Before there was Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” …
Before there was Jeff Potter’s “Cooking for Geeks” …
And long before anyone had ever heard of molecular gastronomy, there was Harold McGee, the original food-science nerd who proved it in 1984 with “On Food and Cooking,” an absorbing and authoritative guide to the history and science of all we consume.
Over the last 26 years – and through a major book update in 2004 – McGee has become the go-to guy for the whys and hows of cooking. His fat red tome graces the bookshelves of most serious foodies, ready to serve up definitive technical and historical answers on all things food and cooking.
But McGee has yearned to produce something that was less hefty reference book and more working tool in a busy kitchen.
His answer is “Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes.” Though still checking in at more than 550 pages, it’s designed to deliver concise advice at the moment you need it. And even for experienced cooks, that advice is often surprising. McGee surprised himself several times as he tested and studied each issue to come up with the absolutely best way to proceed.
We caught up with the author and New York Times food columnist on his book tour and talked with him about common misperceptions he hopes to clear up, among other things.
Q: So many people see “On Food and Cooking” as the final word on cooking. Why did you feel the need to write this new book?
A: Because people who enjoyed “On Food and Cooking” said when they had a particular practical issue in the kitchen all the wonderful information got in the way. So I wanted to provide an unvarnished, unpadded guide to basic facts and basic advice in the kitchen. It’s meant to live in the kitchen, while “On Food and Cooking” is more of an armchair book. I’ve also left lots of space for readers to write in their own ideas and observations that work for their particular circumstance. I wanted to provide a kind of information and advice central.
Q: I had so many aha moments while reading your book and I really thought I knew my way around a kitchen. Did you surprise yourself during some of your research?
A: Yes, I always thought it was better to cook pasta in plenty of water or else it would get sticky or gummy, but it turns out minimal water is best. And I thought you were never supposed to crowd vegetables in a pan but it turns out you can and they end up absorbing less oil and they still brown just fine.
Q: What are some of the biggest mistakes people make in the kitchen?
A: There are lots and lots and many are minor, but the main ones I like to emphasize are really basic, like measuring. Spoons and cups measure ingredients plus air and are therefore very unreliable, especially when you are measuring something like salt. If you are measuring in a spoon, the amount can vary by a third, and if you happen to be using kosher salt, you can be off by a factor of two.
Q: I noted this and then vowed to finally buy myself a good scale. But then I remembered that most of my cookbooks are written in cups and spoons. What’s a cook to do?
A: Eventually cookbooks will switch over, but you and I don’t have a decade to wait. So get to know the equivalents using the tables I have inside the covers of my book. Along the way you will start to remember that a cup is 250 grams of water, etc. This is especially important in baking.
Q: Another thing I learned is that I have been storing my whole wheat flour all wrong – outside the refrigerator. Why is it so different from white flour?
A: Once grains are ground, their interiors are exposed, and when you leave in the oil-rich bran and germ, they can oxidize and go rancid and you’ll end up with off flavors quickly.
Unfortunately for many Americans, we assume that rancid flavors are normal because that’s all we’ve ever experienced. The consumer work that has been done with olive oil has found that the oils the experts rate as rancid are the ones consumers like best. (And this is dangerous because oxidized oil contains harmful free radicals.)
Q: In the introduction to your book, you stray from practical kitchen advice to recommend that people think about the sustainability of their food choices. Why?
A: It pays to pause and realize that every time you buy you are making a choice and (that) choice should reflect what’s important to you. And if sustainability and humane treatment of animals is important, then you should look at labels and go on websites (to) see if those labels actually mean something, and buy with more awareness.
Q: So much of food writing and cooking depends on a shared sense of what tastes good. And so you totally blew my mind when you said that we may all taste things differently.
A: Yes, we all live in different universes when it comes to taste and smell because we depend upon about 400 different receptors in our mouth and nose to detect flavors, and probably no two human beings on the planet have exactly the same repertoire of sensors. And sometimes it’s a pretty minor difference, but other times it’s like color blindness. There are aromas that people cannot smell and tastes they can’t taste. And so it’s really good if you cook for other people, not to assume that the seasoning is perfect because it tastes perfect to you.
Q: Does it seem like there has been an explosion of interest in the science behind food in the past few years?
A: Definitely. I think it has to do with the tremendous interest in food, period, and the variety of things we have to enjoy these days. I started writing in the late ’70s, and food was not that big a deal and it was not that good. Olive oil was just cheap imports, and specialty coffee was not important. It was just a different world for a lot of reasons, but chief among them is better transportation and information sharing. Stuff just gets around a lot faster.