The Science of Cooking
by Peter Barham
Gets right to the science with little digression.
I recently purchased "On Food and Cooking", hoping to find a good, comprehensive book on food science. While there was a lot of good detail in that book, much of the detail was buried among less interesting historical digressions, and the space taken up by those digressions seemed to be depriving me of some details I really did care about.
In contrast, "The Science of Cooking" makes no pretense of being encyclopedic in its coverage of food science. Instead, the focus is directly on the chemical and physical processes at work in the kitchen. As such, it succeeds admirably, and much of the information that seemed "missing" from "On Food and Cooking" here seems simply absent because it is outside the scope of the work.
While the introductory material gets a little condescending at times (I mean, who actually needs to be told what an atom is?), and some of the sidebars get overly technical for most people (do you really care about differential equations?), such sections are easily ignored. The few really queasy technical discussions are even set in a different background color to let you know they may not be for the faint-of-heart (and the rest of those colored sidebars are quite readable and interesting on their own).
Be aware that the author is a scientist, not a chef. This book is tightly focused on chemical and physical effects of ingredients. Things like flavor and food safety are not part of the discussion, beyond a few passing mentions. Most notably, the author repeatedly demonstrates a lack of understanding of the effects of salt on flavor, and talks of things like clarifying cold stocks with raw egg whites without a discussion of salmonella (which is admittedly perceived as less of a problem in the author's native Britain).
The book is organized like a textbook, with sidebars, tables, and even little experiments at the end of each chapter. There are useful conversion tables, and charts on various topics. It is easy to skip over what you find uninteresting and to skip directly to the information you need when using the book for reference.
The information here is valuable, concise, and well-presented. You'll find yourself understanding things like the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats (and why you should care as a cook), how foams form (and why they collapse), why and how cooking affects flavor and texture, etc.
I was able to read through this book very quickly and easily, while learning (and even retaining) more information than I normally would from a non-fiction book of this sort. This book is definitely an excellent overview of the processes involved in cooking, and indeed, probably contains as much information as most of us are ever likely to use on the subject.
Why 4 stars and not 5, you ask? There are some important omissions that bothered me. The most glaring examples are that there's no discussion of osmotic pressure, or the role of pH in various processes, topics that "On Food and Cooking" covered admirably. The section on cooking utensils and appliances is largely a waste of space, in part because the author is British and doesn't have access to many of the alternatives that have become common in serious American kitchens. Be warned, the book is very British in its use of language. You will need to know that "hob" is a British English for "stove", for example. Also, all of the recipes use metric weights and volumes, so should you actually wish to follow them (not something I'd particularly recommend), you'll need an accurate metric food scale and measuring cups.
Reviewer: Brad Daniels from Sugar Land, TX USA