On Food and Cooking (Harold McGee) – A book review

If I could recommend just one book to someone interested to learn more about food & science, it would be On Food and Cooking (affiliate link), by Harold McGee. It is more of an encyclopedia than anything and covers such a wide range of topics. I would say that I used it for at least half of the articles on the website, whether it’s as a starting point or to look up something specific. So let’s have a look and tell you some more about this book which I’m sure will make any food scientist very happy.

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The author: Harold McGee

On Food and Cooking is not a brand new book, Harold McGee published the first version back in 1984. At the time he was a literature and writing instructor at Yale University. He wasn’t a chef, and this might have been one of the reasons why he was able to write the book. Someone from the culinary arts might have stuck with the more traditional cookbook.

Ever since he has been immersed in the world of food writing and education. He has had a column for the New York Times (called Curious Cook), taught at various schools, including Harvard and has written for a wide variety of publications. On Food and Cooking literally opened up a whole world for him.

In 2004 he published  a greatly revised and updated edition of On food and Cooking. It’s the version we’ll be discussing here. A quick side note here, Harold McGee has a great blog as well. He doesn’t write a lot of new posts anymore, but just sifting through the archives is great (e.g. one about sugar caramelization).

Encyclopedia of Food

Food Science is so extremely broad, it covers meat and apples, marshmallow and herbs. The chemistry and physics behind them vary widely as do the production processes and the ways the foods are grown. And that is what makes this book so incredible, it manages to cover just about all topics relevant to food science as relevant to chefs and home cooks. The only part that is less extensively covered is the industrial aspect, scaling up production. That said though, it does again consist of the same basic chemistry and physics and uses the same core ingredients.

15 Chapters

The book (the 2004 version) is split up into 15 chapters, each covering a large group of products. For instance, there’s a chapter on dairy, on one vegetables, fruits, sauces, alcoholic drinks, meat, etc. The last chapter is the one least like all the others, covering some basics on the world of chemistry and molecules in food.

Taking a look at one chapter: dairy

With over 800 pages the book contains a wealth of knowledge. Let’s have a look at just one chapter as an example, the chapter on dairy. This chapter, like all others, is again split up in various sections. In the case of dairy, the chapter starts with the animals that make dairy, discusses nutritional aspects and then zooms in on the chemistry and biology of milk. The next few sections discuss the science of all major products made with milk: unfermented products (e.g. butter, ice cream), fermented products (e.g. yogurt & sour cream) as well as cheese. Of course, the book isn’t exhaustive, it doesn’t cover the in-depth science of milk (there are 800 page books just on dairy!). Instead, it covers the basics in a way that is both understandable for the non-food scientist and is interesting for the food scientist. It is a great point to start your search or to look up something new.
on food and cooking sneak peek 1
Sneak peek of the inside of On Food and Cooking.

Few illustrations

The book doesn’t contain any photos. It does contain illustrations throughout the book, whether it’s to show the inside of a jalapeno pepper (p. 419) or almond (p. 506) or to schematically show how long fibrous molecules behave. Since the articles are quite concise, you don’t really need a lot more illustrations. What I also like are the flow charts (who doesn’t like those?) that show production processes in a simple overview. It helps to understand how things are done.

Discovering new things

In all honesty, this isn’t really a nightstand book. It’s not a book you would read from front to book. Instead, you would read those sections you’d be interested in. Another great way to use the book though, is to get inspiration for random topics. As an example, I just flipped the book open and landed on page 230. On this page McGee happens to be talking about sea urchins! Here’s what I learned: sea urchins are added to scrambled eggs in France (!), whereas Japanese tend to eat them raw. They mostly consists of a mineralized plates with hefty spikes which protect the golden creamy texture inside.

Overall evaluation

On Food and Cooking (affiliate link) is great for those with a broad range of interests when it comes to food science. I think it’s both great for food bloggers, students or professionals in the kitchen. It’s also easy to understand for those with a limited background in the sciences (or for whom that’s been a long time ago). If you’re looking for recipes though, this is not the book for you. The book focuses on discussing ingredients, processes and how things could be used. It does not give you any recipes (with a few exceptions), instead, it gives you the knowledge to better understand your recipes! Looking for more books? Have a look at our books review page.

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