Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor Hardcover – Jan 4 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Originally published in France, This's book documents the sensory phenomena of eating and uses basic physics to put to bed many culinary myths. In each short chapter This presents a piece of debatable conventional wisdom-such as whether it is better to make a stock by placing meat in already boiling water, or water before it is boiled-and gives its history, often quoting famous French chefs, before making scientific pronouncements. In the chapter on al dente pasta, for instance, This discusses pasta-making experiments, the science behind cooking it and whether it is better to use oil or butter to prevent it from sticking. Most of the discussions revolve around common practices and phenomenon-chilling wine, why spices are spicy, how to best cool a hot drink-but more than a few are either irrelevant or Franco-specific (such as the chapters on quenelles and preparing fondue). This's experimentation, however, is not for the mildly curious, but readers unafraid to, say, microwave mayonnaise will find many ideas here.
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Taking kitchen science to a whole new (molecular) level, Hervé This is changing the way France―and the world―cooks.(Gourmet)
Mr. This's book will broaden the way you think about food.(New York Sun)
This has written an interesting and timely combination of our everyday experience with sophisticated science.(Claudia Kousoulas Appetite for Books)
He is revered by the revered.(JJ Goode epicurious.com)
A wonderful book.... it will appeal to anyone with an interest in the science of cooking.(O Chef)
For anyone who likes to eat or cook.(Choice)
This offers some though-provoking opportunities for play in the kitchen.(Pagosa Springs Sun)
This book, praiseworthy for its scientific rigor, will hold a special appeal for anyone who relishes the debunking of culinary myths.(Todd Coleman Saveur)
A fresh approach... that will entertain and enlighten anyone interested in the process of cooking and the enjoyment of food.(Raymond J. Shively, Jr. The Bloomsbury Review)
Anyone with an inordinate passion for cooking would love this book.(Mia Stainsby Vancouver Sun)
A timely addition... Suitable for both scientists and the lay public.(Thorvald Pedersen EMBO Reports)
This book is laden with science while rendering a clear approach to flavor.(Academia)
[A] captivating little book.(The Economist)
He is fantastic. I didn't really cook before but this book may be changing my life.(Keanu Reeves)
this is a great book on so many levels(Yum.fi) See all Product Description
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Why? Because those books are better written and about topics that are of more general interest to a North American audience. Molecular Gastronomy is unabashedly FRENCH - which is an excellent thing, but surprising if you're not expecting it. The foods it focuses on are French foods, the research it cites is French research, and I suspect even the translator has French as his first language. So, for example, this book discusses the "Perfect Sabayon" - a lovely culinary question, however one that many Americans (even "foodie" Americans) might find less interesting than the question of cookies going stale (as covered in Schwarcz). The translation is odd.... it is clear, in reading it, that it wasn't originally written in English. Some particularly French phrasing persists in the translation and I am also not convinced that the translator had as extensive a chemical vocabulary as was called for (for example, the phrase "vitreous transition temperature" is used, where "glass transition temperature" is the term used in most materials science texts).
As other reviewers have commented, the vignettes themselves may leave something to be desired. Each chapter is quite brief (Schwartcz's work is similar), so may not have the text to go into the depth a reader might desire. However, the real strength of this work is that it addresses interesting food/chemical questions that aren't being covered by the North American writers.... there's a lot of wine, cheese, and emulsified sauce in this book that you don't see anywhere else.
I think some have been dazzled by scientific words they didn't understand and afraid to call it fluff. There's not near enough science to satisfy a scientist but way more than enough undefined organic chemical names to glaze the eyes of even a highly educated cook.
I can get you a really great deal on a disulfide bridge - you want phenylthiocarbamide with that?
The chapters are mercifully short, but it's quite difficult to extract any practical information from a great many of them. They often end with questions - some clearly state unknowns, which is fine, but others leave you wondering if they are questions or answers. Taking a whole chapter to explain the choice of title would have been fair warning had I not already purchased the book.
For the record, I have read two much larger science/cooking volumes by Harold McGee (On Food and Cooking, The Curious Cook), end to end with great interest and I recommend them highly.
I have a not insignificant number of problems with the book, which I'll go through rather quickly. First, I could tell as early as the introduction that something was off about the writing. I don't know how the book read in its original French, but this is one of the most awkward translations I've ever seen. Nothing screams out at you - there aren't typos, grammatical errors, or incomplete sentences. It's the style. This book completely lacks a writer's style. I suspect it may have been translated rather literally by a person who was not an established English writer, but by someone who could indeed write in English. There is absolutely no flow - not only from chapter to chapter (it is important to note that there are 100 chapters in this book, for an average of 3 pages per chapter), but also not from the beginning of one chapter to the end of it, nor even from the beginning of some paragraphs to their ends. All of the words are on the page and all of the thoughts are there, but they are not strung together well at all. While I wouldn't describe it as 'incoherent,' it is painful to follow. There is rarely, if ever, any coherence from one chapter to another for more than two or [if ever] three at a time. The progression is not at all natural and seems entirely arbitrary. Each chapter barely covers anything - as I said, they are only two to three pages each. How much can you say in so little space, especially when the chapter following it is on a different topic entirely?
The other thing that bothers me is the science. It should be said that I am a scientist by trade and training, and a lover of food and writing by hobby. As someone who reads and produces scientific research, I can say that the author of this book is not such a person. What he appears to have done is found 100 'interesting' articles about food and cooking, and then summarized each article in its own three page chapter. The original research is at best only mentioned vaguely, though the end of the book does have a 9 page 'Further Reading' section (in alphabetical order) which I suspect is actually his 'References' section (I do not care enough to check, especially since it is not even broken up into the 'four parts' of the book). It is very apparent by the summaries of the research that the author (or, perhaps the translator - I don't know how one could tell the difference) did not really understand what he was reading. One particular blurb about 'the alpha subunit of G proteins' strongly reeked of someone who was parroting words he didn't understand (because G-Protein Coupled Receptors are something I do I understand by nature of my work). In almost all of these summaries, the author will throw out terms and phrases such as "a truncated form of a neuronal protein known as a metabotropic glutamate receptor, or mGluR4" (page 98 for the curious) and will absolutely avoid explaining what any of that means, including why a truncated protein is significant, why the protein is 'neuronal,' or what a metabotropic receptor is. If he were a scientist, he would display some sort of adeptness with the terms, and the scientific audience would know what he is talking about. He isn't, though, and phrases like that leave me a bit puzzled even though I know exactly what the fancy words mean. He has therefore completely missed the mark on his audience, the layman. In the rare occasion where he does try to define a scientific term like that, he will use something resembling a textbook definition. The problem with this lies in that the description has you looking up more terms than the original point in question did. The appropriate method for description of these terms is analogy, not denotation. Analogies would help the audience understand what is important and why it is important. Unfortunately, the book has none of these, and is comparable to a magician distracting you with his left hand while he prepares the next magic trick in his right (see what I did there? Analogy).
Finally, for a book about food and cooking, it MUST be said that there are ZERO recipes in the book. There are not even SUGGESTIONS of recipes. There is plenty of 'proteins denature at X temperature,' but there is absolutely no incentive to cook. Science is a wonderful thing, really. But why write a book about cooking without actually doing anything about it? If you want science in your kitchen, read Robert Wolke's Einstein books. They didn't blow my mind, but they are more interesting, better written, more practical, and they even manage to squeeze some recipes in regarding the science in the book! Barham's Science of Cooking, though bland, is better than this book and again at least it has both SCIENCE and COOKING. If you are interested in baking, Reinhart's Bread Baker's Apprentice has much to teach you about bread, enzymes, etc. (though it is not strictly a science book). And finally, Alton Brown is always more accessible and more interesting than this book could ever hope to be, even though his stuff is a little goofy sometimes.
I think that covers most of my problems with the book. Cliff's Notes: It was not scientific, it didn't make me want to cook, didn't go in depth on any topics, didn't display mastery or even comprehension of most topics covered, was hard to follow, and was not unified in theme.
When I find a really good book on science and cooking, I'll let you know.
But do many of these procedures make sense. Why do we have such traditional ideas of cooking that seem almost cast in stone with little or no evidence that this is indeed the best way to do things.
In this book M. This states a principle, but carrying it further he researches where this principle originated, and then conducts carefully measured experiments to see if this is true. For instance in making beef stock, the rule says put the meat into cold water and increase the temperature gradually. What happens if you put the meat into boiling water? Or what is the difference in Cheeses that are made from milk from cows that had south facing fields when compared to cows on fields that faced a northern slope. What about if the cow was fed silage (wet grass stored in silow where it ferments)? And what's the best way to test whiskey?
That's the idea, here is the analysis of cooking taken to a scientific level. It's a fascinating book for one interested in more than just the mechanics of cooking. I was reminded of Russ Parson's book 'How to Read a French Fry.'
The writing is quite scientific and usually, but not always, well translated from French. In places this irritated me, such as an appositive "Mr. X, he who does such and such, walked..." (not the exact quote), the 'he who does such and such' being a word-for-word translation of the French "celui qui fait...". However this was an irritation and not an impediment.
I do strongly recommend this book although it is NOT the best for a general foodie-science geek who wants only to understand the principles behind most common household cooking techniques. That is done much better by Alton Brown, et al and this book presupposes such knowledge, and more. It is a more advanced text and a look into the new world of 'molecular gastronomy' as a science and the brave new world it is ushering in.
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