In conversation with Harold McGee on the science of food and cooking

by Megan Kurashige on October 29, 2010

As the author of the classic On Food and Cooking and a wonderfully lucid, extremely entertaining, monthly column in the New York Times called “The Curious Cook,” Harold McGee has introduced many readers to the joys, both practical and entertaining, of understanding the science behind what we eat and how we cook.

McGee will be coming to Kepler’s in Menlo Park tonight (10/29) at 7:00 pm to talk about his brand new book, Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best Food and Recipes, which distills his knowledge and investigations into a practical guide that will help the home cook navigate the kitchen with new confidence and understanding. We caught up with him in advance of his appearance.

Q. Your new book, Keys to Good Cooking, is a concise and clear guide to the scientific understanding of food and cooking. How can it be an ally to the home cook?

A. I wrote Keys to be exactly that, an ally to the home cook who has plenty of cookbooks and recipes, but no single reliable source to check for basic facts and advice about cooking. Keys is a kitchen and cookbook companion. It’s a compendium of facts and advice that cookbooks often don’t provide – or get wrong. It will help a cook understand how cooking methods work, evaluate recipes and recognize likely problems, and make adjustments during the cooking process. It will help cooks cook better.

Q. You have been an acknowledged expert and respected authority on the science of cooking for some time. How has the general public’s attitude toward the intersections of science and food changed over the years?

A. When I started writing about the science of cooking in the late 1970s, most people thought of it as an odd and amusing angle, great material for Trivial Pursuits, but not that useful. Now, thanks to a generation of celebrity restaurant chefs who have used kitchen science as a tool to invent new dishes, it has become fashionable to give “molecular” explanations for everything. People are much more interested these days in food generally, but also in understanding where it comes from and what makes it good.

Q. What has been your own favorite kitchen discovery?

A. The fact that I can delay the spoilage of the strawberries and raspberries and blueberries that I buy too many of at the farmers’ markets, simply by dunking them in hot water for a minute.

Q. How can understanding the science that underpins everyday activities like cooking and eating increase our pleasure and appreciation of them?

A. We get more pleasure out of cooking when we’re successful at it! And understanding certainly helps us cook better. It also gives us that much more to notice and marvel at and savor as we eat–for example, that the deep flavor and color of caramel starts from just one pure substance, table sugar, which the simple act of heating transforms into hundreds of different substances, brown and sweet and sour and bitter and savory and aromatic. Talk about alchemy!

Q. What is one thing that you’ve learned recently about science or food (or both!) that absolutely delights you?

A. That you can boost the flavors of some drinks simply by adding water – by diluting them, which you would think would do the opposite. Coffee, high-alcohol wines, cocktails can all benefit from some water. It has to do with the chemistry of aromas and the way we perceive them.

Photo by Karl Petzke

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