Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Culinary Laboratory

By Pableaux Johnson

JULY 13, 1998:  As a general rule, experienced cooks don't deal very well with questions that start with the word "why." Any novice who has ever asked her mother, "Why do you sauté those onions?" in mid-recipe gets the traditional reply: a confused look, a moment of thought, then finally some variation of the age-old response, "You just do, that's why."

That's because generally a cook's education on the home-recreational level, at least is based on experience and repetition rather than scientific understanding. When your grandmother learned how to bake bread, odds are she didn't understand fundamental wheat gluten dynamics or the fermentation rate of baker's yeast. More likely, she started off with a more or less dependable recipe, botched a few batches along the way, and gradually tailored the recipe's variables (ingredient proportions, cooking times, etc.) to her own liking. The underlying reactions are far less important than the smell, texture, and taste of the final product.

But in recent years, the science behind the recipes generally taught in cooking schools has been getting more play in general interest cookbooks and the instructional food press. More and more, the secrets to fluffy biscuits and smooth vinaigrettes are being explained as simple acid/base reactions and simple stabilized emulsions.

It would seem that what newer cooks lack in hands-on experience, they make up for in "book learnin'." Even if you haven't logged years of kitchen time, you can learn about food using knowledge left over from those long-forgotten high school science courses. Even if it's been 20 years since Mr. Kowalski's deadly dull chemistry class or the dissections of Intermediate Plant Biology, you'll still remember enough to make a better pie crust or avoid severe freezer burn.

The following food science books a mix of classic texts and newer cookbooks streamline the culinary learning process in a range of teaching styles. All you need to do is choose an instructor from the list below and you can learn all those secrets that your grandmother learned from scratch.

And the best part? None of the content will be on the final. But with any luck, it may end up on your dinner table, so be sure to take good notes.

The Scientist

A good balance of technical explanations and food history, Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (Fireside Books, $21) is for folks who aren't afraid of straight science: molecular diagrams, cellular scans of fermenting beer, and the like. McGee describes, often in excruciating detail, every aspect of common kitchen ingredients (the egg's protein structures in the common egg) and common preparation methods (cellular effects of broiling, frying, etc.). There's no mistaking On Food and Cooking for a cookbook historical recipes are used to illustrate changing dietary patterns over the centuries but it's an easy-to-read reference work for experienced cooks or readers who managed to stay awake through most of high-school chem lab.

The Storyteller

Equal parts cookbook and science text, Shirley O. Corriher's CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking (William Morrow & Company, $27.50) actually makes the complex science of food preparation readable and easy to follow. Writing in an informal conversational style, Corriher synthesizes complex chemistry and common-sense kitchen tips, using specific recipes to illustrate her points. CookWise contains helpful troubleshooting tables ("Pastry Faults") and stories of her epiphanies as cook and scientist. Unlike the straightforward scientific approach of McGee, Corriher manages to explain the principles of food chemistry as if she were your grandmother's likable neighbor who just happens to have a background in applied biochemistry.

The Test Cook

There are some cooks whose quest for the best cobbler or roast turkey goes well beyond obsession, and, as far as I can tell, they all work at Cook's Illustrated magazine. Anyone familiar with the publication's "try it a million ways" approach will appreciate the work that executive editor Pam Anderson has put into her book The Perfect Recipe: The Ultimate, Hands-Down Best Way to Cook Our Favorite Foods (Houghton Mifflin, $27). Organized around specific dishes (Everyday Classics, Special Dinners, etc.) rather than general principles, The Perfect Recipe describes Anderson's hands-on search for recipes that consistently cook up to her excruciating standards. Notes on the author's meticulous testing (batch after batch after batch) connect her different recipes and also provide ample opportunity for explanation of simplified food science. Though it's less comprehensive than the preceding two selections, Anderson's book is a good bet for project-oriented cooks or folks who know exactly what they want.

The French Teacher

As founder of a Massachusetts cooking school, Madeleine Kamman is more of a teacher than a scientist, and it shows in this huge beast of a book (1,224 pages), The New Making of a Cook (William Morrow & Company, $40). Subtitled "The Art, Techniques, and Science of Cooking," The New Making adds some elementary science to Kamman's rather comprehensive Continental cooking curriculum (designed, apparently, for everyone from home cooks to mid-sized restaurateurs). Kamman sneaks in explanations of general principles among her detailed recipes, technique illustrations, and discussions of everything from shopping tips to wine culture.

The Answer Man

Finally, we get to the most straightforward book in the group, Howard Hillman's Kitchen Science: A Compendium of Essential Information for Every Cook (Houghton Mifflin, $13.95). In form and readability, Kitchen Science resembles the simple Weekly Reader books from grade school, updated for the true leisure reader. Arranged in question-and-answer format, the book covers everything from simple queries ("How does yeast leaven bread?") to truly complicated puzzles ("Why is the butter of America inferior to that of France for making pâté feuilletee [puff paste]?"). But the main attraction of this book is its accessibility; once you pick it up, you end up reading 30 questions before you realize it. And in doing so, you learn a lot about food (and science) without really noticing it. Besides, there's a certain pleasure in seeing simple questions answered directly. Come to think of it, this may be the perfect gift for your mother.

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