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by Shirley Corriher

Reviewed by Elliot Essman

I’ve just opened Shirley Corriher’s 500-page masterpiece Cookwise to a random page, hoping to find true wisdom. If the random opening technique works with my Shakespeare and my dictionary, it ought to work with a book subtitled: The Hows & Whys of Successful Cooking. Sure enough, I’ve hit pay dirt. The chapter is “Eggs Unscrambled,” the recipe, “Mesmerizingly Smooth Flan.” The author (who lives in Atlanta) lets it slip that she has actually taught the recipe “in Texas to people who had been making flan for years,” and who subsequently abandoned their tried and true recipes in favor of hers. It’s true that you’ll see similar boasts—usually based on the work output of a female ancestor—in recipe books you can buy at any gift shop or truck stop. But Ms. Corriher leaves her Granny out of the picture; instead she relies on science. In the flan’s case, using corn syrup with a little lemon juice prevents the caramel from crystallizing; an extra egg yolk adds smoothness; a towel placed underneath the baking disk prevents the bottom of the flan from overcooking. Tips and tricks are one thing—every cook should keep a collection—but few “kitchen secret” books can compare to Shirley Corriher’s well organized voyage through practical food science.

I should hope the eye latches on to the word “practical” before it does “science” in the previous sentence. The author is not just a “culinary food sleuth” who roams the country giving speeches and fixing problems in corporate test kitchens; she is also a dedicated home cook with extensive experience cooking for real people in family and social situations. You can buy stimulating, even well-written, books on food science that may or may not give you techniques you can apply in your own kitchen, but Cookwise treats science only as a means to immediate results. This species of science isn’t simply interesting; it can be liberating. (If the word “science” brings up nightmares from eighth grade, the word “perspective” is an appropriate substitute.) In her introduction, the author relates how thrilled she is whenever she learns a fact or technique that can be helpful in improving a dish. As an example, she’d never realized how important bubbles in fat were in cake-making. When you make a cake, the baking powder or soda you add doesn’t create a single bubble, she reveals. These leavening agents only enlarge bubbles that are already in the mix. You, the cook, create the bubbles when you mix butter and sugar together as the first step in making your cake batter. The best cooks beat the butter and sugar together five minutes or more; the average cook combines the ingredients and little more. Your old recipe, or your granny, may have already told you to do this, but now that you know why, you’re one step ahead. Technically, yes, this is science, but don’t worry, there isn’t going to be a surprise quiz.

You will find recipes in Cookwise—230 in fact—and many of them are as basic as Shirley’s “beat-the-Texans-at-their-own-game” flan: homemade mayonnaise, sinfully easy fudge, lemon curd, pecan pie, sweet potato pudding, prime rib, seared scallops. They are sound recipes of course, but if that were all, Cookwise would be one of those volumes you’d have on your shelf for occasional use but little more. Instead, the recipes illustrate the many principles Corriher crams into this extensive book. Because only food fanatics like me read these kinds of books from cover to cover, Cookwise is structured to be an open-anywhere browser. An ideal place to start, perhaps, is with an individual recipe that appeals to you. Once you learn the principles behind the recipe and produce a successful dish, you cannot unlearn them, and will automatically apply them to dozens of recipes from sources far and wide.

As an example, here I’ll do another random shuffle through the pages of Cookwise. I’ve landed on “Seared Scallops with Avocado and Papaya,” a dish suggested to Corriher by a local caterer. Under the rubric “what this recipe shows,” we learn that “honey tones down the chili for a mild-sweet-hot blend.” I think I can use that nugget of information down the road. Spin the wheel again: here’s a recipe for “Fresh Green Bean Salad with Basil and Tomatoes.” I’ve just learned—and this is a first as I write—that “dressing the green beans right before serving maintains their green as long as possible” and that “minimizing the amount of vinegar in the dressing preserves the bright green even longer.” When I delve deeper into the introductory materials in the book’s “Treasures of the Earth” section, which includes vegetables, I learn the rule of thumb that “cooking green vegetables for less than seven minutes will help retain their bright color.” The culprit, it seems, is magnesium, a component of the chlorophyll that keeps green plants green (and an important nutrient in its own right). Heat tends to drive the magnesium from the chlorophyll in the plant cells and replaces it with hydrogen. That’s enough science. Here’s how the science affects what you place on your table: the hydrogen turns your vegetables “a sad, brownish yellow-green.” If your seven minutes is not long enough to tenderize the vegetables, Corriher suggests, cut them (artfully, of course) into smaller pieces before cooking.

I am now learning from these pages the useful fact that acids—with vinegar and citrus juices acting as the major culprits—also tend to discolor vegetables. Corriher gives me an immediate trick with the science: when you want a citrus flavor, say in a salad dressing, use the zest (grated peel) from citrus fruits like lemons and oranges instead of the juice. If I’m making a salad for an outdoor picnic, however, safety comes first; a high acid content based on either citrus juices or vinegar will help keep bacteria away.

The rules that apply to green change when you deal with other colors, I learn. Corriher gives a panoply of methods for keeping red foods—beets, walnuts, red cabbage, berries—red, many of which involve increasing the acid levels. It’s all in a convenient side-bar, for those of you who want to give lip service to the science. But let’s move on to meats (which we’ve all ruined at some time or other). Corriher’s “Chicken with Wild Dried Mushrooms and Wine” is a solid, classically French recipe, illustrating no fewer than five principles: “1) dark meat chicken remains moister than white meat during simmering; 2) cutting chicken thighs in half across the bone adds rich flavors to the sauce from the marrow; 3) seasoning both the chicken and the flour the chicken is dredged in adds full flavor; 4) deglazing the pan with wine dissolves flavor components water cannot; 5) boiling off the wine mellows any sharp alcoholic taste and reduces the possibility of the alcohol’s curdling the cream.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or even a food scientist—to realize that every one of these principles can be useful in dozens of different recipes.

I haven’t yet read Cookwise from cover to cover as I have Alan Davidson’s The Penguin (Oxford) Companion to Food (a thousand-page masterpiece) or James Trager’s The Food Chronology (only slightly shorter), and there’s a reason. I keep putting Cookwise down to cook real food for real people. Since I do read culinary reference works, I am aware that I may already have encountered many of the principles Corriher discusses, but I also recall “learning” about chlorophyll in eighth grade. It may have been useful if my eighth grade science teacher had lectured on broccoli rather than on the chlorophyll it can so easily lose if overcooked. It will suffice that Shirley Corriher (who, by the way, is a benevolent, cherubic presence who frequently pops up as a guest on Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” television series) has pulled all the science together into a package I can use every day in my own kitchen. Top -- Culinary Reviews Home

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