Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Review: Cooking for Geeks, Second Edition

As a single book, this combination of food science, recipes, equipment, ingredients, experimentation, interviews, and geeky humor is hard to beat. It’s not necessarily deep in all those areas, but it’s an appealing total package for those curious about the why’s of food. 

It’s the second edition of this book by Jeff Porter. At 488 pages, it’s about 50 pages longer than its predecessor. There are new interviews and graphics along with a fair bit of updating and rearranging from the prior edition—although the overall, look, feel, and organization aren’t a major departure. 

The book is written in a lighthearted and gently humorous way. Random sample from the intro to Taste, Smell, and Flavor: “You open your fridge and see pickles, strawberries, and tortillas. What do you do? You might answer: create a pickle/strawberry burrito. Or if you’re less adventurous, you might say: order pizza. But somewhere between making a gross-sounding burrito and ordering takeout is another option: figuring out the answer to one of life’s deeper questions: How do I know what goes together?” Probably not to everyone’s taste I realize, but it works for me.

It covers a broad swath of the science. The aforementioned tastes, smells, and flavors. Time and temperature—and what those mean for cooking proteins and melting fats. Additives like emulsifiers and thickening agents. Air, water, and leavening agents.It’s not the science tome that is Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, but it’s a more easily accessible presentation. (Though, if you read this book and enjoy it, by all means pick up McGee and vice versa.)

Cooking for Geeks at least touches on most of the major modernist cooking practices including sous vide and practical tips for same. Arguably, some of the DIY material around sous vide is a bit dated given the price drops of modern immersion circulators but this is about experimentation after all. (The link in the book does go to a list of current equipment options though.) There are also interviews with many of the usual suspects in that space such as Nathan Myhrvold and Dave Arnold.

Is this book for the cooking-curious geek who doesn’t have much real cooking experience? It could be but they might want to pair this book with another that was more focused on basic cooking techniques. The recipes here are relatively straightforward and the instructions are clear, but there’s not a lot of photography devoted to the recipes and the instructions for things like B├ęchamel Sauce are probably a bit bare-bones for a first-timer. 

I’d also generally note that the recipes are often there to provide examples of the science discussion. There isn’t a lot of discussion about why this specific recipe is being made with this specific set of techniques. For that sort of thing, I recommend book(s) from the America’s Test Kitchen empire, perhaps starting with their The New Best Recipes book—which also has the virtue of being a pretty comprehensive set of basic and not-so-basic recipes. It’s also rather sober and by-the-numbers, a much different experience. (Alton Brown also seems to have his followers in geeky circles although I’ve never personally been all that enthusiastic.)

One final point is that, for many, this is a book you will flip through and alight on a topic of interest. It’s not that you couldn’t read it from cover to cover, but the many sidebars and interviews and short chunks of material seem to encourage non-linear exploration. 

Bottom line: 5/5. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the science of cooking even if they don’t want to get into deep chemistry and physics.

Disclaimer: This book was provided to me as a review copy but this review represents my honest assessment.

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