Monday, June 25, 2012

Book review: Ideas in Food

Most of today's cookbooks can be neatly sorted into two categories. The first category is written by the evangelists of local, organic, fresh, and all natural. What's inside is a beautiful love story, awesome food porn, and recipes that are meant to look easy by omitting half of the relevant information you need to succeed. The second category is written by geeks. They like to talk about enzymes, reactions, and Ph levels. I can bet that a vacuum sealer will be involved and so will hydrocolloids. "Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work" by Aki Kamozawa and Alexander Talbot is in the second category.

Each chapter starts with a good size essay. For example, the chapter on Roasting is chock full of proteins, reactions, temperatures, and other scientific facts. Unfortunately, it's not clear how to apply any of this when you are actually faced with a piece of meat in the kitchen. How useful is it to know that the proteins in the muscle fiber denature when heated above 104F? Isn't it more useful to know that they don't start releasing juice until 120F, but quickly toughen up above 130F? Sure, I might be simplifying things here, but at least you know that if you want a good steak, you need to catch 120-130F window. The talk about Maillard reaction is good. Browning does equal yum. But how useful is 250F temperature? In theory, Maillard reaction begins at 250F, but setting your oven to that temperature and expecting your meat to brown would be somewhat naive. The fact that baking soda can be added to a food in small amounts to speed up browning is good to know. The question is how how much should you add and when. As always the devil is in the details, and that's where the book is badly lacking.

Since this is a book about cooking, it's not unreasonable that someone might actually decide to cook something from it rather than just pick up fun facts that make for a good dinner party conversation. Consider the recipe for the Roast Chicken. It suggests that you roast at 425F for 75 minutes, let chicken rests in turned off oven for 20 minutes and then out of the oven for another 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the meat temperatures at which to go from one stage to another are not given, so if your chicken is smaller than 6.75Lb recommended in the recipe (it is unlikely to be any bigger), or if your oven is a bit different, you are screwed. The same problem applies to roast monkfish.

Of course, the whole doneness thing is so passe these days. Who needs to test for it when you can sous-vide. The reality is that few home cooks have an immersion circulator or vacuum sealer. Aki and Alex recognize this limitation and suggest that you can use zip lock bags and a large pot of water. But they suggest that you cook your short ribs this way for 24 hours. Have they ever watched a pot of water for 24 hours? It's not everyone's idea of fun. What might be more useful is a recommendation for how to squeeze the air out of the zip lock bag by gradually immersing it in water, or more recipes for short sous-vide preparations that can be done in a pot to get your feet wet with the sous-vide method.

Another idea that kept surfacing in the book was taking something simple and making it more complicated. Blanching vegetables is a good example. Normally it requires boiling a vegetable in insanely salty water and shocking it in ice water. I am not sure what the authors didn't like about normal blanched vegetables, but they turned this 2 step process into 5 steps. Boil water, add salt, and cool the whole thing over ice-bath. Brine green beans in this solution. Vacuum seal the beans. Bring another batch of water to a boil and set up another ice-bath. Cook the beans in boiling water in vacuum sealed bags. Shock the beans in ice-water. Besides the complexity, there is also a safety issue. They suggest that zip lock bags are an option. At 140F, that seems like a reasonable suggestion. But at 212F? If you are going to suggest something like this, it would be nice to offer an explanation on the safety of this preparation.

A chapter that seemed missing to me was one on equipment. Most cooks need help selecting and using immersion circulators, vacuum sealers, thermometers, and even scales. Many recipes in this book give the measurements for salt by weight. I love this concept. So many types of salt are available to today's cooks. The same volume of two different salts can vary tremendously in how much salinity they hold, but the weight is an easy and reliable way to make sure the food is seasoned properly regardless of which salt you choose. Unfortunately, most scales available in kitchen stores are not accurate enough to measure a few grams. Scales with fine precision that can also handle large amounts are pricey, but a little tea scale can be purchased from amazon for $15-20 and it's accurate enough to measure salt, and even 5.38 grams of Activa Y-G some recipes in this book call for.

I found the book disappointing. Technically, it's true to its title -- Ideas in Food. If you are looking for a different way to do things in the kitchen, you'll find plenty of ideas. What is missing is a solid implementation plan. Of course, this might not be a deal breaker for most people. Lately, books about food are read in bed as love stories or popular science magazines. But if you want to master cooking techniques (both classic and contemporary), look elsewhere.


Joanna said...

Hi Helen, thanks for this review - as a fellow food geek, I had my eye on this book, but now I'm thinking I might pass.

However, on a slightly different topic, I also wanted to point you to this Kickstarter idea:

I have no association with them other than going to college with the guy years ago, but I think their idea is great and right up your alley! Worth keeping an eye on at least, especially if they can get the price down even more in the next iteration.

Helen said...

Thanks Joanna,

It looks like a much needed product! Their current price is not much different from the sous-vide supreme. The benefit is that their product is small and clips onto any pot. The down-side is that I am not sure how much quality assurance they do, and how the guarantee, support, etc works.

What I want is a product like that from a serious company like GE ;) Better yet -- I want a CVAP oven for home use (it's a steam convection oven that produces results very similar to sous-vide, but there is no plastic involved).