Understanding how cooking actually works with Harold McGee

I’ve been planning for a while to write about cookbooks, to share with you my thoughts on which books are helpful and which are not. Unfortunately, most fall in the latter category. I decided to start with one of the most helpful books, even though it’s not even an actual cookbook with recipes.

I’ve always been someone who likes toor even has a strong urge to, understand things. It bugs me if I don’t understand something. And so I love Harold McGee’s book “Keys to Good Cooking, a guide to making the best of foods and recipes” (2010, ISBN 978 0 340 96320 3, $23 on Amazon). This book has over 500 pages crammed with detailed information on why some recipes work and some don’t. It’s simple really: cooking is all about chemistry and physics. Food consist of molecules, and they react to heat or cold, wet or dry conditions, or react with other molecules. So don’t think cooking is something magic that cannot be understood. Because in fact it can be understood, and this book will help you to understand it.

I’ve always hated recipes that tell you to do strange or complicated things without explaining why you need to do them. Or recipes that are difficult to get right, but don’t provide some tips you might need. On this blog I strive to provide just those tips, but of course there is always the issue that something that is (and has always been) obvious to me, is not to you. (If you try to make a recipe from my blog and it doesn’t work, please don’t hesitate to ask for advice.)

If a recipe doesn’t work for you, there is a good chance that McGee’s book can help you find the problem and fix it. I have come to the point where I can judge most of the time whether a recipe is going to work for me or not, part from my own experience and part from the things I learned from McGee. By the way, the next step after McGee is “Modernist Cuisine” by Nathan Myhrvold et al., an impressive set of books that I will write about later. But McGee will be sufficient for most purposes.

“Keys to Good Cooking” is full of practical advice. There are no recipes, but many clear descriptions of how to perform basic kitchen techniques optimally, from making scrambled eggs to how to make stock. There are also descriptions of many ingredients and their preparation. I’m not going to describe in detail what is in the book, because if you like to cook and are not completely allergic to science you should just buy this book and read it for yourself. I will however share with you my Top 10 of the most useful tips provided by McGee in his book, some of them debunking conventional kitchen wisdom:

  1. Searing meat does NOT seal in its juices. Searing is done to create a nice crust and to add flavor (the famous Maillard reaction). It does not close the meat, which you can see for yourself by putting seared meat on a plate and waiting for a bit.
  2. Stirring risotto and adding the stock little by little is needed for additional evaporation of water from the stock to concentrate the flavor as well as to abraise softened surface starch from the rice grains to help thicken the liquid and to prevent the rice grains from breaking.
  3. Beware for braising recipes that call for an oven temperature over 80C/180F, as the meat will be dried out.
  4. It’s fine to wash dirty mushrooms just before cooking, as brief immersion in water won’t remove flavor or waterlog them.
  5. ‘Shocking’ green vegetables in cold water right after cooking isn’t necessary to ‘set the color’.
  6. Green vegetables stay green longer if you put a small amount of baking soda in the cooking water. (They will also cook more quickly, so don’t cook them too long.)
  7. Replace some of the flour in batter for deep-frying with rice or corn flour to get a crisper, lighter crust.
  8. Don’t use vinegar for poaching eggs, as it’s ineffective at controlling the shape, and flavors the egg.
  9. For a tender flaky pastry crust, work the dough as little as possible, with frequent rests in the refrigerator, to avoid toughening the gluten.
  10. Cold-sensitive vegetables and herbs such as tomatoes and basil should not be kept in the fridge.
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8 thoughts on “Understanding how cooking actually works with Harold McGee

  1. Wow, McGee is my bible. I constantly quote from it and I have given to every sous chef who has ever worked for me. I love knowing why food works a certain way, about their chemical structure or just historical anecdotes. Love, love that book…he occasionally also writes for the NY Times

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    1. Why am I not surprise we use the same bible 🙂 Although Modernist Cuisine may be becoming my 2nd bible.
      By the way, do you mean McGee “On Food And Cooking” or McGee “Keys To Good Cooking” or both?

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  2. I love Harold McGee and am not surprised to learn that you are a fan. I was glad to learn that I could wash my mushrooms a few years ago, and now I am glad to learn that my suspicions were correct regarding the effect (or lack thereof) of vinegar on my poached eggs. 🙂

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    1. By the way, a trick to keep your poached eggs whole is to put a sheet of plastic wrap in a small cup, crack the egg on the plastic wrap and then poach the ‘bundle’. You will see some creases of the plastic wrap, but it is much easier to poach the egg without it going all over the pan.

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  3. Nice review and we agree, it is a great book. We took many of the same lessons from the book. His concept of cooking with “understanding” really stood out for us- now we look for recipes that have steps that make sense..

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