Bringing Science to the Common Cook
12:45 PM, Oct 25, 2012 • By VICTORINO MATUS
“Hello, I’m Rachael Ray,” was how Christopher Kimball introduced himself to the capacity crowd at the National Museum of American History. The audience burst into laughter without actually knowing why they were laughing—they were just excited to see the star of America’s Test Kitchen, the number one cooking show on public television. But soon enough Kimball explained: In Manhattan he was stopped by a doorman who gave him a look of recognition. It took a few seconds, but then it clicked: “I know who you are,” he said. “You’re Alton Brown!”
Not that anyone at last night’s event would ever confuse the television host and founder of the wildly popular Cook’s Illustrated magazine with any other food personality. In fact, each of the attendees paid $45 not just to meet Kimball and science editor Guy Crosby but also to get a signed copy of his company’s latest book, The Science of Good Cooking: Master 50 Simple Concepts to Enjoy a Lifetime of Success in the Kitchen.
As I noted in my profile of Cook’s Illustrated and its creator, Kimball is not a professional chef—he’s a businessman. As such, he delivered a perfectly packaged presentation—one that crammed in a ton of information with jokes and hilarious anecdotes inserted along the way. He somehow connected Lawrence Krauss and his fellow cosmologists’ debate over the shape of the universe to the work done inside Cook’s Illustrated (trust me, it works). He discussed Euclidean geometry and the Big Bang Theory as well as the basic concepts of equilibrium, entropy, and gravity, and suddenly we understand how brining works and why it is important to take a roast out of the oven when its internal temperature is lower than desired (the heat closer to the surface will be drawn in and the end result is an interior that is tender, not dry).
Searing does not “seal in the juices,” Kimball explained. High temperatures are what causes browning (part of the Maillard reaction), which is why you should always pat your meat dry before cooking it. Marinating is not the same as tenderizing. Creamier mashed potatoes are determined by starch levels in amylose versus amylopectin. The level of baking soda is what makes a cookie brown and adding more leavener will make it flatter. And try making a pie dough with half water-half vodka. (What if the vodka is flavored pumpkin pie?)
The Science of Good Cooking contains 486 pages worth of this sort of wisdom. And at $40 (currently $28 online), it’s a far better deal than the critically acclaimed Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, whose list price is $625. Plus it all goes to a good cause: A show and a magazine designed, as Kimball noted, to help you overcome your fear of cooking failure.