Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food
by Jeff Potter
O’Reilly Media, 2010
We have entered the time of year during which finding The Perfect Gift for family members and friends can become something of an obsession. Therefore, in coming days, I’ll be sharing some recommendations.
If you have family members and friends on your gifting list who are interested in science or interested in food (or interested in both science and food), then Cooking for Geeks is a book to give them that will have an impact that lingers for much longer on the palate than your run-of-the-mill book.
Partly this is because Cooking for Geeks is organized more like a manual (with sections on equipment, “inputs”, relevant variables for different cooking methods, etc.) than a linear narrative. Indeed, the book is also an astounding collection of fun things to try, whether with ingredients, cooking methods, equipment, or your own taste buds. There are at least a hundred science fair project ideas lurking within these 432 pages — although good luck to the kid who tries to pry this book away from the grown-ups, who will want to try the potential experiments themselves. Jeff Potter’s clear and engaging descriptions of issues like the chemistry and mechanics of leavening, strategies for adapting the kitchen equipment you have to perform the tasks you want to perform, or ways to avoid foodborne illness are interspersed with his interviews with food geeks of various sorts sharing their expertise, their recipes, and their enthusiasm for digging deeper and learning why things work the way they do. Basically, it’s almost a transcript of what I imagine would be the geekiest dinner party ever, and an invitation to recreate a piece of it in your own kitchen with your own friends.
There is so much good stuff in here that it’s actually a bit overwhelming. Here’s a tasting-menu of some of my favorite features:
A lovely feature of this book is that it makes no assumptions about the reader’s level of comfort or competence in the kitchen. Rather, it presents food and cooking as a realm where the newbie can learn some important principles (that also happen to be cool) and where the experienced cook can learn even more. Maybe the experienced cook has a larger store of “common wisdom,” but Potter puts lots of that common wisdom to empirical test to see just how wise it is. Moreover, the newbie may be in a better position to violate recipes and use methods “the wrong way” to discover what happens when you do.
As well, Cooking for Geeks makes no assumptions about just what kind of geek the reader might be. There is certainly a lot of real chemistry, physics, and engineering in this book (not to mention a healthy dose of biology), but all of it is presented in an accessible way, inviting the reader who is not (for example) a chemistry geek to use food as a reason to start taking chemistry more seriously.
Cooking for Geeks would make a fabulous gift for a curious person who’s interested in food or cooking. It pairs nicely with Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate and a quad-ruled notebook.