There are cookbooks and there are cookbooks. And there is one such book which most avid home cooks neglect to buy. It’s a mighty tome, which deserves fame far beyond what it has among chefs, food writers and others who play with food for a living.
The book is called On Food and Cooking – The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. It’s by the esteemed Harold McGee and merges food and science, chemistry and history. It was hailed by Time Magazine as a minor masterpiece when it appeared in 1984. It’s a cook book in a way, but in the way Cape Canaveral is an airport.
McGee is the best sort of food geek, managing to investigate pretty much any food – or at least food group you can think of – on a forensic level, without it being dry or dull. Where else might you find a neat précis on the evolution of bread from prehistoric times to today, followed by a biology lesson on different types of wheat and an in-depth look at yeast metabolism and gluten formation?
His chapter on eggs not only almost manages to answer the question about whether chicken or egg came first, but gives the most useful and detailed information on the chemistry of egg cooking that you’re likely to find.
It was McGee’s book which helped give birth to the movement known as molecular gastronomy - though he ended up being annoyed by the term. The point is, he’s the big cheese and for good reason.
I can’t urge you enough to make this your next food reading purchase. Indeed, with McGee at your side, you might find yourself using cookbooks less and using your new knowledge a whole lot more.
If you like broad-strokes info, and don’t qualify for full food-geekdom, then his slightly more recent book Keys to Good Cooking is a neat distillation of must-have information.
If you want to hunt them down, the wonderful Love Books in Melville will order for you. Even if you don’t get the books, do follow his writings online.
He always delights with info which tasteful food blogs and mags shy away from. He tells us, in an article on “salt rising bread”: “A century ago, a scientist went so far as to bake bread leavened with Clostridium perfringens drawn from an infected wound, in what the West Virginia Medical Journal called ‘perhaps the most macabre experiment in culinary history’." Now, that’s what I call interesting food trivia.
READING & WATCHING: For extended McGee, check out the following:
WATCH | The meat-juice-sealing theory debunked:
WATCH | McGee’s The Flavour of Smog is also great: