Before there was Alton Brown's "Good Eats" ...
Before there was Jeff Potter's "Cooking for Geeks" ...
And long before anyone had ever heard of molecular gastronomy, there was Harold McGee, the original food-science nerd who proved it in 1984 with "On Food and Cooking," an absorbing and authoritative guide to the history and science of all we consume.
Over the last 26 years -- and through a major book update in 2004 -- McGee has become the go-to guy for the whys and hows of cooking. His fat, red tome graces the bookshelves of most serious foodies, ready to serve up definitive technical and historical answers on all things food and cooking.
But McGee has yearned to produce something that was less hefty reference book and more working tool in a busy kitchen.
His answer is "Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes." Though still checking in at more than 550 pages, it's designed to deliver concise advice at the moment you need it. And even for experienced cooks, that advice is often surprising.
We caught up with the author and New York Times food columnist on his book tour.
So many people see "On Food and Cooking" as the final word on cooking. Why did you feel the need to write this new book?
Because people who enjoyed "On Food and Cooking" said that when they had a particular practical issue in the kitchen, all the wonderful information got in the way. So I wanted to provide an unvarnished, unpadded guide to basic facts and basic advice in the kitchen. It's meant to live in the kitchen, while "On Food and Cooking" is more of an armchair book. I've also left lots of space for readers to write in their own ideas and observations that work for their particular circumstance. I wanted to provide a kind of information and advice central.
I had so many aha moments while reading your book, and I really thought I knew my way around a kitchen. Did you surprise yourself during some of your research?
Yes, I always thought it was better to cook pasta in plenty of water or else it would get sticky or gummy, but it turns out minimal water is best. And I thought you were never supposed to crowd vegetables in a pan, but it turns out you can and they end up absorbing less oil, and they still brown just fine.
What are some of the biggest mistakes people make in the kitchen?
There are lots and lots, and many are minor, but the main ones I like to emphasize are really basic, like measuring. Spoons and cups measure ingredients plus air and are therefore very unreliable, especially when you are measuring something like salt. If you are measuring in a spoon, the amount can vary by a third, and if you happen to be using kosher salt, you can be off by a factor of two.
I noted this and then vowed to finally buy myself a good scale. But then I remembered that most of my cookbooks are written in cups and spoons. What's a cook to do?
Eventually cookbooks will switch over, but you and I don't have a decade to wait. So get to know the equivalents using the tables I have inside the covers of my book. Along the way you will start to remember that a cup is 250 grams of water, etc. This is especially important in baking.
Does it seem like there has been an explosion of interest in the science behind food in the last few years?
Definitely. I think it has to do with the tremendous interest in food, period, and the variety of things we have to enjoy these days. I started writing in the late '70s, and food was not that big a deal and it was not that good. Olive oil was just cheap imports, and specialty coffee was not important. It was just a different world for a lot of reasons, but chief among them is better transportation and information sharing. Stuff just gets around a lot faster.