Book review of McGee on Food & Cooking by Harold McGee cookbook Restaurants, Wine, Travel, Opinions

McGee on Food & Cooking by Harold McGee HeartHeartHeart
Book - Reference

Reviewed By

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane

The release of the much anticipated rewrite of McGee on Food & Cooking by Harold McGee shows how much the understanding of food chemistry has progressed over the recent past. We now have an encyclopaedia devoted entirely to the chemistry and behaviour of food.
This is a massive work that is organised by product rather than by alphabetic topic. The chapters range from an analysis of dairy products to eggs, to meat to fish and shellfish (suggested by the late Alan Davidson even before the release of the first edition) through to surveys of common fruits and vegetables and then on to grains, sugars, drinks and cooking methods. Finally there is a short chapter on the four basic food molecules followed by a short primer on chemistry which we found useful to read before delving into the remainder of the book.
There is also a seventeen page list of references that contain an invaluable guide to other reading the inquisitive may delve into.
To get a sense of the way in which he tells such a clear story about food, consider this short excerpt from the first main chapter on dairy products:
"There are dozens of different proteins floating around in milk. When it comes to cooking behavior, fortunately, we can reduce the protein to two basic groups: Little Miss Muffet's curds and whey. The two groups are distinguished by their reaction to acids. The handful of curd proteins, the caseins, clump together in acid conditions and form a solid mass, or coagulate, while all the rest, the whey proteins, remain suspended in the liquid. It's the clumping nature of the caseins that makes possible most thickened milk products, from yoghurt and cheese."
This is a simple and elegant explanation of a somewhat complex process. He then goes on to impart the vital information that it is the whey proteins that unfold and coagulate to stabilise the milk foams on our cappuccinos - a vital element of today's lifestyle!
In this chapter he also tackles one of our favourite topics - that of fermentation of lactic products. This is a topic of great interest to us as it is an energy efficient means by which those in poorer cultures can preserve food for later use without the need for expensive equipment required for other preservation methods such as freezing and canning.
He begins the discussion with a lovely sentence:
"One of the remarkable qualities of milk is that it invites its own preservation."
Milk attracts bacteria that chomp away on the sugars contained within and convert them into preserving lactic acids. He then leads us through the production of sour cream, yoghurt and other important preserved products such as the delightful crème fraiche.
Each subsequent chapter deals with topic after topic in immense detail. Whether you want to know about storing meat or the preservation of fish through freezing then McGee tackles the topic.
We wouldn't like to give the impression that the book is only an analysis of chemical reactions. One of the strongest features is the emphasis on the best cooking techniques that arise from an understanding of the underlying chemistry.
There is also a lovely vignette devoted to the production of tea and how the enzymes are released by gentle rolling and exposure to the air to reduce the effect of the bitter phenolic compounds such as catechins and the difference in treatment of black, oolong and green teas.
The area we were keen to explore was to try to work out McGee's reaction to some of the important questions about food safety that go to the heart of the way food is produced using poisons and genetic modification. He seems to straddle the fence on this issue in his section titled "Genetic Engineering and Food". Given that a reported 75% of all processed food in the United States now contains genetically modified substances it is unlikely that he is going to be predisposed to be too strident.
This is a book that you simply have to have. It is scholarly, witty, deeply thoughtful and instructive.
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