From the Shelf - Building Your Cookbook Shelf: Food Science

There's much to be said for cookbooks that cover the basics, but there's more to good food than simply following a recipe. Understanding the science behind a recipe can make it easier to adjust on the fly based on the ingredients you have available, correct and pivot when things go wrong mid-recipe or make up an entirely new-to-you dish based on your diet and food preferences.

cook booksWe highlighted America's Test Kitchen and the Cook's Illustrated Cookbook in a recent column, and it's worth mentioning them both here again. ATK takes an evidence-based approach to food and cooking; Test Kitchen staff will test every variation of a recipe they can before determining what method is best. The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook is a handy guide for anyone who wonders how the same cookie dough recipe, say, can result in crunchy or chewy cookies, depending on the day.

A J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, a one-time editor of the Cook's Illustrated magazine, brings this same scientific approach to food in his stellar book The Food Lab. "Once you understand the basic science of howand whya recipe works, you suddenly find that you've freed yourself from the shackles of recipes," he writes. The Food Lab is a reflection of that philosophy: while Lopez-Alt does offer recipes, they are written to encourage home chefs to experiment on their own. Samin Nosrat's Salt Fat Acid Heat starts from a similar point, providing practical advice for mastering the "elements of good cooking," as she calls them, to create any type of dish.

While Julia Turshen's Small Victories is not about food science, per se, the recipes collected within are an invitation to play with traditional dishes: each recipe includes suggestions for small, simple shifts that can be applied to transform the original dish into something entirely new, as well as a nod to the "small victory" to be learned in its making. That learning--and those victories, be they large or small--is, after all, what makes time in the kitchen the enjoyment that it is. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm