Review: Keys to Good Cooking

MC / December 31, 2010

Harold McGee is one of the pioneers of the idea that science informs us about how cooking works. His master work is On Food and Cooking, first published in 1984 and then reissued in revised form in 2004. Food writer Michael Ruhlman has written that “On Food and Cooking is, in my opinion, hands down the most important book about food and cooking ever written.” It’s hard to disagree because the idea that science has utility for a chef is a theme that has driven a lot of modern cuisine.

Harold McGee

That said, On Food and Cooking isn’t a cookbook; it doesn’t cover tips or techniques. The book focuses instead on the science (primarily chemistry) that drives many aspects of cooking. Although the book contains implicit lessons for the chef, and for anyone who has curiosity about how things work, it doesn’t offer much in the way of explicit guidelines.

McGee remedies this omission with his most recent book, Keys to Good Cooking, published in October 2010 by Penguin Press. This new work focuses exclusively on the tips and tricks that can transform an ordinary dish into something extraordinary.

Keys to Good Cooking

Keys to Good Cooking

Previous books on culinary tricks have tended to suffer from what I call the “always or never” phenomenon. Chef A’s book says “in order to have a good result, you must always do X.” Meanwhile, Chef B is equally insistent that “one should never do X”, sometimes even as it discusses the very same dish. Who should you believe?

In other cases, the chefs agree on the proper technique and proclaim that “you should always do X, because of reason Y”, yet the reason given is easily seen to be false. Does that mean that you should or shouldn’t do technique X? Again, it is unclear what to believe.

The great thing about Keys to Good Cooking is that McGee is exactly the sort of person that you’d want to sort out these sticky issues and get to the real truth. He does this for trick after trick, creating an engaging work that will be useful to any serious home cook or chef.


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