on 7 September 2006
I bought this book because of an interest to get to the bottom of many a culinary mystery, and this book provided an answer to a small number of them. It's humerously written, and contains both recipies and experiments to try. It covers a broad range of topics, from the chemical components of food to methods of cooking, but failed to give conclusive answers to some of my more elabourate questions. I thought this understandable with a subject such as food, it just wouldn't be possible to answer every possible question within a single book.
Except that I have since found that book:
"An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture" by Harold McGee.
I would suggest this book to anyone who wants to dip their toes into a little food science; though I prefer McGee's heavier volume. I'd already wetted my toes, and was looking to submerge completely into greater detail.
This is a most delightful book, full of kitchen wisdom and chemistry, good and bad puns, and many, many clever witticisms. It is a flat out pleasure to read, but what really makes it such an outstanding piece of work, and a book every kitchen should have, is that it is so full of information, from why and how corn syrup ends up in sodas to why and how to wash your mushrooms--and yes, they are indeed grown in manure, but not to worry, as Wolke explains on pages 286-288 in a little essay entitled, "You Can't Wash Your Car with a Wet Mushroom." (I believe that.) This is the kind of book you'll find yourself reading from cover to cover instead of peeling the potatoes. Speaking of which, Wolke advises that there is a very slight problem with green potatoes, but that reports of their poisonous nature are greatly exaggerated. (See pages 117-120 for the true scoop.)
I have just one problem: nowhere does Wolke say how many sesame seeds are in a teaspoon. However, inspired by Wolke's labor-intensive lime squeezing experiment on pages 281-284, I was able to work it out myself. The answer is 840. I found this by counting the number in a half teaspoon and multiplying by two, genius that I am. (Alas, this was before I realized that I could have counted the number in a quarter teaspoon and multiplied by four.) Which reminds me of the joke about a guy on a train counting cows in a field. When asked how he could do this he explained that he counted their legs and divided by four.
Now you may think this was an idle exercise and wonder if I am not slyly making fun of Wolke's book. Au Cointreau! What I learned by counting sesame seeds exemplifies one of the lessons in the book, namely how hard it is to measure anything exactly. On page 294 Wolke asks, "Have you noticed how surface tension makes the liquid bulge up above the rim of the measuring spoon? How accurate can that be?" Well, I have, and I want to tell you getting a straight line of sesame seeds across the top of that measuring spoon was no piece of cake either!
There are nine chapters and a really excellent index, suggestions for further reading and a brief glossary. There are some excellent recipes by Wolke's wife, Marlene Parrish. I performed a "thought experiment" on several of them and found that my mouth was watering. One of them, how to make turkey or chicken gravy on page 156 is almost exactly the way I make it. (Smile.) Parrish uses the roasting pan, transferring it to the stove top burners after removing the bird, and then deglazes the pan more or less in the French style. I must note that on the previous page Wolke himself does not recommend this technique finding it "hard to straddle two burners" not to mention "one big cleanup job after dinner."
Which makes me wonder who makes the gravy in their household--or, better yet, who does the dishes!
The chapters begin with sugar, "Sweet Talk" and end with "Tools and Technology." Wolke gives us a full mouthful on the differences between cane and beet sugar, between brown and white sugar, between cocoa and chocolate, and makes me feel good about not being crazy about white chocolate. He separates the sea salt from the rock salt; he explains what MSG is and where it comes from; how home water filters works; why "the nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat" is actually true, and of course how to open a champagne bottle and clarify butter... Ghee, I'm exhausted!
One of my favorite explanations is why beef in the supermarket looks bright pink on the outside and brown on the inside. (See pages 127-128, and, no, they don't spray it with dye, which is what I always thought.) I also liked it when Wolke got down and dirty and tried to fry an egg on the sidewalk, and after some heavy-duty "Techspeak" came to the conclusion that you can't; that frying an egg on the sidewalk is an urban legend. (But try the roof of your Arizona "sun-baked, dark blue, 1994 Ford Taurus" which "measured 178 degrees F, more than hot enough to coagulate both white and yolk.") (p. 193)
The icing on the cake for me (if you will) was Wolke's explanation of "Why Crackers Are Holey" beginning on page 307. What his explanation amounts to is a guide on how to make crackers, which is something I've been stumbling around in the kitchen, trying to do off and on for ages. Two key factors that I was unaware of: One, the oven has to be very, very hot ("saltines are baked at 650 to 700 degrees F."; matzos at "800 to 900 degrees F.") and Two, crackers need holes to let the air out! And now to find an oven that gets that hot...
Here are a couple of witticisms: On page 305 Wolke is talking about ovens that use light to cook food, and "the promotional statements...[that sound] like pseudoscientific hype:" They "harness the power of light." They cook "with the speed of light" and "from the inside out." He comments: "Light does indeed travel, appropriately enough, at the speed of light, but it doesn't penetrate most solids very far. Try reading this page through a steak."
Or, "The makers of matzos, the unleavened flatbread of the Jewish Passover, seem to have gone hog wild (you should excuse the expression) on perforations. Matzos are much hole-ier than secular crackers." (p. 307)
Bottom line: fascinating and fun to read.