These Cookbooks Add a Dash of Science to Your Holiday Meals

One day, we might look back at 2016 and realize it was the year where everybody finally started getting comfortable with the idea of science in the kitchen. Classic kitchen science books like Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking have been references for years, but that book has always been one you’d pull off a shelf to better understand a recipe you were making and not good bedtime reading. Now, a more-digestible sort of knowledge and theory are being baked right into the cookbook. It’s almost the time of year where it feels like an important cookbook comes out every day. Before that kicks in, it’s a great time to take a look at some year-to-date favorites.

EveryDayCook: This Time, It’s Personal by Alton Brown, Ballantine Books. Alton Brown is one of the nerd kings of food and this book’s claim to fame is right there on the front cover: This Time, It’s Personal. Truth is, while you might learn that Brown has a penchant for Saltines and, apparently, likes eating French fries in bed, that’s about it. Who cares? It’s still a solid cookbook that gets you thinking about food and the way you cook. Try his “Scrambled Eggs Version 3.0,” which whisk a dollop of mayo in with the eggs to make them incredibly creamy. What I like most about this book is the use of what he calls “real life” measurement. This means for his whipping siphon pancakes, the buttermilk is measured out with a scale and the vanilla extract with a tablespoon. It’s a practicality-based approach that helps things move faster in the kitchen.

Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling by Meathead Goldwyn with Greg Blonder, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kenji Lopez-Alt mentions thermodynamics in the first paragraph of his foreword, setting a tone for the rest of the book. Pitmaster Meathead Goldwyn, who runs the website AmazingRibs.com, takes it from there and does not disappoint. After laying down his three keys to great barbecue—a two-zone setup, reverse searing (starting, say, a steak over low heat, then blasting it with a quick sear at the end), and using a thermometer—Meathead dives into the science of heat. What makes Meathead particularly noteworthy is how well he uses John Belushi-like humor to make all the science go down easy. “Conduction heat is where your lover’s body is pressed against yours … Convection heat is when your lover blows in your ear,” he says, describing the different kinds of heat in grilling, “Radiant heat is when you feel the heat of your lover’s body under the covers without touching.”

Preserving Italy: Canning, Curing, Infusing, and Bottling Italian Flavors and Traditions by Domenica Marchetti, Hougton Mifflin Harcourt.

Hougton Mifflin Harcourt

It might seem like there wouldn’t be a ton of knowledge in a book about Italian-style canning, curing, fermenting, and infusing, but consider where we’d be without the science behind these techniques, especially fermentation. Less happy at Miller Time and with fewer salt-preserved green tomatoes tickling our tongues, that’s where, and who wants that? Make those tomatoes by layering them in salt and spices then setting them on your front stoop for two weeks while fermentation works its magic. While you’re waiting, brine-cure some olives and make Italy’s version of bacon: pancetta! Need more pork? Turn a cheek toward curing a jowl to make guanciale.

Cook’s Science by the editors at Cook’s Illustrated and Guy Crosby Ph.D, Cook’s Illustrated. The publishers of Cook’s Illustrated have always been peculiar in their openness to science, essentially hiding the scientific method beneath a patina of hard work and the desire to make a great flan. For years, they seemed unwilling to talk about sous vide cooking or the superiority of weight measure, perhaps wary of the effect that embracing that kind of cooking would have on their readership. More recently, though, they’re emitting a more tech-friendly vibe, going as far as putting out 2012’s The Science of Good Cooking, which looked at how to apply 50 principles of home cooking. Now, with Cook’s Science, they’ve shifted their gaze to the best ways to work with specific products, an ingredient-based approach that’s an effort to make the most of each one. With these books and a brand-new food science website, you can feel their embrace of smart cooking and, in doing so, staying relevant.

Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Katz, Chelsea Green Publishing. Without Sandor Katz and his books on fermentation, there’s a very good chance the “we can pickle that” movement just wouldn’t be a thing. Before everything was home made, local, hand-whatevered, Katz’ 2003 book Wild Fermentation showed readers how to pickle, ferment, or make hooch out of just about anything. In the new and revised edition, there’s a clear effort to make the recipes more straightforward and easy to understand. Soon, like me, you’ll have a batch of sauerkraut fermenting away in a cool space, all year long.

Dried & True: The Magic of Your Dehydrator in 80 Delicious Recipes and Inspiring Techniques by Sara Dickerman, Chronicle Books. One of the favorite secret weapons of many high-end chefs is a dehydrator, which they use to concentrate flavor and add more texture to a dish. Sara Dickerman’s new Dried & True teaches the basics like apricots and fruit leather, and has a whole chapter on different kinds of jerky. She’s also very smart about both presenting both a basic recipe—dried cherries!—then showing you how to turn them into part of a larger recipe—like a Manhattan with vermouth dried cherries—that’ll knock your socks off.

Ingredient: Unveiling The Essential Elements of Food by Ali Bouzari, Ecco. None of the recipes in the books mentioned above, or any cookbook, would work without their creators understanding how foods act during cooking.

Harper Collins

Chefs need a vision for a dish, then they think though the steps that allow them to reach that goal. The more they know, the sooner they’ll get there. Ali Bouzari’s new book breaks cooking down into eight “building blocks,” or what he calls the capital-I Ingredients that give the book its name: water, sugars, carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, minerals, gases, and heat. Does that list make you interested and afraid all at once? Fear not. Ingredient is so chock full of fun illustrations like gummy bears and robotic, axe-wielding enzymes, that it’s easy to mistake the book for hardcover manga. In fact, it goes down easy enough that it may earn the go-to slot on your bedside table.

Food writer Joe Ray (@joe_diner) is a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of The Year, a restaurant critic, and author of “Sea and Smoke” with chef Blaine Wetzel.

Read more: https://www.wired.com/2016/11/2016-best-cookbooks/