Harold McGee is a noted authority on the science of food and cooking. He studied science and literature at Caltech and Yale, which for many (myself included) is akin to trying to combine oil and water. Yet McGee seems to effortless blend a skill for storytelling with the sharp eye of a researcher.
His new book is no exception. “Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes” offers Harold McGee’s reassuring voice serving up an exhaustive compendium of years of culinary research and insights. “Keys to Good Cooking” is designed as a reference book, but hardly in the massive textbook mode of McGee’s classic, “On Food and Cooking.” Instead, this is more like Harold McGee, your favorite college professor, dropping by your kitchen for a cup of coffee and gently guiding you through your latest culinary project.
There are no recipes. The book is divided into 24 chapters on key food and cooking categories, such as “Milk and Dairy Products,” “Sauces, Stocks and Soups,” “Fish and Shellfish,” and “Coffee and Tea.” Think of each chapter as the “back story” behind a recipe. McGee serves up his well-studied insights on culinary techniques, how ingredients perform, shopping tips and some fairly alarming guidelines on food safety that I appear to routinely violate. Important facts are offered in bold and specific directions are delivered in blue italic.
Essentially, McGee has compiled the kind of insights that you can’t get from a single recipe, and it’s a valuable resource. Exploring the book reminded me of my experiences in culinary school classes encountering the type of wisdom that only the chef instructor – and hands on experience – could provide.
Think of the chapters in “Keys to Good Cooking” as required background reading before undertaking any culinary project. I’m fairly knowledgeable and well-trained in certain categories such as Breads and Meats, yet I learned things I didn’t know that could change the way I approach certain recipes in the future. For example, I didn’t realize that water makes up nearly half the weight of bread dough. Or, the fact that you can restore a partial or whole loaf of stale bread by moistening its crust and baking in a medium oven for 15 minutes or until hot and soft inside. For carnivores who like their meat juicy, it only takes a few degrees to go from firm and juicy to hard and dry, a transition that begins at about 150 degrees Fahrenheit, so keep that thermometer handy. Anyone unnerved by all the recent media coverage of eggs would have a much deeper understanding of the real issues – and important precautions - after reading Chapter 10 on Eggs. And, it seems like buying any food item pre-cut is a bad idea. It affects flavor, freshness and potentially safety.
“Keys to Good Cooking” is chock-full of functional insights and I suspect I will be a smarter and more skillful cook if I train myself to review the appropriate chapters before undertaking a recipe. If I have one complaint - and it’s a small one – it has to do with the book’s austere design. McGee has never been known for flashy presentation and he does suggest that the simple typeface and white spaces are there for home cooks to make their own notes. Yet with all the celebrity chefs lining up for our attention at the bookstore this holiday season, I do hope the Plain Jane “Keys to Good Cooking” doesn’t get lost. It deserves attention and could easily become an essential kitchen reference.
The Penguin Press provided me with a complimentary copy of “Keys to Good Cooking” for my review, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own.
©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved
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