Curious cooks in America know that the art and craft of fine cookery boil down to basic science, and that the foundation of science is a system of basic truths, and if you want to know what these truths are, there is one unassailable source: Harold McGee. Specifically, McGee’s classic 1984 book, “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” — which he updated in 2004 — contains the answers to any food science questions you might ever think to ask.
“On Food and Cooking” — a 900-page tome fat with scholarly references — doesn’t mind reading like a textbook in parts, even as it tells stories to keep nonscientists enraptured.
McGee has followed up this definitive and now classic work with a much different kind of book. “Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Food and Recipes” ($35, The Penguin Press) reads more like a basic user’s guide for the modern home kitchen — a thoroughly categorized taxonomy of tips, techniques, common sense and food safety.
McGee takes the reader, chapter by chapter, through every subject — from kitchen tools and cooking methods to the various foodstuffs and preparations that home cooks tackle. He spends a lot of time with that most scientific of kitchen endeavors, baking.
Facts you’ve noticed without stopping to think about — the way undercooked egg detaches more readily from pans soaked in warm water rather than hot water, or the fact that food sticks less to pans heated through before you add any oil to it — are among the hundreds of aha moments any home cook will experience leafing through this recipe-free book.
To keep things simple, McGee doesn’t cross-reference the material or dive deeply into scientific principles. This isn’t a book that will make you recall equations from your high-school chemistry class, but rather one that will explain simply how pressure cookers work, or what temperatures and techniques will keep your braised meat moist.
I spoke with McGee by telephone — he was at home in San Francisco answering my questions and glancing out his window where four police cars had congregated for some mysterious reason. McGee said the initial impetus for the book came from readers.
“I kept hearing from people who had ‘On Food and Cooking’ and liked it a lot, but were having a practical issue in the kitchen, and they said there was so much material to wade through to get to the appropriate part.”
Further, McGee has noticed how “cookbooks were more prolific than ever and the science of cooking was more fashionable than ever, but that people were throwing in pseudo-scientific facts that were … unfortunate. And misleading.” He realized there was no book on the market with just the facts.
In his long-running New York Times column, “The Curious Cook, ” McGee somewhat impishly likes to put the lie to common cooking truisms, such as the erroneous and oft-repeated assertion that first searing meat “seals in the juices.” (Searing adds flavor, pure and simple.) Did he burst any other bubbles in this book?
“Well, there’s so much written about how cooking in a moist environment will make food moist. Like, pressure cooking. This stuff is just not true.” (Meat cooked in a pressure cooker is often dry and stringy, he avers.)
McGee thinks for a second and turns the subject to cooking pasta. “I propose cooking pasta in minimal water rather than what most do, bringing that big pot to a rolling boil before adding the pasta. You’re just throwing all that water and energy down the drain.” (He starts the pasta in cold water in a shallow pan, and it does not turn gummy.)
Many of the points in the book are what skilled home cooks might consider common sense. Don’t buy cracked carrots. Don’t leave food out overnight.
“I didn’t want to take anything for granted, ” McGee says of his thoroughness. “A lot of people didn’t grow up in a household with a lot of cooking going on, but they love food.”
McGee also writes without any stories, anecdotes, asides or scientific attributions. When I call the tone “voice of God, ” he laughs.
“I hope it doesn’t come off as obnoxious. I tried to make the book as concise and quick to use as possible. A lot of easygoing banter was going to be a waste.”
So who does McGee think will most benefit from this book?
“I have children who are 24 and 22 years old now. They’ve been wonderful guinea pigs, and companions, but they’re now living on their own and making nice things to eat because they can’t afford to buy them. Whenever they come home they ask lots of questions: How do you shop for ingredients? How do you recognize a fresh fish? I’d like to think the book is for people like them.”
Young people today have a world of ingredients, flavors and techniques available to them. As McGee says, “It’s a great time to be interested in food.”