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Book Review: Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks and Good Food by Jeff Potter

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From initializing the kitchen, choosing your inputs (in the form of flavor and ingredients), and coping with variables, cooking is a lot like science. So, Cooking For Geeks, the cooking-techy manual with the pre-stained cover, can turn anyone into a good cook.

In the hands of author, Jeff Potter, the mystery rises right out of chemistry and the all-important command for “air” in baking begins to make sense.

Cooking for Geeks is loaded with recipes from the simple tweet-size lentil soup to your chance to impress your friends with slow-cooked short ribs. The recipes range from the ordinary to original, and are sprinkled with equipment and technique pages, plus interviews with well-known food experts.

This guide will help you get started in the kitchen with something more than ramen noodles by understanding the science of chemicals and equipment, also known as software and hardware.

Instead of dense chapters stuffed with too-much-information, topics are introduced as they’re needed, such as a discussion of par-boiling and proofing yeast.

There is no delete key for overcooked vegetables and no reboot for ruined eggs, so read up on simple techniques for success with these everyday foods. Everything you could want to know about eggs is included, even some surprising facts about their molecular structure, and the ‘shock and awe’ method of hard-cooked eggs.

Among the many interviews, you’ll enjoy one with a C++ programmer who searched  for good pizza when he moved to Atlanta. Over time he learned that this classic geek food does not depend on the flour, type of oven, or temperature, but aha… the “art” of pizza making.

If you’re a gadget geek, the “Fun with Hardware” chapter will send you on a shopping trip. If you’re not convinced you need all the magical gadgets mentioned, you’re not really a geek.

Potter states we eat for two physiological reasons; energy and nutrients we need to function. But Cooking For Geeks shows it’s so much more fun than that.

An interesting section you won’t find in most cookbooks is the research on sensory perception, and how to train your sense of taste. Learn about the effect of combining taste and smell and use the interesting charts to help you decide what ingredients to add to achieve a desired taste: bitter, sour, sweet, salty, or umani (savory).

And now you know you should pick up your frozen foods and fresh meat just before leaving the store, so they don’t sit in the cart and get warm. Any time spent above the temperature at which bacteria begin to multiply will increase the bacterial count.

Learn a simple recipe for a versatile Soy Ginger Marinade that not only tastes good but acts as a tenderizer. This is because the salt in the soy sauce and the zingibain in the ginger create a chemical and enzymatic tenderizer.

Potter’s best advice for programmers: “Recipes are code, so read the recipe, top to bottom before starting. Every word matters.” That’s especially true if you try his 30-second chocolate cake recipe.

Cooking For Geeks has a companion website plus, as with most O’Reilly books, great resources to share, ask questions, and learn more.

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About Helen Gallagher