help me get pukka
February 3, 2006 11:57 PM   Subscribe

I like to cook, but I'd like to know more of the theory of how and why to do things.

I'm not a bad cook or anything. I can cook for myself and do well at it-- I enjoy the food I make, and I enjoy making it. I'd like to be better though. I'm not as interested in recipes so much as books that detail why you do certain things with certain foods. I don't like things that are techy like Alton Brown, but more along the lines of "We do thiis because it adds this to the texture/flavour/whatever." What I'd like to be able to do, ultimately, is make up my own recipes like my current TV favourite Michael Smith does on Chef at Home.

I have The Joy of Cooking, and am planning on picking up "How to Cook Everything" tomorrow, based on reading many of the other threads on here. But are there any other suggestions?

I guess my favourite chefs are Jaimie Oliver and Michael Smith-- I am a big proponent of simple but tasty cooking.

I've been reading the other threads on here and have found a goldmine, but I have a lot of cook books already and don't want recipes (though something akin to a cooking class, that maybe details a technique and then provides a recipe that highlights it would be good).
posted by synecdoche to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You might be interested in On Food And Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.
posted by fixedgear at 4:35 AM on February 4, 2006

You've reminded me that I've been meaning to pick up The Science of Cooking for a few years now. It'd slipped my mind.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:44 AM on February 4, 2006

I know where you're coming from, I've wanted the same thing - following recipies bores me, I wanted to know the principles behind it, and I've found the solution not in books, but in watching lots and lots of cooking shows. Like Jamie Oliver, or Ainsley Harriot. The "food porn" channel on my cable gets watched, on average, for about an hour a day. But the kind of cooking shows that show you a recipe at the end of the segment are lame - the kind of cooking shows that encourage you to experiment are the ones to go for. Jamie, in particular, is good at describing what ingredients do, and why he's using them, and also what sort ingredients need to be fresh and perfect, and what you can use from a can. It's given me a good grasp of the principals behind cooking, to the extent that I can think "I'm going to make a curry. " I know what sort of spices I want to use. I know how to make them into a paste in the pan. I know what order to add ingredients and know how long to cook it for. I know whether to leave the lid off or on, or whether to do it in a casserole dish in the oven.

Which isn't to say books are no good - I just don't know of any (although I'll check that out too, fixedgear). But I do feel the ability to watch someone cook while they explain what they are doing is priceless.
posted by Jimbob at 4:48 AM on February 4, 2006

I second On Food And Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Interesting stuff.
posted by phox at 4:53 AM on February 4, 2006

Another second for On Food and Cooking. Also, take a look at the site Cooking for Engineers. The person there has a nicely analytical approach to cooking. Does "analytical" qualify as "techy"?
posted by hwestiii at 5:25 AM on February 4, 2006

Despite all the recommendations of McGee here, it sounds like you are looking for more of a cultural history of food than food science. Nevertheless, the McGee book is THE book to have on food science.

You might also like Shirley Corriher's CookWise.
posted by briank at 5:41 AM on February 4, 2006

Best answer: Cook's Illustrated magazines often focus on making the perfect angel food cake or beef brisket or sourdough or what have you. These articles usually follow the trial-and-error process they had in coming up with the recipe, which allows you to pick up some good tips on how ingredients work together. For example, they use only dark brown sugar in their chocolate chip cookie recipe because it allows for a chewier cookie. They also explain and illustrate techniques, make suggestions for improvisation, and review cooking products. I love all the America's Test Kitchen stuff.
posted by mochapickle at 6:05 AM on February 4, 2006

McGee and Corriher's Cookwise (she's the food science lady on Alton Brown's show and has guested on many many other cooking shows) are both pretty good for technical stuff.

I recommend John Thorne's Outlaw Cook for a more empirical approach. He only does a few different techniques/dishes, but each discussion includes a pretty wide range of variation. And he's a reasonably entertaining writer as well. (The book is a bit dated in the last section, which more or less commentary on the "current" culinary scene. But there is a chapter on everything that is wrong with Martha Stewart, circa 1995, that is hilarious).
posted by janell at 6:24 AM on February 4, 2006

I'll second Cook's Illustrated magazine, as well as their show America's Test Kitchen (somewhere on the Food Network).

And I can't believe there was only a passing reference to Alton Brown, and his show Good Eats. He is great for exactly what you're talking about - the hows, whys and history of food.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 6:36 AM on February 4, 2006

I also learned a lot from Alton Brown's show Good Eats on the foot network (they have a pretty good website, too, His books are worth checking out also.
posted by JamesMessick at 6:39 AM on February 4, 2006

Cook's Illustrated thirded. I tend to experiment with recipes more than my cooking skills really allow. The articles in CI explain all their unsuccessful experimentation (What if we use oil instead of butter? What about molasses instead of honey? Or a little more baking powder?) so I don't have to do it myself. Their recipes aren't terribly fussy and every one I've tried has been very good.
posted by vetiver at 7:08 AM on February 4, 2006

Ditto JamesMessick on Good Eats - Alton Brown's book "I'm Just Here For the Food" has lots of great info on the why side of things.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:36 AM on February 4, 2006

Cooks Illustrated also has a series of excellent and helpful books (The Best Recipe, The Quick Recipe, Cover and Bake, and many more) that do the same thing.

As others have noted, these are not simply recipe books. They painstakingly describe the steps they went through in their test kitchen to come up with each recipe. It not only enables you to get a sense of what to try and not to try, but also HOW to experiment with recipes, which is what it sounds like you're after.

In fact, if I were to recommend one single cookbook to anybody (except a professional chef), it would probably be Best Recipe.
posted by dersins at 8:08 AM on February 4, 2006

The Cook's Illustrated folks also have a cookbook: The New Best Recipe. That and How to Cook Everything get the most frequent use around here.
Some friends swear by How to Cook Without A Book.
posted by librarina at 8:12 AM on February 4, 2006

To me, it sounds like synecdoche wants something of a grail or philosophy of recipes, rather than the specific science behind kitchen phenomena.

I don't think there's a "formula" out there for making good food, ie. A tastes good with B but not C unless you prepare it in a format D. Our taste buds and brain seem to respond to both analogous (sweet with slightly sweet; creamy with creamy), adjacent (sweet with sour; sweet with salty), and complementary (sweet with slightly bitter; creamy with crunchy) tastes and textures. The seemingly infinite combinations is the "art" side of cooking. No single book out there can teach you what goes good with what. Rather while cooking various recipes, you start to develop experience and knowledge about specific flavor and texture combinations that "work." Through cooking and tasting, you become a critic of sorts and you'll be able to think about what can be done to improve, enhance, or completely change something you've tasted.

Every great chef got their start banging out 120 hours/wk doing the same few dishes over and over again until they "got it." Take the same approach - make a few recipes over and over again, tasting at every step. Pick up McGee's On Science and Cooking and Cook's Illustrated as suggested above to help you understand the whys of certain foods and food preparations. Once you master those recipes, move onto some other recipes. With experience, you'll acquire the familiarity to experiment. "I think if I took the sauce from here and applied it to this and modify it slightly this way, it would taste great." Boom! A new recipe is born!
posted by junesix at 8:42 AM on February 4, 2006

I just recently read How to Read a French Fry by Russ Parsons, and it might be of interest to you. The book basically talks about the science of cooking, and why things cook the way they do. Parsons discusses a different topic in each chapter (such as frying, or vegetables) and then gives several recipes to illustrate the topics he discussed.

It may not be what you're looking for, but I think it's a good read nonetheless.
posted by Nedroid at 9:49 AM on February 4, 2006

i just wanted to agree with junesix.
you gotta figure out what kind of cook you are--why are you cooking? for me, its all about knowing what I want to eat, what I wish was on the menu, and doing it over and over until you get it right. In terms of forumulas, that's how you get it. You add a little x and see if it makes it better or worse. Start simple. Make simple things like tomato sauce or chicken broth or potato salad or roast chicken.
But I think the key is to figure out what you wish you could eat --braised beef done perfectly, or seafood stew, or a great chicken soup. And just work towards that.
posted by alkupe at 10:03 AM on February 4, 2006

Yet another vote for Cook's Illustrated--the magazine and their cookbooks. They discuss the why's of cooking, as well as very clear instructions.

Also, Julia Child is amazing. Mastering the Art of French Cooking is indespensible. Together with Cook's Illustrated, my cooking skills have improved immensely over the past two years.
posted by slogger at 10:26 AM on February 4, 2006

Best answer: The most useful book I've ever gotten along these lines is The New Professional Chef, which is actually a core CIA textbook.

A lot of the book really does focus on things that would only apply to someone working in a professional kitchen, and many of the actual recipes are for 20 ppl or more, but the sections that focus on cooking are very matter-of-fact, and very, very informative.

The whole book is structured around the premise that "cooking is the successive application of different types of heat", and is organized around "wet heat" and "dry heat" techniques. For each one, it gives a clear description of what it is, how to do it, and how it can be applied as part of a larger recipe.

Just as usefully, many of the recipes are built just the way you're describing. For a "Stew", it'll say things like "Brown the meat in a heavy pot using the fat of your choice. Remove the meat, and then cook down your root vegetables in the remaining fat." Etc. Could be a pork stew with parsnips, or it could be beef stew with mushrooms--they just give you the basic plan.

Plus, as you might expect, they've got really clear instructions on all the basic techniques--knife handling, boning/butterflying chicken, etc.
posted by LairBob at 10:39 AM on February 4, 2006

Best answer: I suspect you want something like The Elements of Taste. This is a cookbook, sort of, that attempts to deal with the theory of flavors and why certain flavors balance with one another. The book is organized according to the authors' notions of basic flavors, i.e. Tastes That Push, Tastes That Pull, Tastes That Punctuate and Taste Platforms.

The book has been tremendously helpful to me in my own made-up recipes (or culinary improvisations, for the toney) because it's helped conceptualize what sort of flavor needs what else to balance it. The book is designed to help you pick up, say, a beet, and guide you through selecting flavors that complement the beetiness of the beet.

Also, I'd suggest watching gobs of Iron Chef.
posted by stet at 11:34 AM on February 4, 2006

"From Simple to Spectacular" covers some of the ground you want, as it shows a simple recipe plus progressivelt more elaborate ways of preparing it. In my opinion, it's worth it for their chicken stock recipe alone.

"Think Like a Chef" is good as well.
posted by pombe at 12:29 PM on February 4, 2006

Third (or 4th, whatever) Cooks Illustrated. The books, magazine, and website. Also, they have a tv show, "America's Test Kitchen" that airs on PBS.
posted by mumeishi at 1:08 PM on February 4, 2006

The most useful book I've ever gotten along these lines is The New Professional Chef, which is actually a core CIA textbook.

Obviously I have no knowledge of cooking, because when I read that I thought, "Wow, the Central Intelligence Agency is really rigorous."
posted by matkline at 2:25 PM on February 4, 2006

matkline, you'll be pleased to know that the Culinary Institute of America has a division that handles publications of their educational books and videos, appropriately named the Food & Beverage Institute (FBI).
posted by junesix at 2:37 PM on February 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

I followed stet's recommendation of The Elements of Taste and located this book on Amazon: Culinary Artistry. I think this may be a bit of what you're looking for. From the Amazon review:

This is thoughtful material. It is not how-to material. These guided conversations are made practical for the home cook by charts such as which foods are in season and when, the basic flavors of foods (bananas are sweet; anchovies are salty), food matches made in heaven (lamb chops with aioli or ginger or shallots), seasoning matches made in heaven (dill and salmon), flavors of the world (Armenia means parsley and yogurt), common accompaniments to entrées (beef and potatoes), and, most fun of all, the desert-island lists of many of the chefs quoted so extensively throughout the text.

Although short on prescription (hence, the paucity of recipes), the book is exhaustive in its rosters of flavor complements. So extensive are the volume's lists that the book is useful as a reference tool for only the most serious chefs and die-hard foodies.

I think I may have to pick up this one for myself! Tip-off to stet.
posted by junesix at 2:45 PM on February 4, 2006

Second - Think Like A Chef
posted by vronsky at 3:20 PM on February 4, 2006

I can personally vouch for Dornenburg and Page's Culinary Artistry. It has elevated my own cooking ability by an order of magnitude.
posted by trip and a half at 4:19 PM on February 4, 2006

I love Culinary Artistry too, but I'm not sure it's really what synecdoche is looking for. It sounds like he's looking for technique, where CA is much more about flavor. It answers questions like "Would this be better with cumin or coriander?" much more than questions like "Why should I brown the meat at the beginning of a braise?" Once you get a handle on the basic techniques though, it is a great springboard for creating your own recipes.

Although you've disparaged Alton Brown as "too techy" it really does sound like that's what you are looking for. If his show turns you off (often too cutesy for me), take a look through his books, especially his first: I'm Just Here for the Food. It has chapters by technique (roasting, braising, frying, etc.) with a thorough explanation and then several recipes.

This one may seem out of left field, but I've found that the Chef who is most deeply connected to basic, fundamental cooking techniques is Thomas Keller, by far. Both The French Laundry Cookbook and Bouchon are practically love letters to things like stock-making, caramelizing onions, roasting chicken, etc. Yes, they are full of recipes, but each recipe is like a lesson in The Right Way to do about 5 different techniques (nearly every recipe is a multi-step process). They aren't cheap (Amazon generally has them discounted, though) and most of the recipes are half-day projects, but I've found them to be two of the most educational books in my collection of several dozen cookbooks (including about 80% of the books suggested here).
posted by rorycberger at 9:49 AM on February 6, 2006

Response by poster: Well, I don't know if anybody is still checking this, but I thought maybe I'd clarify just in case.

What I am looking for is basically a cooking school in a book. Now I realize that that's not terribly realistic, but what I want is something like this:

To make a stew:
Brown meat.
Add this.
Add that.
Let set.

A book that describes the techniques, illustrates how to use them, and then discusses how to incorporate them into a culinary repretoire. Culinary Artistry sounds like it will be useful, as well, but what I want is something that will (eventually) enable me to say "I think I'll try this today" and know what to do with it without having to refer to a recipe.

I only cook for myself and occasionally friends, and I have no aspirations to be a professional chef. I just want to be a better cook. I can follow recipes fine, and I like the food I make, in general, but I'd like to be more original in the kitchen.

I picked up an issue of Cook's Illustrated and it was great. This issue had a breakdown on ways to cook different kinds of grain. See, I've made (good) risotto before, but I didn't know that the way I did was THE way to cook risotto, usually.
posted by synecdoche at 8:22 PM on February 6, 2006

I don't like things that are techy like Alton Brown, but more along the lines of "We do thiis because it adds this to the texture/flavour/whatever."

With that in mind I agree with the previous commentator who recommened "Think Like a Chef".
This is a great book by a famous chef (Tom Colicchio of Grammercy Tavern and Craft) and concentrates on techniques of cooking, why one would use such techniques for certain foods and foods that pair well together. It will also help you to cook more in season.

I'd like to add to the mix anything by James Peterson. He has authored several books:
Sauces (one of the textbooks I had at Le Cordon Bleu)
Splendid Soups
Essentials of Cooking ( A must have, really. It covers everything from how to clean leeks and truss chickens for roasting, to how to make hollandaise, et al.)

If you're turned off by the techy stuff I would REALLY avoid McGee's "On Food and Cooking". It's honestly written like a chemistry textbook (which it is).
posted by kaiseki at 5:16 PM on February 7, 2006

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