Book review: Cooking for Geeks, Second Edition
I've been aware pretty much from the beginning that my mind does not work like other people's. But, like other people, I can learn almost anything, if it is explained to me in a way that makes sense. This is why I so often gripe about the constant complaints that older people "just don't get it," when what the older people really need is a better explanation! What does this have to do with reviewing a cookbook? Cooking for Geeks, Second Edition , is designed to explain cooking to people who think in technical and scientific terms and who are therefore convinced they can't cook because recipes are complicated and cookbooks don't explain things properly. Does it succeed? Read on and find out.
Initializing the cookbook
When I review ed the first edition of this book, I've found that it was fun to read and fun to review and had some darn good recipes, too. What more could a reader ask? Well, for starters, a revised and expanded second edition that's even more fun to read than the first.
You'll find some of the chapter names in this new edition use a little less technical vocabulary, but the content's still aimed at explaining the mysteries of the kitchen to people who are accustomed to the scientific method.
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There's also an impressive list of interviews with people like Adam Savage ("Mythbusters") and Bridget Lancaster ("America's Test Kitchen") and Douglas Baldwin (applied mathematician) and Lydia Walshin (food writer). Those are interspersed throughout the book, providing insights and explanations as needed. There is also a page devoted to each interviewee, laying out his or her credentials and areas of expertise.
The book begins with a table of contents that lists all the recipes. They're separated into categories like "Breakfast" and "Mains," which contain what you might expect, but also "Components & Ingredients," and a "List of Labs" which points the way to the scientific experiments in the book. Want to check out your taste buds, find your perfect cookie, or calibrate your oven or freezer? That's all there, plus much more.
Although the author, Jeff Potter, encourages people to just jump to whatever section of the book appeals to them, I would say, based on experience with cooking-averse family members, that if you're really new to cooking you'd do far better to start with Chapter 1 and read through till you've begun to understand how things work. For most true geeks (which Mr. Potter defines as "smart and curious") this will not take long.
Begin by finding out whether you "think like a geek" (there are instructions) and carry on to defining your kitchen style, how you approach recipes, and dealing with "fear in the kitchen." Even if you are already at ease in the kitchen, reading through this first chapter is definitely worthwhile. Besides, the interview with Adam Savage is in there. Yes, he loves to cook!
Mr. Potter also encourages people to not follow the recipe. I can see his point, but I think this approach works best for people who've had more experience in the kitchen. You can't tell what would be a reasonable way to "wing it" if you've never done anything like it before. Does following recipes kill innovation, as Mr. Potter insists? Not if you're still in the process of learning how to cook from a recipe, at least in my experience (I've been cooking for almost 60 years now). I always follow a recipe exactly—the first time I make it. After that, anything goes. :)
I must admit I laughed when I saw the section about the "3 x 4 Rule of Countertops." I have never in all my life worked in a kitchen that had that much counter space. In fact, the kitchen I've used for the past 20 years doesn't even have one counter with that much space in it.
There is an excellent section that talks about all the equipment you will need for your kitchen. And it doesn't just give you a list; it takes each component (knives, pots, etc) and explains why you need them and how to take care of them. This section alone is worth the price of the book.
On to the science
Once you've read the basics, it's time to move along with the science of cooking and eating. Each chapter starts with a table of contents that shows you what you're going to discover. Here's the listing for Chapter 2.
There's also a list of recipes, a list of "labs" (scientific experiments) and a list of the people who were interviewed for the book.
The recipes might not look appealing when you see the titles, but go ahead and read them. They're there to demonstrate the science and technology that's under discussion, just as much as they're there to help you create something good to eat. You might not want to actually prepare any given dish, but as you read through it you can see how it works to explain what you're learning in that section.
The book starts out by explaining taste. And there's a lot more to it than just "sweet, salty, sour, bitter, savory and hot." There's a chart, for example, that shows which ingredients various culinary traditions use to represent those tastes. Here's a portion of it.
There are also experiments that let the reader investigate the link between taste and smell, using common kitchen ingredients, and the genetic variations that lead some people to react quite differently to various tastes and smells and what makes a "supertaster." That experiment requires some scientific supplies that you'll have to shop for. That's representative of the other labs throughout the book. Some use common ingredients, some require more scientific supplies.
Cooking for Geeks, Second Edition also encourages the reader to move outside his or her comfort zone when it comes to experimenting with unusual ingredients. Some other cookbooks just provide recipes, while this book explains how the ingredients are interrelated. One culture might use one ingredient in the same way another culture uses something different. For example, rice in Asian recipes versus wheat in European recipes. There's another helpful chart that shows common ingredients in a variety of cuisines. Honestly, the charts throughout the book are worth buying it all by themselves.
And there's an excellent section that explains how best to store produce. Some ingredients should not be stored together, some should be stored in colder temperatures, some things get moldy faster than others, and so forth. As someone who's lost her share of fresh produce to mold and mushiness, I really appreciated the gathering of all this information in one place.
I must admit the section called "Computational Flavor Inspiration" was a bit over my head. The author analyzed a lot of recipes to see which ingredients commonly went together and which flavor compounds are chemically similar, and he explains this in scientific terms that will surely delight any chemist. Then there's a lab to challenge the reader:
There's a chapter devoted to the scientific answers to "Is it done yet?" (which will be very useful to the analytical mind) and the factors that are necessary for food to spoil, accompanied by an excellent discourse on food safety in general. Nowadays when it seems like every week we see some kind of food-related illness on the news, knowing how to keep yourself as safe as possible from these things is a definite plus.
I don't want to give away the whole book, because I really would like to encourage everyone to read it for themselves. Even if you do not think you are a geek or if you're sure you're not in the least bit scientific, this book will tell you something interesting that you did not know. I think you will see how Cooking for Geeks, Second Edition is a perfect combination of science and culinary art.
Pros and cons
This second edition of this book is even better than the first. Here are my thoughts, pro and con.
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- Engagingly written by someone who clearly knows both cooking and science
- Recipes designed to demonstrate the principles under discussion
- Experiments designed to make each principle more clear
- Interviews with a wide range of experts, also engagingly written
- Scientific and culinary experimentation is strongly encouraged
- Recipes can be somewhat esoteric. If you're looking for absolute-beginner "How to boil water," this ain't it.
- Some recipes require equipment that is not exactly common in the average kitchen.
- Some of the science and math is at a higher level than some people might find easy to understand.
But, as I said, I would encourage everyone to read Cooking for Geeks, Second Edition for themselves.
Cooking for Geeks, Second Edition is a well-written book that draws the reader in and explains nearly everything in terms anyone can understand. Even if you don't cook a single recipe in it and never thought of science and cooking going hand in hand, you can read this book the same way you'd read any other how-to guide that takes you on a journey of exploration. I plan to hand my copy to someone in my house who has a degree in chemistry and who often gets fuzzled in the kitchen because he's not at ease with recipes. I look forward to seeing the light bulb go on over his head. :)