On Food and Cooking

Al Hawkins blogs his kitchen upgrade. First with a quiz: guess his value-conscious pan purchase (I guessed correctly: cast iron pans), then with an elegy to Lodge cast iron.

Someone in his comments asks whether iron pans are good for the trace elements (yes, trace bits of iron from the pan!). Which reminds me of something I’ve been wanting to blog about, a Christmas present I received:

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee. 818 pages of text, 884 pages including index and references. McGee writes about the science of food in a nice approachable way. Pictures and diagrams of chemical symbols, cellular structure of food items (I just flipped open to the Breads chapter, to microscopic views of wetted flour in a discussion of dough development.) The utterly perfect item for the Foodie and Geek. If you’re familiar with the Cook’s Illustrated or America’s Test Kitchen science explanations for what happens during brining, or what happens when you sear meat, etc., then you’ll LOVE this book.

Things I’ve read so far that are of interest: McGee describes exactly how an egg is formed inside a hen. Plus tons of egg facts. This being the holiday season, I’ve been reading about meat. Next up, fish. It’s the kind of book you can open at random and find something fascinating and new. Or else old, but re-told in such a way that has you saying “AhHA!” (such as for instance, why stews usually call for browned meat first, because it requires a higher temperature to get a browning reaction, and stew/braise in boiling liquid is only going to reach as high as 212°F/100°C, which isn’t hot enough to brown meat. But of course!)

Apropos of Al’s new purchase, Chapter 14 is devoted to Cooking Methods and Utensil Materials. Just to whet your appetite, here is what’s covered in that chapter.

  • Browning reactions and flavor
    Carmelization, the Maillard Reactions, High temperatures and Dry cooking methods, Slow browning in Moist foods, Drawbacks of the Browning reactions
  • Forms of heat transfer
    Conduction: Direct Contact, Convection: Movements in fluids; Radiation: the pure energy of radiant heat and microwaves
  • Basic methods of heating foods
    Grilling and Broiling, Baking, Boiling and Simmering, Steaming, Pan-Frying and Sautéing, Deep Frying, Microwaving
  • Utensil Materials
    The different behaviors of metals and ceramics, Ceramics, Aluminum, Copper, Iron and Steel, Stainless Steel, Tin

Note: best cooking surface is one that heats evenly and holds heat (metals good for that) and is inert–doesn’t change the nature of food (ceramic good for that). Hello enamel-covered cast iron of Le Creuset and that belgian outfit I can’t recall offhand!! Handy tip for those kinds of pans: Don’t put hot pans in cold water, else you’ll chip off flecks of enamel.

On cast iron:

The chief attractions of cast iron and carbon steel in kitchen work are their cheapness and safety. Excess iron is readily eliminated from the body, and most people can actually benefit from additional dietary iron. Their greatest disadvantage is a tendency to corrode, though this can be avoided by regular seasoning [described in later paragraph] and gentle cleaning. Like aluminum, iron and carbon steel can discolor foods. And iron turns out to be a poorer conductor of heat than copper or aluminum. But exactly for this reason, and because it’s denser than aluminum, a cast iron pan will absorb more heat and hold it longer than a similar aluminum pan. Thick cast iron pans provide steady, even heat.

Okay. there it is. Now you know you want this book— On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.

4 responses to “On Food and Cooking”

  1. dan

    Thanks, Susan! I’m copying your post to my wife; she’s worried about my cast iron cooking in the past…

  2. Julie

    Love this book! We have it as well as a few others such as The Curious Cook by Harold McGee and Kitchen Science by Howard Hillman. I confess we haven’t read through all of them but we do take them out and browse through them from time to time. I am thinking that in a few years they will make great homeschool material. Glad you are enjoying the book!

  3. medmusings

    my linklog – what i’ve been reading
    inspired by julie leung’s encouragement, i’ve posted what i’ve found interesting in the internets recently: my linklog » The Doctor Is In: Lasering a Kidney Stone » FERMENTATIONS: The Daily Wine Blog: Pinot Noir, The Wine Spectator &…

  4. 2020 Hindsight » Food blogging the science of food

    […] I’ve mentioned Harold McGee on this blog before; he’s the author of the red food science bible, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. I just saw (thanks, Rebecca!) that Harold McGee has a blog. […]