You may know Harold McGee as the father of modern food science, or maybe as the Curious Cook in New York Times columns on how to make better bread with less kneading or why some of us detest cilantro. As a food writer, I admire him for those things too.
But we share this weird Gilligan’s Island-like bond, since we were marooned along with a group of foodies at the American Chemical Society estate in Baltimore on Sept. 11, 2001.
So when I saw that McGee would be talking about his new book Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Food & Recipes at Omnivore Books in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, I decided to drop by.
He told a packed room he set out to be an astronomer and ended up as a gastronomer after getting to cherry- pick the science classes he wanted at Caltech. His first tome On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is a fascinating exploration of the ways chemistry explains why foods rise and brown – or not – in the kitchen. The new book is organized to be a cooks companion in case you’re trying to figure out how to make a meringue behave.
The best part of the night was the question and answer session. Now that you’ve gotten your head around the Japanese concept of savoriness called umami found in dashi broth, Parmigiano-Reggiano and tomatoes, get ready for its cousin kokumi. The latter is a sort of delicious sensation of mouth-fillingness. McGee says both seem to be related to the breakdown of proteins.
The tongue map you think you know is wrong. We can taste sweet, salty, sour and bitter any place we have taste buds, but there are certain tastes that are more intense on some parts of the tongue.
Think searing a steak or cooking meat in a wet preparation will keep it more moist? Sorry, those are kitchen myths not based in science. Want to know how to ensure a juicy steak, whip up fluffy eggs and moist muffins? For that you have to buy the book.