This is the revised and expanded second edition of a book that I first published in 1984, twenty long years ago. In 1984, canola oil and the computer mouse and compact discs were all novelties. So was the idea of inviting cooks to explore the biological and chemical insides of foods. It was a time when a book like this really needed an introduction!
Twenty years ago the worlds of science and cooking were neatly compartmentalized. There were the basic sciences, physics and chemistry and biology, delving deep into the nature of matter and life. There was food science, an applied science mainly concerned with understanding the materials and processes of industrial manufacturing. And there was the world of small-scale home and restaurant cooking, traditional crafts that had never attracted much scientific attention. Nor did they really need any. Cooks had been developing their own body of practical knowledge for thousands of years, and had plenty of reliable recipes to work with.
I had been fascinated by chemistry and physics when I was growing up, experimented with electroplating and Tesla coils and telescopes, and went to Caltech planning to study astronomy. It wasn't until after I'd changed directions and moved on to English literature -- and had begun to cook -- that I first heard of food science. At dinner one evening in 1976 or 1977, a friend from New Orleans wondered aloud why dried beans were such a problematic food, why indulging in red beans and rice had to cost a few hours of sometimes embarrassing discomfort. Interesting question! A few days later, working in the library and needing a break from 19th-century poetry, I remembered it and the answer a biologist friend had dug up (indigestible sugars), thought I would browse in some food books, wandered over to that section, and found shelf after shelf of strange titles. Journal of Food Science. Poultry Science. Cereal Chemistry. I flipped through a few volumes, and among the mostly bewildering pages found hints of answers to other questions that had never occurred to me. Why do eggs solidify when we cook them? Why do fruits turn brown when we cut them? Why is bread dough bouncily alive, and why does bounciness make good bread? Which kinds of dried beans are the worst offenders, and how can a cook tame them? It was great fun to make and share these little discoveries, and I began to think that many people interested in food might enjoy them. Eventually I found time to immerse myself in food science and history and write On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.
As I finished, I realized that cooks more serious than my friends and I might be skeptical about the relevance of cells and molecules to their craft. So I spent much of the introduction trying to bolster my case. I began by quoting an unlikely trio of authorities, Plato, Samuel Johnson, and Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, all of whom suggested that cooking deserves detailed and serious study. I pointed out that a 19th-century German chemist still influences how many people think about cooking meat, and that around the turn of the 20th century, Fannie Farmer began her cookbook with what she called "condensed scientific knowledge" about ingredients. I noted a couple of errors in modern cookbooks by Madeleine Kamman and Julia Child, who were ahead of their time in taking chemistry seriously. And I proposed that science can make cooking more interesting by connecting it with the basic workings of the natural world.
A lot has changed in twenty years! It turned out that On Food and Cooking was riding a rising wave of general interest in food, a wave that grew and grew, and knocked down the barriers between science and cooking, especially in the last decade. Science has found its way into the kitchen, and cooking into laboratories and factories.
In 2004 food lovers can find the science of cooking just about everywhere. Magazines and newspaper food sections devote regular columns to it, and there are now a number of books that explore it, with Shirley Corriher's 1997 CookWise remaining unmatched in the way it integrates explanation and recipes. Today many writers go into the technical details of their subjects, especially such intricate things as pastry, chocolate, coffee, beer, and wine. Kitchen science has been the subject of television series aired in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and France. And a number of food molecules and microbes have become familiar figures in the news, both good and bad. Anyone who follows the latest in health and nutrition knows about the benefits of antioxidants and phytoestrogens, the hazards of trans fatty acids, acrylamide, E. coli bacteria, and mad cow disease.
Professional cooks have also come to appreciate the value of the scientific approach to their craft. In the first few years after On Food and Cooking appeared, many young cooks told me of their frustration in trying to find out why dishes were prepared a certain way, or why ingredients behave as they do. To their traditionally trained chefs and teachers, understanding food was less important than mastering the tried and true techniques for preparing it. Today it's clearer that curiosity and understanding make their own contribution to mastery. A number of culinary schools now offer "experimental" courses that investigate the whys of cooking and encourage critical thinking. And several highly regarded chefs, most famously Ferran Adrià in Spain and Heston Blumenthal in England, experiment with industrial and laboratory tools -- gelling agents from seaweeds and bacteria, non-sweet sugars, aroma extracts, pres
The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
On Food and Cooking
The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
Now, for its twentieth anniversary, Harold McGee has prepared a new, fully revised and updated edition of On Food and Cooking. He has rewritten the text almost completely, expanded it by two-thirds, and commissioned more than 100 new illustrations. As compulsively readable and engaging as ever, the new On Food and Cooking provides countless eye-opening insights into food, its preparation, and its enjoyment.
On Food and Cooking pioneered the translation of technical food science into cook-friendly kitchen science and helped give birth to the inventive culinary movement known as "molecular gastronomy." Though other books have now been written about kitchen science, On Food and Cooking remains unmatched in the accuracy, clarity, and thoroughness of its explanations, and the intriguing way in which it blends science with the historical evolution of foods and cooking techniques.
Among the major themes addressed throughout this new edition are:
- Traditional and modern methods of food production and their influences on food quality
- The great diversity of methods by which people in different places and times have prepared the same ingredients
- Tips for selecting the best ingredients and preparing them successfully
- The particular substances that give foods their flavors and that give us pleasure
- Our evolving knowledge of the health benefits and risks of foods
On Food and Cooking is an invaluable and monumental compendium of basic information about ingredients, cooking methods, and the pleasures of eating. It will delight and fascinate anyone who has ever cooked, savored, or wondered about food.