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Geeking out in the kitchen

Food science gets its due in upcoming books

Layne Lynch

Welcome to the future of cooking, where playing with your food is not only acceptable, it's expected. The kitchen is a geeks' paradise like never before. Just ask Jeff Potter, author of newly released 'Cooking for Geeks.'

'I think there is this cultural movement going on where people in their 30s are realizing they don't know the fundamentals of cooking because in previous generations (it) was seen as mundane,' Potter said. 'Any kind of creative process is about trial and error, (but) if you don't have a basic food science understanding, it's hard to know where to start.'

Potter is neither a scientist nor a chef-de-cuisine. In fact, he spent several of his professional years in the computer science industry before venturing into the world of pots and pans. Reminiscing on his early experiences, Potter said he initially struggled with the execution of his cooking and decided to spend a year researching a wealth of food science information. Ultimately, the cookbook is the brainchild of his computer science sabbatical.

"Cooking for Geeks" (O'Reilly, $35), an approachable volume for cooks and non-cooks alike, is just one of several books queued up to explain the fundamentals of what makes food work. Others include "Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes" ($35, Penguin Press), by New York Times food science columnist Harold McGee, and "Modernist Cuisine," a $625 food science encyclopedia from the Cooking Lab.

The books go beyond recipes to explore crucial elements in cooking, such as food safety, preparation and technique.

As Potter explained during a visit to Austin, there are five essential temperatures every cook must understand: 122, 131, 150, 310 and 356 degrees Fahrenheit. At 122 degrees, myosin, a protein found in meat, shrinks and tranforms its texture. The bacteria salmonella dies off at 131 degrees, while actin, another protein found in meat, denatures at 150 degrees Fahrenheit. So, for those who favor their steaks medium-rare, it is best not to go beyond this temperature, Potter said.

That brownish glaze that appears on food during cooking is the result of a Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, that occurs at 310 degrees Fahrenheit. The last of the must-knows, 356 degrees Fahrenheit, is the temperature at which sugar caramelizes.

Although his book delves much deeper than basic food science, Potter stressed that the colossal facts and methods behind food science should be taken in teaspoon doses. "Modernist cuisine is like the Paris runway at fashion week," Potter said. "Two percent of it is brilliant, but 98 percent is not wearable."

The more home cooks play with food (and watch chefs work their magic on television), the greater the need to explain "How'd they do that?"

Until recently the primary voice on the subject was McGee, who published "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen" in 1984. Food Network personality and food scientist Alton Brown frequently references McGee's work, as does chef Heston Blumenthal, also known for his scientific innovations in the kitchen. (For more about Brown and his new book, see next Wednesday's Food & Life section.)

Now, set to come out with his new book "Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes" later this month, McGee said he wrote his new book as a companion guide that emphasizes kitchen technique as the primary focus and kitchen science as the second. Yet he still relishes the considerable influence that his first book had on the culinary world.

"I dove into the literature and wrote a book that I wanted to read," McGee said. "No one was translating the technical language into English. I had no idea it would be used by chefs." As for the future of food science, McGee believes the tools that were once used to meet food demand during the world wars are now being tailored to make food taste more delicious than ever before. "Knowing the science helps in consistency, quality and especially creativity," McGee said. "Not every idea is a masterpiece, and the future is unpredictable, but it's always headed somewhere."

Chris Young, one of the authors of "Modernist Cuisine: The Art of Science and Cooking," said he learned much of what he knows from McGee. The 2,400-page, six-volume set is by Young, Nathan Myhrvold (lead author of the project) and Maxime Bilet. Myhrvold, a former chief technology officer of Microsoft who has devoted himself to the science of cooking, is reported to have started the project as a 150-page exploration of sous-vide (a method of cooking food that is vacuum-packed in water at a steady low temperature.)

Young says the project unexpectedly evolved into a book designed for those who are hungry to learn more about food science and technology.

"We designed it for ourselves, because it's not like anything else out there. It's something we wish we would have had," he said. "The kitchen is a laboratory, and (people) are actively using science to make food more delicious."

Young, like McGee, believes any cook who actively engages in trying to achieve the best flavor in even the smallest measure is inevitably using science. "The kitchen is a laboratory in everyone's home," Young said. "People point to technology and say, 'That isn't cooking,' but it is. It is an elegant form of cooking."

When it comes to defining cooking as something based more in science or art, both Young and Potter say that cuisine co-exists in both mediums. "I look at it as both an art and science," Potter said. "Understanding the science can turn a dish into a masterpiece."

For Young: Much as artists don't necessarily have to know the chemistry of paint, chefs aren't defined by the science they know.

• In his book, Potter weaves in seasonal recipes, including Pumpkin Cake and Butternut Squash Soup. In the recipes, he briefly touches on some interesting food science facts.

His recipes (like those of many food scientists) include metric weight measurements for greater precision.

Butternut Squash Soup

This soup recipe is not restricted to mad food scientists, and it is relatively easy to make. If you are rushing to make the soup, Potter suggests microwaving the squash beforehand.

2 cups (660 grams) butternut squash, peeled, cubed and roasted (about 1 medium squash)

2 cups (470 grams) chicken, turkey or vegetable stock

1 small (130 grams) yellow onion, diced and sautéed

1/2 tsp. (1 gram) salt (adjust to taste)

Purée in a food processor or with an immersion blender. Garnish with whatever else you think might go well, such as garlic croutons and bacon. Or top with a small dab of cream, some toasted walnuts and dried cranberries to give it a feeling of Thanksgiving.

— Adapted from 'Cooking for Geeks'

Pumpkin Cake

According to Potter, this is a high-ratio cake, meaning it has more sugar and water than flour. Low-ratio cakes have coarser crumbs.

1 cup (245 grams) pumpkin (canned, or roast and purée your own)

1 cup (200 grams) sugar

3/4 cup (160 grams) canola oil

2 large (120 grams) eggs

11/2 cups (180 grams) flour

1/4 cup (40 grams) raisins

2 tsp. (5 grams) cinnamon

1 tsp. (5 grams) baking powder

1/2 tsp. (5 grams) baking soda

1/2 tsp. (3 grams) salt

1/2 tsp. (2 grams) vanilla extract

In a mixing bowl, thoroughly combine all ingredients with an electric mixer. Transfer to a greased cake pan or spring-form pan and bake in an oven preheated to 350 degrees (175 Celsius) until a toothpick comes out dry, about 20 minutes.

Serve this cake as is, or try adding dried pears soaked in brandy. You can also hold back some of the raisins and sprinkle them on top.