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Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes

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Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes [Hardcover]

Harold McGee
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

No matter how creative the chef, every great dish relies on proven science, and this compendium of well-researched data is a textbook for proper food preparation. Curious Cook columnist for the New York Times and author (On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen), McGee will banish any romantic notions about cooking with his fast-draw expertise. Keys is a companion guide designed to be used in conjunction with cookbooks. With chapters devoted to Kitchen Tools, Heat and Heating Appliances, and Cooking Methods, McGee's 101 approach takes nothing for granted, but will surprise readers with lesser known insights, such as that salted water reduces the loss of flavorful and nutritious substances during boiling and that foil should not be used to wrap acidic foods or nonaluminum metal pans. McGee breaks down methods with basic tips--in pan-frying, for instance, warming meats to room temperature and drying food surfaces ahead are important factors for success that are often left out of recipes. Descriptions of foods from common fruits to cultured dairy products and seed legumes are detailed but not trivially so, with McGee summarizing the safe handling, purchase and storage, preparation, and basic characteristics. With an eminently pragmatic approach to cooking and a user-friendly précis of a lifetime's devotion to the kitchen, this is an invaluable addition to food literature. (Nov.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


“Mr. McGee might have called this encyclopedic work "The Kitchen Home Companion," since it offers indispensable information on how to make the most of any recipe—a user's manual that enables home cooks to achieve maximum results… the enjoyment it affords will be found on the table.”

(Wall Street Journal )

"If you want to know virtually anything about the "why" of cooking, read Harold McGee. Along the way, he'll teach you the "how."


“McGee’s writing is broad, yet detailed at the same time, scientific, but comprehensible.”

“A great addition to any cookbook library. It picks up where many cookbooks leave off. The "How's" and "Why's" of a dish's success - or failure - are often a mystery, but McGee sheds light on many of those mysteries to make us more informed in the kitchen and ultimately, better cooks.”


“McGee will banish any romantic notions about cooking with his fast-draw expertise… With an eminently pragmatic approach  to cooking and a user-friendly précis of a lifetime’s devotion to the kitchen, this is an invaluable addition to food literature.”

(PUBLISHERS WEEKLY ) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Harold McGee writes about the science of food and cooking. He’s the author of the award-winning classic On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, and writes a monthly column, “The Curious Cook,” for The New York Times. He has been named food writer of the year by Bon Appétit magazine and to the Time 100, an annual list of the world’s most influential people. He lives in San Francisco.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


Good cooking starts with a good understanding of its raw materials, the foods we cook.
We’re all familiar with the foods that we regularly buy and eat, and the more we cook, the better we get to know them and the way they behave. But foods have histories and inner qualities that aren’t obvious from our everyday encounters with them, and that determine their value and behavior. The more fully we know our foods, the better we can choose them and cook with them.
I first encountered the inner world of foods decades ago as a student, when I headed to an unfamiliar section of the library and found shelf after shelf devoted to the science of food and agriculture. I browsed in them, and at first was startled and amused by what I saw: photographs taken through the microscope of meat fibers and the way they shrank as they cooked, microbes growing in yogurt and cheese, the oil droplets jammed against each other in a bit of mayonnaise, gossamer-thin gluten heets in bread dough. But soon I was mesmerized. And though I’d stopped studying science years earlier, I found myself drawn into what was going on behind these scenes, into the nature and behavior of the protein and starch and fat molecules that they were constructed from. It was thrilling to begin to understand why meats get juicy when cooked just right and dry when overcooked, why milk thickens into yogurt and cheeses have so many textures and flavors, why well-formed bread dough feels almost alive to the touch.
The language and ideas of science are less familiar than our foods are, and I know that their strangeness can be off-putting. Try to put up with them anyhow, and don’t worry about the details. Just start by knowing that there are details, and that they can help you understand cooking and cook better. Then, when a question comes up, when you really want to know more, use the brief explanation in this book as an entry point to the world of details that’s out there to explore.
Foods are complex, dynamic, and fragile materials.
Most foods come originally from living plants and animals, which are nature’s most intricate and active creations. Some—fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh eggs, shellfish from the tank, yogurt—are still alive when we buy them.
Living things are fragile. They thrive in the right conditions, die and decay in the wrong ones. Their tissues can be damaged by physical pressure, by excessive heat or cold, by too little fresh air or too much, and by microbes that start consuming them for food before we can.
Most foods are produced on farms or ranches or in factories far distant from our kitchens. Before we can buy them, they have been raised, harvested, prepared and packaged, transported to the market, unpacked, and displayed—and require careful temperature control and gentle handling throughout to minimize their deterioration.
Our food plants and animals have been bred and selected over thousands of years and come in countless different varieties, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.
The quality of a food is a general measure of how well it fulfills its potential for providing nourishment and the pleasures of flavor, texture, and appearance.
Food quality depends on many factors. These include the variety of plant or animal the food comes from, how that plant or animal lives, and how the food is handled in its progress from farm to plate.
Cooks today can choose foods from a wide and sometimes confusing range of production systems.
Most foods are produced in “conventional” large-scale industrial systems that are designed to minimize production costs and food prices, and maximize shelf life. Conventional foods are produced and shipped from sources all over the world, wherever labor and other costs are low enough to offset the costs of transportation.
Most meats come from farm animals raised largely or entirely indoors, with little living space, on manufactured feeds that often include materials the animal wouldn’t normally eat (fish meal, rendered animal remains and waste), antibiotics to stimulate growth and control disease, and sometimes with growth-stimulating hormones.
Most fruits, vegetables, grains, and cooking oils come from plants grown with industrial fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Some crops have been genetically modified with modern DNA technology, which may reduce herbicide and pesticide use.
Most fish and shellfish are produced in aquaculture, the water- animal version of intensive meat production, in confinement and on formulated feeds. Some fish and shellfish are still harvested from the wild.
Most prepared foods are made from conventional ingredients, and usually include texture stabilizers, natural or artificial flavor con centrates, and preservatives. They’re industrial approximations of the original kitchen product, designed to minimize price and maximize shelf life.
Conventional systems have important drawbacks. Conventional agriculture and meat production, and aquaculture, can cause damage to the environment, the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and unnecessary animal suffering. Harvesting wild fish and shellfish has depleted many populations to dangerously low levels.
Alternative production systems attempt to remedy various drawbacks of conventional systems. Many foods are now advertised or certified to have been produced:
• organically, without the use of industrial fertilizers or pesticides, genetically modified crops, or most industrial additives, and with minimal use of antibiotics;
• sustainably, without damaging effects on the local or global environments, or on wild populations;
• humanely, with consideration for the quality of life of farm animals;
• fairly, with farmers in developing countries receiving a good price;
• selectively, without the use of genetically modified crops, certain hormones or antibiotics or feeds, or preservatives or other additives; or with the use of high-quality or heritage varieties;
• locally, with fewer resources spent on transportation.
Food production terminology is neither precise nor tightly regulated. The terms are loose at best, and because some justify higher prices, they may be used to mislead or deceive.
Be skeptical about alternative production claims, but not cynical. All food choices, even casual ones, influence the agriculture and food industries and the people who work in them, and have a cumulative impact on the world’s soils, waters, and air.
Good cooking calls for good ingredients. Cooking can mask the defects of mediocre or poor ingredients, but it can’t make the best foods with them.
Foods land in our shopping carts with a history. Their genetic background, their variety or breed, and everything they go through from farm to display case influence their quality and what we can do with them.
Think about your priorities and choose foods consciously. If production practices and their consequences matter to you, then check the credentials of the suppliers and buy accordingly.
No particular production method is a guarantee of food quality. Both conventional and alternative foods can be mistreated or spoiled during the harvest or later handling.
Learn to read the signs of quality in the foods you shop for. The chapters in this book describe what to look for in each food.
Check the ingredient lists on prepared foods to know what you’re really buying.
Care for the foods you buy to preserve their quality. A long hot car ride from the store can cause damage as much as mishandling at any other stage.
As with all material things, including our bodies, foods are composed of countless invisibly small structures called molecules. We eat so that food molecules will become our body’s molecules.
Molecules come in various families or kinds, and we call those kinds chemicals. Many chemical names—proteins, enzymes, carbohydrates, saturated and unsaturated fats—are familiar from nutrition guidelines and packaged food labels. They’re becoming common cooking terms because they can help cooks understand what their methods are actually doing to change foods.
The major chemical building blocks of foods are water, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. These chemicals, and the changes they undergo during cooking, create the structures and textures of our foods.
Water is the primary chemical in fresh foods of all kinds, and a major ingredient in most cooked dishes. The cells of all living things are essentially bags of water in which the other molecules are suspended and do their work.
Water is what makes foods seem moist. Its loss is what can make them seem unpleasantly dry or pleasantly crisp.
Water is also an important cooking medium. We cook many foods in hot water, or in the watery fluids from other foods.
Water can be acid, alkaline, or neutral—neither acid nor alkaline. Acidity and alkalinity affect the reactions of other food molecules and are im... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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