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    A Guide to Making the Best

    of Foods and Recipes

    H A R O L D M c G E E

    T H E P E N G U I N P R E S S N E W Y O R K 2 0 1 0




    Also by Harold McGee

    On Food and Cooking

    The Curious Cook




    A Guide to Making the Best

    of Foods and Recipes

    H A R O L D M c G E E

    T H E P E N G U I N P R E S S N E W Y O R K 2 0 1 0


    Published by the Penguin Group

    Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. •

    Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) •

    Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi – 110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

    Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England First published in 2010 by The Penguin Press,

    a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

    Copyright © Harold McGee, 2010

    All rights reserved


    McGee, Harold.

    Keys to good cooking : a guide to making the best of foods and recipes / Harold McGee.

    p. cm.

    Includes bibliographical references and index.

    ISBN 1-101-44066-X

    1. Cookery. 2. Food. I. Title.

    TX651.M269 2010




    Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

    The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrightable materials.

    Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

    To Florence and John




    1. Getting to Know Foods


    2. Basic Kitchen Resources: Water, the

    Pantry, and the Refrigerator


    3. Kitchen Tools


    4. Heat and Heating Appliances


    5. Cooking Methods


    6. Cooking Safely


    7. Fruits


    8. Vegetables and Fresh Herbs


    9. Milk and Dairy Products


    10. Eggs


    11. Meats


    12. Fish and Shellfish


    13. Sauces, Stocks, and Soups


    14. Dry Grains, Pastas, Noodles,

    and Puddings


    15. Seed Legumes: Beans, Peas, Lentils,

    and Soy Products


    16. Nuts and Oil Seeds


    17. Breads


    18. Pastries and Pies


    19. Cakes, Muffins, and Cookies


    20. Griddle Cakes, Crepes,

    Popovers, and Frying Batters


    21. Ice Creams, Ices, Mousses,

    and Jellies


    22. Chocolate and Cocoa


    23. Sugars, Syrups, and Candies


    24. Coffee and Tea


    Where to Find More Keys

    to Good Cooking







    Cooking can be one of the most satisfying things we do in

    life. It’s a chance to make things with our own hands,

    nourish and give pleasure to people we care about, and

    choose exactly what we eat and make part of ourselves. It’s

    also a way to explore the astounding creativity of the natural world and thousands of years of human culture, to taste foods and traditions from all over the planet at our own table. This endlessly rewarding quality is what has kept me delving into cooking for more than thirty years.

    Cooking is especially rewarding when it goes well! It’s true, as we’re frequently reminded, that the only way to become a good cook is to cook, and cook, and cook some more. But many of us don’t manage to cook that frequently, and frequent cooking can also be cooking by rote, habitual and mediocre. The surest way to cook with pleasure and success—whether you’re a beginner, a weekend gourmand, or an accomplished chef—is to cook with understanding.


    This book is designed to help you cook better by explaining what foods are, how cooking changes them, which methods work best, and why.

    K eys to Good Cooking is not a cookbook. Recipes we have in abundance, in print and on the Web, from across the globe and across the centuries, from professionals and celebrities, families and friends. Instead, this book is a guide to help you navigate through the ever-expanding universe of recipes and arrive at the promised land of a satisfying dish.

    It’s easy to get lost along the way. Some recipes give reliably good results, but many don’t. Some are sketchy and leave us guessing how exactly to proceed. Others are intimidatingly long and detailed. Different recipes for the same dish may give contradictory directions and explanations. Some place faithfulness to tradition above realistic handling of today’s ingredients. And many perpetuate old misconceptions and flawed methods.

    Even good recipes are no guarantee of success. At best they’re an incomplete description of a procedure that has worked for the recipe writer. Whenever we cook from a recipe, we have to interpret and adapt it for our kitchen, our ingredients, and our experience. And the process of interpretation and adaptation is just as important to success as the recipe itself. A good recipe can be badly made.

    Happily, it’s also true that we can redeem a flawed recipe by seeing its flaws and correcting them as we adapt it.

    Keys to Good Cooking is meant to be a constructively critical companion to your recipe collection, and a guide to the kitchen, gadgets, ingredients, and techniques with which you turn recipes into foods. It’s a xiv INTRODUCTION

    concise summary of our current understanding of food preparation. It provides simple statements of fact and advice, along with brief explanations that will help you understand why, and apply that insight whenever you cook. It will help you evaluate recipes, recognize likely flaws or problems, and make adjustments and corrections as you go. And I hope it will help you put aside recipes, improvise and experiment, and come up with your own ways of doing things.

    The first six chapters of this book describe the range of tools and pantry ingredients available to the home cook, how heat and

    basic cooking methods work, and the essentials of kitchen

    safety. These subjects aren’t likely to be at the top of your need-to-know list, and you may figure you already know what you need.

    But because we usually equip our kitchens and pantries piecemeal, and only pay attention in emergencies to how the oven works or doesn’t, it can be a real eye-opener to pause and take a closer look at these things. Once you think about how heat actually flows into and out of our foods as we cook, you’ll understand why standard stew recipes often dry out the meat, why a medium-hot oven can scorch baked goods, and what you can do to make sure you don’t have those problems again. And did you know that thorough cooking not only can’t kill some tough forms of bacteria that sicken us, it actually awakens them into rapid growth? Watch those leftovers! The most important kitchen facts are often the least obvious.

    So I suggest reviewing these early chapters every once in a while to get better acquainted with foods and appliances and cooking methods, no matter how familiar they seem. And take the time to read through chapter 6, “Cooking Safely.” Tens of thousands of Americans are made INTRODUCTION xv

    ill by food every day, many of them due to unnecessary mistakes made by cooks who could and should know better.

    The remaining chapters are organized by ingredients and kinds of preparations. Read the introductory sections to find out how to recognize and handle good ingredients.Then, when you’re cooking a particular dish, go to the paragraph or two devoted to that kind of preparation.

    Review the facts and the various possibilities before you start cooking, to help you choose a recipe or make adjustments to the one you’ve chosen, and just to get organized. If a problem or question arises as you go, if a step needs clarification, check again.

    To keep this book a manageable size, it covers cooking

    basics, not advanced techniques or fine points. And because a cook in the kitchen needs to get back to cooking pronto, I’ve tried to make the information as quickly accessible as possible. I’ve kept statements brief and to the point, repeated them when necessary to save the trouble

    of hunting down cross-references, and highlighted key

    words to make them easy to spot on the page.

    Key subjects and important facts to keep in mind are indicated in boldface.

    Directions and important actions are indicated in italics.


    Here’s an example of how I hope you’ll use this book. Let’s say Thanksgiving is coming up, you haven’t roasted a turkey since last Thanksgiving, and you’ve seen a recipe for brining the

    turkey to keep it moist. You might start by looking at the introduction to cooking meat on p. 238:

    No matter what you read in recipes or hear pronounced by people who should know, keep these simple truths in mind:

    • Searing meat does not seal in its juices, and moist cooking methods do not make meats moist. Juiciness depends almost entirely on how hot you cook the center of the meat. If it gets much hotter than 150°F/65°C, it will be dry.

    • Meat overcooks quickly. Low heat slows cooking and gives you the greatest control over doneness.

    • Most recipes can’t predict correct cooking times. There’s no substitute for checking meat doneness yourself, early and


    Then you could read the summary of brining pros and cons on

    p. 246:

    Brining is the immersion of meat in a weak solution of salt and water, with or without other flavorings, for hours to days before cooking. Injecting brine into the meat interior speeds the process.

    The salt penetrates the meat, seasons it, and improves its ability to retain moisture and tenderness.

    Brines of a certain strength, 5 to 10 percent salt by weight, also INTRODUCTION xvii

    cause the meat proteins to absorb extra water from the brine, making the meat seem exceptionally juicy when cooked. Very lean poultry and pork can benefit from this extra moisture, especially when they’re overcooked.

    Brine selectively. Brines have drawbacks: they dilute the meat’s own flavorful juices with tap water, and usually make the pan juices too salty for deglazing into a sauce.

    And then you could look at the basics of roasting birds, which begin this way on p. 258:

    Whole birds are a challenge to roast well. Their breast meat is low in connective tissue and best cooked to 150°F/65°C for chickens and turkeys, 135°F/57°C for duck and squab. But their leg meat is high in connective tissue and best cooked to 160°F/70°C, and their skin is best cooked to 350°F/175°C to make it crisp and brown.

    To roast birds well:

    • Don’t stuff the body cavity or rely on a pop-up thermometer. Stuffing must be heated to 160°F/70°C to kill bacteria, so the breast meat will be overcooked and dry. Pop-up indicators pop only

    when the breast meat is already overcooked.

    Now you can decide for yourself whether you want to have a brinemoist turkey or an edible pan sauce, a moist breast or an in-bird stuffing, and you can add a cooking thermometer to your pre-Thanksgiving shopping list (and consult p. 45 for advice on thermometers).

    You’ll notice that the pages of this book have plenty of blank space.

    That’s because the words on them aren’t the last, just the first. The xviii INTRODUCTION

    margins and line spaces are there for you to fill with new information and ideas as they come along, and especially with notes specific to your kitchen, your tastes, your discoveries—your own personal keys to good cooking.

    I hope that your copy of this book will quickly become well stained and marked up, and will long help you cook with insight, pleasure, and success.







    starts with

    a good





    Good cooking starts with a good understanding of its raw

    materials, the foods we cook.

    We’re all familiar with the foods that we regularly buy

    and eat, and the more we cook, the better we get to know

    them and the way they behave. But foods have histories and inner qualities that aren’t obvious from our everyday encounters with them, and that determine their value and behavior. The more fully we know our foods, the better we can choose them and cook with them.

    I first encountered the inner world of foods decades ago as a student, when I headed to an unfamiliar section of the library and found shelf after shelf devoted to the science of food and agriculture. I browsed in them, and at first was startled and amused by what I saw: photographs taken through the microscope of meat fibers and the way they shrank 1

    as they cooked, microbes growing in yogurt and cheese, the oil droplets jammed against each other in a bit of mayonnaise, gossamer-thin gluten sheets in bread dough. But soon I was mesmerized. And though I’d stopped studying science years earlier, I found myself drawn into what was going on behind these scenes, into the nature and behavior of the protein and starch and fat molecules that they were constructed from.

    It was thrilling to begin to understand why meats get juicy when cooked just right and dry when overcooked, why milk thickens into yogurt and cheeses have so many textures and flavors, why well-formed bread dough feels almost alive to the touch.

    The language and ideas of science are less familiar than our foods are, and I know that their strangeness can be off-putting. Try to put up with them anyhow, and don’t worry about the details. Just start by knowing that there are details, and that they can help you understand cooking and cook better. Then, when a question comes up, when you really want to know more, use the brief explanation in this book as an entry point to the world of details that’s out there to explore.


    Foods are complex, dynamic, and fragile materials.

    Most foods come originally from living plants and animals, which are nature’s most intricate and active creations. Some—fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh eggs, shellfish from the tank, yogurt—are still alive when we buy them.

    Living things are fragile. They thrive in the right conditions, die and decay in the wrong ones. Their tissues can be damaged by physical pres2 KEYS TO GOOD COOKING

    sure, by excessive heat or cold, by too little fresh air or too much, and by microbes that start consuming them for food before we can.

    Most foods are produced on farms or ranches or in factories far distant from our kitchens. Before we can buy them, they have been raised, harvested, prepared and packaged, transported to the market, unpacked, and displayed—and require careful temperature control and gentle handling throughout to minimize their deterioration.

    Our food plants and animals have been bred and selected over thousands of years and come in countless different varieties, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

    The quality of a food is a general measure of how well it fulfills its potential for providing nourishment and the pleasures of flavor, texture, and appearance.

    Food quality depends on many factors. These include the variety of plant or animal the food comes from, how that plant or animal lives, and how the food is handled in its progress from farm to plate.


    Cooks today can choose foods from a wide and sometimes confusing range of production systems.

    Most foods are produced in “conventional” large-scale industrial systems that are designed to minimize production costs and food prices, and maximize shelf life. Conventional foods are produced and shipped from sources all over the world, wherever labor and other costs are low enough to offset the costs of transportation.

    Most meats come from farm animals raised largely or entirely in-GETTING TO KNOW FOODS 3

    doors, with little living space, on manufactured feeds that often include materials the animal wouldn’t normally eat (fish meal, rendered animal remains and waste), antibiotics to stimulate growth and control disease, and sometimes with growth-stimulating hormones.

    Most fruits, vegetables, grains, and cooking oils come from plants grown with industrial fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Some crops have been genetically modified with modern DNA technology, which may reduce herbicide and pesticide use.

    Most fish and shellfish are produced in aquaculture, the water- animal version of intensive meat production, in confinement and on formulated feeds. Some fish and shellfish are still harvested from the wild.

    Most prepared foods are made from conventional ingredients, and usually include texture stabilizers, natural or artificial flavor con centrates, and preservatives. They’re industrial approximations of the original kitchen product, designed to minimize price and maximize shelf life.

    Conventional systems have important drawbacks. Conventional agriculture and meat production, and aquaculture, can cause damage to the environment, the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and unnecessary animal suffering. Harvesting wild fish and shellfish has depleted many populations to dangerously low levels.

    Alternative production systems attempt to remedy various drawbacks of conventional systems. Many foods are now advertised or certified to have been produced:

    • organically, without the use of industrial fertilizers or pesticides, genetically modified crops, or most industrial additives, and with minimal use of antibiotics;

    • sustainably, without damaging effects on the local or global environments, or on wild populations;


    • humanely, with consideration for the quality of life of farm animals;

    • fairly, with farmers in developing countries receiving a good price;

    • selectively, without the use of genetically modified crops, certain hormones or antibiotics or feeds, or preservatives or other additives; or with the use of high-quality or heritage


    • locally, with fewer resources spent on transportation.

    Food production terminology is neither precise nor tightly regulated. The terms are loose at best, and because some justify higher prices, they may be used to mislead or deceive.

    Be skeptical about alternative production claims, but not cynical. All food choices, even casual ones, influence the agriculture and food industries and the people who work in them, and have a cumulative impact on the world’s soils, waters, and air.


    Good cooking calls for good ingredients. Cooking can mask the defects of mediocre or poor ingredients, but it can’t make the best foods with them.

    Foods land in our shopping carts with a history. Their genetic background, their variety or breed, and everything they go through from farm to display case influence their quality and what we can do with them.

    Think about your priorities and choose food


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