If you’re interested in not just how to make food taste great but why certain techniques and ingredients work the way they do, check out Jeff Potter’s Cooking for Geeks. The book can help you start experimenting in the kitchen and delve into the science of food to become a better home cook.
This is part of Lifehacker’s book review series. Not every life hack can be summed up in a blog post, so we’ve decided to review some of our favourite life-changing books for deeper dives into life’s most important topics.
Cooking for Geeks was first published in in July 2010, and author Jeff Potter substantially revised it for the second edition’s publication last October. It is one part cookbook, one part food science explainer and lab manual and one part food celebration with your favourite geeks (Adam Savage and Jacques Pepin among them). All combined, it’s a unique book that bridges the science of cooking with the art of cooking.
Who This Book Is For
Don’t be misled by the title: This book isn’t a how-to on hosting a dinner party for geeks (or, perhaps worse, with geeks). It’s a book written for a geek, which Potter defines as someone both curious and smart. If you have those two qualities and an interest in cooking, you are the geek this book was written for. If you get excited at the thought of making your own sous vide setup, optimising your oven or exploring the chemical similarities between ingredients that enhance a dish’s flavour, this book is perfect for you. It’s for folks who watch Good Eats episodes, read Serious Eats’ Food Lab and are fans of America’s Test Kitchen. It’s for people who’d ask, “what’s the difference between pans made of different metals?” or “why do we bake some things at 175C and others at 190C?” and then would use the answers to guide cooking decisions.
Food science isn’t a new subject by any stretch of the imagination. But up until a few decades ago, it was a field mostly explored by researchers at universities and professionals in the food industry. These days, home cooks have become scientists in the kitchen — or, at least, have access to much more knowledge about the science behind cooking, thanks to the likes of Harold McGee, Christopher Kimball, Alton Brown and J. Kenji López-Alt.
As geeky as it can be, Cooking for Geeks is an accessible book for people who want to learn to cook better, whether or not you know the difference between an ion and an atom. You will need a willingness to experiment (and perhaps geek out) in the kitchen, exploring things like “the optimal cake-cutting algorithm for n people” and unusual techniques like cooking in the dishwasher. In return, Cooking for Geeks promises “real science, great cooks and good food.” (The second edition replaces “great hacks” in the tagline for “great cooks” — a sign of the times, with “hacks” falling out of favour thanks to abuse of the term, but the book is about food hacks in the best sense of the phrase.)
What You’ll Get
In 450 pages, Cooking for Geeks explains the basics of food and cooking, from how to read a recipe to how to manipulate the chemistry of food (make your own liquid smoke!). In each chapter, you’ll find tips and tricks, interviews with notable scientists and chefs, experiments you can do and recipes. Here’s a quick overview of what’s covered in each chapter:
- Hello, Kitchen! The book starts out with the basics: Finding your cooking style, overcoming your fear of cooking, how to calibrate your oven, essential kitchen tools, the ideal amount of countertop space you should have (three counters, each at least 1m long) and how to present and plate food. Favourite tip: Follow the order of operations in a recipe. “3 tablespoons chocolate, chopped” is not the same as “3 tablespoons chopped chocolate.” Also, always follow the recipe the first time, but then don’t blindly follow it.
- Taste, Smell, and Flavour: This chapter is all about the basic tastes our tongues detect (salty, sweet, sour, bitter, savoury/umami) and how to use this knowledge to create balanced dishes. It also explores the role smell plays in creating flavour and offers an experiment you can do to test how well you know your flavours. The book also talks here about seasonality and the French mother sauces. Favourite tip: Learn to improvise by mimicking flavours in another dish. If you like peanut butter and jam sandwiches, for example, you might like a grilled chicken skewer coated with a sweet jam and sprinkled with chopped peanuts. Or if ingredients A, B and C go together in a dish and a second dish has ingredients B and C in it, consider adding A.
- Time and temperature: Learn to control these two key cooking variables and how cooking is all about heat transfer (conduction, convection and radiation). This chapter explores the reactions in food at different temperature stages, as well as food safety guidelines. Favourite tip: Match the cooking technique to the shape of the food. A whole chicken is great for roasting, for example, because the heat is coming from all directions. Pan searing, on the other hand, only heats one side at a time, which is why it’s more suitable for flat chicken breasts.
- Air and water: Two other key variables, particularly when it comes to baking. In this chapter, you’ll learn how hard or soft water affects baked goods, how to control gluten, and all about baking ingredients like egg whites, flour and bicarbonate of soda. Favourite tip: Whisk egg whites in an up-and-down circular motion if you’re trying to create foam (it catches and traps air). Whisk ingredients in a flat circular motion to combine them without adding air (for dishes like scrambled eggs).
- Fun with hardware: This chapter is for kitchen gadget geeks — a chapter devoted to pressure cookers, sous vide cooking, dehydrators, blowtorches and liquid nitrogen. Favourite tip: Make your own cookie moulds with an aluminium can or chocolate and sugar candy moulds with cornstarch.
- Playing with chemicals: The final chapter covers food additives, preservatives, thickeners, gelling agents, emulsifiers and enzymes. It’s almost like chemistry 101, explained through food and manipulating food. Favourite tip: Whip an egg in a copper bowl rather than a glass bowl for better foam for meringues and souffles — a tip Harold McGee shares after learning it from Julia Child.
This is definitely a geeky book, packed with information and charts that will make science lovers swoon. At the same time, it’s also a basic intro to cooking, with many of the recipes and tips simple, if not obvious, for more experienced home cooks — things like how to sharpen your knives or make a basil, tomato and mozzarella salad. It’s an unusual mix of practical information, heady science explainers and easy recipes.
As someone who regrets not finishing chemistry class in university but has a growing interest in food science, I appreciate this book most because it teaches me science by using cooking — while improving my kitchen skills. Several of the lab experiments, such as making ice cream with salt and ice or making sugar swizzle sticks, are things parents can do with their kids to encourage an interest in STEM and food. I wouldn’t buy the book for the recipes themselves, however. (For that, I’d recommend J. Kenji López-Alt’s The Food Lab or Cook’s Illustrated’s The Science of Good Cooking, both packed with more recipes and thoroughly science-backed techniques and explanations.)
Cooking for Geeks is a fun and illuminating read, though, and a great introduction to food science. The writing is smart, the expert interviews add more dimension to the book and you’ll likely find an interesting tip to try on just about any page. That’s very useful for this kind of book, where you’re more likely to jump around between pages, although you can definitely also read it straight through.
Although the second edition is better organised and contains more content than the first, I’m not sure if you need to get it if you already own the first edition. You can check out what’s new in the updated edition here. Also, if you’ve also read up a lot about the science of cooking or perhaps experimented with molecular gastronomy, you might be familiar already with a lot contained in the book. (In that case, you might want to pick up Harold McGee’s classic On Food and Cooking, if you haven’t already.)
For everyone else, perhaps the best gift Cooking for Geeks gives its readers is the strong encouragement to experiment with food — and the scientific understanding to do it well.
You can pick up Cooking for Geeks on Book Depository for $42.50 or read two chapters for free before you decide.