Harold McGee poops on any romantic sentiment you may have ever associated with cooking. All your warm nostalgia about grandma’s mashed potatoes and green bean casserole is silly and juvenile. Grow up. That beautiful pork chop your searing in your backyard, it’s a hot bed of chemical reactions; enzymes breaking down, protein strains reconfiguring. Do you really want to know exactly what has to happen in the production of most dairy ingredients? How about hot dogs? Mmmm, this biology tastes delicious.
McGee’s book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, (recently republished after a 20 year update) is the definitive examination of the physical, chemical and biological mechanisms that occur in every aspect of the food we grow, prepare and eat today. And it is fantastic. Complete with molecule charts and drawings of cell structures, McGee is not a casual read or source for weeknight dinner ideas. But for anyone interested in becoming a better cook, and that includes those that can barely toast bread, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
These days a cookbook is a tough impulse-buy for me to keep under control (and society in general apparently), despite the fact that many, many cookbooks end up being duds. I’m pretty pleased with most of my library. I have a bunch of the classics: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, La Technique. I have some more contemporary heavy hitters: Fat Duck Cookbook, various Keller and Jean-Georges books, Wakuda’s self titled Tetsuya. I even have a fucking Rachel Ray book (a gift). And if someone where to ask for a recommendation, I’d probably ask a few questions about interests and effort before suggesting something. But On Food and Cooking is different. Everyone should have access to this book.
Whether you’re just generally curious about food or trying to figure out a specific technique, McGee gives it to you with cold, rational, unwavering science cover to cover. I know some guys that just refer to it as their Bible. It’s ridiculous how much ground the book covers without skimping on the details.
Not sure why your Hollandaise sauce was perfect yesterday, but shit today? Flip to the chapter on emulsions and read about continuous vs. dispersion liquids. Curious why blanched veggies look great until they don’t? Skim the section on vegetable cooking methods. Did you know there is a difference between caramelization and something called a Maillard reaction? It’s true. Caramelization only occurs with sugar (mostly sucrose molecules), whereas Maillard occurs with the the browning of all other, sugar-free foods (a reaction beginning with carbohydrate molecules) and are chemically more complex than the reactions in sugar.
And yes, I am fully aware of how much a geek musing about these excerpts makes me. I don’t care. Next time you’re feeling that impulse-buy creeping up on you when you’re flipping through Mario Batali’s latest cookie cutter coloring book, just ask yourself if you’re really getting your twenty bucks worth. Don’t be scared off or apathetic about On Food and Cooking. Welcome a little science into your recipes. Cooking is all about love, but it ain’t the love that’s going to actually cook your salmon. Not to mention, cooking is a lot more fun when you know what’s going on in the pot.