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29 November 2010

Keys to Good Cooking

image from www.amazon.co.uk Few people are held in such high reverence in the world of food as Harold McGee.  It's a given that his On Food & Cooking is 'the most thumbed', 'splattered with sauce' or 'falling apart from overuse' in every chef's book collection. 

Given his exalted status, a new book by McGee is going to forment much excitement.  As I opened the envelope of my review copy of Keys to Good Cooking and I realised what was inside, I'm fairly certain I let out a slightly camp 'Oooooh'.  Then I opened it and I let out a more Eeyoreish 'Ohhhhh'.

After the excitment of On Food, this seemed rather flat, all a bit pedestrian.  To continue the cartoon theme, a bit Noddyish.  I hadn't bothered to read any of the blurb about the book, I just knew this was more from the great McGee. Surely, this was an epilogue to On Food, he'd made new discoveries and this book was the exposition of that.

I was wrong.  If anything, it's the prologue.  Or at the very least, it's the simplified, spare version of On Food & Cooking.  It's a doorstep like it's big brother, but it is no chef's book.  It is the home cook's bible.  I'd say, having delved into it, that it could be the most important book written for the home cook for many years. 

The science of food - that McGee is in large part responsible for propogating - beloved by the the professional and keen amateur cook is complex and confusing.  I think it can all seem rather cliquey and knowing.  This book cuts through all that to the core issues.

It tees itself up as helping the reader to understand their recipes but it is not a recipe book.  From what I have read, and I'd be lying if I said I'd read it cover to cover, it does just that.  It explains why a sauce will curdle, and why it's a wise move to add lemon juice to artichokes, in a very accessible way.  I think the ideal way to use it, is find a recipe you like and then read the relevant section in Keys on each of the key ingredients.  Anyone doing this on a regular basis will be hard pressed not to be a better cook.

True, if On Food was read in the same way, I think one's cooking skills would improve immeasurably.  But On Food is not a book for everyone.  Keys is.

Whenever I'm asked what book any kitchen should have, my stock response has been The Cook's Book.  Its combination of insight, technique and recipes is exceptionally useful.  I'll now add Keys to Good Cooking to that very short list of must haves.  I can't recommend it enough.

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