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November 19, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, November 19, 2004

A chemist in the kitchen A chemist in the kitchen (November 19, 2004)

Palo Altan Harold McGee revises his classic 'On Food and Cooking'

by Robyn Israel

When you first walk into Harold McGee's kitchen, you can't help but notice all the modern amenities: the Viking gas range, the Gaggenau electric oven, the Maytag refrigerator, the dishwasher. Surrounding the stainless steel appliances are cherry cabinets, which give the room, a cozy, warm feeling.

It's a foodie's dream kitchen, a place where you could concoct anything, from cheese souffle to chocolate truffles; paella to pizza. But this Palo Alto kitchen is not just a fancy showpiece.

It is a laboratory.

For the last 10 years, McGee has been conducting all sorts of culinary experiments with the mission to explore the chemistry of cooking and to communicate that knowledge to others in simple terms. It appears to have worked.

Best known for his seminal 1984 book, "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," McGee is revered by many in the industry. His book is an encyclopedia that many professional chefs turn to for an understanding of how food works.

"There is lots of information on food, what it's made of, how it behaves when you heat it or grind it up. But most is in the technical literature," McGee said. "I looked at my job as translating that into English and taking what's of value to home cooks and restaurant chefs, rather than the food industry."

No one sings his praises more than Thomas Keller, chef-owner of the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York City.

"If there's a question on cookery and science and on why things aren't working, the reference is Harold's book," Keller told Gourmet magazine in October. "At the Culinary Institute of America, 'On Food and Cooking' remains a standard text for each forthcoming generation of chefs, as revered for its scientific authority as is Escoffier for culinary standards."

Keller and his colleagues must now make room on their bookshelves for a new tome: a completely updated version of McGee's 20-year-old classic. It is an anthology that chefs and food lovers can turn to for a comprehensive understanding of where our foods come from, what they're made of and how cooking transforms them into something new and delicious.

Divided into 15 chapters, "On Food and Cooking" delves into the science behind every type of food: milk and dairy products, meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, cereals, spices, sauces and more.

The book's back jacket is strewn with endorsements from culinary luminaries, including Charlie Trotter, Bobby Flay and Jacques Pepin.

"I have used Harold McGee's 'On Food and Cooking' for the last two decades, whenever I've had questions about the chemistry of food or to understand some aspects of the cooking process," Pepin wrote.

Readers will discover eye-opening insights into food, its history and its preparation. For instance, the effects of heat on meat proteins, color and texture; why sweet potatoes grow sweeter as you cook them; where pure vanilla gets its flavor; the composition of common nuts and seeds; why tomatoes shouldn't be refrigerated; how to deal with an overdose of wasabi. It even includes an early recipe for laminated pastry, taken from "The English Housewife" (1615).

Due in stores on Tuesday, the nearly 900-page volume is two-thirds longer than the original, has 100 new illustrations and includes a chemistry primer for the lay chef. It took McGee 10 years to write.

"The food scene has changed so much since the late '70s -- the book just had to be completely different," McGee said. "I thought in revising it, maybe 50 percent would be updated and 50 percent would stay unchanged. It turns out 95 to 98 percent is new. Even when the facts didn't change, the way I'd present it wasn't the same. I rewrote pretty much everything."

Many of the issues that are addressed in the 2004 revision were completely obscure or barely noticed in 1984, such as irradiation, genetic engineering, aquaculture and the threat of mad cow disease and E. coli. And certain foods have gained more prominence over the years, such as organic fruits and vegetables, free-range chickens, sushi, microbrews, coffees and teas.

"In some ways people are more interested in good food than they used to be. Americans are much more curious and demanding, particularly in this area, with the diverse population we have. There are wonderful restaurants and markets and opportunities to taste things that 20 years ago you could never taste, unless you got on a plane."

McGee never set out to write about the chemistry of cooking. The Chicago native loved astronomy, and attended Caltech (Pasadena), intending to become a scientist. But after two years of studying math, physics and astronomy, he became disillusioned.

"Taking the labs was less satisfying. What I really loved to do was think about the ideas. I decided it was the poetry of science I was interested in, rather than the nitty-gritty."

McGee thought about transferring to a liberal-arts school, but stayed at Caltech, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in English literature. A Ph.D. at Yale followed, where he stayed to teach writing and literature. But tenure-track jobs remained elusive.

One evening, at a department dinner party, the question came up of why beans caused flatulence, and McGee decided to look into it. In searching the Yale library for answers, the seed of "On Food and Cooking " was planted.

"I wrote the first edition not because I was especially interested in food or because I knew anything about it. I just thought it was a great subject. It's a part of our life that's so familiar we take it for granted."

For the original, McGee set out to debunk various kitchen myths. A big misconception, McGee said, is the belief that by searing meat, juices are locked in. Not so.

"It's not an old wives' tale. It's an old chemist's tale," McGee said, referring to 19th-century German scientist Juntus von Liebig.

"Take two steaks, sear one and cook it medium-rare, and then cook the other to medium-rare, gently, without searing it," he said. "They'll both be done to the same end-point. But the one that's seared loses more moisture. Far from sealing in the juices, it squeezes them out."

The same principle applies to stews, McGee said.

"Most people brown the meat, cover it with liquid, and then stick it in the oven at 350 degrees. That gives you an edible stew, but not a great stew," McGee said. "But if you cook it gently, very slowly, so that it takes an hour or two to get from room temperature to a final cooking temperature of no more than 180 degrees (no more than 30 degrees below the boiling point), then the pieces of meat will be cooked to well-done, but it will still be moist."

McGee stressed that cooks need a good thermometer to do this, and they must watch the temperature carefully.

"Everyone should have one!" he said, referring to his Raytek MiniTemp FS, a non-contact thermometer with a laser that reads surface temperature.

The success of the first book, McGee said, had a lot to do with its publication, which occurred just as serious interest in food was mushrooming.

"If I'd written it 10 or 15 years before it would never have done as well. Same if I were writing it now. I'd be a Johnny-come-lately. I hit the timing just right."

Whereas the first edition relied heavily on scientific journals such as Flavor and Fragrance Journal and books like the Chemistry of Muscle-Based Foods, McGee spent considerable time in his kitchen for the revision.

McGee's family -- wife Sharon Long (a biologist at Stanford); son John (a Stanford freshman); and daughter, Florence (a Gunn junior) -- have all observed and tasted the multitude of experiments conducted over the past decade. Some have been more popular than others.

Asked whether there were any that tested his family's patience, McGee said there was one in particular. It was inspired by a friend who had been taken out to a restaurant in Stockholm, where he had eaten lutefisk, dried codfish reconstituted in lye. The texture is that of Jell-O.

"My friend did his best to clear his plate. Then they ordered him another portion. He thought he was going to die," McGee said. "I knew the chemistry in the abstract, but I had never had it before. I wanted to taste it and watch it wobble," he said.

Florence did not have fond memories of the lutefisk.

"It was really weird. It was really translucent," she recalled.

One of Florence's favorite experiments was her dad's inquiry into the difference between Lay's-style potato chips and kettle chips. By a different application of heat (cooking at a fairly constant and high oil temperature for the former vs. cooking at an initially low and slowly increasing temperature for the latter), two different styles of potato chips are produced.

So which experiments did his family enjoy the most?

"I did a lot of work on ice cream. I wanted to understand what about the process influences the texture, the fineness of the crystals, the difference between Haagen-Dazs at one extreme and home-made ice cream on the other. Almost no matter how it came out, it was a success -- it still tasted great," McGee said.

When it comes to cooking for fun, McGee loves to prepare Indian and Mexican dishes.

"I like to have mole when I have time, as well as Indian dishes," he said. "You take complicated mixtures of herbs and spices and grind them together. It's different from the French, where you're always taking things out and refining them. These are more inclusive styles of cooking.

"On the weekend, I also like to prepare a nice slow roast on the charcoal grill, like pork shoulder rubbed with garlic and thyme. I'll also rub it with annatto, which is a distinctive Central American spice. It has a flavor like nothing else."

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