I learned to cook when I was very young, and it always seemed easy and natural to me. I couldn’t figure out why my father never learned to cook, since he was a highly educated man and cooking was so easy. I figured out later on that people need to have things explained to them in a way that makes sense, and apparently cookbooks didn’t make sense to my dad. Now there’s a book called Cooking for Geeks. Do "geeks" (which in this case means people who think more in scientific and technological terms) really need their own cookbook? As someone who understands both technology and cooking, I was very interested to find out.
All for One and One for All
I was impressed from the very beginning, where the author encouraged his readers not only to mark up the book but to pass it along to any interested friends. I don’t ordinarily make any marks in my books—except for my cookbooks, where I write all over. I change things and write reminders to myself so I can do it again and my family can follow my reasoning. I liked the way the author explained things in scientific terms, knowing what will resonate with his target audience:
"The first portion of this book covers topics you should think about before turning on the
oven: how to approach the kitchen and how to think about taste and smell. The middle
portion covers key variables in cooking (time and temperature) and baking (air), as well as
some secondary variables. The final two chapters address some of the more creative things
you can do in the kitchen, either with "software" (chemicals) or "hardware" (blowtorches!)."
And really, how can a geek go wrong with chapters called "Initializing the Kitchen" and "Choosing Your Inputs" and "Cooking’s Primary Variables" and "Playing With Chemicals"? Forget Betty Crocker, this one’s for the people who love "The Big Bang Theory" on TV. The book has a companion web site Cooking For Geeks by Jeff Potter where the reader can find even more geeky cooking information.
Throughout the book there are lengthy interviews with people who really know what they’re doing in the world of cooking and the world of science. Those were a very welcome addition.
RTFR and Other Scientific Approaches
Unlike computer books, which can usually be read in no particular order, Cooking for Geeks is designed to be read from beginning to end, especially if the reader is new to cooking. Each step builds on the one before, as does writing code. And as in writing code, each step in the process is there for a reason. That’s why the author tells the reader that it’s essential to, well, let’s put it in polite terms, Read The Full Recipe--don’t just open the book, find a recipe and jump right into it without reading everything else that’s necessary.
For one thing, a lot of the recipes in this book are not laid out as they are in traditional cookbooks, where there’s a list of ingredients that’s separate from the list of steps one needs to complete the recipe. Some recipes are written in paragraphs, with the ingredients mentioned as they come along. Some of the recipe titles don’t give a clear indication of what the recipe actually contains, like the "Sweet Corn and Miso Soup" that starts off by telling you how to dismember and cook a squid. And then it says you need a vacuum sealer, a dehydrator, a microplane and a food processor—and that’s just to deal with the squid before you even get to the corn and miso. Whoa. Perhaps I am not sufficiently geeky for this approach to cooking. If the recipe title had been "Sweet Corn and Miso Soup with Homemade Squid Crisps" I certainly would have looked at it differently, and I probably would have gone to the Asian market for the squid crisps. I don’t think I know anyone who has a vacuum sealer and a dehydrator.
Sometimes the recipes call for ingredients that you’ll have to look up. While I appreciate the spirit of online research, I still would have liked to have the author explain such terms as "vadouvan" rather than just including it in a recipe and assuming everyone knows what it is. (It’s a spice similar to curry powder.)
This is not to imply criticism of the recipes as a whole. There are recipes geared toward cooks with all levels of experience, and many of them are illustrated to show what the dish should look like at each step.
Is Your Kitchen a Laboratory?
Even though I’ve been cooking since pterodactyl was on the menu, I learned quite a bit from the "Calibrate Your Kitchen" chapter. I had no idea that keeping a pizza stone in the oven would help regulate the temperature, or that you can calibrate your oven thermometer far better by using sugar than by using water.
I loved the way the author compared getting all your ingredients ready ahead of time to cache priming and prefetching. That would make perfect sense to a geek. There’s good advice for buying essential kitchen equipment (I was pleased to see I agreed with them about watching Adam Ried or Alton Brown). And there’s a must-have set of charts that explain how long perishable foods should be kept, and where, and which foods are affected by ethylene gas, and how. And the guide to knife use should be in every cookbook. There’s just as much skill involved in using a knife properly as there is in writing perfect code. Perhaps more so, because bad code doesn’t mean lost fingers.
The explanation of measuring ingredients by weight rather than by measure is also excellent. European cooks are accustomed to weighing ingredients; American cooks are more likely to use measuring cups (and many people don’t own a kitchen scale). Measuring by weight is not only more likely to appeal to geeks, it’s a much more precise and accurate way to do it, and the finished food will be better if it’s the kind of recipe where measurements are critical.
A Matter of Taste
There’s quite a lengthy section that is all about why things taste the way they do. With chemical formulae, explanation of various chemical reactions, charts that show how the various ethnic cuisines showcase the various kinds of flavors, and a lot of good recipes that give the reader a chance to practice combining and creating flavors. This section also talks about regional and seasonal cooking, and why some areas prefer one kind of dish over another. I especially liked the clear chart showing which items are in season at which time.
There’s an explanation of how to find the most ecologically sound food, and how to avoid food that’s more likely to be tainted (like farm-raised salmon that is artificially colored, or fruits and vegetables that may arrive contaminated with pesticides).
While the section is very long and very detailed, it made for fascinating reading. Ordinary cookbooks definitely don’t go into chemistry in this kind of detail. It might be overkill for the average cook, but this isn’t a book for average cooks.
Variables and Chemicals
There are three sections dealing with what the author calls the key variables: Time, Temperature, and Air. There are charts explaining "doneness" in terms of chemical changes, charts explaining heat transfer, formulae for the likelihood you’ll get sick from mishandling your ingredients and more charts to show you what to do so you don’t get sick. There’s an explanation of how we can, even in this day and age, get parasites from our food. Food safety is a lot more important than the casual cook might be aware of, and taking proper precautions isn’t difficult, so the extensive discussion is essential reading. (As I said, this is not a book one should just flip through and read at random.)
The discussion of chemical reactions in food is an eye-opener. I don’t think most people who aren’t food scientists know exactly what happens when an egg is cooked, or when meat is browned, or when fish is poached (among other things). Knowing the chemical transformations isn’t a requirement for good cooking, but it goes a long way toward explaining why your egg got rubbery or your fish ended up tough rather than flaky.
There’s also a discussion of "error tolerances in measuring" that helps explain why you can just wing it on some recipes but you’re asking for trouble if you don’t measure precisely on others.
And, of course, the discussion of leaveners leads the reader through all kinds of classic geek foods like pizza, pancakes, cookies, cakes and waffles. You don’t have to buy those things from the store or cook them in the toaster. Really.
The discussion of "chemicals" includes such traditional ingredients as yeast, baking powder and baking soda, salt and sugar, along with what the author calls "modern industrial chemicals" that include artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives. There’s a Dewey-Decimal-style chart that categorizes these chemicals, plus a discussion of others that don’t have official numbers from the chart. There are several interesting recipes that encourage experimentation with somewhat exotic ingredients, if one is curious about the effects of these things.
Hardware, traditional and geeky
I was surprised to see the hardware section start off with a lengthy discussion of "sous vide" cooking. To my mind, that’s something most people will not have the time or inclination to try (cooking things in a sealed bag in a temperature-controlled water bath). It’s not a task for the beginning cook, no matter how geeky the cook might be. While the idea of modifying a slow cooker and vacuum sealing stuff and maintaining a constant temperature over a long period of time might appeal to the scientific mind, the possibility of food poisoning and the shopping list for special equipment make this technique iffy at best.
The rest of the hardware chapter leans heavily toward uncommon equipment like cream whippers, liquid nitrogen, dry ice, blowtorches and pizza ovens. There’s a recipe for electrocuting hot dogs with two forks and household current. I really hope the author intended this stuff to be theoretical. Or just a joke.
There are a lot of recipes in the book, interspersed with the text as examples of the topic under discussion. They are variable in quality, but then that can be said about just about any cookbook. The style in which the recipes are written is inconsistent, which may be confusing for a beginner. There are some I am going to try, and some I’m going to avoid (see "electrocuted hot dogs" above). All of them are worth reading, to get a feel for how the processes work in real life.
if $opinion = "good"
Cooking for Geeks makes fascinating reading even if you do not consider yourself a geek. The depth and breadth of technical explanations is amazing. Many of the recipes are simple, straightforward, and sound like they’d be delicious to eat. There’s a bit of sly humor here and there, and the author clearly knows what’s what, both in chemicals and in culinary skills. Besides, what’s not to like about a cookbook that includes a nice long interview with Adam Savage from the Mythbusters?
if $opinion = "not so good"
If you’re the kind of person who reads the directions only as a last resort, this book is not for you. The recipes are inconsistently written, sometimes have misleading names, and are sometimes beyond the skills of even the experienced cook in a normally well-equipped kitchen. The detailed explanations of chemical processes might not be for everyone, especially not for impatient people who just want to get on with it. This book is designed as much as a textbook as a cookbook and the reader needs to see it like that to appreciate it.
The verdict: Buy it for yourself & your favorite geeks
The appeal of Cooking for Geeks is obvious. It’s a combination of science and kitchen skills, with one leading directly to the other. The recipes are mostly good, and mostly easy to make. The scientific experiments that are presented as recipes would be a help in understanding the chemical processes, even if the results are not intended to be edible. Just don’t bother making those squid crisps.
You can find Cooking for Geeks on Amazon US (for North American readers) or Amazon UK (for European readers). The readers who will buy from Amazon using any of these two links will help us receive a small percentage of their purchase. Thanks a lot for that.