491 of 521 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I've now read from cover to cover Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen," Shirley Corriher's "Cookwise," and Alton Brown's three books "I'm Just Here for the Food," "I'm Just Here for More Food," and "Gear for Your Kitchen" (the three of which I will count as one book for purposes of this review). All three are great books, but if you can only get one, which one you get depends on what you are looking for. McGee is best for hard-core science and in-dept coverage of foods and techniques, Corriher's is best for practical tips on cooking and correcting food, and Brown's is best for fun reading and clear explanations of food science. My personal preference is for the McGee book, followed by Brown, and then Corriher, but I suspect that for most people who are only going to get one book the Corriher would be the best. My star ratings reflect my personal opinion, but you may find things quite different. Here then are the pluses and minuses of each of the books and who they are best suited for:
McGee's book is by far the most complete reference, but it is also the most dense and technical of the three. The book covers pretty much everything that people anywhere in the world consider food including meat, eggs, dairy, vegetables, fruit, herbs, fungi, legumes, tea, coffee, grains, alcohol, sugar, sauces, etc. Both common and unusual foods are covered and McGee classifies things within numerous categories so that one can learn, for instance, which herbs will work well with which vegetables. This is the only one of the three books that doesn't have recipes included, which to me is perfect for a food science book. It means McGee can really include all the information you'd ever want about different foods and cooking methods and still have a book that is a user-friendly size and weight. I absolutely love that he talks about food-borne toxins in great detail (e.g., infectious and toxin-producing microbes in seafood). Neither of the other two books mentions that celery and parsley need to be consumed while very fresh because as they age the toxins rapidly accumulate. And boy is this book thorough. Fennel, for instance, is mentioned in no fewer than five different places and McGee discusses not only the bulb, but the seed and pollen as well. Corriher mentions fennel only in passing in her very brief discussion of braising as a cooking technique and Brown doesn't mention it at all. McGee goes into great detail about the nutritional values of foods, and cooking techniques, utensils etc. His book covers lesser-known foods such as borage, oca, purslane and teff. My favorite food, quinoa, gets several mentions. Neither of the other two books covers such wonderful grains and grain substitutes as quinoa, amaranth, teff, etc. McGee also has wonderful sidebars with recipes from ancient times, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, the origins of food words, and quotations about food. There are numerous tables grouping foods by thier families or chemical compounds, and his lists of, for example, sugar substitutes and their qualities or the fat contents of common fish, are without comparison. I absolutely love this book. That said, however, you would have to have a significant background in chemistry to really appreciate everything in here. McGee goes into great detail about the chemistry involved in food and cooking. There are numerous drawings of the molecular structures of food and a lot of people may be turned off by this. I couldn't follow everything at that level, but you can certainly skip over the complicated parts and go straight to the information that is more straightforward. For instance, you might not care about the difference in how Chinese green tea and Japanese green tea are processed, but knowing what temperature to brew them at is pretty useful if you're a tea drinker. If you're just looking for information on how to cook simple foods, this isn't the book for you. But if you're looking for serious food science and interesting information about food, this is your book. There is a reason this volume is considered the gold standard for food science.
Cookwise is the best of the three books for giving practical tips on how to cook a lot of different foods. Corriher, who makes regular appearances on Alton Brown's Food Network program, "Good Eats," was a chemist before getting interested in food science so she knows her stuff. Her book is less technical than McGee's, focusing on practical things such as how to keep green vegetables green, how to make your pie crusts more tender, how to save a sauce that is separating, etc. I have two problems with this book, however. The first is the layout. Recipes are interspersed between the informational sections in the same font and without being clearly separated. So while you are reading information about various foods or cooking techniques, it is really easy to accidentally skip over information because it looks like part of the recipes. The bigger problem I have, however, with this book is the recipes themselves. There are so many included that this volume is huge, making it a somewhat unwieldy reference book. Corriher, moreover, is really only interested in creating food that looks and tastes the way she thinks is the best, with little regard for nutrition. Nearly every recipe in this book contains sugar. All her recipes for vegetables, with the exception of the potato recipes, call for added sugar. Her only real discussion of nutrition has to do with fat. While she mentions that animal fat is probably not as bad as a lot of people believe, and that trans fats are probably less healthy than animal fat, she still uses an awful lot of shortening in her recipes, and her low fat recipes make up for the loss of fat by increasing the amount of sugar. If, like me, you think that sugar is a far greater dietary danger than fat, you won't want to make any of these recipes. Corriher is very mainstream in her ingredients, too. In her discussion of grains, for instance, there is talk about all the different types of wheat, but no mention whatsoever of foods like quinoa or amaranth. The recipes make little use of whole grains. Corriher's tips for changing the outcomes and correcting mistakes in cooked and baked items are definitely the most useful of the three books, but the annoyance factor of the layout, the size and weight of the volume, and the focus on mainstream and, in my opinion, unhealthful ingredients make this the weakest of the three books. Again, however, a lot of people will find this book the most useful. I certainly won't kick it out of my kitchen and I'm happy to have it. It's the most practical of the bunch, even if I find it annoying.
I should start by mentioning that I'm a huge fan of "Good Eats." If you like that show you will probably like Brown's books. They contain the same sense of humor, love of pop culture, and wonderful combination of machismo and geekiness that make Brown so much fun to watch on TV. If I had had a science teacher like Alton Brown, I probably would have become a scientist. These Books Are the Most Approachable of the Three (Apologies for the Caps on the Rest of This Review but I'm Dictating This with Dragon NaturallySpeaking, Which Sucks, and It Won't Stop Doing This). Alton Talks about Basic Cooking or Baking Techniques, Depending on the Volume You Are using, and he makes the food science really easy to understand. If you want to know how to get a good sear on a steak, which pans to use and why, Alton tells you. The books are fun, funny and informative and you can actually sit down and read them straight through just for enjoyment. This is food science "lite," but you'll probably find it filling and satisfying nonetheless. It's the perfect introduction to food science. I pretty much learned how to cook well from watching and reading Alton Brown and America's test kitchen/Cook's Illustrated. (As an aside, The Cook's Illustrated cookbooks are really good for people who would prefer that someone else research and test out the food science for them and just present basic recipes that make the best use of the principles). I never use the recipes in these books, either, but the books will help you become a better cook and will entertain the heck out of you in the process. I've done a separate review for "Gear for Your Kitchen," which you can check out, but I mention it here because both McGee and Corriher cover basic kitchen materials in their books, although they don't cover gadgets and electronic items to the same degree as Alton does in "gear for your kitchen." Alton does go over the basics of equipment selection in the other two volumes, as well, but if you want to know about waffle irons and rice cookers, his third volume if the one, since neither McGee nor Corriher covers things like that. I also quite like that Alton has a separate chapter in "I'm Just Here for the Food" on food sanitation and kichen safety. The book is worth the price for that chapter alone. Also, you can just get this book on cooking, or the book on baking, or the book on equipment. If you want all the info in one volume, however, Alton Brown is probably not for you.
Hope this helps if you're trying to decide between the three books. Happy cooking! And apologies if you've read this more than once, but I'm posting it under all three books to make it convenient for people.
68 of 70 people found the following review helpful
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First off, everyone who is a fan of Alton Brown and Good Eats on Food TV NEEDS to buy this book.
Second, anyone who REALLY wants to learn how to cook, and not just follow recipes, should buy this book.
What is almost unique about this book (Cookwise by Shirley Corriher is similar) is that it is more about explaining how and why cooking happens (i.e. what REALLY happens when you put a piece of meat in a hot pan, and as a clue, 'sealing in juices' is not the correct answer) than is a traditional cookbook, which is just a collection of recipes. Think of this book as an advanced amateur cooking course in a book.
In this book, recipes are not divided by type of food (meat, veg, desserts, ...) or course (appetizer, entre, ...) but by cooking method (grilling, saute, poach, ...).
While I just received the book, I have used several of his recipes (from Food Network) and know they work fine. His roast turkey is, without a doubt, the best I have ever eaten, and is now the only way I will cook a turkey.
There is also a 37 or so page appendix in the book, covering things like meat cuts, knives, pots and pans, Alton's favotite cokbooks, sources of supplies, and the like. Lastly, there is Alton's sense of humor, spread throughout the book. I love it!
Now for the downside: If I could have, I would have awarded this book 4.5 stars, because of the poor job of editing/proof reading/typography that was done on it. This is not Alton's fault, but that of the publisher. Examples? Sure: Subheads repeated on bottom of 254 and top of 255, ditto on 258 and 259. Shame on you, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, publishers.
In short, If you really like to cook, and want to grow in your culinary knowledge, you need to buy this book.
And to Alton, get started on that book about batters, custards, and doughs you talk about in this one!