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On Food and Cooking Paperback – February 1, 1997

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 704 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (February 1, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684843285
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684843285
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.2 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #50,328 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

What makes white meat white? Does searing really seal in flavor? Why is it that fruits ripen but vegetables don't? These and other food mysteries are conclusively solved in Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. A unique mix of culinary lore, food history, and scientific investigation, McGee's compellingly readable book explores every aspect of the food we eat: where it comes from, what it's made of, and how and why it behaves as it does when we bake, broil, steam, or otherwise ready it for the table. In addition to chapters on foods such as eggs, fruit, meat, and dairy products, McGee investigates wine, beer, and distilled liquors (the first alcoholic beverage was probably produced 10,000 years ago when some honey was forgotten); food additives (adulterated food has always been with us); and digestion and sensation (most of our food aversions are learned by taste-testing in childhood), among other topics. A section on nutrition reveals, among much else, that Americans have always been prey to food faddism. The book concludes with an easy-to-understand investigation of the basic food molecules--water, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and oils--and a discussion of cooking methods and utensil materials. There's a lively chemistry primer guaranteed to make clear and enjoyable what was probably less so in the classroom. With more than 200 illustrations, including extraordinary photos of cellular food anatomy, the book will delight anyone who cooks or enjoys food. --Arthur Boehm


Mimi Sheraton Time This is by all odds a minor masterpiece and a welcome addition to any cookbook library. -- Review --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Harold McGee writes about the chemistry of food and cooking, and the science of everyday life. He has worked alongside some of world's most innovative chefs, including Thomas Keller and Heston Blumenthal. He lives with his family in California.

Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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See all 68 customer reviews
This book, like a great recipe is complex and yet oh so simple.
Ruth F Blanchette
For those who are interested in the physics and chemistry of cooking, this book is one of the few in existence that gives a fairly detailed overview.
Dr. Lee D. Carlson
Anyone who is serious about the craft of cooking needs to read this book.
Steve Leroux

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

242 of 244 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 9, 1999
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is NOT a cookbook, but it's a damned good reference for figuring out why your sauce was flat.
I first received this book from a friend, about 3 years ago. I read it, then re-read it, and was amazed that the technical references and jargon were so easily described.
As a chemical engineer by trade and a cook by avocation, I loved this book, both for the technical details and the writing, as well as the explanations of the science behind the "obvious". If you're a technically-inclined person, you'll appreciate the references and notes. If you, like some unnamed previous reviewers, are looking for an easy guide to food, this isn't it. This book appeals to cooks who know how to make things, but want to know why those things are made. This isn't a compendium of recipes, nor is it a guide to cooking. It's an easily understandable review of why foods do what they do.
If you enjoy cooking and wonder why "browning" makes a tastier dish, get this book. Nothing here is a surprise to the seasoned cook. There are no de rigueur recipes. Whatever.
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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Vincent Poirier on September 2, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Why does waiting a few days before boiling your eggs make them easier to peel? Why is fish so soft and flaky compared to beef or chicken? What makes white and red meat different? Why does bread rise? Why does flour thicken a sauce? Why do vegetables become softer as they cook? This book answers all these questions and many more.

We learn to cook by following recipes from grandma, from books, or from TV; that is by following step-by-step instructions. But, for example, why do we have to brown a slab of beef before roasting it? McGee describes in great detail the properties of the materials we cook with (meat, milk, vegetables, and so on) and the effects when we simmer, broil, grill, steam, or braise them. So a quick browning of a block of meat caramelizes the outside, which creates complex flavours as the dish is then slowly roasted; browning doesn't seal in flavours already present, as is commonly thought. That's a useful thing to know, and can be applied to other things besides roasting meat. For instance, do you want those complex flavours in your soups? If so, stir fry the vegetables a few seconds before adding them to the stock. Do you want a lighter, softer sauce? Then don't broil the bones before simmering them to make the stock you'll use.

The section on sauces is perhaps the most useful in the book. We find out the characteristics of a good sauce, how they are classified, how to make them, and why each step followed is needed. Understanding all that will improve your gravies and sauces immensely, without having even to follow the rather heavy demands of professional sauce making.

This book belongs in every family's kitchen and in every chef's private library. McGee's clear and detailed explanations will improve your understanding of cooking and thus the quality of the meals you prepare. I've had it for five years now, and refer to it constantly.
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103 of 117 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on September 11, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The many flaws in this book originally led me to give it 3 stars, but the more I look at other sources for the same information, the more I realize that for all its annoying qualities, this book really does appear to be the most comprehensive work on this subject. As such, I have to recommend it more highly, simply because you're not going to get the same infomation in any other single book. Be prepared to work hard for the knowledge, however.
"On Food and Cooking" is a very comprehensive work that contains a lot of very useful and interesting information. It also contains a lot of less useful information, random historical musings, and general digressions. As a result, the useful/interesting information density is much lower than I'd like, particularly given the general "verbiage density" of the text. Perhaps part of the problem is that I've gleaned too much of the information already from other sources, so that I feel like I'm wading through a lot of common knowledge to get to the bits I care about.
The book goes into a fair amount of historical detail about various ingredients. It doesn't focus on the historical aspects enough to be a "history of food" book, though, and the historical perspective tends to detract from the scientific content ratio simply by increasing the overall amount of text.
Also, there are many variations on ingredients, food safety issues, etc., that were not considered significant in 1983, but which are more relevant today. There's no discussion of salmonella in the section on eggs, for example, and no discussion of things like the impact (or lack thereof) of RBGH on milk quality. The effects of organic methods in general are given short shrift.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By TundraVision on April 7, 2002
Format: Paperback
This book gives Totally Too Much Information (TTMI) to be read in one sitting. (Danger, Will Robinson! Information overload!) Like how one feels towards the end of Thanksgiving dinner! In a pinch, it may also be used to "boost" shorter members of the family up to the table ;-)
Mr. McGee's tome should be savored in digestible, bite-sized morsels. Read it while cooking up a big feast or nuking a quick snack. There is an excellent Index in which the reader may browse for specific items. As the author explains in the Introduction: "This is not a book of cookery - it offers no expert recipes - it is meant [to explain] the nature of our foods, what they are made of and where they came from, how they are transformed by cooking, when and why particular culinary habits took hold. Chemistry and biology figure prominently in this approach, but science is by no means the whole story. History, anthropology, and etymology also contribute to our understanding of food and cooking."
This is an essential treatise on the *science* - not art - of cooking. It explores *how* the traditional techniques (recipes and routines) work. We might have known the principle, but never put it together in the concept of Kitchen. For instance: that ugly "skin" when heating milk or reheating a cappuccino: "Whether fluid milk is used to make a soup or a sauce, scalloped potatoes or hot chocolate, the tendency of its proteins to coagulate can cause problems. The skin that forms on the surface of boiled milk or cream soups is a complex of casein and calcium and results from evaporation of water at the surface and the subsequent concentration of protein there."
To me, this is WAY more palatable than that Organic Chem 101 text with which I happily parted years ago. Better living through [cooking] chemistry!
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