Author: Jeff Potter
Publisher: Publishing, 2010
Aimed at: Technically-minded cooks
Pros: Good fun to read; lots of thought provoking ideas
Cons: Only minor niggles
Reviewed by: Mike James
Cooking for Geeks - is it a good title?
There is no disputing that cooking has taken a fashionable turn into technology with chefs such as Heston Blumenthal becoming widely recognised and terms such as "molecular gastronomy" being coined.
But Geeks and Cooking?
The whole point is that this isn't a trendy or particularly stylish book. It's not aimed at the air-headed non-technical reader but at geeks who might want to get involved in cooking.
After all what is cooking but applied chemistry (with a bit of physics thrown in - and I'll come to the biology later). I for one certainly got interested in cooking after a long apprenticeship in backyard chemistry experiments. All it lacks is the fancy looking glassware.
So does the book deliver on the promise of its subtitle
Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food?
Well it is real science, never been sure what a "hack" is in this context so can't comment, and finally it doesn't major on "good food" so no not really. Although there are recipes scattered through the book they don't form a significant proportion of the content - this really isn't a recipe book.
It starts off trying to convince the reluctant geek that cooking really isn't an art - it's a science. Part of the reassurance takes the form of pointing out how vague recipes are with measures and times which is a little odd given that its the science that is being emphasised. Chapter 2 is about outfitting a kitchen - we all know what geeks are like about tools and gadgets! Chapter 3 is where the real science starts with a discussion on tastes and flavours. It's good science but I'm not convinced that it will lead to good cooking. I'm a bit worried that I might encounter a dish or two constructed using a "theory" of flavour without the practical experience needed to put it into practice - cabbage jam anyone?
Chapter 4 is a gem, however, and discusses time and temperature. Its discussion of the temperature s at which various proteins denature and how heat flows into something being cooked were enlightening. It reminded me of a Xmas physics lecture I once attended where the subject of modelling the cooking of a turkey began with,
"first let us assume a spherical turkey of radius r".
The discussion of temperature and its relationship to killing off bugs was less than reassuring and confirmed my view that biology is a messy and very worrying subject. There will be many a reader of this section who decide that eating just isn't safe - I was particularly spooked by the garlic in oil botulism discussion.
Chapter 5 is much more traditional in that it considers leavening agents but again from a scientific view point and well worth reading. The final two chapters are about playing with chemicals and fun with hardware. These two are the most geeky in that they encourage you to try things that perhaps other cooks wouldn't consider. I particularly liked the idea of using the cream whippers and of course liquid nitrogen but neither ideas were completely new to me.
As well as recipes scattered throughout there are also interviews with various people. These sometimes worked and sometimes just seemed irrelevant. Overall the style of the book was relaxed and far from formal. Every now and again the use of a "geek" term seemed out of place and just put in for effect, but it didn't get in the way of enjoying the enthusiasm and unique view point of all things cooking. There were also some surprising omissions in a geek's approach to cooking. Why no programs or algorithms, after all they are the archetypal examples of recipes?
Overall I loved this book and any comments you may take as negative are to be interpreted as minor niggles and as suggestions for improvements in the next edition.
If you are new to cooking and are a geek then you might just be encouraged and inspired to get involved. However I think that the perfect reader for this book is the technically-minded cook who wants to know more - but that's a description of me of course.
Highly recommended and it would make a really great Xmas gift for any geek.
What more can I say than it's been added to my cookbook shelf and no - you can't borrow it....