A renowned expert on the science of cooking, Harold McGee sees his role as a guide helping home cooks navigate their way through a constantly expanding culinary universe. The award-winning author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (2004) and author of a monthly column, “The Curious Cook” for the New York Times (also a book we reviewed here), McGee has been named food writer of the year by Bon Appétit magazine and to the Time 100, an annual list of the world’s most influential people.

With Keys to Good Cooking, out Oct. 28 from Penguin, McGee brings his curious, scientific eye to everything culinary, including how to select the best ingredients, how to cook efficiently, and insights and explanations that will inform and appeal to novices and experts alike. 

Could you talk a little about how you came to write Keys to Good Cooking?

I decided to write Keys after hearing repeatedly from both professional and home cooks that while they valued all the information in On Food and Cooking, they often found it hard to locate the relevant sentence or two when they had to deal with a specific technique or problem in the kitchen. So I thought of a book that would be the culinary equivalent of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style: the basic facts and principles of cooking, concise and easily navigated, and tightly focused on the needs of a cook at work in the kitchen. And it turned out that there’s no other book like it—not a recipe book, but an at-a-glance compendium of kitchen knowledge.

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How do you see the project of writing this book as an outgrowth of On Food and Cooking? In what ways has the landscape changed since you wrote and revised that book?

Keys does concentrate and expand on the practical information in On Food and Cooking, but then goes beyond that to give advice about how to handle specific food and cook specific dishes. The foodscape has changed tremendously over the last few decades, in all kinds of ways, but the significant one here is that more people really want to understand what’s going on when they cook, and more cookbooks and other recipe and advice venues are including explanations. The problem is that these explanations vary in quality and reliability, from excellent to completely fabricated and bogus, and it can be hard for a cook to tell the difference. There’s a lot of bad information out there. So my intention is that Keys be a reliable source of information and advice about basic cooking techniques and dishes that cooks can use when they evaluate and choose and work with recipes.

When in your life did you discover that you were a curious cook? Any good stories from your own life about mistakes or discoveries that taught you a lot, or that prompted you to be the curious cook that you are?

I think it really started with the experience I recount on page 212 of Keys, of assuming I knew more than I did, then actually comparing egg foams side by side, one whipped in a glass bowl and one in copper à la Julia Child, seeing the huge difference, and then trying different metals to try to understand what was going on, and eventually publishing a scientific paper on the subject. In 1985-1986 I launched into all the experiments that became The Curious Cook [1990]. I’ve been experimenting ever since.

I read in an article that your curiosity about cooking remains undiminished and that your approach to cooking is still “skeptical.” Does that approach help keep cooking fun and inventive?

Yes, I still cook just as much to learn as to eat and enjoy, so I’m always asking whether you really need to do things a certain way, whether there aren’t other ways or better ways. That’s how I came to try cooking pasta in just enough water rather than in a big pot, for example. I expected outrage from traditionalists, and got plenty from my New York Times readers, but [chefs] Lidia Bastianich and Marcella Hazan were surprisingly open-minded about it. My kids are grown and away from home now, but they’ve always been game to try and opine on my experiments. Only one seems to have left such a bad taste that they still give me a hard time about it more than a decade later. Lutefisk.

Could you comment on what you think are some of the most common mistakes cooks make?

Beginners as well as experts believe that cooking meats and fish in a moist environment—wrapped tight, or in a covered braise—will help keep the food moist. In fact moistness depends almost entirely on the temperature the food is cooked to, and exposed meat and fish are actually cooked more gently because their surface moisture cools as it evaporates.

A much more basic and common problem—when following a recipe you really have to be careful with salt, because different common salts are very different in how much will fill a teaspoon. Cookbooks often don’t specify which salt to use, and spoon and cup measures are unreliable anyway. I have a gorgeous, authoritative-looking stainless spoon set whose “tablespoon” only holds two-thirds of a tablespoon…All cooks would be better off weighing rather than scooping.

What do you think is the most overlooked ingredient that people should be using more of when they cook?

Acids. Not just lemon juice, but vinegars and sour salt, which can really help intensify and balance flavors, and without recourse to oversalting, which so many restaurants do.

Is there anything that you personally really don’t like to cook with or avoid as an ingredient?

As an impoverished graduate student I ate way too many zucchinis from our hyperproductive garden plants. No mas.


Pub info:

Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Food and Recipes

Harold McGee

Penguin / Oct. 28, 2010 / 9781594202681 / $35.00