It might be Labor Day, but summer isn’t really over until the blackberries are gone. Since it’s harvest season and I’m still on leave from the workforce, I’ve been spending my time figuring out clever things to do with the bountiful produce of my neighborhood’s back alleys. (Tonight: lemon verbena drops and blackberry meringue pie.)
Hoping to bring a little more order to the proceedings after a failed blackberry fish sauce, I cracked open Kitchen Mysteries: Revealing the Science of Cooking, written by one of the gurus of high tech haute cuisine, Hervé This.
This explains with charming prose the basic physics and chemistry of deliciousness, pulling most of his examples from classic French cuisine. The examples usually keep things clear and practically grounded, but occasionally lead to confusion – there’s a parade of failed béarnaise and hollandaise sauces used to illustrate principles of emulsion, to which I couldn’t relate at all. As an American home chef, I really never need anything more delicate than a roux.
As I’m not just an American home chef, but a West Coast hippie American home chef, I was also disappointed by the book’s focus on animal products. Of 39 short chapters, only one addresses vegetables head-on; the salad chapter is actually about vinaigrettes. The only fruit in the book that is not destined to be fermented or preserved in sugar appears in a brief discussion of acids and enzymes and the ages-old topic of why apples turn brown. Otherwise, it’s all meat, dairy, and eggs, with an occasional excursion into the land of bread and starch. There is nothing here that will help manage a CSA-induced attack of Kale Panic.*
The chapters are not only short but largely independent of each other, so Kitchen Mysteries is great for dipping in and out of. However the chapter titles don’t always tell you what you’ll take away to apply to your cooking, so it’s not so useful in the kitchen – it’s better as a bathroom book.
Bottom line: Kitchen Mysteries taught me quite a few things about cooking, but not so many things about science. Someone with a stronger culinary background (especially in French cuisine) and less of a scientific background may find the proportions reversed, but there is likely to be something in this for everyone.
*Actually, this week I’m having Cabbage Panic, and the chapter on mayonnaise did help me deconstruct some coleslaw dressing recipes. But the skillful drowning of perfectly innocent vegetables in mayonnaise is not really what I’m going for most of the time.