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I have been cooking for a while now, but its mostly what I picked up watching others cook. Now, I am an engineer by profession, and it seems there ought to be a reason for cooking food the way it is done.

I'm curious to understand the science of what's actually happening in cooking. Why it is that everything actually works the way it does?

What resources are there (books, websites, tv/video series) that explain the science behind cooking, as opposed to the art and trial-and-error process that it actually is in practice?


Note: new answers should be added to the existing community wiki answer. They should keep to the existing format: 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.

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I've edited the question, pushing it a bit away from the (very broad) request for explanations of techniques and so on, and specifically toward science as requested in the title. – Jefromi Mar 15 at 20:42
up vote 19 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. She has also written a baking version, BakeWise.

  • 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 (from America's Test Kitchen) 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.

  • The Science of Cooking (Peter Barham) focuses on the chemistry and physics of why some recipes work and some fail.

  • khymos.org - on the surface it's 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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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

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 authors (America's Test Kitchen/Cook's Illustrated editors) present a hypothesis, usually to make recipe x. They clearly state the particular outcome sought (flavors, textures, ease, ingredients, etc).

Their methods are to first research available recipes, then to explain the range of ingredients, tools, and steps used in the recipes. They choose 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.

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.

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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 LeBauer Dec 9 '10 at 15:05
    
Great, thanks for the detailed update! – Aaronut Dec 9 '10 at 15:17
    
As a note, as of November 2015, Christopher Kimball is no longer associated with CI/ATK/CC etc. – Catija Mar 15 at 18:36

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