When I recently read How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, I was expecting high school level physics, not quantum physics. But when I read What Einstein Told His Cook, I figured there’s be something that justified the inclusion of Einstein’s name in the title. There wasn’t, but I greatly enjoyed the book anyway (perhaps more, because I understood all the science involved).
Robert Wolke does a great job explaining the science behind food and cooking in terms that anyone can understand. He inserts the real scientific terms in parentheses for people who care, but makes his points using “plain English.” I particularly liked the way he makes it clear how the process of water boiling works. In the chapter on salt he explains the effect of salt – or anything else – dissolved in the water. In another chapter he explains the role of air pressure to show how a pressure cooker works (something I have always wondered).
Wolke debunks both old wives’ tales (putting a silver coin in with mushrooms in case any are poisonous) and advertisers’ gimmicks (claiming that a product that is pure salt has less sodium, when it is only because the salt crystals take up more room and therefore you get less salt in a measuring spoon than with ordinary table salt). He provides both practical information (such as what kind of knives or pans to purchase) and less useful but fascinating tidbits (how Teflon works, how chocolate is made). And he provides recipes that use the ingredients or technology he has been explaining (though as a rather unadventurous cook, I can’t say as any of these make me want to try them out myself).
I found it particularly interesting to learn how fats are put together, from a chemical perspective. (Yes, everything is made of chemicals, whether they grow naturally or are synthesized in a laboratory.) For the first time I understand what the terms unsaturated and saturated actually mean, not just what effect each kind of fat has on our bodies. And I found out what trans fats are, and that the “trans” has to do with the fat’s internal structure and nothing to do with being in the processing of transforming from one thing into another, as I had always imagined.
I also appreciated the chapter on hams, as Wolke explained the different ways to cure meat, and how each works from a scientific perspective. I found it particularly interesting that you can use either lots of salt or lots of sugar to preserve food – which one we use has to do with flavor (salt for meats, sugar for fruits), not effectiveness.
I also learned why my refrigerator has a way to adjust the drawers to be used for fruits or vegetables – and which setting is for which, something I’ve never been able to tell from the refrigerator itself. I understand better now how my microwave works, including how “microwave-safe” dishes work. I even learned why the instructions on meat thermometers say not to have the thermometer touch the bone (the meat is cooler near the bone).
It may not make much difference in the way I cook, but for me it’s fun just to learn all this stuff.