Kenji's Favorite Straightforward Food Science Books

If you're on the fence about how fun and interesting food science can be, Robert Wolke's pair of books is a good first stop.

The front cover of
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.

Because I skipped an installment earlier this week, today's review includes a pair of books.

This short review ends with the word "toilet." I tell you this only because I myself found it unusual for a review about a food science book to end up in the john. I promise it makes sense.

There are plenty of good books on food for home cooks these days. Here are some we've found the most influential, and hey, I may have even written a decent one myself. But I get it. Thumbing through Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking at the bookstore can make the subject seem a little daunting. There's just so much to know, and how the heck is this going to help me cook better, anyway?

If you're on the fence about the usefulness of food science, or about how fun and interesting it can be, Robert Wolke's pair of books, What Einstein Told His Cook and What Einstein Told His Cook 2: The Sequel, is a good first stop to dip your toes into the precisely measured water.

While some may say that Russ Parsons's How to Read a French Fry is too limited in its scope, or that On Food and Cooking is too erudite, Wolke's books keep it light and easy, despite covering a huge breadth of topics in a definitive manner.

The books are set up in a question-and-answer format that really appeals to me. In fact, these books are the reason why my book, and our series of guides, contains so many lengthy Q&A-based sections. Best of all, these are questions that people really ask. "Does blowing on hot food cool it?" "When I cook with wine or beer, does all the alcohol burn off, or does some remain?" "I know that a calorie is a unit of heat, but why does eating heat make me fat? What if I only ate cold foods?" And so on. Each question is answered in a manner that's personable and relatable, but also authoritative.

What I find really great about both books is their episodic, casual nature. Have a few spare minutes? Just flip to a page and find out what bones contribute to a good stock (collagen, baby!), or what freezer burn actually is (and find out that airtight plastic wrap isn't actually so airtight after all). The book also has recipes that accompany some of the principles they illustrate, though I admit I have not actually followed any of the recipes from the book.

Sure, it'd make a handy kitchen reference, but I see it as much more of an armchair book. If Alton Brown ever invites me to his place for dinner (definitely not a hint), I can imagine walking into his bathroom and seeing a copy of this book on top of the toilet.

You can buy What Einstein Told His Cook and What Einstein Told His Cook 2: The Sequel here.