Podcast #39: Harold McGee


Click Here to Listen to the Harold McGee Podcast

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FCI Chef Nils Noren (left) and Harold McGee (right)

New York food writer Ya-Roo Yang recently attended a French Culinary Institute seminar on the Science of Food and Cooking hosted by food scientist and author Harold McGee. The following is her personal account:

The huge contraption in front of the auditorium had a bulbous chamber that spun with rubber tubes that went around in spirals and cords attached to machines with blinking lights. It seemed more like something you see in a teen science fiction movie than a cold distiller belonging to a culinary school. Then again, after two and a half days at the Harold McGee seminar, nothing surprised us.

Click on the “Read the rest of this entry link” below to read more of Ya-Roo’s account of the FCI seminar.

Food and Science were two words that did not go together in my world. I was not a fan of molecular gastronomy and when chef friends started to talk about ingredients that have names from the periodic table, my mind would cloud over. It’s not that I dismiss the element of science in cooking, it’s that I always felt that by breaking food down to molecules and structures somehow de-sensualized the pleasure of food. But, when I read On Food and Cooking, I was pleasantly surprised. Packed with useful information, the extremely approachable book managed to simplify some of most complex scientific behind everyday kitchen phenomenon.

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McGee ‘s seminar at the French Culinary Institute was delivered in the same engaging style. With his partners in crime, Nils Noren and David Arnold, both FCI instructors, the trio set out to tackle the science behind basic cooking. McGee structures the seminar around the three crucial elements of cooking: Ingredients, Technique and Flavor, but unlike the book, everyone gets to participate in the experiment. Remember the really fun science lab class you had in high school? This is way cooler than that.

On the first day, McGee proved the fallacy of searing the meat to seal in juices and prove that juiciness is not everything when it comes to a tasty dish. We learned about the structure of the egg, and how its consistency change according to the temperature it is cooked in. Why beating egg whites in a copper bowl can help create a whiter, denser foam, and that freezing an egg yolk makes it firmer and thicker so you can use less of it. Along the way, I picked up a great tip for making hollandaise sauce and got to try two different type of ice creams-a pin ice cream with large ice crystals and a chewy one made with gum. The class ran 45 minute over time, although everyone seemed too enthralled to notice.

Heat was discussed at great length on the second day. McGee explained the various source of heat from wood burning ovens to convections, microwaves and induction cooktops. The topic also covered the basic physics of cooking with heat. How to estimate the cooking time according to the thickness of the meat, and does flipping meat speed up the cooking process or make it taste better? To demonstrate browning under high pressure cooking, Dave Arnold built a pipe bomb pressure cooker by placing a piece of potatoes in a pipe filled with water and deep fry it in high temperature. The guy seemed to be having too much fun. We returned from lunch to a fascinating session on sous vide and all the bacteria controversy surrounding it. I used to think cooking things in a plastic bag as kind of creepy, but after listening to the McGee-Arnold and Noren team, I find myself wanting to try it.

There was an experiment to see what temperature coffee tasted best at on the third day. Everyone sipped black coffee from a Styrofoam cup with a thermometer lulling along the edge of the cup, meanwhile an eggless meringue made with active cellulose was being passed around. The focus was on flavor, so we got to sniff, touch and taste a lot of things. McGee demonstrated how cooking methods could alter the flavor of an ingredient by pressure cooking garlic and mustard seeds to achieve a mellower effect. Meanwhile, Dave Arnold and Nils Noren were filling the cold distiller with a mint and cucumber infused liquor to show how flavors can be preserved more fully through cold distillation. We got to experience the combination of prosciutto and Parmesan, which interestingly creates a pineapple like smell, and how the fat content can alter the way certain flavor tasted through little cups of vanilla infused milk and creams. But the highlight of the day is a tiny morsel of miracula, a flavor blocker that tasted like sour candy, but somehow sweetens everything one taste afterward from a wedge of lime to plain sugarless tea.

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The seminar ended with the cold distilled liquor made by Arnold, which tasted ethereal and deceptively harmless. It an experiential dimension that the seminar adds to McGee’s books, pretty much like the experiential aspect of dinner when you go to restaurants like El Bulli and Fat Duck. While I remain unconvinced of the El Bulli style of cooking, I now understand the theory behind it. Meanwhile, On Food and Cooking remains a favorite in my kitchen. It may not make me a better cook, but it most certainly will give me the possibility to be a better cook.

3 Responses to Podcast #39: Harold McGee

  1. Anthony A says:

    Harold McGee’s seminal work has erased many previously held misconceptions that I once had about cooking. Upon reading his section on Meat I now almost invariably elect to use the lowest temperature and longest cooking times associated with preparing roasts and braises. This method coupled with browning the meat evenly on the stovetop has resulted in the preservation of more meat juices and produces a much more succulent dish. I also use the thermometer a lot more frequently now and adhere to his temperature recommendations on many items such as eggs to great success. The book is a must for the inquisitive and for those that are striving to bring their cooking to the next level.

    Also, I agree with you that the cooking that is being done at El Bulli and the Fat Duck somehow fails to inspire me, even though I respect their desire to be innovative within their profession. To me food is best when it fulfills a craving and hits your palate with big flavor. I want my lamb shank to resemble a lamb shank and my chicken to taste like chicken. The only intellectual component that I desire to accompany my food is the cooks know how in extracting the maximum amount of flavor and his ability to hit Umami taste chords. I know it is sacrilege to probably say it amongst foodies, but give me the food of Chang, Batali and Valenti anyday over the gimmickry of the copy cat “Molecular Gastronomists” that have come a cropper since Adria, Blumenthal and Veyrat turned the kitchen into science labs.

  2. Pat C says:

    Interesting interview but Ya-Roo Yang’s questions were often so long-winded, and full of her own commentary, I applaud McGee for managing to keep track of what was being asked.

  3. Well said. I would be happy to read anything else you might contribute on this subject.

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