Ever since I started this food blog a few years ago, the name “Harold McGee” kept popping up here and there among my food blogging friends. “Harold McGee said this…” “Have you checked Harold?” “According to Harold McGee…” I had no idea who he was, but enough people kept steering me toward his book – On Food and Cooking – that I finally went out and bought it several months ago.
Oh my gosh. What was I thinking, waiting so long to read this book? If you have any interest in the Why’s or How’s of cooking, and like chemistry and history, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is for you. It’s the Valhalla of reference books for geeky cooks. Why does milk curdle? How is cheese made? Why is meat cooked on a grill so tasty? Harold covers it all, down to the level of molecules, and back thousands of years if need be. My fellow food blogger Brendon, of Something in Season told me that Chapter 14, page 778 changed his life forever. (That’s the section on Maillard Reactions, the process of browning of food under high heat, before caramelization occurs.)
There are no recipes in On Food and Cooking. It reads like a college textbook, albeit a highly interesting textbook. Unless you are a chemistry professor, you won’t be able to breeze through this book. There’s just so much information to absorb. It’s the kind of book that you can read maybe a chapter at a time, and then you’ll want to use a highlighter and take notes in the margins. But if you are truly interested in improving your cooking, and having a deeper understanding of the processes involved, this may be the book for you. It would also make a great gift for a science-minded friend who loves to cook.
Good news for McGee fans, Harold has started a blog – Curious Cook. Reviewing the blog will give those of you unfamiliar with McGee’s work an idea of his scholarly approach to food and cooking. He’s also posted excerpts from the book on another part of the site.