On Food and Cooking - Harold McGeeDid you know that tomatoes and tobacco both come from same family as the Deadly Nightshade? That the intense flavours of herbs and spices are actually natural chemical defensive weapons for the plants that produce them? And that cashews are relatives of the poison ivy plant? This is a book loved by the scientist in me. On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee is the bible of kitchen science and is truly comprehensive–almost encyclopaedic–with details from the history and science of milk, to the differences between using metal and ceramic equipment to cook with. There is even a small appendix covering the basics of chemistry, for those who haven’t previously studied it, or simply need a refresher.

On Food and Cooking is divided into 15 chapters, each covering a different food group. There is one chapter, for example, on all things eggs, and another on sugars, chocolate and confectionery. Within each chapter, McGee further divides and explores each food group. For example, his chapter “Cereal Doughs and Batters” contains a comprehensive overview of bread, cake, pastry and pasta, investigating the science of using different leavening agents, different flours and proteins, different fat to water ratios, different sugars, etc. Early in the chapter is one of my favourite tables in the book, where McGee classifies different flour-based products by their mass compositions.


Excerpt from On Food and Cooking
(The actual table in the book is much more comprehensive)
Flour Total Water Fat/Oil Milk Solids Eggs Sugar Salt
Bread 100 65 3 3 0 5 2
Biscuit 100 70 15 6 0 1 2
Pasta 100 25 0 0 5 0 1
Pancake, Waffle 100 150-200 20 10 60 10 2
Crepe 100 230 0 15 60 0 2
Sponge Cake 100 75 0 0 100 100 1


Of course, the quantities aren’t definitive, or even immediately useful in their own right, but they are great as indicative references. It is this systematic approach to food that McGee takes that I enjoy.

The book is quite dense and packed full of information (often technical). Although a background knowledge of chemistry is not essential to reading this book, it certainly does help, especially when McGee talks about the chemicals that make up certain foods, with pictures of molecules to accompany. It is generally not the type of book you would read from cover to cover (if you do, though, it would probably require many sittings, as the reading can become quite dense), but more the type to be used as a reference. I often make poached eggs for breakfast, but I found that I was lacking consistency (sometimes the white would turn into a big stringy mess, or sometimes it would spread too much), so I thought I’d see what McGee had to say about it. And sure enough, he has a few great paragraphs on the art of poaching an egg! I had never thought of straining away the runny parts of the white with a slotted spoon, but it works a treat, especially for slightly older eggs. The book is packed with other great reference material too, such as safe meat temperatures, tips for making mayonnaise, pungency of different chillis, ideal fruit storage temperatures, contribution of different ingredients to breads, coffee brewing guidelines…the list goes on.

Scattered throughout the book are little interesting facts and tidbits relevant to the chapter. The chapter on sugars and sweeteners, for example, has a small paragraph on small ants, found in Australia, Mexico and the American southwest, that bear an abdomen filled with sweet nectar and honeydew. Though a less than conventional sweetener, those looking for a quick sugar-fix can seize one of these ants and bite off its back end for an instant sugary treat. I actually tried this when I spent some time in Darwin a couple of years ago, and came across a tree covered in these ants. Although it was surprisingly pleasurable, I probably won’t be replacing the sugar and honey with them anytime soon.

The book has certainly not gone unnoticed by the kings of the culinary world. In an interview with Delicious Magazine, Heston Blumenthal praises On Food and Cooking for inspiring his inquisitiveness in the kitchen, and for allowing him to  challenge orthodox conventions that seem to have no scientific logic.

Harold McGee’s book On Food and Cooking inspired me to be more inquisitive … His assertion that browning meat does not seal in the juices questioned one of the most biblical kitchen laws and made me inquisitive about everything (if this is not true, how many other things aren’t?).

It must be a good book if Heston likes it, right?

If you are interested only in a standard recipe book that you can follow step-by-step, then perhaps this book is not for you. However, for anybody yearning to learn more about food and cooking, this book is a must have classic and I can’t recommend it enough.

Buy On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen from Amazon.com