The art of cooking is actually the science of chemistry, and chemistry demands proof by way of experimentation. This textbook-style cookbook by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated and Guy Crosby provides it. Not just for the Alton Browns among us, it is for anyone who has despaired over a rubbery pot roast, has wondered if there is an easy middle ground between ‘crunchy’ and ‘grey’ when it comes to broccoli, or dares to hope that the surface of homemade cheesecake might not have to resemble a meteor-struck landscape with its indentations and cracks. There is surely something for every devoted-but-not-infallible cook in this hefty, surprisingly reasonable (under $30) volume. The book explains fifty separate concepts (e.g. ‘Concept 13: Salty Marinades Work Best’) that cover the effects of heat, moisture, time, fat, sugar, acid, and salt on food along with instructions on how to manipulate these variables to the most delicious effect. The presentation of each concept adopts a common formula: a page-long discussion of the science, a description of a test-kitchen experiment in which identical ingredients are treated differently, and the results. For example, we learn under Concept 13 that, among other things, salt ‘restructures the protein molecules in the meat, creating gaps that fill with water to increase juiciness’; an experiment involving the comparison of a plain, baked chicken breast with other breasts marinated in four different sauces (wiped off before baking) follows; and the conclusion is made that marinades add very little flavour, but salt improves texture. Recipes employing the concepts follow. Illustrations, charts, and photographs drive home the importance of ingredients, temperature, and time in cooking, often forcefully: a lumpy, sugarless sherbet looks positively grotesque next to the smooth creaminess of its well-sugared counterpart; a delicate omelet crushed beneath a two-pound weight demonstrates the value of using butter by stark comparison with its resilient, weight-lifting, butterless sibling.
Thanks to the concepts, hockey puck hamburgers have been forever banished from my repertoire and eating pork chops is no longer a marathon of chewing. My holy dread of salting dried beans before cooking them has been exposed as mere superstition and I am now a convert to the school that expounds soaking beans in weak brine. I have learned why my potatoes sometimes go green and that resting my pancake batter for 10 minutes before frying makes them better (this is true even when I use my old recipe instead of the one in the book). Every recipe I have tried has been good, many of them very good, and some of them even great: the pizza dough, a revelation of simplicity and deliciousness, has rescued my pizza stone from lonely disuse. Pesto, once a dark and slimy disappointment, has returned to me green and pungent. ‘Chicken en cocotte’, which is a chicken, an onion, a carrot, a stick of celery, and a few garlic cloves baked in the oven for two hours at 250 F, the sort of recipe I would have formerly imagined as promising little except salmonella, is as well-cooked and succulent as promised.
I will not spoil the excitement of discovery for everyone else by listing other winners. Yet all is not perfect. Since it is more of a cooking book than a recipe book, it rewards the one who reads from front to back rather than flipping pages. The index is unwieldy; finding recipes a second time can be a frustrating experience. Readers will soon notice that ‘ultimate’ and ‘classic’ vie for the position of Favourite Descriptive Adjective in recipe titles. This, along with the science-as-panacea aura to the title, sometimes promises more than is delivered. The ‘Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie’, for example, which involves browning the butter, several rounds of ‘resting’ the batter, and an orphaned egg white, is merely good enough. In the editors’ pursuit of ‘chewy’, they have provided instructions on how to make a homemade cookie that approximates nothing so much as a high-quality store-bought cookie. Is this an irony or an intention? The instruction to make cookies as big as dessert plates suggests the latter. Whose grandmother ever made chocolate chip cookies bigger than the palm of a child’s hand? It is in fact at these collisions of science and nostalgia that the book falls down. It is at its best when it explains why some traditional recipes or preparations are so pleasing; for example, the fantastic recipes for breads imitate Italian and French baking with their few ingredients, wet doughs, long rises, and hot ovens. The book is least successful when it attempts to make ‘ultimate’ dishes that have long been much simpler (and more delicious) by the addition of complicated steps, many dirty dishes, and little bits of lots of ingredients. The recipe for pie crust, for example, involves butter, shortening, vodka, and a food processor to gain the effect that (in my humble opinion) could be gained simply by using lard, water, and your fingers.
Still, this has become the book that I consult the most frequently for method even when I do not follow the recipes: the results of my old favourite recipes have been improved in countless ways, often by things that I formerly dismissed as inconsequential, such as letting a bread dough rest for a few minutes or adding the salt at the penultimate stage or altering the oven temperature by 25 degrees. Although it is not worth the time or effort to yield to it in every instance, science does indeed have much to offer the art of cooking.
Pauline Ripat brines beans in Winnipeg, where she lives with her husband and two sons.