“Baking is a science. Cooking is an art.” The next time you hear some pompous nitwit trot out this shopworn platitude smile politely and hand them a copy of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Drawing a blank? It’s only one of the most important food books ever written: 800-plus pages documenting the history, poetry, linguistics, cooking techniques and, yes, science, of all the victuals in this great smorgasbord world. Every professional chef has a dog-eared copy of McGee’s “food bible” close at hand, stuffed with enough Post-It notes to annotate a Robert Caro manuscript. In 1984, Time hailed this cuisine de opus as “a minor masterpiece.” OFC has been a required textbook at the Culinary Institute of America for the past two decades.
Without Harold McGee there would be no molecular gastronomy movement, and no celebrity chefs like Ferran Adria and Wylie Dufresne whipping up dishes with liquid nitrogen and centrifuges. Christopher Kimball and his dour band of elves on America’s Test Kitchen wouldn’t exist. The same goes for Alton Brown’s mad scientist shtick over at Food Network. The most profound influence McGee has had, though, is on the no-frills chow that ordinary people consume every day: Western omelettes at roadside diners, jerk chicken served out of food trucks, even the steaks at Sizzler. The reason this food tastes better today is because McGee has applied science to cooking and debunked stubborn kitchen myths along the way. Searing meat, for instance, does not seal in juices. And simmering a tomato sauce slowly makes it more watery — not less. Forget everything you know about cooking. Most of it’s wrong anyway. Rene Chun checks in with McGee for a few quick pointers.
In cooking, freshness is everything. This goes double for fish. Why? Because fish swim in cold water and their biochemical makeup is far less forgiving than that of livestock. The only way to combat this rapid tissue deterioration is to keep your fish super chilled. Be proactive, says McGee. Even the best fishmongers won’t bother to double bag and ice $30 a pound sea bass. Insist on it. If it’s a warm day, he suggests that you bring along a small ice chest to maintain the chill. Additionally, a whole fish is always preferable. If you must buy fillets, rinse them with water when you get home to remove the outer layer of oxidized cells. One more McGee caveat: “Fish proteins firm up and denature at lower temperatures than meat proteins. So cook at a lower heat than usual.”
Toys of the Trade
Most kitchen gizmos are rubbish. After all, does the world really need square eggs or “holy toast” (toast branded with an image of the Virgin Mary)? One thing it most certainly does need, though, is a thermometer that looks like a ray gun from Forbidden Planet. McGee is a big fan of what are known as “infrared, non-contact, point-and-shoot thermometers.” In his most recent book, Keys to Good Cooking, he extols their kitchen utility. They’re ideal for checking the surface temperature of frying pans, pizza stones, deep-frying oils, refrigerators, and freezers, he explains. How to cook the perfect steak? Easy. Don’t put the meat in the skillet until its precisely 450 F. Crave the perfect 3-minute egg? Since the yolk coagulates at 150 F and white at 145 to 180 F, you have to “hit the sweet spot” (145 F). Is your griddle “pancake ready?” Pancakes griddle best between 350 and 370 F. Anyone who cooks with Teflon and values their health should own one of these newfangled toys. “Teflon and other fluorocarbon coatings decompose into toxic gases at temperatures above 500 F,” says McGee.
Shop in the Shade
You’re shopping at a green market and purchase the kind of exquisite-looking produce that would bring a tear to the eye of Alice Waters. It’s only much later, when the gentleman farmers are back home checking their stock portfolios, that you discover these organic, heirloom goodies look better than they taste. What happened? “Fresh produce looks beautiful on a bright summer day, but all that solar heat and U.V. light causes damage,” explains McGee. “If it’s really hot, the produce will literally wilt from dehydration.” Solution: arrive at the market early and avoid any food stalls without canopies. Shade alone, however, won’t guarantee freshness. In particular, beware of vendors slinging produce beneath colored cloth. It’s a cheap trick. “A red canopy will make tomatoes appear much riper than they really are,” explains McGee. “Step out from under the canopy and hold one in the natural light to see exactly what you’re buying.”
Nothing has ruined more meals in the history of mankind than recipes. Amateur cooks place far too much faith in them. Ever wonder why your uncle’s bouillabaisse is so salty? It’s because he’s cooking with table salt, which is twice as dense as flaky kosher salt (2 tbsp. kosher salt = 1 tbsp. table salt). Then there’s the fluid nature of cooking temperature. In a perfect world, an oven set at 400 F would heat to 400 F. But many ovens don’t, including fancy ones imported from Europe that cost as much as a Honda Civic. Hot spots can also be a problem, suggests McGee, resulting in over- and undercooked food. (When in doubt, rotate the pan.) Cooking times will also vary with temperature. Keep in mind that convection ovens cook food 20 percent faster; adjust your recipe accordingly. “A recipe is only a rough guideline,” says McGee. “The key is to keep tasting and observing as you cook. Recipes are for inspiration — not duplication.”