerling Potatoes, Green Almonds and Salsa Verde," has 30 ingredients, two pages of instructions including a procedure for peeling green almonds, recipe p. 78-79, photo p. 76, two citations for sources, and one procedural reference to the Basics section. Similarly, "Dégustation de Porcelet, Rutabage Mostarda, Wilted Mustard Greens, and Potato 'Mille-Feuille'" is a tasting of five cuts from a baby pig; this recipe stretches four pages and lists 45 ingredients. The "Basics" section follows the recipes and includes everything from how to make clarified butter to recipes for eight different kinds of stock. Few home cooks are likely to make the composed dishes in their entirety, but experienced or adventuresome readers will certainly come away with ideas for home entertaining or approaches that might prepare only one simplified element from a Keller composed plate. Perhaps you would offer home guests five cuts from a baby pig; weeknight visitors to my home would more likely get pork chops sous-vided à la Keller, with one sauce.
Other than the chapter on safety, perhaps the most useful parts for home sous vide users will be the two closing reference sections. First, there is a marvelous table that lists ingredients alphabetically, specifies how to sous vide the ingredient, and cites a recipe within the text that features the ingredient. Next comes an extended list of sources for equipment and ingredients. This is followed by a more traditional index, then acknowledgements and restaurant staff group photos, for a text of almost 300 pages.
The only comparable text to address the topic of sous vide is Joan Roca's "Sous Vide Cuisine." Roca's text is stylistically quite different and more than a third shorter than Keller's book. The English translation of Roca's book also runs about two hundred dollars, which is quadruple the price of Keller's book. If you can choose only one, Keller's is stronger and a better value.
It's not all things to all people, but "Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide" is invaluable in what it offers and an instant classic in its field.