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On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen [Paperback]

Harold McGee
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Feb. 1 1997
An examinination of the science and lore of the kitchen.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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What makes white meat white? Does searing really seal in flavor? Why is it that fruits ripen but vegetables don't? These and other food mysteries are conclusively solved in Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. A unique mix of culinary lore, food history, and scientific investigation, McGee's compellingly readable book explores every aspect of the food we eat: where it comes from, what it's made of, and how and why it behaves as it does when we bake, broil, steam, or otherwise ready it for the table. In addition to chapters on foods such as eggs, fruit, meat, and dairy products, McGee investigates wine, beer, and distilled liquors (the first alcoholic beverage was probably produced 10,000 years ago when some honey was forgotten); food additives (adulterated food has always been with us); and digestion and sensation (most of our food aversions are learned by taste-testing in childhood), among other topics. A section on nutrition reveals, among much else, that Americans have always been prey to food faddism. The book concludes with an easy-to-understand investigation of the basic food molecules--water, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and oils--and a discussion of cooking methods and utensil materials. There's a lively chemistry primer guaranteed to make clear and enjoyable what was probably less so in the classroom. With more than 200 illustrations, including extraordinary photos of cellular food anatomy, the book will delight anyone who cooks or enjoys food. --Arthur Boehm

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The "Lore" obscures the "Science", and vice-versa Sept. 11 2001
The many flaws in this book originally led me to give it 3 stars, but the more I look at other sources for the same information, the more I realize that for all its annoying qualities, this book really does appear to be the most comprehensive work on this subject. As such, I have to recommend it more highly, simply because you're not going to get the same infomation in any other single book. Be prepared to work hard for the knowledge, however.
"On Food and Cooking" is a very comprehensive work that contains a lot of very useful and interesting information. It also contains a lot of less useful information, random historical musings, and general digressions. As a result, the useful/interesting information density is much lower than I'd like, particularly given the general "verbiage density" of the text. Perhaps part of the problem is that I've gleaned too much of the information already from other sources, so that I feel like I'm wading through a lot of common knowledge to get to the bits I care about.
The book goes into a fair amount of historical detail about various ingredients. It doesn't focus on the historical aspects enough to be a "history of food" book, though, and the historical perspective tends to detract from the scientific content ratio simply by increasing the overall amount of text.
Also, there are many variations on ingredients, food safety issues, etc., that were not considered significant in 1983, but which are more relevant today. There's no discussion of salmonella in the section on eggs, for example, and no discussion of things like the impact (or lack thereof) of RBGH on milk quality. The effects of organic methods in general are given short shrift.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The bible of food science Sept. 15 2003
First and foremost: this is NOT a cookbook. Do not buy this book if you are looking for casserole recipes. But, if you are interested in the science of why food does what it does, this book is indispensible. It is rather dense, and is difficult to read straight through, but if you ever wonder, say, what the difference between AA and A grade eggs is, and why the white turns from clear to opaque when you apply heat, On Food and Cooking is well organized and makes a great reference. Considering its low price, every cook should have it around. It will change the way you think about cooking. It includes some interesting historical tidbits as well.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent June 2 2002
For those who are interested in the physics and chemistry of cooking, this book is one of the few in existence that gives a fairly detailed overview. The author's account is purely descriptive, and does not involve any mathematics, but it is very interesting reading and is accessible to all who want to approach cooking in a more in-depth fashion. My review will cover the 1984 edition of this book.

A lot of my questions regarding utensils, baking and frying temperatures, and food preparation were answered by the author. Specifically, the following questions, some of which I wondered about while musing in the kitchen over the years, are answered by the author (and other readers will no doubt find many more of their own answered also): 1. What are the role of casein particles in giving milk the appearance it has? 2. How does the homogenization of milk prevent milk from separating and forming a layer of cream at the top? 3. Why do some people prefer acidophilus milk? 4. Why should milk be kept out of high intensity light? 5. Why is it best to chill the bowl and beaters before whipping cream? 6. What is the basic structure of butter? 7. What is the difference between "ghee" and clarified butter? 8. How is cheese made? 9. What factors contribute to the degradation in flavor of eggs after being laid? 10. What is the role of water loss in the effective cooking of eggs? 11. What is the occasional greenish-gray appearance on hard-boiled eggs? 12. What is the optimum temperature range for frying eggs? 13. Why does the egg yolk degrade the volume of egg foams? 14. What keeps the egg foam from collapsing in the actual cooking phase? 15. What role does cream of tarter have in the volume of egg foams? 16. Why do you whip egg whites at room temperature? 17.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This book won't teach you how to cook, but if you are like me and want to know *why* you shouldn't over knead your biscuit dough or use a copper bowl when making meringue this book is perfect for you. It has helped me a number of times to figure out what went wrong...
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
This book is without peer in the descriptions of what happens on the
chemical level as food cooks and is stored. The discussions
include useful sections on beer, wine and coffee. There are
also discussions of nutritional effects of food processing,
cooking, and storage, as well as the mysteries of flatulence
associated with certain foods, and other medical effects of
greater consequence. The approach is lighthearted but has a
surprising amount of scientific detail.
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5.0 out of 5 stars I eat, therefore I am April 7 2002
This book gives Totally Too Much Information (TTMI) to be read in one sitting. (Danger, Will Robinson! Information overload!) Like how one feels towards the end of Thanksgiving dinner! In a pinch, it may also be used to "boost" shorter members of the family up to the table ;-)
Mr. McGee's tome should be savored in digestible, bite-sized morsels. Read it while cooking up a big feast or nuking a quick snack. There is an excellent Index in which the reader may browse for specific items. As the author explains in the Introduction: "This is not a book of cookery - it offers no expert recipes - it is meant [to explain] the nature of our foods, what they are made of and where they came from, how they are transformed by cooking, when and why particular culinary habits took hold. Chemistry and biology figure prominently in this approach, but science is by no means the whole story. History, anthropology, and etymology also contribute to our understanding of food and cooking."
This is an essential treatise on the *science* - not art - of cooking. It explores *how* the traditional techniques (recipes and routines) work. We might have known the principle, but never put it together in the concept of Kitchen. For instance: that ugly "skin" when heating milk or reheating a cappuccino: "Whether fluid milk is used to make a soup or a sauce, scalloped potatoes or hot chocolate, the tendency of its proteins to coagulate can cause problems. The skin that forms on the surface of boiled milk or cream soups is a complex of casein and calcium and results from evaporation of water at the surface and the subsequent concentration of protein there."
To me, this is WAY more palatable than that Organic Chem 101 text with which I happily parted years ago. Better living through [cooking] chemistry!
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Dense, but worth the effort
I purchased this book on the tangential advice of Michael Ruhlman's "The Making of a Chef" -- it was one of the three Bibles of Cooking, if I remember correctly. Read more
Published on Jan. 13 2004 by "eminentbrain"
5.0 out of 5 stars A textbook on cooking
This is an excellent book on the science of cooking, for those interested in learning the reason behind cooking. Read more
Published on June 21 2003 by Erich E. Geary
4.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading
Anyone who is serious about the craft of cooking needs to read this book. Anyone else will find it dreadfully irrelevant. Read more
Published on Dec 18 2002 by Steve Leroux
5.0 out of 5 stars Good for a textbook, not for bed time reading...
I really enjoy books that get into the "why's" of cooking like "What Einstein Told His Cook", and "I'm Just Here for the Food", but this book went a little far for me. Read more
Published on Nov. 3 2002 by A. Larson
3.0 out of 5 stars Deep knowledge...too deep.
I enjoy cooking. I like science. I wanted to introduce the two. After reading "the making of a chef" (Ruhlman) where McGee's book is one of the 3 bibles, I had to get it. Read more
Published on July 17 2002 by Ori Steinitz
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Reading
Anyone who wants to go beyond the recipes would do well to read this book.
Published on June 2 2002 by Jamie Nettles
5.0 out of 5 stars I really enjoyed this book
I enjoy cooking but sometimes I wonder why I need to add an egg or put some milk in and this book explained it all. Read more
Published on April 4 2002 by Mr. Greg A. Wilkinson
5.0 out of 5 stars Nothing else like it
This is an essential book for anyone who cooks. McGee explains in detail how and why cooking works; if you know what's in here, you can do anything in the kitchen without ever... Read more
Published on March 10 2002 by Randy Goldberg
5.0 out of 5 stars On food chemistry
This is a remarkable book on why and how foods react the way they do. Though chemistry plays a large part in the understanding of food that McGee imparts (it has to), it is very... Read more
Published on March 3 2002 by Pumpkin King
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