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Food for Thought, Lifelong Learning

The Art and Science of Cooking


Orange soufflé., Digital ID 1191124, New York Public LibraryI like to cook, but I am not much of a baker. There is one yearly exception... the transition to autumn and then the holiday season usually puts me in a baking mood. For the past few Christmases I've made biscotti — Italian cookies flavored with nuts, spices, or dried fruits. They are something of a tradition in my family. This year when I got out my mixing bowl I grabbed a dry measure for the flour and sugar, but then I put it away. I decided not to use it.

Now, I know baking is all about scientific precision! Leavening agents have to be in just the right proportion, temperatures must be consistent, or your soufflé or biscuits fail to rise, and your dinner plans fall flat. The reason I put my measuring cup away is because last year I got the best Christmas present... a small digital scale. No more scooping flour for me! 3 cups of flour is equivalent to 14 ounces. I poured right into my mixing bowl, and then added the sugar on top (7.1 ounces of it.)

Why don't we cook and bake like this all the time? The answer: Fannie Farmer. According to Bee Wilson in Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, the U.S. is the only country that measures food in cups, and Fannie Farmer's publications, while popularizing the modern cookbook, might be to blame. Wilson goes on to explain the history of recipes as a way to ensure reproducable results in the kitchen. But when our ovens are not the exact temperature, our frying pan has a hot spot, we measure too much flour, or forget the salt entirely, dinner can be ruined.

How to save gas on the gas stove., Digital ID 1643046, New York Public LibraryCook's Illustrated, Christopher Kimball's idiosyncratic periodical, has a mission to: "[present] a handful of recipes that have been made 'bulletproof,' ... worried into technical infallibility after weeks of testing so exacting as to bring an average home cook to the brink of neurasthenia. The bargain further holds that [the recipe] will turn out not only in C.I.’s professional kitchen, with its All-Clad pans and DCS ranges, but also on a lowly electric four-top, using a dull knife and a $20 nonstick skillet." I am a big fan of CI's scientific approach to cooking. It has helped to build my confidence in the kitchen, and sometimes when presented with 3.5 million ways of making French onion soup... I just want someone to tell me the best one. Maybe I won't end up using it, but I like hearing their reasoning, and the results of taste tests of different ingredients and techniques.

Content on the Cook's Illustrated website is behind a paywall, but don't you know, the library has dozens of Cook's Illustrated, Cook's Country, and America's Test Kitchen books, DVDs, and magazines.

Somewhere on the opposite end of the how-to spectrum is Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything series of cookbooks. While the sheer volume and types of recipes you can find within these titles probably comes close to matching what CI has to offer, Bittman has a much more relaxed approach and encourages substitutions based on what you enjoy and happen to have on hand.

19 East 72nd Street - Madison Avenue,Kitchen interior, Digital ID 1558320, New York Public LibraryOnce you have enough confidence in the kitchen, with a few techniques and strategies committed to memory, that's when things get interesting. Michael Ruhlman's Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking gives you a few secret keys to making bread, pasta, mayonnaise, biscuits... common staples that depend on the balance of a few key ingredients to work. Ratio is also available as an app... plug in the amount of ingredients you want to use or the yield you need, and it gives you the amounts in whatever unit you prefer.

Remember when earlier I told you that 3 cups of flour is equivalent to 14 ounces? Do you want to know how I knew that? Wolfram|Alpha has a "culinary mathematics" app that makes it easy to convert volume measurements to weight. You can probably do this in their regular app or on their website, but having cooking tools all together in one place is certainly convenient. Another place to do these types of calculations is

Ratio and Culinary Math apps on an iPhoneRatio and Culinary Math apps on an iPhoneKitchen confidence means having that intuition that lemon and parsley taste good together, and that chili spices can deepen with a hit of bitter chocolate. The Flavor Thesaurus: A Compendium of Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook can take your "gut instincts" to the next level. Niki Segnit has arranged flavors into a wheel where each distinct flavor is related to the ones around it: roasted, meaty, briney, fresh fruity, citrus, woody, spicy, grassy (the kinds of descriptors you see for perfumes — they are very much based in smell.) She picks out the best examples of foods for each flavor. Then she goes through each food and describes the pairings that you can do across flavors and what each pairing will achieve. There are some surprising combinations, but you can tell that she has done her research and actually eaten these things — she provides more than adequate support and reasoning for you to get a little experimental with your cooking.

For more on this theme, see this list of books and ebooks in BiblioCommons. Are you a kitchen scientist? Any books, tools, or recipes you can recommend?




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"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are."

Thanks for this wonderful post, Lauren! I think you've given me half of my non-fiction reading list for 2013. Consider the Fork sounds like a must read, and I have a few cooking chemistry questions that might be answered in Ratio or What Einstein Told His Cook. Except for baking, I'm more the relaxed and instinctive type of cook, but I do like to have a basic grounding in something before I start experimenting. When I was living in Italy about ten years ago, I used to bake blondies and brownies for my Italian friends all the time, and they loved them, but I could never really give them the recipes, simple though they are, because I couldn't convert the U.S. volume measure to weight in grams. I ended up bringing back U. S. measuring cups as gifts along with bags of chocolate chips for them to work with. If only there had been culinary measurement apps then! I just finished reading Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz, and some of my favorite parts of the book, as well as in her memoir, My Life in France, are when she is testing, testing, testing to perfect French recipes for the measurements and ingredients familiar to the American kitchen, making hundreds of batches of mayonnaise, onion soup, and for the second book, baguettes. I think she may have run the original America's Test Kitchen (with a French twist, of course.) Love that you included the Brillat-Savarin on your list! I'm slowly working my way through the French eBook, which lives on my phone. "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are." Happy New Year & Happy Cooking!

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