Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Science of the Oven by Hervé This

The Science of the Oven cover

The Science of the Oven
by Hervé This
translated by Jody Gladding

Hardback: 216 pages
Publisher: Columbia University Press
First Released: 2007, 2009

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Source: Review copy from publisher

Back Cover Description:
Mayonnaise "takes" when a series of liquids form a semisolid consistency. Eggs, a liquid, become solid as they are heated, whereas, under the same conditions, solids melt. When meat is roasted, its surface browns and it acquires taste and texture. What accounts for these extraordinary transformations?

The answer: chemistry and physics. With trademark clarity and wit, Hervé This launches a wry investigation into the chemical art of cooking. Unraveling the science behind common culinary technique and practice, Hervé This breaks food down to its molecular components and matches them to cooking's chemical reactions. He translates the complex processes of the oven into everyday knowledge for professional chefs and casual cooks; demystifies the meaning of taste and the making of flavor; describes the properties of liquids, salts, sugars, oils, and fats; and defines the principles of culinary practice, which endow food with sensual as well as nutritional value.

For fans of Hervé This's popular volumes and for newcomers to his celebrated approach, The Science of the Oven fuses the physiology of taste to the molecular structure of bodies and food, expertly expanding the possibilities of the kitchen.

The Science of the Oven explored the chemistry and physics of cooking (and eating). The author's main focus was on how the scientific understanding of cooking and eating can lead to new possibilities in food experimentation. He discussed new scientific findings, explained how this information could be used to make cooking more effective or exact or varied in taste, and then sometimes offered experiments a reader could do in the kitchen to demonstrate the point or create a new taste for his/her eating pleasure.

The introduction was very chatty and funny with asides in the middle of sentences. The asides decreased in the main part of the book, but the author's enthusiasm for the subject still shone through.

The book is easiest to follow if you have at least a basic understanding of chemistry. However, he did explain scientific terms as he went along and assumed he was talking to a non-scientist. He generally kept the explanation simple or gave a summary statement in nontechnical language after giving the technical explanation. There was a short glossary of terms at the back to help with this.

Chapters 1-4 reported in detail on a series of scientific studies and so were a bit heavy on the technical language. Chapters 4-7 still focused on the science but were more conversational in language and easier for me to follow.

Chapter One explored how our various senses affect how we perceive taste. Chapter Two discussed some studies on how various foods affect our health. Chapter Three discussed how food growing conditions and different food varieties affect our taste.

Chapter Four and Five got into specific examples like how tannins in wine change over time and how that affects their taste, why some corks spoil the wine's taste, why eggs cook the way they do and some experiments one can do with eggs, and the science involved in kneading dough, making of noodles, and jelling liquids. Also, how to effectively tenderize squid, keep the "fresh" bright green color in vegetables when cooking, why re-heating can change the taste of meat, how to effectively flavor meat with liquids before cooking, the conditions where a lute seal does work, why lobster shells turn red when cooked, how food thickeners affect taste (like in yogurt), and experiments in making new sauces.

Chapter Six explored (among other things): how cooking in earthware changes food taste; "new" types of milk coagulants for cheese; the chemistry of making cheese, fondue, and spreadable cheeses; the chemistry of creating pickles; how bread gets stale and how this is prevented commercially; the optimal time to beat egg whites for meringues; the color of emulsions; how champagne bubbles develop; the color and taste of port wine; and preserving the smell of fruit jams.

Chapter Seven discussed cooking with hard water, how food color and smell changes when the pH changes, and future possibilities in cooking.

I enjoyed the book, but I didn't always agree with his opinions. (For example, he's down on people who prefer 'natural' sources in their foods whereas I can see how food chemistry has overall improved people's lives but I still think natural is better if you can get it.)

Overall, this was a slower read than normal, but I had many fun "so that's why!" moments. I think this book would be most interesting and useful to people who like to experiment with creating new dishes, industry professionals, and those who are both scientists and cooks.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from the Introduction (page 7)
In any case, what the first part of our provisions kit shows is that false ideas, as numerous as knowledge gaps, spread with regard to cooking and to tasting. If it is now clear to sensorial neurophysiologists that the number of tastes is not four, for example, books still contain "maps of the tongue" that claim that the tip recognizes sweet, and so on. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! To witness that all tongues are different, all you have to do is ask a group of individuals to stick their tongues into sweet or salty water. Which raises the questions: Why do we cling so to these false ideas on sensorial physiology?

Likewise, it is claimed--even by "specialists"--that smell constitutes 90 percent of taste, but this value has never been measured! Why do we swallow such nonsense? Is it because, with a cold, we sometimes lose all perception of taste? To those who might be tempted to take that as proof, let us remember that we also lose our sense of taste when we burn our mouths on excessively hot food.

....In these times of state-guaranteed citizen comfort, the term "food health and safety" is ubiquitous. We have forgotten that, first of all, a sufficient quantity of food to maintain the organism was the basic issue. That we are preoccupied with the flavor and quality of tomatoes in winter is striking proof of modern agronomy's success. As a result, science has been reduced to examining the details, losing sight of the bigger picture. It tracks the trace element, the antioxidant molecule that--we believe--will help us avoid our all too inevitable aging, it explores the virtues of foods, and it ends up establishing sometimes very limited observations as dogma.

Of course, restricting oneself to an insufficiently varied or unbalanced diet is not healthy.

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