Harold McGee – On Food and Cooking

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.



  1. Mimi

    Thank you — this is exactly the sort of thing I would like to read.

  2. Kalyn

    I’ve been going to buy this for ages. The only thing that’s been stopping me is the huge pile of books piled up by my chair that I’m trying to find time to read, but you’re right that this one is a must.

  3. Gary

    Elise, I know you have recommended *this* book and not another, but can you tell me how McGee measures Shirley Corriher for content and style, if you indeed do know? Thanks.

  4. Gary

    Ok, I’ll answer my own question, at least from a limited point of view. I started reading McGee’s blog articles, so I know I’ll want his book as well as Shirley’s.

  5. robinv

    I bought it a few months ago. I love being a food nerd! I have to read it in doses too. But I know a lot more about mushrooms now :). I love the heads up you give on the deals you find. I bought the calphalon 8 pc commerical cookware set from a few weeks back. We are going to be very happy together!! Thanks for the great blog.

  6. Jon

    I checked McGee out of the library a few months ago and decided I was going to stick it on my Christmas list. So here’s hoping. McGee, BTW, in addition to his blog just started writing a column for the New York Times. Robert Wolke, of “What Einstein Told His Cook” fame is a bit easier to understand than McGee, but not as technical and in-depth. Wolke has a column in the Washington Post.

    Happy reading!

  7. Aileen

    McGee has a blog? woohoo!
    I love On Food and Cooking. I read it for fun (though the chemistry is hard, but I can skip past that).

    re: McGee vs. Corriher
    I have both books. They deal with different things really. McGee is more general, Corriher more specific. There a chart in Corriher, for example, that tells you what to do to make cookies more or less crispy, tall or flat or whatever. McGee will give you the exact science behind it as well, but the chart makes the application of the science a lot easier. The two books go hand in hand imo. Corriher is another one that I read for fun.

    I still need to get “What Einstein Told His Cook” I’ve been wanting that for ages.

  8. Alanna

    I am the lucky-lucky much-surprised recipient of a copy ;-) and oh my oh my oh my, what a collection of information. Even over Christmas, I’ve been reading it in bits, just now this morning the research topic was smoked ham. Many thanks, Mz Elise, for the ‘tip’!

  9. guerillafood

    I also am an avid follower of Mr. McGee and his master work “On Food and Cooking”. His name echoes through the halls of the Culinary Institute of America the way Michael Jordan’s did in late eighties Chicago. His book is the consummate source of all things foodie.

    Although it may be seated in the lap of James Beard (Zeus) high atop the culinary Mt. Olympus, it is not alone. Robert Wolke’s “What Einstein Told His Cook” is the left hand to McGee’s right. What I love about McGee’s book is that is is encyclopedic in style and scope. But what I hate about it is, that it’s encyclopedic in style and scope. Let’s just say it isn’t a real page-turner. Wolke’s book however is genuinely fun to read. Where it lacks in scope, it more than makes up for in personality. It was so fun to read and so well received, he wrote a sequel, What Einstein Told His Cook 2.

    Not taking away from McGee, but any foodie would be happy to have all three books in their collection.

  10. Sean

    I’m slowly ticking my way through On Food and Cooking, mostly as bedtime reading. as you say, it is like reading a textbook, and so while it is fascinating it does have a somewhat soporific quality. Still, I have already learned so much, and look forward to the continued expansion of my culinary education and edification.

  11. utenzi

    I love Shirley Corriher’s Cookwise. It’s an amazing book. She’s said on many occasions that she owes much of her technical knowledge to McGee, but while I have his book–it’s just not as interesting to read. A great reference work especially if you need background when writing something.

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