In Austin, where I’m from, barbecue pitmasters debate the Maillard reaction as often as they tuck into a plate of brisket and ribs. In other words, the best chefs have long known that science is the secret to their success, but over the past few years, science has become sexy to regular folks too.
Now you don’t have to go to the Institute of Culinary Education or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to understand all of those chemical reactions that make food taste a certain way, or to learn how to make it taste even better. There are cookbooks for that. Here are a few of my favorites.
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee
Written back in 1984, this is a serious food science bible. Every professional chef has a dog-eared copy and can probably recite word for word sections about her favorite ingredient, cooking technique, and science behind why it works. Get ready for an intense discussion at the molecular level, including a chemistry primer.
The Science of Good Cooking, by Cook’s Illustrated
Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen pioneered the idea of cooking with the scientific method in order to develop foolproof recipes (they totally changed the way I make baked potatoes, for example). This easy-to-read book walks you through 50 experiments and more than 400 recipes that will soon become your new favorites.
The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
Harold McGee has some competition, as J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s new book might just be the bible for a new generation, especially the home cook. His accessible tone, funny anecdotes, and step-by-step photos are the icing on the cake of delicious recipes, developed with the exhaustive scientific method seen in The Science of Good Cooking. I pretty much made all of his Thanksgiving meal suggestions and couldn’t have been happier.
Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters, by Gordon M. Shepherd
If you want to know not only how to make that stuffing for Thanksgiving but also why it tastes so good, this is your jam. Be prepared for a super nerdy analysis of the mechanics of smell as well as how the brain processes flavor in terms of emotion, food preferences, cravings, and memory.
Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson, by IBM and the Institute of Culinary Education
In the 21st century, cooking isn’t limited to humans. A few years ago, IBM teamed up with the Institute of Culinary Education to create a cognitive cooking technology called Chef Watson that could discover new ingredient combinations and recipes that humans would never think of. This book details those recipes (think Hoof-and-Honey Ale), as well as how they did it.
Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail, by Dave Arnold
And where would the best meal be without a good drink to go with it? Dave Arnold has put together more than 120 cocktail recipes using the most cutting-edge techniques and hard-core science, guaranteeing you the knowledge you need to make the most amazing milk-washed vodka cocktail of your life.