On the Shelf: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee

By: Karen Diep


Listen guys.

Reading is hard. Reading is for the committed–which I am not, and for the focused–which I am far from. Yet, reading is so necessary which is why I knew I had to do a book review series for The Culinologist. Before beginning the series, I knew there was one book I knew I had to start with.

It’s the book on kitchen science. It’s the first of its kind. The go-to for all kitchen questions and kitchen jams. Have an issue? Consult the bible. The kitchen bible. You’ve probably heard of this book before. It’s no stranger to most cooks’ shelves. I hope after reading this article, you still be as convinced as I am how necessary it is to have On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee.

The Stats:
Title – On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
Author – Harold McGee
Publication Date – 1984, 2nd edition 2004
Publisher – Scribner
Pages – 884

Who wrote this book? On Food and Cooking isn’t written by a chef extraordinaire nor a wizard scientist. Harold McGee was an English major and graduate of CalTech. The rigorous program at CalTech required that students take science courses which gave McGee the basis of expanding on the scientific principles behind food. He began as a curious cook (also the title of his second book!) searching for the reasons behind different food processes where he quickly found that seemingly simple questions have  surprisingly complex answers. His search for these answers led him to writing the first edition of On Food and Cooking which would last for 20 years before he finally updated the book in 2004.

The book since its first publishing has been lauded by chefs around the world. Its simple narrative is ready to follow, direct and curt all the while still very informative. It covers all aspects of food, from milk and dairy products all the way to spices, alcohols and candies.

Why get this book? It’s a not-basic encyclopedia that is a much more entertaining version of your college textbook. It tells you what you need to know while sacrificing the extreme (sometimes unnecessary) detail–making it perfect for quick researching and kitchen experimentation. Even without the long explanations, it still provides the perfect amount of information to get you through your thought process and accomplish your cooking goals.

What makes this book special? It’s one of a kind and no book has out-done what McGee does here in On Food and Cooking for the chef and cook. Though it is not as specific as your college textbook, this one gives you the need-to-know including some light history and background on specific food products.

What’s in the book? Everything you need to know on food. Below is the list of chapters on specific food topics that McGee covers. The book is 835 pages long and includes a short introduction and notes on the updated edition. It also includes a short appendix section on basic chemistry principles (a great refresher for your chemistry class) and a list of references. If anything I would get this book just for the references. It has some great resources that can be used to do further research on more specific topics (say, food chemistry or Microbiology).

Table of Contents:
Chapter 1 – Milk and Dairy Products
Chapter 2 – Eggs
Chapter 3 – Meat
Chapter 4 – Fish and Shellfish
Chapter 5 – Edible Plants: An Introduction to Fruits and Vegetables, Herbs and Spices
Chapter 6 – A Survey of Common Vegetables
Chapter 7 – A Survey of Common Fruits
Chapter 8 – Flavorings from Plants: Herbs and Spices, Tea and Coffee
Chapter 9 – Seeds: Grains, Legumes, and Nuts
Chapter 10 – Cereal Doughs and Batters: Bread, Cakes, Pastry, Pasta
Chapter 11 – Sauces
Chapter 12 – Sugars, Chocolate, and Confectionery
Chapter 13 – Wine, Beer, and Distilled Spirits
Chapter 14 – Cooking Methods and Utensil Materials
Chapter 15 – The Four Basic Food Molecules
Appendix: A Chemistry Primer
Selected References

The Last Word: On Food and Cooking cuts out the guesswork. It’s easy to read, easy to navigate, and chock full of information. It includes notes on types of coming methods for Slavic food, effects of processing methods such as microwaving and freezing and even tips on storage temperatures. It’s a great primer on the basics with an extra kick of  need-to-know information.


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