Wednesday, March 04, 2020

"The Curious Cook"

Harold McGee's book The Curious Cook was published in 1992. That didn't stop me from learning all kinds of interesting new things when I read it this week.

As in his earlier book, On Food and Cooking, McGee's main interest is the science of cooking. He looks at currently interesting issues like salmonella in eggs or how to keep lettuce leaves or guacamole from turning brown. He also explores older questions such as whether searing meat really keeps in "the juices" or whether ice cubes freeze faster if you start with boiling water instead of tap water.

The Curious Cook also has an interesting focus on unusual histories such as the history of persimmons or jerusalem artichokes. He offers summaries of earlier food science such as the work of Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford (1753-1814), and on the history of food words such as the word mayonnaise.

Let me start by telling you a few things I learned from McGee about mayonnaise.
I am a lover of mayonnaise; these are the two I have on hand.
  • Purists insist that mayonnaise must be made from egg yolks, olive oil, and a hint of lemon juice or vinegar. McGee points out that the definition of this sauce was once much broader, including some very surprising ingredients, like mashed potato.
  • Mayonnaise was first mentioned in print near the beginning of the 19th century. An important early discussion of mayonnaise appeared in the work of the famous chef Antoine Carême (1784-1833). 
  • By the end of the 19th century, says McGee, mayonnaise was a very popular condiment in both Europe and America: an example of American use is Waldorf Salad, first offered in around 1895.
  • The chemistry of mayonnaise involves emulsifying oil and egg yolk. McGee did extensive research on how this process works, including exploring the limits of how much oil can be emulsified into a small amount of egg yolk. Techniques for salmonella-safe mayo using cooked egg are also provided in his hands-on report. As he does with many topics, he challenges conventional cooking wisdom and long-standing myths.
  • Where did the word mayonnaise originate? McGee cites a wide variety of theories. Some people, says McGee, think that it's named after the battle of Mahon, which the French won in 1756. Others believe that this is unlikely because the word wasn't used for around 50 years after the battle, and because the city of Mahon isn't known for its gastronomic successes. Another French word could be the root: moyeu, egg yolk; but that word obsolete by the 19th century. 
  • "The true root word according to Carême, is manier: to work to manipulate," because of the process of working the liquids together. And "The most recent educated guess ... derives mayonnaise from the old verb mailler, meaning to beat, crush, or grind." (p. 130) 
  • Modern bottled mayonnaise dates to near the beginning of the 20th century. This started when growing interest in photography caused a surplus of egg yolks -- albumen from large quantities of egg whites was essential in the booming photographic industry. To cope with the surplus, it was discovered that frozen egg yolks kept very well. Then it was discovered that the frozen yolks were a fine ingredient in long-lasting mayonnaise. Throughout the 20th century mayo became more and more widely used in American cuisine.
I pursued the topic of mayo history, and discovered that in 2013, the popular American brand Hellman's Mayonnaise celebrated 100 years of production. In honor of that anniversary, many writers discussed the same history that McGee had covered 20 years earlier, as well as topics like why some people love mayo and some hate it; why some think its blasphemy to use it on corned beef; or why others find it totally improper to put mayo on a BLT. Here are a few links to the articles I found useful: "On the Etymology of the Word Mayonnaise" from Bon Appétit, "A Brief History of Mayonnaise" from Slate, and a history of the word mayonnaise from the blog Word Histories.

You might be a curious cook yourself, so I'll tell you what McGee said about searing meat, freezing ice cubes, and keeping green stuff from turning brown. If you want to read about his very careful experiments and discoveries on these subjects, you need to get a copy of the book for yourself! His conclusions:
"Searing meat does not seal in juices. Nor does searing reduce the loss of juices. The juiciness of meat is determined by the doneness to which the meat is cooked: the rarer the juicier." (p. 21)
"Hot water can sometimes freeze faster than cold water. In my freezer, ice-cube trays filled with hot or cold water take about the same time to freeze." (p. 190)
"Blemished lettuce leaves darken more rapidly in a salad than leaves with intact surfaces.  ... As long as your knife is sharp, it doesn't matter whether you cut or tear the leaves ... Both vinegar and oil harm the appearance of lettuce, but oil acts more rapidly. ... Leaving the avocado pit in the bowl will keep green only the guacamole in direct contact with it." (p. 72) 
You may think you know how a lot of things work in the kitchen, but McGee doesn't let myths, traditional authorities, or old-wives' tales get in the way of his experiments. While TV food science programs and many others have redone some of the tests, especially about searing steaks to "keep the juices in," his ideas are still intriguing and many are not well-known. He may have made a few mistakes (especially about the physics of heat, according to my husband, a physicist), but his results are mostly still very useful.

The copy of The Curious Cook that I read came from the library -- I think I once owned a copy but I don't think I have it any more, and I have no idea why it took me so long to get around to reading such an interesting book!

This Wordy Wednesday blog post copyright © 2020 mae sander for maefood dot blogspot dot com.


bermudaonion said...

This sounds fascinating!

By the way, in this part of the country, THE mayonnaise to use is Duke's, which conveniently enough, is made very close to us.

Angie's Recipes said...

Interesting infor. about mayonnaise, but I do prefer making mayonnaise with yolks and olive oil. I couldn't agree more about the juiciness of meat, that's why I always have my steak blue or almost raw :-))

Kitchen Riffs said...

This is a great book! I've had a copy ever since it came out, and I've browsed through it. But reading your post, I realize I've never read it cover-to-cover. I should do that. Super review -- thanks.

Zhoen said...

Oh, this does look like a cookbook I would enjoy. We made mayonnaise a while back, and freshly made is something truly special. The stuff in a jar, not so much.

Thanks for visiting, btw.

Lavender and Lime ( said...

I make my mayonnaise with whole eggs and canola oil so I'm not a purist. I would never put boiling or hot water into my freezer. Sounds like an interesting read.

Jeanie said...

This one sound very interesting. I never thought about searing as keeping in juices, etc. but because the sear gives a nice texture to the meat. Ice cubes -- who knew? I would have thought the colder the better. The entire book sounds fascinating -- that's one I might have to look out for!

Catalyst said...

Your post has prompted me to take another look at my copy of "On Food and Cooking". I bought it when it first came out, I believe, but found it to be too technical for my taste. Maybe I've changed.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

Many good things happened in 1992. That is the year my hubby and I got married. LOL. This guy sounds like an early version of Alton Brown.

Marg said...

Sounds interesting. My husband likes to put mayonnaise on lots of food that I never would treat in this way!

judee said...

never gave mayo that much thought but your post was certainly interesting. I do love my mayo

jama said...

Had not heard of this book. Thanks for sharing so many interesting facts about mayo and meat searing! Definitely learned some useful things. Can't imagine having a BLT without mayo, though :).

Deb in Hawaii said...

I have seen this book but never read it. It sounds like I should though--kitchen science is always so interesting! ;-)

Claudia said...

Some folks do love their mayo, my husband being one of them. It brings to mind an episode from a TV program - BBC - called Fawlty Towers. One of the hotel guests is railing on at Mr. Fawlty, about the "salad creme" and this not being proper mayonnaise! He was American of course.

Carole said...

How interesting - have now ordered another of his books from the library Cheers

Jens Zorn said...

Water in an ice cube tray loses heat by convection (the cold freezer air) and by conduction (the tray sits on a cold surface). Suppose the tray is metal and is placed on a cold surface that already has a thin coating of ice. The tray with boiling water will melt its way into that ice coating and thus be in better thermal contact with the supporting surface and might, therefore, freeze faster than the tray filled with tap water.
--easy to test by doing the comparison with a thin foam strip on the support surface to minimize the conduction.
This probably has been explored many times in high school science projects.
And, I'm sure that Len knows all this already!

Mae Travels said...

Hi Jens,
McGee's experiments in some cases found that the speed of freezing could still be faster even if you controlled for the ice on the shelf, though that was not true for all freezing compartments. His article is interesting if you ever get around to reading it.