The Food Lab's Reading List, Day 2: On Food and Cooking

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

I don't remember exactly when I got my first copy of On Food and Cooking, the seminal food science tome by Harold McGee, but I do know that it is, has been, and will probably always be the most important, most referenced, and and most cherished book in my library. My copy lost its dust jacket long ago. The spine is torn off. There is a forest of crinkled Post-it notes lining its edges. The bottom corner of every page is stained red from that time I fell asleep reading it in the bath.

Alton Brown has called it "the Rosetta Stone of the culinary world," but that doesn't quite do it justice. McGee didn't simply translate the history and science of the kitchen into lay terms; he collected, translated, collated, and rewrote hundreds of primary research documents into the most complete and useful collection of cooking science ever conceived.

Want to know precisely what chemical it is that makes cinnamon taste like cinnamon? It's in there, on page 425. Or at what temperature the ovalbumin in your egg whites begins to coagulate? Check the chart on page 77. Ever wonder about the growth cycle of a blueberry (a true berry) and how it differs from strawberries (hint—the "seeds" on a strawberry are in fact entire dried fruits themselves, while the "berry" part is the swollen base of the strawberry flower)? See page 360.

Before McGee wrote this book, in 1984, food science was relegated to the realms of industrial production and laboratories. McGee took that information and brought it into the world of the practical. He transformed it into something that cooks, both professional and amateur, could learn and apply to their craft. Not only that, but he managed to strike the perfect balance between approachable and authoritative. It's written in a style entertaining enough that it makes for a good way to kill an hour in the bath, but detailed enough that you don't feel like it's written for dummies, which too many pop science books seem to do.

It's no exaggeration to say that without this book, my career would have taken an astonishingly different trajectory. On Food and Cooking proved not only that science can help us understand and cook our food better, but that there's a wide audience of folks, cooks and non-cooks alike, who are interested in reading about this kind of stuff. Alton Brown, Heston Blumenthal, Nathan Myhrvold, Wylie Dufresne, Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot—all of them have walked down the trail that McGee blazed (and expanded it).

I believe that we're currently in the golden age of food science, at least as it applies to home and restaurant cooking. But even if you're eager to learn about the whys behind the hows, I'm not gonna lie: On Food and Cooking is approachable but dense, and compared to modern food science books, it can be a little difficult to figure out exactly how to apply the lessons learned from it in your everyday cooking. There are no recipes (other than for historical context), and there are no simple "do this to get that"–style instructions. On Food and Cooking is like a bag filled with every Lego shape you could ever want, but it's up to you to figure out what you want to build.

You can buy On Food and Cooking here.