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How to Read a French Fry: and Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science Hardcover – Bargain Price, May 15, 2001
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
From the first page, on which Parsons explains why onions make you cry - a compound called sulfonic acid, lacking in Vidalias, which accounts for their raw sweetness - his book is full of fascinating, illuminating facts. He begins with deep-frying, and explains how to cook efficiently and healthfully, with fat. It's all a matter of getting oil temperature right so that the steam in the food repels the oil. And then there's the little details - why fresh oil fails to brown food, why batters should be firm.
The vegetable chapter - how to pick the freshest and tastiest - and how to keep them that way - is especially useful, explaining why mature vegetables are tougher, how the absence of green in a nectarine is more important than a rosy blush, which fruits can safely be purchased under ripe, why potatoes change color when exposed to air, why to cook green vegetables uncovered, why lemon preserves color.
Parsons explains emulsifying and the miracle properties of the invaluable egg; he explains how beans and grains go from toothbreaking hard in their raw state to tender soft in cooking and how this property can be used in a variety of ways from making perfect gravy to reheating rice; he deconstructs the mysteries of heat on meat and explains why treating piecrust tenderly produces tender piecrust.
Each chapter includes a summary list of tips and a selection of recipes demonstrating the properties and techniques discussed. An understanding of the science of cookery, Parsons says, enables the cook, freeing her or him from recipes. "The only limit will be your creative ability." Armed with the science, the reader feels more in control, more expert, more willing to branch out. A useful resource for any cook.
The book people must have loved him when he walked in with this manuscript, since it really only consists of 70 or so pages of real text about "food science" to edit, and can still be marketed in a neat niche that will disguise the kind of book it really is. I agree with the above reviewer who noted that of 100+ recipes, maybe only a dozen make me stand up and listen. The only conclusion I can draw is that just like other haute cuisine/california cuisine books, this one has that special disease which comes from the author living in another world from my own in terms of the time, and expense of gathering ingredients and preparation.
I wish he'd had more chapters and more text concerning kitchen science. At least 50% of the information will be old to a seasoned home cook, even if it is written well in many spots. The instructive recipes could have been trimmed to take up 50 pages/recipes, and the Bill Nye science act could have taken up 120-150 pages over 8-10 chapters instead of the 6 themes he stuck with. (As I said: the marketeers probably loved this.)
While Brown and Volker give scientific explanations of culinary phenomena, with Brown's chapters in `I'm Only Here for the Food' being somewhat deeper than Volker's question and answer format, Parsons is looking at culinary facts from a much broader point of view. It is as if all three understand food and all three have good scientific explanations for food facts, but only Parsons understands SCIENCE. Alton Brown gives an excellent metaphor for science in describing what he does as drawing a roadmap of a neighborhood (of custards, for example) rather than simply giving step by step instructions as one would when writing out the method for a recipe. Brown, however, seems constantly constrained by the limits of a 30-minute `Good Eats' episode or of a book chapter on braising.
Parsons addresses the whole field of food science from the other direction. He doesn't talk about what causes meat to brown (and why this tastes so good) or how simmering in water creates gelatin in stocks, or how the barbecue method is so good at producing tender meat from tough primals. Instead, he talks about MEAT, its composition, and how it reacts, in general, to heat, and what the variations are from chicken to pork to veal to beef to lamb. From these, we can see the similarities between, for example, barbecue and braising. This is what science is all about. Explaining individual facts without an underlying theory becomes nothing more than description. Alton Brown uses the theory to explain the facts. Russ Parsons talks about the theory, with facts as examples of how the theory works.
What so frustrates me about the clarity with which Parsons writes is that in spite of this, TV food show hosts continue to perpetuate myths about cooking like the one about searing meat is done to `seal in the juices'. Both Parsons and McGee have refuted this statement, yet some Food Network hosts make that statement over and over. I think all people who make their living by writing or speaking about food should be required to take a good chemistry course, followed by a food science course before they are let loose with word processor or microphone. But I digress.
Parsons' book is composed of six essays, each on some basic aspect of food composition or behavior. These chapters are:
How to read a French fry: Frying and the chemical and physical properties of frying oils.
The second life of plants: Changes to fruits and vegetables after harvest and cooking.
Miracle in a shell: Eggs and their amazing emulsifying properties.
From a pebble to a pillow: Starches from rice, beans, flour, potatoes and their ability to thicken.
Meat and heat: The Maillard principle, collagen, fats, and what it is that gives meat its flavor.
Fat, flour, and fear: Pie crusts, butter or lard, and gluten formation.
Each essay is longer or much longer than a typical newspaper column. It is also a level of writing that rarely sees the food pages of my local newspaper. I suspect most of the articles were serialized over several issues. These essays alone make the book worthwhile. Parsons goes on to give practical cooking tips. All these tips should now be fully understandable and therefore eminently easy to remember once the cook has read the essay on which they are based. A favorite for me is the recommendation to thicken sauces with flour rather than with cornstarch or arrowroot. If one is exposed to a little Chinese cooking, cornstarch acquires a great attraction and is seemingly easier to use than flour. What experienced chefs know, but never say, is that flour is a much more stable thickener and will stand up to reheating much better than other starches. For those of us who dote on `Molto Mario' and `Good Eats', many of the hints, especially for pasta, will seem obvious, but then not everyone mainlines the Food Network six hours a day.
Parsons caps each essay with a collection of recipes appropriate to the lessons in the essay. Most of the recipes are old standards that the foodies among us have seen often before, such as snickerdoodles, macaroni and cheese, pot roast, and ratatouille. This means that anyone with a cookbook collection of any size may not find very much new in these pages, except as concrete examples of the science presented in the essays. I will say the recipes I examined are highly respectable and should produce excellent results. The author does provide a complete table of all recipes by principle ingredient (fish) or course (dessert). I think this should be a feature of every cookbook. It is doubly useful when ingredient or course does not organize the book.
My only regret about this book is that it is so short and that so few people will be attracted to reading it. We need food science to replace the extensive drilling in cooking techniques that we used to get at our mothers or grandmother's side. That has disappeared, and it wasn't all that great to begin with.
With sincere apologies to Alton Brown, who gives me more laughs in one `Good Eats' episode than Parsons has in this whole book, I highly recommend this to anyone and everyone who likes to read about food.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
different temperatures yields different results.