This post is part of our community-driven book tournament, The Big Community Book-Off. With your help, we’re finding the best books across categories (from bread to pasta, one-bowl to weeknight-friendly, and cake to cookies, to name a few), and putting them through a series of rigorous reviews—considered, tested, and written by none other than you.
Each month, Food52 community members cook their way through five cookbooks around one subject (from bread and cake to the kitchen basics) and select a winner. The reviewers have held a chocolate chip cookie bake-off and put the Instant Pot through its paces.
This month, we’re tackling food science books—the ones that break down each and every technique, ingredient, even flavor molecule behind our favorite dishes (and plenty of new classics!). These are the five cookbooks our community jumped at the chance to review.
1. The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji López-Alt
Featuring close to 300 recipes, The Food Lab explores the food science behind classic American dishes, from biscuits to burgers. López-Alt wants to prove to home cooks that by taking the time to learn the science behind classic dishes, they’ll discover that the old techniques are perhaps not always the best.
2. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee
Published in 1983, McGee’s book pioneered the concept that home cooks should care about technical food science in order to make them better cooks. The science in On Food and Cooking is so important that the book in fact has no formal recipes; instead you’ll find detailed guidelines for techniques like roasting a chicken and boiling an egg.
3. The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking Explained in More Than 100 Essential Recipes by Nik Sharma
There are few cooks more equipped to write about food science than Sharma, who has a formal background in molecular genetics. As its name suggests, The Flavor Equation focuses on the science of flavor (rather than culinary technique), as Sharma guides readers through the technical components that make up flavor, as well as how our other senses affect our relationship with taste.
4. CookWise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed by Shirley O. Corriher
How do you know if a recipe will work before cooking it? You can if you know the science—dare we say, secrets—behind cooking. Exploring the “hows” and “whys” of cooking, from ingredients to preparation, was Corriher’s goal in writing CookWise, a vast recipe library and culinary reference book.
5. The Science of Good Cooking: Master 50 Simple Concepts to Enjoy a Lifetime of Success in the Kitchen by The Editors of Cook’s Illustrated and Guy Crosby
Though it features more than 400 recipes, The Science of Good Cooking was built around 50 concepts, from mashed potatoes to chocolate chip cookies, that Cook’s Illustrated feels every skilled home cook should know. If you have a cooking question, the answer is probably within one of these recipes.
Kylene: “I nominated The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking Explained in More Than 100 Essential Recipes by Nik Sharma. This one looks like an amazing combination of ‘food knowledge’ with greatly designed and presented recipes.”
Thomas: “I nominated The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji López-Alt. I am excited as a home cook to view his scientific approach to recipe creation. As someone who is adventurous every day in the kitchen, I am continuing to absorb the processes of chefs who teach consistency of technique and results through the understanding of science. The place where knowledge and creativity intersect has me excited to delve into this book. I’ve spent many hours studying fermentation and several other cooking science topics from across the globe; I love uncovering the history of why the subtlest nuances produce various outcomes.”
GiGi: “I nominated The Flavor Equation for two reasons. First, it is absolutely gorgeous, both in its photography and its graphics. This is not a dry, encyclopedia-style cookbook. Second, I love the originality of the recipes. Food science cookbooks often have what I think are very straightforward (and very Western) recipes in order to illustrate the point. Sharma’s approach seems to be the opposite—he lures in the cook with unique and intriguing recipes. This is a cookbook for science nerds and recipes lovers alike.”
To produce the most comprehensive reviews, Kylene, Thomas, and GiGi put together these guidelines:
We will review each recipe we cook, including one common recipe from each book.
We will also read at least one chapter or section of each book and review the accessibility of the science commentary.
Educational value. A food science cookbook can’t just have good recipes. It needs to explain the “how” and “why” behind good cooking. Even if readers were to never cook a recipe from one of these books, they should be able to take away some lessons that they can apply to anything they cook.
Efficacy of the explanations. Most of these cookbooks follow each lesson with a recipe (or list of recipes) used to illustrate the point. We want to look at how well these recipes demonstrate the taught lesson.
Accessibility. These are the kinds of books that are supposed to make you a better cook. We are looking at how approachable the recipes are. They don’t all have to be easy (we love a good project), but the explanations and instructions should be clear enough that a diligent cook should be able to produce the desired result.
Deliciousness. It goes without saying that even the best explanation of the science of cooking will be a letdown if the respective recipe itself is just “meh.” Life is too short for boring food!
Have you cooked from any of the nominated books? Tell us all about it in the comments!