Harold McGee is probably the most widely cited writer in American culinary writing today. Alton Brown literally genuflects at the mention of his name and complains that he is hard pressed to find a subject on which Herr McGee has not already explored at some length. His major work, 'On Food and Cooking' appears to be on the short list of Culinary Institute of America references for their students, next to Escoffier and their own references.
This work, 'The Curious Cook', is a bit different that the other work, in spite of the subtitle 'More Kitchen Science and Lore'. The larger book is largely theoretical. This book is largely experimental and its subtitle should be the title of the first and longest section 'Playing With Food'. The lesson taught here is probably the single most important lesson you can learn in any endeavor. That is, when in doubt, try a little experiment. When I was studying philosophy, this largely took the form of thought experiments, not unlike the development of a Science Fiction plot. 'What would happen if there were artificial people who were indistinguishable from biological humans. The result is the story 'Blade Runner'. When I worked with chemistry, this step was obvious. Oddly, I had to relearn the lesson when I became a professional programmer. It took a few years and more than a few books to learn the value of prototyping code, even for some of the most simple algorithms. All this means is that when you cook, YOU ARE ALLOWED TO TRY THINGS OUT WITH THE OBJECTIVE OF SEEING IF SOMETHING WORKS. My favorite example is in making and using a simple bechamel sauce to make macaroni and cheese or creamed chipped beef without having the sauce break.
I am constantly amazed at the blissful ignorance behind some common misstatements by very good professional chefs who have established themselves as celebrity educators on various TV cooking shows. I suspect the most common is the statement that laying meat into a hot saute pan sears the flesh to seal in the moisture. This misstatement is the subject of McGee's first chapter, where with a simple kitchen scale, he demonstrates what should be common sense to anyone with some knowledge of physics. Application of high heat reduces the moisture in the meat. This essay was published before the Food Network was a gleam in network entrepreneurs' eyes, yet Emeril and Tyler and Rachael and even Wolfgang repeat this misstatement on a regular basis. The lucky thing about this statement is that searing meat or any other food for that matter, has a very important benefit, in that it develops flavor through caramelization and the Maillard reactions. By design or by chance, the explanation of the Maillard reactions come in the very last chapter of the book, providing the reason we have been searing food for millennia.
There are other books that deal with food and science. Some of the most recent and most famous are 'Cookwise' by Shirley Corriher, 'I'm Only Here for the Food' by Alton Brown, and 'What Einstein Told His Cook' by Robert Wolke. All of these works are exceptionally good books. But, none of these works give the kind on encouragement and the kind of clues you need to find culinary answers on your own.
One warning may be in order. Science, i.e., the method of experimentation and observation is the most powerful method developed to answer questions and acquire knowledge, but it is certainly not enough to make you a superior cook. For example, I really like Alton Brown's 'Good Eats' shows and I often use his recipes, but whenever I see Mario Batali do something in a different way than Alton, I invariably use Mario's recipe or method rather than Brown's suggestion. The heart of the reason behind this is that Mario Batali is a very, very good professional chef and Alton Brown is not. Preparing food is a fine mix between knowledge and artistic expression. Professional chefs know the best ways to do things to achieve the most desirable culinary result, even if they do not know the scientific explanation for why they do things in a certain way.
I will warn you that some of the essays in Parts II and III are a bit long on reflection and a bit short on practical application. I may even go so far as to say some of these sections are just a bit dull. In spite of this, the first section on 'Playing with Food' plus the essays on aluminum and the Maillard reactions are all pure gold for the dedicated foodie.
Very highly recommended for anyone interested in food.