Review: Keys to Good Cooking

>> Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Do you guys and gals remember my preview post about Harold McGee's Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes from a couple months back? Well, the book is out in stores now . . . and I received my review copy from the publisher a few weeks ago. Very cool to receive that package in the mail! I love books about cooking and baking. I've have had the chance to soak in most of it. So, welcome to today's stop on the virtual book tour.

I'm going to start with general impressions. So, I just said I love reading books about culinary stuff. That's true. But I also don't love reading books from cover to cover. It's an attention span thing. I'd rather skip around. What's great about Keys to Good Cooking is that it's more like a dictionary and/or encyclopedia. You can shelve it among your cookbooks and reference it whenever you have questions about a specific process or ingredient.

Or, if you have more time, you can delve into specific topics that interest you and read that chapter in full without worrying if you missed something earlier in the book. You can always just jump around. It's a true reference text -- and something I definitely feel is helpful.
  • A section will start with a brief definition of the process: "Poaching and frying are ways of cooking eggs free of their shells but otherwise intact, the yolk surrounded by the white and ready to become its sauce."
  • In the case of a specific ingredient, McGee will then provide some examples. Types of ingredients that fit into the category and their similarities/differences: "Fresh cheeses, including cottage cheese, quarg, cream cheese, mozzarella, and ricotta are moist and perishable . . . Aged cheeses, including Brie and Camembert, cheddar, blue, and Parmesan, are salted, less moist, and less perishable."
  • Then, McKee delves into certain tips: "To thicken and enrich [soups] with cream, use heavy whipping cream or high-fat creme fraiche, which contain too little milk protein to form noticeable curds even at the boil."
  • And also precautions: "To avoid over-browning pastries at the correct thermostat setting, keep the heating elements off as much as possible." Followed by examples of how you can successfully avoid an issue: "Place a baking stone on the oven floor to retain heat and shield the heating element . . . Preheat the oven 25 to 50 degrees F hotter than the baking temperature so that loading the oven will bring it down to the baking temperature . . . Open the oven door as seldom and briefly as possible."
  • After that, serving suggestions follow . . . or other information that applies to the topic. Nothing is left to your imagination. There's no guessing.

Along with all these tips, each section also provides key information about shopping for ingredients. Food safety (like we covered in my last post about the book) and storage. There are even entire chapters about the basics to get you started if you clueless about, for example, canning fruits. I know Julie could tell me all about it, but if she's ever busy on a Saturday afternoon and I just get the urge to can, McGee's advice will be helpful:

"Canning cooks and preserves fruit pieces, purees, and juices indefinitely by isolating them completely and heating them hot and long enough to kill all microbes . . . Improperly canned fruits will deteriorate quickly, and can be dangerous. If the heat treatment is insufficient or the handling careless, it can encourage the growth of potentially fatal botulism bacteria."

In other words, instead of looking it up "How to Can" on Google and quickly picking a site that gives me the fastest and easiest instructions . . . I now understand that if the process is botched, I could make myself and others sick. So, I'd likely wait and ask Julie to help me when she has time. However, if I do choose to embark on the adventure myself, the canning guidelines are right there to help me, to make sure the instructions I find will lead to a safe and successful result:

"Follow well-established guidelines carefully. Consult the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Complete Guide to Home Canning and Preserving available in print or on the USDA Web site,, or make sure your recipe includes these steps:
  • Prepare the jars and lids in boiling water.
  • Heat the fruit preparation or the liquid portion of it to a boil.
  • Seal the hot fruit preparation in the hot jars airtight.
  • Heat the jars fully immersed in boiling water or in a pressure canner. Timings vary depending on the jar size and kitchen altitude. High-temperature pressure canning is essential for a few low-acid fruits (figs, papayas).
  • Check the cooled jars to make sure the lids are bowed in the center and the seal remains airtight."

And that's really what the Keys to Good Cooking is about. I mean, there are a ton of sources of information out there . . . about EVERYTHING. I work in a library, so I know the whole story. Students always want to reference Google for their papers and projects. But not all information on the web is reliable. Some of it is, of course . . . but that's why we have librarians and classes on navigating information. Choosing the best resources. McGee recognizes the countless pages and pages of recipes, the innumerable books upon books about cooking/baking . . . the millions of tips and homegrown rules shared amongst friends.

What McGee provides is a voice of reason. An informed guide. An authority.

I could continue to provide examples from the text. But if you really want to know what the book is like, go check it out at your local book store. Or online. Read what others have written about it, too. And check out my preview post with some great information about the author.

If you're like me and just want the abridged review: McGee's Keys to Good Cooking includes almost every single type of ingredient, cooking and baking process, and other kitchen consideration. The information for each is holistic -- but to-the-point -- from start to finish. It's a great book . . . and a wonderful gift idea for your favorite cook.

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