Keys To Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Food and Recipes
By Harold McGee
Hardcover, 576 pages
The Penguin Press
List price: $35
Cooking can be one of the most satisfying things we do in life. It's a chance to make things with our own hands, nourish and give pleasure to people we care about, and choose exactly what we eat and make part of ourselves. It's also a way to explore the astounding creativity of the natural world and thousands of years of human culture, to taste foods and traditions from all over the planet at our own table. This endlessly rewarding quality is what has kept me delving into cooking for more than thirty years.
Cooking is especially rewarding when it goes well! It's true, as we're frequently reminded, that the only way to become a good cook is to cook, and cook, and cook some more. But many of us don't manage to cook that frequently, and frequent cooking can also be cooking by rote, habitual and mediocre. The surest way to cook with pleasure and success — whether you're a beginner, a weekend gourmand, or an accomplished chef — is to cook with understanding.
This book is designed to help you cook better by explaining what foods are, how cooking changes them, which methods work best, and why.
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Keys to Good Cooking is not a cookbook. Recipes we have in abundance, in print and on the Web, from across the globe and across the centuries, from professionals and celebrities, families and friends. Instead, this book is a guide to help you navigate through the ever-expanding universe of recipes and arrive at the promised land of a satisfying dish.
It's easy to get lost along the way. Some recipes give reliably good results, but many don't. Some are sketchy and leave us guessing how exactly to proceed. Others are intimidatingly long and detailed. Different recipes for the same dish may give contradictory directions and explanations. Some place faithfulness to tradition above realistic handling of today's ingredients. And many perpetuate old misconceptions and flawed methods.
Even good recipes are no guarantee of success. At best they're an incomplete description of a procedure that has worked for the recipe writer. Whenever we cook from a recipe, we have to interpret and adapt it for our kitchen, our ingredients, and our experience. And the process of interpretation and adaptation is just as important to success as the recipe itself. A good recipe can be badly made.
Happily, it's also true that we can redeem a flawed recipe by seeing its flaws and correcting them as we adapt it.
Keys to Good Cooking is meant to be a constructively critical companion to your recipe collection, and a guide to the kitchen, gadgets, ingredients, and techniques with which you turn recipes into foods. It's a concise summary of our current understanding of food preparation. It provides simple statements of fact and advice, along with brief explanations that will help you understand why, and apply that insight whenever you cook. It will help you evaluate recipes, recognize likely flaws or problems, and make adjustments and corrections as you go. And I hope it will help you put aside recipes, improvise and experiment, and come up with your own ways of doing things.
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The first six chapters of this book describe the range of tools and pantry ingredients available to the home cook, how heat and basic cooking methods work, and the essentials of kitchen safety. These subjects aren't likely to be at the top of your need-to-know list, and you may figure you already know what you need.
But because we usually equip our kitchens and pantries piecemeal, and only pay attention in emergencies to how the oven works or doesn't, it can be a real eye-opener to pause and take a closer look at these things. Once you think about how heat actually flows into and out of our foods as we cook, you'll understand why standard stew recipes often dry out the meat, why a medium-hot oven can scorch baked goods, and what you can do to make sure you don't have those problems again. And did you know that thorough cooking not only can't kill some tough forms of bacteria that sicken us, it actually awakens them into rapid growth? Watch those leftovers! The most important kitchen facts are often the least obvious.
So I suggest reviewing these early chapters every once in a while to get better acquainted with foods and appliances and cooking methods, no matter how familiar they seem. And take the time to read through chapter 6, "Cooking Safely." Tens of thousands of Americans are made ill by food every day, many of them due to unnecessary mistakes made by cooks who could and should know better.
The remaining chapters are organized by ingredients and kinds of preparations. Read the introductory sections to find out how to recognize and handle good ingredients.Then, when you're cooking a particular dish, go to the paragraph or two devoted to that kind of preparation. Review the facts and the various possibilities before you start cooking, to help you choose a recipe or make adjustments to the one you've chosen, and just to get organized. If a problem or question arises as you go, if a step needs clarification, check again.
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Here's an example of how I hope you'll use this book. Let's say Thanksgiving is coming up, you haven't roasted a turkey since last Thanksgiving, and you've seen a recipe for brining the turkey to keep it moist. You might start by looking at the introduction to cooking meat on p. 238:
No matter what you read in recipes or hear pronounced by people who should know, keep these simple truths in mind:
• Searing meat does not seal in its juices, and moist cooking methods do not make meats moist. Juiciness depends almost entirely on how hot you cook the center of the meat. If it gets much hotter than 150 degrees F/65 degrees C, it will be dry.
• Meat overcooks quickly. Low heat slows cooking and gives you the greatest control over doneness.
• Most recipes can't predict correct cooking times. There's no substitute for checking meat doneness yourself, early and often.
Then you could read the summary of brining pros and cons on p. 246:
Brining is the immersion of meat in a weak solution of salt and water, with or without other flavorings, for hours to days before cooking. Injecting brine into the meat interior speeds the process. The salt penetrates the meat, seasons it, and improves its ability to retain moisture and tenderness.
Brines of a certain strength, 5 to 10 percent salt by weight, also cause the meat proteins to absorb extra water from the brine, making the meat seem exceptionally juicy when cooked. Very lean poultry and pork can benefit from this extra moisture, especially when they're overcooked.
Brine selectively. Brines have drawbacks: they dilute the meat's own flavorful juices with tap water, and usually make the pan juices too salty for deglazing into a sauce.
And then you could look at the basics of roasting birds, which begin this way on p. 258:
Whole birds are a challenge to roast well. Their breast meat is low in connective tissue and best cooked to 150 degrees F/65 degrees C for chickens and turkeys, 135 degrees F/57 degrees C for duck and squab. But their leg meat is high in connective tissue and best cooked to 160 degrees F/70 degrees C, and their skin is best cooked to 350 degrees F/175 degrees C to make it crisp and brown.
To roast birds well:
• Don't stuff the body cavity or rely on a pop-up thermometer. Stuffing must be heated to 160 degrees F/70 degrees C to kill bacteria, so the breast meat will be overcooked and dry. Pop-up indicators pop only when the breast meat is already overcooked.
Now you can decide for yourself whether you want to have a brine-moist turkey or an edible pan sauce, a moist breast or an in-bird stuffing, and you can add a cooking thermometer to your pre-Thanksgiving shopping list (and consult p. 45 for advice on thermometers).
You'll notice that the pages of this book have plenty of blank space. That's because the words on them aren't the last, just the first. The margins and line spaces are there for you to fill with new information and ideas as they come along, and especially with notes specific to your kitchen, your tastes, your discoveries — your own personal keys to good cooking.
I hope that your copy of this book will quickly become well stained and marked up, and will long help you cook with insight, pleasure, and success.
Excerpted from Keys To Good Cooking by Harold McGee. Copyright 2010 by Harry McGee. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press HC, a division of the Penguin Group.