Keys to Good Cooking

Anyone who is serious about cooking has a copy of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. It’s the CRC of the kitchen (calling it the bible of the kitchen is insulting to information resources), and, like the CRC, it goes largely unread until a particular problem needs to be solved. I have resolved to read the entire book from cover to cover, but it’s slow going: it’s so information dense that I can only manage a dozen pages in one sitting.

McGee is famous for debunking the myth “sear meat to seal in the juices.” The idea, first popularized in 1850 by Justus von Leibig, was disproved before 1900 and then again in the 1930s. Alton Brown has demonstrated it on Good Eats, and J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of The Food Lab has provided controlled experimental evidence in support of the searing fallacy. Yet, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, the myth persists. Take, for example, this introduction to a recipe by Eric Ripert from his recent cookbook, Avec Eric: A Culinary Journey with Eric Ripert:

This recipe was inspired by my visit to Tuscany and the flavors of the autumn season that were so prevalent while I was there. Searing the pork loin to lock in the juices keeps the meat moist, and the rich pan sauce is made using the drippings from the roasted pork along with the earthy mushrooms. I like to put the garlic cloves in the pan with their skins still on so they sort of roast inside their case; the result is tender roasted garlic.

I don’t think for a minute that Ripert actually believes that nonsense – he didn’t become a Michelin four-start chef by being misinformed in the kitchen – but the person who wrote the color commentary for his recipes is certainly misinformed.

Which brings me to McGee’s new book, Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes. It distills On Food and Cooking into a series of practical techniques and tips that you can use in the kitchen, organized by topic, as seen in the photo above. It’s just as informationally dense as its predecessor, but manages to convert a lot of basic science into culinary guidelines. The introduction alone provided me with key information I used before cooking my Thanksgiving turkey:

Here’s an example of how I hope you’ll use this book. Let’s say Thanksgiving is coming up, you haven’t roasted a turkey since last Thanksgiving, and you’ve seen a recipe for brining the turkey to keep it moist. You might start by looking at the introduction to cooking meat on p. 238:

No matter what you read in recipes or hear pronounced by people who should know, keep these simple truths in mind:

  • Searing meat does not seal in its juices, and moist cooking methods do not make meats moist.
  • Meat overcooks quickly. Low heat slows cooking and gives you the greatest control over doneness.
  • Most recipes can’t predict cooking times.

Then you could read the sumary of brining pros and cons on p. 246:

…Brine selectively. Brines have drawbacks: they dilute the meat’s own flavorful juices with tap water, and usually make the pan juices to salty for deglazing into a sauce.

And then you could look at the basics of roasting birds, which begin this way on p. 258:

…Don’t stuff the body cavity or rely on a pop-up thermometer.

And that was just the introduction. My entire Thanksgiving game plan was laid out for me in a few paragraphs, which I followed to the letter, resulting in a perfect turkey. Notice that McGee managed to slip in the searing reference again, something that I suspect will wind up as his epitaph.

I still plan on finishing On Food and Cooking someday, but I’m temporarily setting it aside  for Keys to Good Cooking. It might still take a few months to work through, but the payoff in terms of my cooking will be much greater.

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