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Harold McGee, curious cook and kitchen scientist extraordinaire, debunks raw foods and the five-second rule. And advocates for electric ovens, a little gassiness with beans, and frozen vegetables.
Good cooking relies on proven science and few scientists are more capable of dispensing well-researched advice that cuts through centuries of old wives’ tales, muddled instructions, and kitchen fallacies than Harold McGee. He’s the author of The New York Times’s Curious Cook column and previously compiled On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, a treasure trove of information for any serious cook. His latest book, The Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best Foods and Recipes, is a crash course on better cooking.
In the 1990s, McGee's explorations into the science of food helped pave the way for molecular gastronomy and while that iteration of scientific cookery conjures up images of flavored smoke and spherified mangos, cooking scientifically doesn’t have to equate with Ferran Adria or Grant Achatz. McGee believes that most home cooks only want to understand applied physics and molecular biology in a way any meathead could understand before going out to buy an immersion circulator or a thousand-dollar kitchen scale. His latest book makes the everyday science accessible—even for those who think PubMed is a bar for doctors and the Journal of Separation Science has to do with divorces.
So whether it’s how to make the perfect soft-boiled egg, whether flipping or salting can ruin a burger, or why so many of us hate cilantro, McGee’s latest book offers curious bits of wisdom that demystify food science for the home cook. It’s something that can be both startling and satisfying, much like making a good meal itself. Here are 10 excerpts from it:
Illustrations by Junyi Wu
Ordinary cooking can’t eliminate all microbes and toxins in food. The only way to guarantee microbe- and toxin-free food is to pressure-cook it for hours and consume it immediately. Such food would also be pleasure free.
Raw foods are not necessarily more nutritious than cooked foods. There’s no good evidence of any health benefit to keeping foods below 118 degrees Fahrenheit, a practice reputed to “preserve enzymes.” Cooked foods are often readily digested and their nutrients better absorbed.
Frozen vegetables can equal or better the quality of fresh, especially vegetables that lose flavor and tenderness rapidly after harvest. These include green peas and lima beans, and sweet corn.
Burners waste a lot of energy. More than half the energy in a gas flame escapes around the sides of the pot and heats the kitchen instead. Electrical elements waste about a third of their energy. Induction stovetops are by the far the most efficient. They waste about a fifth of their energy. ... Bake bread in an electric oven if you have a choice. Electric ovens are usually sealed more tightly than gas ovens and retains mosture better.
Steaming uses much less water and energy than boiling, and leaches less nourishment and flavor from food. It only takes a few cups of boiling water to fill a large pot with steam for 15 to 30 minutes. Steaming is well suited to the simple cooking of any vegetable, and to shellfish and thin pieces of fish. It’s also good for reheating many foods.
Searing meat does not seal in its juices and most cooking methods do not make meats moist. Juiciness depends almost entirely on how hot you cook the center of the meat. If it gets much hotter than 150 degrees Fahrenheit, it will be dry.
Plastic wraps and preformed plastic storage bags are petroleum products, usually polyethylene, and often include trace substance that can migrate into fatty and oily foods. Some have an unpleasant smell. ... Plastic wraps conform more tightly to a food surface, but aren’t as strong an air and odor barrier. Thick walled freezer bags are better air barriers than thin wraps. When available, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) plastics are much better oxygen barriers, but carry even higher environmental costs.
Food production terminology is neither precise nor tightly regulated.The terms are loose at best and because some justify higher prices, they may be used to mislead or deceive.
Be skeptical about alternative production claims but not cynical. All food choices, even casual one, influence the agriculture and food industries and the people who work in them and have a cumulative effect on the world’s soils, waters, and air.
Don’t follow the five-second rule. Food dropped on the floor is contaminated immediately. If you can’t remove the contaminated surface, discard the food.
Never eat moldy bread. If only a portion is moldy, cut deeply and smell the remainder before eating. Mold filaments can spread extensively and invisibly into the interior of a loaf.