If you want to know why we do what we do in the kitchen, not just what to do or how to do it, this fat tome is a must have. It is a fascinating and easy to read textbook that explains what food is made of, and how it reacts with heat and other foods. McGee describes scores of different kinds of foods and their characteristics as well as every cooking method and how it changes the food. The meticulous black and white pen and ink illustrations are illuminating, and if you have the technical bent, the molecular drawings will give you the real nitty gritty. This book belongs in every kitchen.
Here's a typical passage: "Get down on all fours and 'graze,' and you'll notice that the neck, shoulders, chest, and front limbs all work hard while the back is more relaxed... Tenderloin is appropriately named because it is a single muscle with little connective tissue that runs along the back and gets little action; it's tender."Here's something more technical: "The basic texture of meat, dense and firm, comes from the mass of muscle fibers, which cooking makes denser, dryer, and tougher. And the elongated arrangement accounts for the 'grain' of the meat. Cut parallel to the bundles and you see them from the side, lined up like logs of a cabin wall; cut across the bundles and you see just the ends. It's easier to push fiber bundles apart from each other than to break the bundles themselves, so it's easier to chew along the direction of the fibers than across them. We usually carve across the grain, so that we can chew with the grain." And here's my favorite tip. He tells us how to have a safe rare hamburger! He explains that rare hamburger is dangerous because fecal contamination can get on the surface of the meat, and it then gets mixed in as the meat is ground. When you cook a rare steak the surface is sterilized, but when you grind meat, the interior can be contaminated because the surface is mixed into the interior. So here's his solution: "Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, immerse [unground pieces of meat] in the water for 30-60 seconds, then remove, drain and pat dry, and grind in a scrupulously clean meat grinder."