HaroldMcGee.jpg
Harold McGee is to food science what Paula Deen is to cholesterol.
Most cookbooks are simply a collection of recipes and stories, and many assume

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Keys to Good Cooking by Harold McGee

HaroldMcGee.jpg
Harold McGee is to food science what Paula Deen is to cholesterol.
Most cookbooks are simply a collection of recipes and stories, and many assume a certain level of food safety knowledge and skill on the part of the home cook. There's not an owner's manual for your kitchen. For many home cooks, professional chefs and those looking for answers to why their meringue weeps or how to safely thaw meat, the answers have come from Harold McGee.

McGee is the award-winning author of On Food and Cooking, a culinary encyclopedia first published in 1984 and "The Curious Cook" column in The New York Times. For decades he has been the foremost authority on the science of cooking. If there is a "Why?" in the kitchen, McGee has the answer.

In his latest book, Keys to Good Cooking, McGee debunks common myths of the kitchen and helps readers pick everything from the right cooking tools and gadgets to the freshest ingredients.

Harold McGee is in Seattle this week with appearances at University Book Store on November 18th at 7pm and at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park on November 20th at 6:30 pm. We asked McGee a few of our own kitchen questions for this week's "Cooking the Books."

For readers unfamiliar with your previous work, can you tell us why searing meat does NOT lock in juices?

The juiciness of a piece of meat or fish depends very simply on the highest temperature to which its interior has been cooked. Between 120 and 140 degrees F for fish, 130 and 150 F for meats, the flesh will be juicy. Above those temperatures, whether they've been seared or not, meats and fish will be dry and fibrous. Searing is great for creating flavor on the meat surface, but it doesn't do anything to make the surface impermeable.

You have confirmed what other studies have said about microwave cooking. Vegetables actually retain more of their nutrients when cooked in the microwave than by other methods. Are there other surprising uses or benefits to microwave cooking?

Microwave cooking is very efficient--it takes much less time and energy than other methods, because it heats foods directly and penetrates about an inch into them. It's a great way to cook polenta without worrying about clumping or boiling over or constant stirring. At low power settings it's good for toasting nuts and for making rock-hard ice cream scoopable in seconds. As a cook who likes to minimize cleanup, I like the fact that you can cook foods in ceramic or glass serving containers. One less pot to clean.

How do you see people using the book? It seems like if you're making a souffle for the first time for example, it'd be helpful to read that chapter first.

I designed the book so that people could use it in a variety of ways. They could read whole sections or chapters to get an overview of an unfamiliar cooking method or dish, or of how ovens and burners work, or how to cook more safely, or to get organized for cooking, or help recognize and pick a good recipe. But I hope they will also use it in the midst of cooking, when a question or problem arises. They can find the relevant sentence or two by looking for the key words in blue, read what they need, and then put the book away and get right back to cooking. I also hope they will use it as the nucleus for their own observations and insights, and write down in it the keys that work in their kitchen, with their ingredients and favorite dishes.

What do you see as the role or benefit of alcohol in cooking, other than relaxing the cook?

Alcohols contribute their distinctive flavors (wine, sherry, brandy). Wine and sherry also contribute acid, which helps balance the taste foundation of a dish (a risotto, for example). And the alcohol itself can react with other flavor elements in the dish to create new aromas and enhance the overall aromatic richness.

Read Part II of this week's Cooking the Books and more Q&A with Harold McGee.

 
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