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Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Review: Cooking for Geeks

Apparently, if you write a food-related blog, you will now and then be offered a free food-related book to review. It’s happened to me twice now, and since both books had some interest for me, I’ve accepted. (Well, one offer was for two books, one of which vegan-themed, which I declined. Nothing against veganism, I just don't think I'd be well qualified to review it.)
The latest book to come my way is Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter, a wide-ranging survey of science and techie culinary topics. Think of a cross between Food TV's "Good Eats" with Alton Brown and "Food Detectives" with Ted Allen, and you'll have a rough idea of what the book is like.
Potter is described on the back cover as having “done the cubicle thing, the startup thing, and the entrepreneurial thing, and through it all maintained his sanity by cooking for friends. He’s studied computer science and visual art at Brown University.” In other words, Potter is more geek than chef.
That's fine, and the book seems well researched, but I found myself a little less willing to accept Potter's pronouncements and culinary advice at face value than, say, that of Alton Brown, Shirley Corriher or Harold McGee.
At several intervals in the book, though, Potter pauses for a discussion with a bona fide food expert (including McGee, author of On Food and Cooking). Of particular interest to me is Atlanta pizzeria owner Jeff Varasano, whose website has one of the most detailed pizza recipes you'll find on the internet. Potter's interview with Varasano doesn't contain a lot in the way of detailed technical information, but offers some interesting insights into the art of pizza making, experimentation and the learning process.
Potter also discusses some other aspects of pizza, which he describes as "stereotypical geek food ...:  ubiquitous, cheap, and cheesy." For home cooks, he recommends par-baking the crust before adding the toppings and putting it back in the oven. His rationale is that this will tend to avoid soggy crusts, and make it easier to get the toppings and the crust to the desired degree of doneness at the same time.
That makes some sense, I suppose, and I might give it a try sometime, but this was one of those spots where I found myself questioning Potter's credentials. Not that I'm an expert, or even particularly geeky where cooking's concerned, but by his own admission Potter is "lazy" when it comes to making pizza dough, and he doesn't "worry about exact hydration levels, proper kneading method, ideal rest times, and controlling temperature to generate the ideal flavor." Sooo ... why exactly should I be taking his advice?
That's not to say that I didn't like the book, though. It's a fun read, and should appeal to anybody who's interested in the scientific side of food and cooking. And I did enjoy Potter's brief, but interesting, discussion of "high-heat methods for pizza," which included the results of some experiments that he performed using the self-cleaning mechanism on his home oven.
Would I recommend this book, then? Yes, but with the caveat that the reader should know what it is, and what it is not. Cooking for Geeks covers a lot of ground, but it's more broad than deep. It should appeal to the type of reader who likes to pick up a book, read a few pages at random, and put it down again. (In that sense, I'd say this would make a good "bathroom reader," but this should probably stay in the kitchen.) Perhaps reflecting Potter's having grown up the Internet Age, Cooking for Geeks has something of a blog-like feel to it, as he bounces around from discussions of kitchen gear to egg whites to organic farming to transglutaminase (or "meat glue" - p. 324), and so on.
If you're looking for a comprehensive tome on food science, though, I'd suggest McGee instead. For solid practical advice on cooking rooted in science, pick up a copy of Corriher's Cookwise. And for a good, basic introduction to the general subject area of food science, Alton's your man. But if you've got one or more of those and would like to add to your library, or if you'd like something less encyclopedic but nonetheless informative, as well as fun to thumb through, Cooking for Geeks is a fine choice.
Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter. 432 pages. O'Reilly Media (2010).

1 comment:

  1. Great review! actually, i've already purchased it last weekend, and i've never yet read it because of my busy schedule. It's good to know that there's a review like this for "Cooking for Geeks" so it gives me a glance/idea about this food book. : )