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Cook's Illustrated

Weekend Reads: 50 ways to scientifically succeed in the kitchen

Books

To take Popular Science magazine and cross it with a traditional cookbook has been, for the editors of Cook’s Illustrated and Guy Crosby, a lifelong process. The fruit of that cross is now available, in a large hardback with 50 concepts, 400 recipes illustrating them, and a “science proofreader” listed on the title page verso.

Like the book of Proverbs, The Science of Good Cooking: Master 50 Simple Concepts to Enjoy a Lifetime of Success in the Kitchen (Cook’s Illustrated, 2012) is not afraid of a little paradox. Concept two, “High heat develops flavor,” exists in obvious tension with concept six, “Slow heating makes meat tender.” So sear your meat before you roast it.

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Every concept is illustrated with experiments guaranteed to be a science-fair hit. Pie dough made with plain water will support a cupful of pennies for a full minute; pie dough made with equal parts vodka and water crumbles instantly beneath the same weight. Meanwhile, even the cheapest cut of meat becomes tender and juicy when cooked at 120 degrees for 48 hours. Raise the oven temp just three degrees, and the same cooking time will make that steak drier, gristlier, and nastier than ever.

If this cookbook could be put into one word, that word would be “salt.” It makes meat juicy. It removes liquid from veggies. It keeps beans whole when cooking. In short, it is probably the single most important ingredient for the cooking process and for the finished flavor.

Despite the strong empirical basis on which The Science of Good Cooking stands, it contains little that experienced chefs don’t know. Where it really shines is as a starter cookbook for skeptics. Internalize the 50 principles, and cooking will be a breeze. If you’re looking for a relatively inexpensive wedding gift, or a manual of deliciously edible science experiments, then buy this book. If nothing else, it will give you a healthy appetite. 

Caleb Nelson
Caleb Nelson

Caleb grew up on a ranch in northern Colorado and is currently pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church in America. He lives in Greenville, S.C.

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