The Curious Cook

Title: The Curious Cook
Author: Harold McGee
Published: 1990 by North Point Press
ISBN: 0-86547-452-4

I'm all about the science of cooking. I'm a sucker for science in a lot of forms, but cooking is great because you can eat the results. If you like Alton Brown, you'll feel right at home with Harold McGee.

This book is especially interesting if you've read many other cookbooks. The first chapter starts off by debunking a widely held belief that searing a piece of meat somehow seals the juices in. Turns out it's complete Hoo Haw(tm). Experiments show that a seared piece of meat loses more water than non-seared. The real reason to sear is because it tastes good.

My absolute favorite was chapter 6, Buerre Blanc. I had never heard of this wonderful sauce before. What a shame! You start with a little bit of water, usually in the form of vinegar. Put it in a double boiler and slowly add butter about a tablespoon at a time. In no time you'll have a delicious, creamy sauce which is nearly impossible to ruin.

In the chapter, McGee takes apart the sauce and discovers it works because of the small amounts of emulsifiers present in the original cream. Because the process of making butter concentrates it, when you melt the butter back down it's more creamy than cream itself. I tried it out on some chicken cordon bleu and it was like tasting heaven.

The last few chapters took a different tack, and frankly felt like they had beed strung in as filler material. Interesting, but not nearly the same as the rest of the book. One chapter, though, I was able to stay awake through. McGee explains the Maillard reaction and why it is so important. To sum up, by applying heat to protein, you can change its characteristics. The proteins change in different ways so a seared piece of steak takes on a more complex flavor. This is also the principle behind artificial flavors. Interesting, no?


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