Back in 1990 my father gave me a copy of Harold McGee’s The Curious Cook for Christmas and reading it was a revelatory experience. Although I’d been cooking for many years and was aware that cooking involved elements of science, I had no idea how much science – particularly physics and biology – was involved in the creation of a good meal.
Since then I’ve built a small library of books on the science of food and cooking. It includes McGee’s On Food and Cooking, Shirley Corriher’s Cookwise, and Herve This’ Molecular Gastronomy. These have all had a positive effect on my cooking. Knowing the temperature at which collagen melts has greatly improved my stews and braises, while knowing the effect of acids on beans has led to greater control over the texture of my baked beans.
The publisher, Robert Rose, recently released a book named The Science of Good Food by David Joachim and Andrew Scloss. At 600 pages it’s a massive compendium of facts about food and cooking starting with acid and ending with wine. Among the topics covered are carcinogens, frying, types of game meat (the book reports raccoon tastes like pork), and the anatomy of a bivalve.
The book’s dictionary-like entries range from a page to multiple pages, for example wine covers six and a half pages and touches on cooking with wine, how wine is made, wine vinegar, and the effect of the environment on wine’s taste – what the French call terroir.
Each topic is divided up into sub-sections named “What It Is,” “What It Does” and “How It Works.” But this rather arbitrary organization doesn’t always make sense. For example, under thistles “What It Is” states, “Comprising more than 300 species, thistles are plants characterized by their prickly leaves or stems,” which is fine but in “What It Does” you get, “Artichokes and cardoons belong to the same thistle genus and share several attributes.” That doesn’t really strike me as good description of what a thistle does.
Spaced throughout are a number of sidebars with titles like “Kitchen Wisdom”, “Fast Facts”, and “Science Wise”. The Kitchen Wisdom sidebar on oil offers a tip on cleaning up spills (sprinkle flour on it) and the Fast Facts note that toasted sesame oil is less likely to turn rancid than most oils. A Science Wise note on molecular gastronomy says that you can improve cheap whiskey by adding a few drops of vanilla to a bottle. This entry also contains a recipe for making ice cream using liquid nitrogen. Although this isn’t a cookbook, there are quite a number of recipes spread throughout.
The Science of Good Food covers more territory than On Food and Cooking and offers less depth; it’s intended for home cooks with easy-to-understand entries. And Robert Rose also sells The Food Encyclopedia which would be a good companion to Good Food, offering shorter and more specific topics for the home cook.
These books are valuable – I think every cook should have some understanding of the chemistry, physics, and biology of food and cooking. If you know about umami and its natural sources then adding a touch of anchovy paste to tomato sauce makes perfect sense. Understanding Maillard reactions will help you when roasting or grilling meats – or even baking bread.
This knowledge – of science – will make you a far better and more flexible chef.