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This is a most delightful book, full of kitchen wisdom and chemistry, good and bad puns, and many, many clever witticisms. It is a flat out pleasure to read, but what really makes it such an outstanding piece of work, and a book every kitchen should have, is that it is so full of information, from why and how corn syrup ends up in sodas to why and how to wash your mushrooms--and yes, they are indeed grown in manure, but not to worry, as Wolke explains on pages 286-288 in a little essay entitled, "You Can't Wash Your Car with a Wet Mushroom." (I believe that.) This is the kind of book you'll find yourself reading from cover to cover instead of peeling the potatoes. Speaking of which, Wolke advises that there is a very slight problem with green potatoes, but that reports of their poisonous nature are greatly exaggerated. (See pages 117-120 for the true scoop.)

I have just one problem: nowhere does Wolke say how many sesame seeds are in a teaspoon. However, inspired by Wolke's labor-intensive lime squeezing experiment on pages 281-284, I was able to work it out myself. The answer is 840. I found this by counting the number in a half teaspoon and multiplying by two, genius that I am. (Alas, this was before I realized that I could have counted the number in a quarter teaspoon and multiplied by four.) Which reminds me of the joke about a guy on a train counting cows in a field. When asked how he could do this he explained that he counted their legs and divided by four.

Now you may think this was an idle exercise and wonder if I am not slyly making fun of Wolke's book. Au Cointreau! What I learned by counting sesame seeds exemplifies one of the lessons in the book, namely how hard it is to measure anything exactly. On page 294 Wolke asks, "Have you noticed how surface tension makes the liquid bulge up above the rim of the measuring spoon? How accurate can that be?" Well, I have, and I want to tell you getting a straight line of sesame seeds across the top of that measuring spoon was no piece of cake either!

There are nine chapters and a really excellent index, suggestions for further reading and a brief glossary. There are some excellent recipes by Wolke's wife, Marlene Parrish. I performed a "thought experiment" on several of them and found that my mouth was watering. One of them, how to make turkey or chicken gravy on page 156 is almost exactly the way I make it. (Smile.) Parrish uses the roasting pan, transferring it to the stove top burners after removing the bird, and then deglazes the pan more or less in the French style. I must note that on the previous page Wolke himself does not recommend this technique finding it "hard to straddle two burners" not to mention "one big cleanup job after dinner."

Which makes me wonder who makes the gravy in their household--or, better yet, who does the dishes!

The chapters begin with sugar, "Sweet Talk" and end with "Tools and Technology." Wolke gives us a full mouthful on the differences between cane and beet sugar, between brown and white sugar, between cocoa and chocolate, and makes me feel good about not being crazy about white chocolate. He separates the sea salt from the rock salt; he explains what MSG is and where it comes from; how home water filters works; why "the nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat" is actually true, and of course how to open a champagne bottle and clarify butter... Ghee, I'm exhausted!

One of my favorite explanations is why beef in the supermarket looks bright pink on the outside and brown on the inside. (See pages 127-128, and, no, they don't spray it with dye, which is what I always thought.) I also liked it when Wolke got down and dirty and tried to fry an egg on the sidewalk, and after some heavy-duty "Techspeak" came to the conclusion that you can't; that frying an egg on the sidewalk is an urban legend. (But try the roof of your Arizona "sun-baked, dark blue, 1994 Ford Taurus" which "measured 178 degrees F, more than hot enough to coagulate both white and yolk.") (p. 193)

The icing on the cake for me (if you will) was Wolke's explanation of "Why Crackers Are Holey" beginning on page 307. What his explanation amounts to is a guide on how to make crackers, which is something I've been stumbling around in the kitchen, trying to do off and on for ages. Two key factors that I was unaware of: One, the oven has to be very, very hot ("saltines are baked at 650 to 700 degrees F."; matzos at "800 to 900 degrees F.") and Two, crackers need holes to let the air out! And now to find an oven that gets that hot...

Here are a couple of witticisms: On page 305 Wolke is talking about ovens that use light to cook food, and "the promotional statements...[that sound] like pseudoscientific hype:" They "harness the power of light." They cook "with the speed of light" and "from the inside out." He comments: "Light does indeed travel, appropriately enough, at the speed of light, but it doesn't penetrate most solids very far. Try reading this page through a steak."

Or, "The makers of matzos, the unleavened flatbread of the Jewish Passover, seem to have gone hog wild (you should excuse the expression) on perforations. Matzos are much hole-ier than secular crackers." (p. 307)

Bottom line: fascinating and fun to read.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "Dennis Littrell's Funniest! Most Satirical! and Just Plain Meanest! Reviews"
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VINE VOICEon November 4, 2008
I might have liked this book better if I read it before I read On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee. But I read that one first and enjoyed the technical explanations. Some of the same questions are explored in both books, and in McGee's book you will get a detailed explanation suitable for a college student. This book you will get an explanation suitable for about 7th grade. It's more like Mr. Wizard or Bill Nye asked these questions instead of Einstein. If you want easier reading and simple answers, this book is for you. But I felt it was dumbed down compared to McGee's book.
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on June 4, 2002
Excellent writing! I used to love the sciences growing up but now I've entered the "real world" complete with a sit-all-day-looking-at-a-computer-screen job. Because of that, I have recently found cooking (something to invigorate my mind and senses in the evening). Wolke's book is the perfect combination of both cooking and science, with just the right amount of humor and sarcasm. I just finished it last night and am already online to buy his other works. Happy reading!
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on August 8, 2012
Sorry for the rewrite, but I realized my earlier review really didn't explain just how bad this book is. There are a few bits of useful information sprinkled here and there, mostly in the form of corrected wives-tales. Potatoes won't soak up extra salt in a soup, and adding salt to your pasta water will only raise the boiling point by something like 1/700 of a degree (but you should do it anyway because it tastes better). But to get these few bits of information you'll have to suffer through the wildly insulting tone of the book. Now I realize I should have stopped when he described a molecule as "one of those eentsy-weentsy things that stuff is made of," but it was early in the book and I thought he was just trying to make the point that anyone can read this book.

But no - he really assumes you're an idiot, which seems odd give the subject, or even the title. He continues to talk down to the reader throughout the book. He uses the word "Techspeak" to warn you of anything vaguely scientific. For example, "We all learned that matter comes in three physical forms (Techspeak: states of matter)" or "...liquid water can hold more heat (Techspeak: it has a higher heat capacity)". And instead of bothering to explain things he often just resorts to onomatopoeia. What is energy? It's oomph.

The book is in the form of question and answer, and I can't help but think he even rewrote the questions to make them extra dumb. While he apparently does receive questions from the public you can tell they've been reworked because they were clearly all written by the same idiot. The questions all follow the same format ("I heard..." followed by some reasonable question or statement, with a punchline at the end.)

In addition to thinking you are stupid, he really thinks he is funny. There's a simple and obvious pun in nearly every section of the book. I found myself thinking "oh no, please don't say..." and then there it was. It seems like entire sections were written just to deliver a pun.

There's really very little science in the book, and he shies away from answering anything that would require more than a few paragraphs or too much "Techspeak". One of the most egregious lines in the book, in fact the one that inspired me to rewrite this review was "And what about 'all that yellow-green stuff' inside the crabs? Don't ask. Just eat it." Don't ask? Are you kidding me? No, I'm asking. That's the whole point of this book, or so I thought. As a child if I asked my dad any of these questions and got answers like the ones in this book I would have rejected the answer and demanded a better explanation. But then again my dad would never insult me with the drivel in this book.
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on May 25, 2005
Most semi-competent amateur cooks will find this to be an informative and entertaining read. It will likely appeal to fans of Alton Brown's Food TV show "Good Eats".

As well as explanations of many foodie things that you will never see explained in run-of-the-mill cookery books, it includes a decent number of fairly straightforward recipes.

It is broken into many short sub-chapters, making it easy to read in bursts of 3 or 4 minutes.

What it is not, is a comprehensive explanation of all kitchen science. If you are looking for a manual of cookery science and techniques, or a book aimed at budding professional cooks, then look elsewhere.
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on July 30, 2009
I found this book to be fun and interesting to read, but it wasn't very useful. I was hoping for something along the lines of "On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee, but this book is actually more of an entertaining trivia book rather than having a lot of useful information that will help you become a better cook.

Yes, there is some useful information in the book. But it's not organized very well, so it's hard to find information about something specific. It's also not a comprehensive guide like "On Food and Cooking", it's just bits and pieces of trivia thrown together mostly haphazardly. The book is organized into sections, but the sections don't make it as easy to find specific information as they should.

I found this book to be relatively entertaining, but it wasn't what I hoped it would be at all. Buy this for purely entertainment value, but don't look at it as any type of culinary reference. You will learn some stuff, but probably not as much practical information as you would like.

I have both volumes of this set, and they are both similar in entertainment value versus usefulness.
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VINE VOICEon October 7, 2002
This isn't a chemistry textbook (thank goodness). It's not really a cookbook, either. And Robert L. Wolke isn't quite the Cecil Adams of food, although sometimes he comes close. What this is, is a very useful and informative guide to food and cooking.
Wolke covers basic issues like "What is a calorie?" ... "What's the best way to defrost frozen food?" ... and "What's the point of clarified butter." And he addresses more complex ones, related to fats, various methods of cooking, the hows-and-whys of microwaves, and much more. He does so with a certain degree of flair and humor, but is also chock full of information. He clearly knows his stuff. Keep in mind, though, that most of what's in here originally appeared in the form of newspaper columns. That may be one explanation for why these answers sometimes aren't as in depth as some reviewers might have preferred.
(Interestingly, Wolke's answer to the question "How do they get the non-stick coating to stick to the pan?" gives us the opportunity for a head-to-head test with Cecil Adams, who answers the same question in one of his Straight Dope books. Personally, I think Cecil came out ahead, but your opinion may vary.)
What I found most interesting (apart from the chapter on fat, for some reason) was Wolke's deconstruction of the arguments against irradiated food. Keep this section handy for the next time someone wails about "the equivalent of one billion chest X-rays" (the correct response to which, Wolke notes, is "So what?").
Absorbing the knowledge here will, I think, make you both a better cook and a more informed consumer. And both of those are good things.
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on March 25, 2003
This book is a culmination of articles written on kitchen science. None of them will take more than a few minutes to read -- but are packed with fascinating information. All are written with great humor, which makes all of the information palatable.
Why does it take longer to cook at altitude?
What is the difference between baking powder and baking soda (and why are they used?)
Does the massive amount of soda/beer drinking contribute to global warming?
Does hot water freeze more quickly in the freezer?
Why could lasagna eat a hole in the aluminum foil?
Why are foods sweet?
What are sweeteners made of...?
What is the difference between all the salts on the market?
And many many more...
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on December 25, 2002
I LOVE THIS BOOK! I got it for Christmas and thought that I wouldn't learn much from this book as I have many other similar books (Cookwise and so on). How wrong I was! This is a well-written, easy-to-read book for anyone with an interest in why cooking works or doesn't work. It contains a few recipes for you to 'experiment'. The author is the most engaging and entertaining science professor I've ever heard (I wish mine were like this at school), he can explain ions, density, sugars, starches and much more with great clarity and humor! As a pastry chef, premed student and mom I shall be using many of his ideas (like why two cups of sugar 'fits in' to one cup of water) for my kids and my own pleasure! I especially like the Q&A style which means I can read a bit and read more later when I have more time!
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on July 25, 2012
The concept behind this book is exactly the sort of thing that usually appeals to me. It's about the science of the kitchen. Things like "Why does meat turn brown when you cook it?" (Answer: The Maillard reaction. I totally knew that, y'all! Food Network FTW! Also, I just listened to Jenny Lawson's audiobook so I'll be saying y'all a lot. If you've listened to her book you'd know that my new word tick could have been much, much worse.) So I expected that this audiobook would be great for a nerdy foodie wannabe like me. I expected it to be kind of science-y but also interesting and mouth watering. I mean, it comes with a PDF of recipes. I was all set to LOVE it.


Somewhere around what felt like the third hour of the section on sugars, I thought, "Should learning about candy be so painful?!" I don't know whether it was Sean Runnette's narration, which is a combination of fussy NPR voice and computerized robot informing me of the time after the beep, or whether it was the fact that a lot of the "science" sounded a lot more like cranky Andy Rooney rants (why do we call so many things "salt" when we're referring to a lot of different kinds of chemicals?), or whether it was the fact that the author uses the term "tech speak" after every fifty words, but this book was....oh, what's the word? Boring. Yeah, it was boring. I can't tell you how much it pains me to say that because I LOVE kitchen science. Like, LOVE it, as in I already knew about the Maillard reaction and I'm neither a cook nor a chemist. So yeah, I'm pretty easy to please in this genre. But this audiobook isn't a fun listening experience. Maybe stick to the actual book?

Again, it's not that the subject matter is boring. I really do find it interesting. But...not in this book.

For more reviews, please visit my blog, CozyLittleBookJournal.

Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from Edelweiss (Above the Tree Line). I was asked to write an honest review, though not necessarily a favourable one. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.
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