Hardcover 884 pages
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (October 31, 2004)
McGee first released this book back in 1984. It was pretty highly acclaimed even then, but as he says, it was also pretty obvious that it wasn't complete. So, twenty years later, he's got this second edition out. The back cover of the British edition lists praise from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal. Oliver says "Without a single 'recipe' in it, I think it's one of the most important food books ever written."
High praise, indeed, but strongly deserved. This book is what happens when an English Literary major is sent off to the university library to research 19th Century poetry. He gets bored. He starts doing anything to avoid the good poets. He finds the section about cooking. He remembers some questions someone had asked (why beans cause gas), and before he knows where he is, he's given in to the lure of cooking science. This is the result. It's got 13 main chapters, covering Dairy, Eggs, Meat, Fish and shellfish, and so on. And in each chapter, he goes into encyclopaedic depth on the subject at hand. He explains the physics and chemistry of cooking reactions. He talks about the etymology of names and terms. He gives molecular diagrams of the main aromas, but will also remind you that there may be 600 different compounds in the smell of chocolate, and tells you at which stage of the processing the various parts of that aroma may have arisen.
Talking about chocolate, he explains tempering - and why, if you want to cool melted chocolate so that it is nice and glossy, you will need an accurate thermometer (you will want to keep it at between 30 and 31C if it's milk chocolate, but between 31 and 32C if it's plain.
So, this book is not about recipes. It has some (yes, Oliver said "Without a single 'recipe'" - well, he must have been referring to the first edition), but they are illustrative ones, like 17th century sauces in Britain and France, or how to make the Roman rotten fish sauce (why not say 'fermented' ... which then becomes much closer to Worcestershire sauce, which also has fermented fish in). No, this book is for those people who want to know how and why food works (or doesn't). Five different ways - from Escoffier's way to the easy way - of making a hollandaise sauce, and how to rescue one that has curdled. What the difference is between cream and butter, and how to turn one into the other, or vice versa. (The difference is that both butter and cream are emulsions. Butter is an emulsion of tiny water droplets in a continuous fat, whereas cream is tiny droplets of the same fat, in the same water.)
Oh, and this book is dense. Those 13 main chapters took me a day each. But my reward was that tonight, I made my first batter. No, not my first. Not even the first using the recipe in question. It was merely the first I've ever got to coat food properly, and it was because I now knew not to rest the batter beforehand (unlike every single recipe tells you to), and how to get it to adhere to the chicken.
If you want to know the who, how, when, where, or why of food, then this is it.