Harold McGee's books are a bit like salt – they always seem to be just what you need. The king of food science long before molecular gastronomy was an everyday word has published a new book, Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes. And yes, it's as fantastic as his first.
The book is in a similar vein to his cookbook library must-have, On Food and Cooking, in that McGee focuses on food science. But the new book aims to be what a true reference book cannot — a prep tool in the kitchen. Here, you get the basic elements of cooking in an easy-to-find guide. So if you just came home from the market with shellfish and want to double check how to store them, in Keys To Good Cooking you simply flip to the how-to-store section in the “Fish and Shellfish” chapter. In contrast, the “Fish and Shellfish” chapter in On Food and Cooking is a daunting 60+ pages of Encyclopedia Britannica-style fine print (very informative, but requiring dedicated scrutiny that isn't going to happen with an armload full of groceries).
The voice in Keys To Good Cooking is more casual, too. You get practical advice supported by solid science rather than straight Chemistry 101-type entries. Translation: there are no “Green Chlorophylls” and “Red and Yellow Betains” sub-headers in the vegetable section of the new book. Instead, you'll find basic food-safety advice (washing does not eliminate all microbes from vegetables and herbs, only cooking does) and storage tips (to store herbs with fleshy stems such as parsley and cilantro, “cut off the lower stems, wash, roll in a moist paper towel, and refrigerate in a plastic bag”).
McGee then explores cooking techniques, such as the advantages and disadvantages of boiling vegetables, and debunks old kitchens myths, like shocking green vegetables in water right after cooking to preserve their vibrant color (he says don't bother). The twenty four chapters focus on ingredients (fruits, eggs, meats, chocolate and cocoa) as well as specific cooked dishes (cakes, muffins and cookies, griddle cakes, crêpes, popovers and frying batters).
In other words, while On Food and Cooking will always remain our go-to source for philosophical conversations on gluten elasticity, this is the McGee we can invite over to weeknight meals. Offer him a glass of wine, ask him a few quick questions, and get on with thickening our soup without the dinner ending up in a curdled mess (“To reduce the risk of curdling, choose recipes that include starch or flour, which help protect proteins from Coagulating and creams from leaking fat.”).
McGee will be at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena on Wednesday, November 10 at 7:00 to talk about the new book.