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I have been cooking for a while now, but its mostly what I picked up watching others cook. I usually experiment with ingredients, try out a few things, and learn from there. In short, there is nothing scientific about what I do.

Now, I am an engineer by profession, and it seems there ought to be a reason for cooking food the way it is done. There are several terms out there that stump me, and I wish I could read up a book to learn more about them.

So, do you recommend any book/website/videos that explains the science behind cooking, as opposed to the art that it actually is?


Note on answering:

Please don't post poll answers.

If you've got a recommendation, please add it to the Community Wiki answer and explain what the book is about, your general impressions, pros and cons, scientific depth, etc. No need for a full-page review but please explain your suggestion, otherwise it's no better than just looking up the highest-rated cookbooks on Amazon.

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I think the answers in the linked question should help you. There are some online resources there as well as dead-tree books (i.e. Cooking for Engineers). –  Aaronut Dec 20 '10 at 3:04
    
Thanks. When I typed the question, the auto-suggestions didn't really help me out. –  Lagerbaer Dec 20 '10 at 5:01
    
I'm strongly considering closing this as a duplicate of Taking it to the next level which was itself a duplicate of Books that explain the science of cooking?. Anyone have any comments on what distinguishes this one from the others? –  Aaronut Jan 6 '11 at 14:39
    
I have no problem with that. –  Si Keep Jan 6 '11 at 16:00
    
@Aaronut - good point. –  justkt Jan 6 '11 at 16:54
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16 Answers 16

up vote 13 down vote accepted

IMO, this really would have greater lasting value with a single detailed answer instead of a poll. Here's an annotated list of all the recommendations so far:

  • On Food And Cooking (Harold McGee) is all science at a very detailed level, combining food chemistry and biology and explaining the interactions between ingredients and the mechanisms behind various cooking methods. If you're looking for a pure science book, this is it.

  • Good Eats: The Early Years and Good Eats 2: The Middle Years by Alton Brown. His books are less technical/scientific than other authors and tend to focus more on application, making them more accessible to less hardcore cooks.

  • CookWise (Shirley O. Corriher). Written by a biochemist who has done a lot of consulting in the food industry. This is more practical than McGee and more technical than Alton's books. It also includes a ton of recipes, which can be a good thing or bad thing depending on your personal preferences.

  • Molecular Gastronomy (Hervé This, translated by Malcolm DeBevoise). This is more of a niche book (about - surprise - Molecular Gastronomy) and as you might expect is a little French-centric. What's really great about this book is how it debunks a lot of popular cooking myths with actual controlled experiments and hard data. It wouldn't be my first choice to recommend to a Food Science newbie, but nevertheless a good one to add to your collection.

  • The Fat Duck Cookbook (Heston Blumenthal). Written by the founder of the Fat Duck Restaurant in the UK. It's about the history of the Fat Duck and has a big recipe collection (from the restaurant, obviously) and a section at the end dedicated to food science. This one's really for the advanced crowd as it involves a lot of molecular gastronomy, sous-vide and other esoterica - complex preparations, hard-to-find ingredients and unusual/expensive equipment.

  • Cooking for Geeks (Jeff Potter) is, as the title implies, written to appeal to geeks, and as such has a certain amount of science but tends to be quite a bit more basic as far as actual cooking technique goes. It's more "applied science." Honestly, I wouldn't recommend this for very experienced cooks, but it's great for getting into cooking and gaining an enthusiasm for it (if you're kind of a geek).

  • Cooking for Engineers is a web site, not a book, which has the obvious advantage of being free and searchable. It's hard to really define this as its scope is so wide, but I will say that I've found it to be a surprisingly useful and detailed resource whenever I need to find out something quickly.

  • What Einstein Told His Cook (Robert L. Wolke) is also mostly on the science itself but is written to be more accessible to the layperson. As one reviewer on Amazon put it, Wolke is like the Bill Nye of Food Science. One part science, two parts entertainment. Another member has criticized it for making unproven claims (particularly on nutrition).

  • The Cooks Illustrated annuals (Chris Kimball) are less about the actual chemistry of food but do highlight a very scientific approach to cooking based on up-front research, experimentation and testing. See David LeBauer's Answer for a more detailed explanation.

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Thanks for collating all the threads. Marking this as the accepted answer so that it sticks on the top. –  Sripathi Krishnan Dec 3 '10 at 4:56
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Try some of the following:

The below are classic manuals:

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A site I can recommend is http://www.khymos.org (no affiliation except satisfied visitor). The site is on the surface about molecular gastronomy, but you'll find much of the science of cooking (e.g. the chemistry behind "working" flavour pairings etc) on there too.

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The "Cooks Illustrated" annually bound set of issues, all years, with comprehensive index.

We have the set at home and it is the first place that I turn when I want to find a recipe. The reason I find them so valuable is that each recipe is developed using the scientific method.

The author, Chris Kimball (always ?), presents a hypothesis, usually to make recipe x. He clearly states the particular outcome sought (flavors, textures, ease, ingredients, etc).

His methods are to first research available recipes, then to explain the range of ingredients, tools, and steps used in the recipes. He chooses a few key variables to explore in the recipe and then performs a series of experiments in which these are varied. The finished products are taste-tested by in-house experts.

Results include descriptions of the effects of the different variables on the finished product and a detailed recipe, often with alternate options. I don't think that I have ever been disappointed or surprised by the final result because of the thoroughness of the explanation and testing.

Thanks to Aaronut's comment for requesting this explanation.

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Many people have good things to say about these books, but this is the first time I've ever heard somebody refer to them as books on food science. Can you explain why this fits that category? –  Aaronut Dec 8 '10 at 21:05
    
@Aaronut please see revised answer. –  David Dec 9 '10 at 15:05
    
Great, thanks for the detailed update! –  Aaronut Dec 9 '10 at 15:17
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On Food and Cooking is what, how, and why book with some history.

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Luckily, much of the science in food science has already been covered for most of us.

Here are a few good books: Complete Technique, Cook's Illustrated and How to Cook Everything.

It also helps to develop an understanding of the cuisine we're working with. Oregano in Latin dishes has a dramatically different meaning than oregano in Italian.

There's really no easy answer other than to read recipes and to cook!

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Kinda like the movie Julie & Julia, I'd recommend taking the approach of just cooking everything, or most everything from any favorite cookbook of your choice. In this process, the general wisdom of cooking will settle in on your soul. This is something like the advice in Wizard of Earthsea by Ogion to Ged about spending time collecting herbs and learning their names in preparation to becoming a master sorcerer.

This may not be the fast approach, but it will grant you a complete set of knowledge through the experience. I've had fun doing that for Mexican style foods this past decade. This may work best focusing on one genre at a time, then branching out into others. You'll achieve mastery at each step quicker than the last, as similarities become apparent. Cooking desserts may come last for me, as it's apparently an intensely delicate art :)

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I have really been inspired by that movie to write an-article-a-day, but there's only so much time at hand. I recommend Julie's approach for the fun of it; the learning will come on its own. –  Sripathi Krishnan Dec 3 '10 at 9:24
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The Big Fat Duck Cookbook This is one book from one of the best chef's in the world, his process is more scientific than intuitive. The book itself is very griping, (book is also an autobiography of Blumenthal) You have to make reservations 2 months in advance to eat at The Fat Duct

The book contains two types of recipes, some that everyone can make and the other are for scientists and engineers. The book is huge and a work of art :)

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Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter from O'Reilly has gotten very good reviews.

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Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) by Malcolm DeBevoise is a great book that details flavor and seasoning science among other things.

It can be had on the cheap and is concise read.

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+1 but you've listed the translator. The author is Hervé This. –  Dennis Williamson Dec 1 '10 at 20:01
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A decent website: http://www.cookingforengineers.com/

I really like his style and his explanations are detailed and is overall fairly clear. He has a limited recipe collection, but he talks a lot about a number of other things including techniques and he also has numerous resources linked (including all of the other ones mentioned here). I like especially his section "Kitchen Notes".

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Looks interesting, thanks! –  Sripathi Krishnan Dec 1 '10 at 18:06
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Cookwise by Shirley O. Corriher

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Also, Bakewise by the same author. –  KatieK Dec 1 '10 at 16:35
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She is also the food scientist who shows up on Alton Brown's shows. Once I read her books, I realized where he got a lot of his stuff. Not that that is a bad thing, he presents it very well, but I like Shirley's books better than AB's, although if you have the cash, get 'em all. –  Doug Johnson-Cookloose Dec 2 '10 at 14:57
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What Einstein Told His Cook, by Robert Wolke is pretty interesting, although he makes a lot of unproven nutritional claims.

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Two words: Alton Brown.

There are molecular gastronomists that are more technical, but he's the best for meshing the two in a format that others can understand.

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I looked up Alton's books on Amazon, but "On Food and Cooking" was more what I had in mind. Thanks for the note! –  Sripathi Krishnan Dec 1 '10 at 18:06
    
If you're looking for Alton Brown books, I really like his books that go along with his show "Good Eats", "The Early Years" & "The Middle Years" amazon.com/Good-Eats-Early-Alton-Brown/dp/1584797959 –  talon8 Dec 1 '10 at 19:03
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"On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee

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I read the review on Amazon, seems like the one I need. Thanks! –  Sripathi Krishnan Dec 1 '10 at 18:05
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