Kitchen Mysteries - Revealing the Science of Cooking (Anglais) Broché – 6 août 2010
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In the first couple of chapters of this new translation from the 1993 original in French (Secrets de la Casserole), This introduces some basics of cooking and discusses the sensations of eating, debunking the 90-year-old four-tastes theory. Afterward, this book can be dipped into at any point. It has chapters on basic ingredients (milk, eggs, etc.), on cooking methods (steaming, braising, etc.), on souffles, pastries, and breads--everywhere (not surprisingly) emphasizing French cooking. The second-to-last chapter on kitchen utensils is also essential reading, and the last chapter highlights kitchen mysteries yet unsolved.
For someone with some scientific background, this book occasionally comes across as patronizing. I liked, though, his explanation of evaporational cooling: to summarize, the water molecules that escape (i.e., evaporate) from the surface of the liquid must have a lot of energy--more energy than the typical molecules left behind--leaving behind liquid that has a lower temperature.
There are a couple of minor scientific mistakes: limonene, and not the mirror image, is in fact the relevant molecule in lemons (p. 28); and the record-holding temperature that the physicist Nicholas Kurti achieved was a millionth of a degree above, not below, absolute zero (p. 95). The translation from French may also be faulty on page 30, where he says that "we see a smoke, not vapor" above a soup--"fog" or "mist" probably being intended rather than "smoke."
Overall, this book is fun to read and full of interesting information. It is a good introduction for anyone interested in cooking or how things work. But for those with a deeper interest, Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (which This frequently echoes) is a better choice and a more thorough reference.
This' eye-opening book is all about molecules and atoms in motion and what things like heat, moisture, acid and fat do to transform them into succulent meals - or into fallen soufflés, tasteless pot roasts, and rubbery eggs.
After a brief overview concerning the physiology of taste and the basics of saucepan chemistry, This concentrates on various common ingredients and techniques - milk, eggs, sugar, wine, steaming, braising, frying, sauces, salads, pastry - to name a few. We know that oil and water do not mix, and that microwaved beef is gray and unappetizing. This explains why.
He then goes on to show us how to whip up the perfect hollandaise or mayonnaise, and how to keep the succulence in beef. While the microwave plays no part in this last, This is enthusiastic about this appliance and shows us how to use it properly for making caramel, reheating vegetables and - producing a Cointreau-infused duck a l'orange!
This is witty and humorous and sprinkles his clear and effervescent prose with bons mots from such brilliants as Escoffier, Harold McGee and the great Brillat-Savarin. Readers (like me) whose eyes glaze over at the very mention of electrons may find themselves becoming entranced by This' graceful descriptions of essential chemical reactions.
He explains when and why to salt and answers numerous questions, i.e., why soup cools when you blow on it, why babies shouldn't eat sausage, why use so much oil for deep-frying.
Crisply organized, This' compact volume ends with a glossary of cooking and chemistry terms. The first entry is:
"AAAH: The cry of delight guests utter when the first dish arrives. The sleight of hand responsible for the most beautiful `aaahs' cannot be explained in terms of physical chemistry."
Whether or not you like this book probably depends on your personality. As a detail-oriented engineer, I found myself frequently frustrated by his incomplete and ambiguous explanations that often followed glowing promises to reveal treasured secrets.
Just for example, his section titled "How Can We Not Spill the Tea When Pouring It?" explained the phenomena of dribbling spouts with a mediocre desription of the Bernoulli effect causing a decrease of pressure on the underside of the spout. (That's what gives lift to an airplane wing, isn't it?) He doesn't say anything about choosing a spout of a particular shape nor my grandmother's trick of wiping a smear of butter under the spout. More to the point, he never answers the question he posed!
Little incoherencies like the above example drove me crazy, but another reader of different temperment might just sail on by and enjoy the illusion of having learned something useful.
He does give some practical cooking advice, and his scientific explanations hint at the reasons. It just seems like there is some slight disconnect between them, and I wondered whether it related to the translation from French (which sometimes shows trivial irritants like wrong verb tenses).
I don't disagree with any of the reviews, even the 5 stars, but I'm glad I borrowed this from the library and will put my money on buying a copy of McGee instead.
Of course, as a gourmand, Herve This is not immune to waxing rhapsodic about the taste benefits of butter, or a good seared roast, or of salt or alcohol. This is not a nutrition book! It is a book about French cuisine as traditionally practiced - things are fried in butter, stock is created by boiling bones, salt is studied as a necessary ingredient (it's not whether salt should be added, but when), and fatty animal cuts are praised because flavenoids are located in fat, not the protein of the actual meat. Fortunately, he gives rational explanations for these things - e.g. flavenoids are hydrophobic and prefer oils/fats rather than polar locations such as water or proteins.
Perhaps most useful for the aspiring chef are the chapters on sauces and thickening agents. A number of thickening agents are investigated, and age-old questions such as why it's fatal to a meringue of egg whites to have any yolk contamination are explained. He even gives tips on repairing failed recipes (if your mayonnaise curdles, or if your gravy fails to thicken). All the time it's based on the molecular structure of the materials making up the food(s). That's not to say that there isn't some "art" involved - his chapter on jams is especially interesting, as he describes an experiment where jams are tested based on differences in consistency (with the same taste) or colour (again with the same taste). His results confirm that many sensations - colour, texture, odour - will affect the enjoyment of a food, and that human beings are remarkably similar in their preferences (e.g. brighter-coloured vegetables are always considered more "tastey", as is slightly runny jam).
So if I enjoyed the book, and learned from it, why only a 3-star review? Well, mainly because the book tends to repetition (and therefore is a little dull). Beaten egg whites make many appearances, and the same information is imparted each time. Presumably this is a choice made by the author, who divided the book into short, self-contained chapters. (but because each chapter is self-contained, material will be repeated) Part of it may also be because it's a translation. And there are some minor errors in the science in places (perhaps deliberate for readability). Overall, though, it was a fun book, and it has some good advice.
It isn't about healthy foods (even if there are some good healthy cooking hints) and it isn't about quick cooking (even if there are some interesting suggestions about how, for example, render the microwaved food better tasting).
The two biggest shortcomings in my opinion are a truly lame index and too much quoting from the old masters. Even if I prefer Italian cooking, I can forgive his French cooking slant.
I consider the shortcomings negligible, and thus I stick to 5 stars.