Friday, 24 December 2010

Book review: Cooking for Geeks

My shelves are groaning under the weight of cookery books, but there aren't many I've read from cover to cover. "Cooking for Geeks" is one of those gems that is both an excellent reference manual and a good read. While this book does contain some recipes (100 or so), it's not the one to buy if you're looking for a recipe book. Recipes give you quantities of ingredients and step by step instructions for transforming those ingredients into great meals. This book goes some way to explaining the whys and wherefores of each of those steps. Once you have an understanding of the processes involved in cooking and preparing food - and the science behind them - you can start adapting recipes and inventing new ones. You'll know when an ingredient can be substituted, and what with. You'll know when a step in a recipe can be skipped. You'll start to spot - and correct for - mistakes in published recipes.

The book encourages us to treat our kitchens as our own personal chemistry lab, and it builds the confidence we need to start experimenting.  Most important of all, it encourages us to have fun with our cooking. A geeky humour runs throughout the book, with the title of the first chapter, "Hello, kitchen," setting the tone. Of course there’s some serious stuff in here too, including an essential section on food safety and foodborne illness.

I'm surprised at just how much information has been packed into the 400 pages of this book. Want to know how to pasteurize an egg? The temperature collagen starts to break down when you cook meat? Where to find enzymes that will do the same job? It’s all in here. (See for the full table of contents.)

There are also plenty of helpful tips along the way. I now cook pancakes without any fat in the pan. You need a good non-stick pan to do this, but they cook more evenly this way. And on the gadget front, I’m looking out for a compressed gas cream whipper so I can try foamed scrambled eggs and instant chocolate mousse.

As expected, the chemicals used to make the foams, spheres, and heat-stable gels of molecular gastronomy make an appearance, and the book gives a good introduction to sous vide cooking. This is where food is vacuum-sealed in a plastic bag (the "sous vide" part) and cooked in a temperature-controlled water bath, a method of cooking used extensively in top restaurants where consistency is key. Sous vide is gaining popularity in domestic kitchens, with the first water bath aimed at the domestic consumer arriving on the European market just a couple of months ago. My friends thought I was crazy when I spent almost a month’s salary on a water bath and vacuum packing machine earlier this year, but once you’ve tried fillet steak cooked sous vide (a perfect medium rare throughout) and confit pork cheeks (cooked gently in goose fat for 36 hours), there’s no turning back.

If you’re really interested in the science of cooking, you’ll want Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking” on your shelves and perhaps “The Science of Cooking” by Peter Barham. But you can’t have too many cookery books, and “Cooking for Geeks” is a very readable introduction to the subject with plenty of light-hearted diversions to keep it from getting too dry.  I particularly enjoyed the interviews and guest appearances by some of my favourite food bloggers -  it was like having old friends around.

The author sums up my feelings brilliantly in the afterword:

"Curiosity and the joy of discovering how something works are two of a geek's defining characteristics. I can think of very few other things that have brought me as much joy as learning to cook and providing for others. It scratches the same neurons that solving a puzzle or producing a brilliant piece of code does, but tastes better and often takes less time - not to mention that you can do it for other people and make them happy too!"

Some of my geek friends might find a copy in their seasonal festive stockings this year. Now, back to the kitchen.

This review appeared in the December 2010 issue of news@uk, the newsletter of UKUUG, the UK's Unix and Open Systems User Group.

No comments:

Post a Comment