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 hands-on way to compare the levels of gluten in different kinds of flour (page 220).
  • Discussions of different culinary solvents, including the use of alcohol and water to isolate different compounds from the same raw materials in a bitters recipe (page 296), and the use of "fat-washing" alcohols (page 292).
  • An algorithm to optimize your cutting of a cake into not-neccesarily-equal slices in such a way as to satisfy the desires of N people hoping to get a slice of that cake (page 257).
  • An examination of factors relevant to the multiplication of bacteria in our food, shedding some light on what makes the "shelf-stable" items in the pantry less deadly than they might otherwise be -- plus an exhortation to remember basic physics when deciding how to safely store foods in the refrigerator (page 162).
  • A discussion of why marshmallows made with methylcellulose melt when they are cooled rather than when they are heated (pages 316-317), including a recipe so you can try this at home.
  • A graph (page 159) comparing cooking methods by rate of heat transfer (plotting minutes to raise the center of uniform pieces of tofu 54 oC versus the temperature of the cooking environment). There's something about a good graph that is deeply satisfying.
  • An examination why it matters what the bowl is made of when you're whisking egg whites in it (page 253), as well as recipes for French Meringue and Italian Meringue which discuss why a slight difference in method can lead to a pronounced difference in texture (page 255).
  • In the eternal batter between weight and volume, a persuasive empirical case for measuring ingredients by weight (page 62).
  • Lots of discussion of the five primary tastes (bitter, sour, umami, sweet, and salty), including charts with suggestions on what to add to a dish to increase each of them -- and another chart with suggestions for how to counteract a primary taste with which you've gone too far (page 115).
  • A discussion of the basis vectors for wine-food pairings and how to isolate them empirically (using lemon juice, sugar water, tea, and vodka) to taste your dish and figure out what kind of wine will go well with it. (page 89)
  • The recipes for crepes (pages 68-69), pumpkin cake (page 249), and chocolate panna cotta that uses agar rather than gelatin (page 311).
  • Suggestions for compounds you can play with (including lactisole, miraculin, and the humble Peppermint Lifesaver) that will mess with your taste receptors in interesting ways (pages 109-110).

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.