So this works because you add an acid to a base...
December 31, 2009 1:13 PM   Subscribe

Looking for books teaching the principles of cooking.

Among my circle of friends, I'm a pretty decent cook (if it matters, I'm early 20s, female, college student). Thing is, usually for those get-together endeavours I pull up recipes from the internet, add/improvise as I see fit, and it usually turns out well.

However, said improvisation is usually because my kitchen is limited in ingredients/tools and not because I understand how to substitute one ingredient for another. While there are very celebrated recipe books out there (The Joy of Cooking is the first that comes to mind, among others), I'm more looking for books that teaches the principles behind cooking: how to complement notes and flavours, acids to bases, or whatever. (And as a chemistry student IRL, I'm doubly interested in what makes recipes work in the chemical sense.) My relatives are all more of the 'this works because it does' school and thus can't really teach me why a certain recipe works the way it does.

My boyfriend got me Alton Brown's Good Eats: The Early Years for Christmas, which I thought was fantastic--it explained a lot about where certain foods came from (I had seriously never known what the cuts of beef were called. No joke), but again, not really too much on how the principles of complementing flavours work. Or the theory of how cutting dry ingredients into wet is different from just blending the heck out of it with a blender. Basically, I'm looking for books that'd teach me the why and the how, and not recipes towards one particular cuisine or type. Baking, stir-frying, whatever--it's all good, as long as the theory's there.

So, hit me, MeFites! And thanks in advance. =)
posted by Hakaisha to Food & Drink (36 answers total) 102 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should also add: anything that teaches principles behind techniques (like aforementioned blending vs. cutting) as well as principles behind complementing flavours, textures, and etc. will all be welcome.
posted by Hakaisha at 1:15 PM on December 31, 2009


The Improvisational Cook

(Caveat: I haven't tried these and can't vouch for them. But they seem to be what you're looking for.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:17 PM on December 31, 2009

Shirley O. Corriher is your girl. I recommend her book BakeWise from experience, but I have a good feeling about CookWise too.

Also, get Harold McGee's fantastic On Food and Cooking as soon as you possibly can. McGee is a hero and a scientist.
posted by purpleclover at 1:21 PM on December 31, 2009

On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee is what you looking for. There is even a chapter on chemistry for those of us who are little rusty on our chemistry. This book is amazing, for example I'm reading the chapter on milk, it even has a figure showing the how casein proteins and whey proteins are suspended in the solution.
posted by Carius at 1:21 PM on December 31, 2009

If you like his style, Alton Brown has two books that are more about general principles. I'm Just Here for the Food, which is principally about cooking meat, and I'm Just Here for More Food, which is about baking. Both discuss the whys behind the how.
posted by jedicus at 1:22 PM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

How To Cook Everything has some good sections in the beginning of each chapter about WHY you need to cook certain cuts of meat/vegetables/etc. in certain ways, before you get into the recipes.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:22 PM on December 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

You should keep your eye on thisAskMe several down from yours as there is much overlap.
posted by kch at 1:26 PM on December 31, 2009

Seconding Cookwise and thirding On Food and Cooking, from a fellow scientist and avid cook.
posted by Sublimity at 1:29 PM on December 31, 2009

McGee is a hero and a scientist

As a scientist I found "On Food and Cooking" totally disappointing, as it's just one [data not shown] after another. I got tired of reading his claims in the absence of any cited literature or detailed experimental observations.
posted by rxrfrx at 1:45 PM on December 31, 2009

I also love McGee. The only downside to McGee is the fact that he has almost no practical examples. If you want to want a little bit more practical but a little bit old-fashioned (still amazing) I would recommend Julia Child. Cookwise by Shirley O. Corriher was also helpful for me, with explanations as to how doing certain things during the cooking process changed the end result (with recipes that you can try). For example in that book, there are recipes for a basic, a puffy, a thin and a somewhere-in-the middle one and explanations as to why that happens.
posted by kuju at 1:53 PM on December 31, 2009

When I was out of the 'learning-to-cook' stage, but wanting more, I would turn to James Beard's 'Theory and Practice of Good Cooking' (long out of print, but now re-printed). It talks about the different methods, and how those work with various ingredients (chapters on Non-Cooking, Braising, Boiling, etc). Somewhat 'old-fashioned' by Alton Brown standards, Beard is a great writer, and the illustrations are fantastic.
posted by dbmcd at 1:54 PM on December 31, 2009

I'm going to recommend "On Cooking". My husband got an earlier edition years ago when deciding to become a chef. It was a huge reference for him in those early years, but also something that I liked to page through to get perfect recipes and insight into how things cooked.
posted by saffry at 1:58 PM on December 31, 2009

Marcella Says... has opening chapters about the principles behind the techniques.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:04 PM on December 31, 2009

I have nothing but great things to say about Julia Child's "The Way to Cook." In some senses, it is a recipe book - ie she starts with a particular product and tells you how to work with it - but there's a lot more to learn from her variations. Plus, her techniques have never failed us.
posted by Gilbert at 2:05 PM on December 31, 2009

I'd look into the books by the Cook's Illustrated people. We had a gift subscription to the magazine for a year, and I used to watch America's Test Kitchen when I was a kid -- they almost always explain how they got to the specifics of their recipes and the science behind it. (I find some of the actual recipes a little fussy/overwhelming, OTOH it's also how I got my AWESOME grilled cheese sandwich technique.)
posted by epersonae at 2:27 PM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

There is a lot of overlap between good techniques and good principles. You can't really have the former without the latter. I think Jacques Pepin's book Techniques is a good introduction.

I also think that well-written general cookbooks are great for this. I learned a ton from The New Basics, and even the Joy of Cooking, has great introductory sections (although outdated in some respects). Mark Bittman's books also have a lot to say about flavors and principles, although typically in a more concise manner. I think you lose a lot of the commentary in internet recipes, especially if you don't read the comment sections.
posted by OmieWise at 2:32 PM on December 31, 2009

Tom Colicchio's Think Like a Chef. It's mostly theory. There are recipes, but the recipes serve to reinforce the theory.
posted by puckupdate at 2:48 PM on December 31, 2009

The Flavor Bible may be what you are looking for.
posted by hindmost at 2:56 PM on December 31, 2009

I was just going to recommend The Flavor Bible for figuring out what flavors compliment each other, so seconding hindmost. As for learning technique, you can't go wrong with any of the Culinary Institute of America's textbooks. Mark Bittman has some great stuff, and the bonus for him is that he's got a lot of videos posted, which can be really helpful.

And let me tell you, once you start learning technique and flavor combinations, you'll start really getting a feel for what goes together and what you can do with what you have in your pantry or what you see on the grocery shelves. The more you cook, the better you'll get at cooking. And don't be afraid of failure. Ordering a pizza should always be an option when you're trying something new.
posted by cooker girl at 3:03 PM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

The best, and truly only book you should need is the CIA's The professional chef.
posted by TheBones at 3:03 PM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I like The Cook's Kitchen Bible, mainly because it's extremely well illustrated and has very tasty recipes to accompany each technique. It's a great basic to have around.
posted by Go Banana at 5:32 PM on December 31, 2009

Another vote for Cookwise and Bakewise.
posted by bookshelves at 5:55 PM on December 31, 2009

The best, and truly only book you should need is the CIA's The professional chef.

The Professional Chef is a very good book, but it doesn't go into much detail as to why things work, either in a culinary principles sense or in a chemistry sense. It explains how to do things very well, but not why.
posted by jedicus at 5:56 PM on December 31, 2009

When I was out of the 'learning-to-cook' stage, but wanting more, I would turn to James Beard's 'Theory and Practice of Good Cooking'

Seconding this.
posted by Opposite George at 6:34 PM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding / thirding "The Professional Chef". jedicus is right that it doesn't always explain a lot of "why" things work the way they do, but it does focus on the nut-and-bolt logistics of how to cook well. (Perfect example, for me, was when it explained that "Cooking is the successive application of different kinds of heat, over time. Any ingredient in a well-cooked dish will have had several different types of heat applied to it before it is served." As simple as that sounds, that was an eye-opening revelation for me when I all of a sudden began to think of cooking in that way.)

The great thing about that book is that it really focuses on "template" recipes -- for example, when it talks about making a stew, it'll basically say "Brown your primary protein, and then saute your root vegetables in the same pan. Deglaze with a stock, and then thicken with a roux." You could be making chicken with onions, or beef with potatoes and carrots -- it's the same basic approach either way.
posted by LairBob at 6:56 PM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Many people are fond of How to Cook Without a Book.
posted by dave*p at 7:05 PM on December 31, 2009

Surprised no one has mentioned Delia and her how to cook books yet, it's like having a slightly bossy but kind teacher right with you, but by the end of it, your confidence has massively improved. And we still keep it around to double check things like popover timings and such.
posted by Augenblick at 2:53 AM on January 1, 2010

You might like Peter Barham's The science of cooking. On the other hand, as a chemistry student, you might find it lacking it detail. Look at the preview and judge for yourself.

Most of the academic books about Food Chemistry seem to focus more on the chemical composition of food than on its transformation during home cooking; as a scientist, you might find Fennema's explanation of the physical chemistry of food interesting, but it won't change how you cook.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 4:18 AM on January 1, 2010

Nthing McGee's On Food and Cooking. It's pretty much the go to reference for all things food science. If you cook something and it fails miserably, there's a good chance On Food and Cooking will be able to help you figure out why.

I've had hit or miss luck with BakeWise and haven't yet read CookWise. There are some insightful bits, but many of the recipes require so much additional work for so little additional benefit I didn't find them to be a good use of my time in the kitchen.

Ruhlman's Ratio is a GREAT jumping off point if you happen to have a kitchen scale (or you are willing to purchase one). At one point or another, he had a chart posted to his blog providing the ratios for many common breads and pastries, which might still be available for download.

Sally Scheider's The Improvisational Cook will walk you through the mental process of substituting and riffing on a basic recipe. In addition, it's got what may be my favorite meatloaf recipe of all time, so I give it props for that reason alone.

Finally, I would recommend the NPR podcast The Splendid Table. They routinely do bits on improvisational dishes and frequently teach you quite a bit about food in general. It's a staple of my Sunday afternoon routine.
posted by conradjones at 5:29 AM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Great list of suggestions in here, and I found some new ones to read.

I am also recommending Ratio for sure. It goes into the how and why for basic techniques, but it also establishes patterns and the most basic form of certain typical preparations. So you see how pancakes relate to muffins and how that cake has the same basic ratio of ingredients as the other type of cake. From there it is easier to improvise. One thing to be aware of is that his example recipes usually skim over the steps. He expects you to have read the preceding few pages of technique and explanation thoroughly.

The "Just Here For The Food" Alton Brown books go into technique, too. I'm not sure abut the one you mentioned. His show is obviously full of the whys of cooking and is worth watching every episode.
posted by ydant at 7:59 AM on January 1, 2010

If you enjoy baking bread, check out Bread Science by Emily Buehler (she's holds a PhD in chemistry).

See the Table of Contents and Excerpts to get a feel for the style.
posted by Cody's Keeper at 9:33 AM on January 1, 2010

rxrfrx, I don't know which edition of McGee you've got, but mine has a references section at the back which cites the papers he gets his evidence from; not as good as inline citations, but the info is there.
posted by Jakob at 10:18 AM on January 1, 2010

Overall, I'm a big fan of Jamie Oliver, and his Cook With Jamie book has both recipes and theory/tips and techniques.
posted by purlgurly at 11:15 AM on January 1, 2010

If you are interested in baking, Mr. gudrun recommends How Baking Works by Paula Figoni.
posted by gudrun at 1:33 PM on January 1, 2010

On Food and Cooking, the Science and Lore of the Kitchen
is a great book, which I quote from in the this Askme, so you can see if it's the sort of thing you're after.
posted by b33j at 2:59 PM on January 1, 2010

A basic reference that you should get is the "Larousse Gastronomique" (I have the 2001 edition; a newer edition was just released in late 2009). I can't improve upon Paul Child's description of it after he gave a copy to his wife, a certain Ms. Julia Child, for her 37th birthday in 1949 as she was just beginning her culinary awakening in Paris:

"1,087 pages of sheer cookery and foodery, 1,850 gravures, 16 color plates, definitions, recipes, information, stories and know-how -- a wonder book."

You have to see one to really understand how massively complete it is. The 2001 edition is 1,350 pages. It's not going to be hard science like McGhee and his like, but it will quickly become one of your basic, go-to reference sources. It's pricey (Amazon lists the 2009 for $56; you can often find them for far less at half-price bookshops and charity booksales).
posted by webhund at 6:10 PM on January 1, 2010

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