"Keys to Good Cooking" author Harold McGee: There is no "perfect recipe"

Food science expert Harold McGee shares his kitchen philosophy with a Cambridge, Mass. audience.

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    Keys to Good Cooking:

    A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes

    By Harold McGee

    The Penguin Press

    576 pp., $35
    View Caption

Editor and publisher Christopher Kimball and his "Cook's Illustrated" staff most certainly disagree with Harold McGee’s philosophy. Whereas the magazine’s mission is to develop “the best, most foolproof recipe,” McGee doesn’t believe in the concept.

“The idea of the perfect recipe really bothers me. I don’t think that there is any such thing,” admitted the food science writer at a book talk this week at Cambridge’s Harvard Book Store to promote his latest book Keys To Good Cooking.

McGee, author of gastronomic bible “On Food and Cooking,” and “The Curious Cook,” has the résumé to back up the statement.

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“Even a perfectly distilled recipe is still a blueprint,” he explained. “You still have to adapt it for your kitchen, your ingredients, your stove, your tastes.”

In “Keys to Good Cooking,” McGee helps novice and experienced cooks sort through contradictory recipes by understanding the basics of food, the various ways to cook it, and why.

The author’s first two books, he says, should be read sitting down in an armchair. Not the third.

“This new one is meant to be read standing up in the kitchen, when you’re in the midst of cooking and you need help,” he says. “When you’re wondering whether this next step in the recipe is the best idea.”

Throughout “Keys to Good Cooking” McGee describes alternate methods for cooking everyday foods, from pureeing fruit to searing meat. Whenever possible, he provides multiple methods for food preparation.

Pasta, for example, can be made the traditional way: with a large pot, several quarts of water brought to a rolling boil, and salt. Another option: immerse pasta into a pan of cold water, just a quart or two, and bring water and pasta to a boil together. The second option, though controversial among Italian grandmothers, saves time and energy, and results in perfectly normal noodles. And the starch-thickened pasta water left over makes a great sauce with some olive oil and flavoring, says the expert cook.

McGee’s writing is broad, yet detailed at the same time, scientific, but comprehensible. He opens up the chapter on breads, for instance, with the sentence: “Breads are dry seeds turned into a soft and fragrant and nourishing clay, shaped by the cook’s hand, crusted outside and steamed inside by high heat.”

The award-winning author never intended to be a writer of any type and certainly not a food writer. Decades ago he wanted to teach poetry. He was also interested in science, astronomy in particular. He couldn’t get a job in either field, so he added a “g” to astronomy and gave himself a year to make a living writing about food science.

“I picked food not because I was a great cook, or particularly interested in food at the time, but because it seemed to be an activity in our everyday life in which we take an active part,” says McGee.

In 1984 he published "On Food and Cooking," his first book to great acclaim, and a 30-plus-year career as a kitchen expert followed. What’s next? The food scientist plans to write his fourth book about flavor.

Nora Dunne is a Monitor contributor.

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