How Cooking Works
This recipe is adapted from an American cookbook, How Cooking Works – The Indispensable Kitchen handbook (1981). It was proudly given to me by my dad.
As an electronics engineer, my dad would have responded to the logic of a kitchen ‘handbook’. Just like a car ‘handbook’, he would assume the book included exploded diagrams, matrices and tables, as well as explanations about the physics and chemistry behind the formulas we know as recipes. In fact, the authors must have been over- awed by their self-imposed educational task; disappointingly the book resorts to the usual collection of recipes (though all very good). Prue Leith wrote a handbook: The Cook’s Handbook (1981). It does include tables – but unfortunately the rigidity of tabular content detracts from its practical usefulness. Surprisingly, the handbook approach does not seem to have taken hold in kitchen and cooking literature.
Until relatively recently, it would even be difficult to find a book which discusses the science of cooking in any format. However, two notable books broke ranks in the early 2000’s. Peter Barham’s, The Science of Cooking (2000) and Harold McGee’s, On Food and Cooking, An Encyclopaedia of Food Science, History and Culture (2004). These detailed and academic books became indispensable for many modern chefs. The knowledge they contain has been converted into the guiding principles of many fine dining institutions – The Fat Duck, Noma, El Bulli et al.
I’ve always been practically minded and enjoy applying new scientific knowledge to my cooking – it’s one of the reasons I love to cook. But Mrs WDC (who often quotes my well-worn mantra: ‘cooking is chemistry’), would also say that I had good ‘hands’ for cooking. She must feel that cooking has as much to do with human touch as it does with chemistry. More recently my family have said that I ‘cook with love’. Although flattered, I was sceptical of such a non-rational measurements of quality. Clearly, among the dinner guests, there is less interest in the mechanical processes and chemical formula that transform ingredients into a meal than whether those ingredients are cooked with thoughtfulness and consideration, that they sustain and nourish, support emotional bonds and suit the mood and appetite of the gathering.
It seems that a recipe cannot be reduced to an equation: there must be an allowance for intuition, creativity, traditions and personal influence. I’m sure even my dad would have agreed that there is more to any meal than simply learning ‘how cooking works’.