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Book sugestion: Some sort of ingredients encyclopedia?

post #1 of 6
Thread Starter 

 

Hi all,

often, when I cook, I do so without following any recipe, I prefer to just use whatever ingredients I like and try to make the best out of it. For example, yesterday, I had some lamb stock laying around, as well as onions, garlic and various other vegetables. So I decided I wanted to make a simple soup out of it. I have the book "Culinary Artistry", which is a great source of ideas for flavour pairings (e.g. what vegetables taste well together with lamb?). However, what I don't have is a book that tells me how to prepare the various ingredients, and, maybe most importantly, why.

For example, when I use onions, I usually chop them and soften them in a pan in oil or butter over low heat (without browning them) for 10 minutes. This usually works very well, but why? Likewise, what about garlic? Should it be treated the same way? Why, or why not? And carrots? Celery? And so on.

Other similar questions I might have (just some examples):

At what temperature are various cuts of different animals considered rare, medium and well done?

At how long can/should various cuts of meat be kept at these temperatures? (e.g. chuck roast can be kept for hours or days at 60 C, while tenderloin will become mushy after a few hours)

At what temperatures do the various proteins in eggs coagulate?

What is the pH values of various fruits and vegetables?

Etc etc etc

So basically, what I'm looking for is a kind of encyclopedia of ingredients, with entries telling me about chemical properties (nutritional information, amount of substances like starch, pectin, etc), and how different ingredients react to things like heat, acids (or alkalinity), different kinds of cooking techniques etc. Does anyone have any suggestions for such a reference book?

post #2 of 6

I know of no single such book.

 

A good starting point is Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Great science of what happens to food as you cook/prepare it. It covers a lot of common ingredients, but doesn't touch much on the more ethnic ingredients.

 

However, most ethnic cuisines have pretty good books on the specialty ingredients as well. Or at least a good cookbook that covers the ethnic specialties pretty well. Off hand, here are a few of those kinds of books.

 

 

Bruce Cost, 

 

 

 

 

Diane Kochilas  

 

 

 

Lynne Rosetto Kaspar

 

 

 

 

I hope others chime in as well.  I suspect there are some good blogs that are good this way too.

Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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post #3 of 6

Or go pick up some of Alton Browns cookbooks from his Good Eats series.. I know he seems kind of like Bill Nye the Science Guy but the man does tell you everything.. lots of tips and underused information on food in general.. I know its not an ingredient book but its probably close to something you would enjoy if this is what you like..

post #4 of 6

Not only is there no one place that answers all your questions, Henrikbe, it would take an encyclopedia---which few would purchase, given the costs of multi-volume books.

 

I also don't understand why you're interested in some of that stuff. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing the matter with wanting to know why things happen. But what possible use does knowing the precise pH of fruits and vegetables serve?

 

Be that as it may, the seminal work on why things happen is, as Phil mentions, Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. If you don't already have that one, run, do not walk, to the nearest bookstore and get a copy. Otherwise you are just spinning your wheels.

 

There are several books that help describe and identify foodstuffs and other cooking products. Generically I guess we could call them "dictionaries of......" While these tend to be superficial, they do serve as starting points. Two I refer to often are The Visual Food Lover's Guide, and The Culinarian. But there are others as well.

 

Phil mentioned several books re: ethnic ingredients. The same holds true for "standard" ingredients as well. The more tightly drawn a subject, the more in-depth the author can go. So, while you will get some information about cheese in a book like The Culinarian, it will be superficial when compared to one such as the World Cheese Book, which examines more than 750 cheeses in detail, as well as exploring the general world of cheese making. So it's likely you would want separate books on cheese, meat, poultry, dairy, spices, etc.

 

Excluding the why things happen, which you'll find in the McGee book, if I had to confine myself to just one book (perish the thought), it would be CIA's The Professional Chef. It's expensive, to be sure. But worthwhile, IMO. The Professional Chef has just been reissued in its 9th edition, so if you should purchase a copy, be sure and get the latest one.

 

As far as the nutritional and chemical make-ups, few culinary books go into the details you're looking for. But there are other sources. The best of those I've seen is the USDA's Composition of Food Database. This is a searchable list of almost anything you'd consider to be food, including commercial products as well as generic ones. And it's proactive, in that you can control the specifics of what form the ingredient takes and the amounts involved.

 

Also available on line are several pro-active measurement conversion programs. They don't all work the same way, so I suggest you find one that you're comfortable with and stick with it.

They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #5 of 6

Whoops! Left out the link to the USDA Composition of Foods Database. Here it is: http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/

 

To show you how intensive it is, I did a random search, entering "rice" in the search engine. This yielded 127 entries. I choose rice, brown, medium grain, raw, and was given a choice of 100 grams, 1 cup, or both. It then broke down the chemical make-up by proximates (generally, the nutritional info found on food labels), minerals, vitamins, lipids, amino acids, and other.

 

If you need more info than that, I don't know of any source.

They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #6 of 6

I once was a food writer, so I have a shelf full of reference books that I used to consult. Among the "ingredient" books, I like Howard Hillman's "The Cook's Book", arranged alphabetically by ingredient. It also has a copy of the USDA Composition of Food table in the back. Less helpful though still useful has been Doris Townsend's "The Cook's Companion" which too often tends towards the obvious.

 

Though any foodie worth his/her salt owns a copy of McGee, it is not a curl-up-in-your-chair-and-read sort of book on the science of food, though it is authoritative and  as complete as you'll get in one volume. I use it mostly for reference. 

 

For me the first book I really enjoyed reading on cooking science was the pioneering "Cookbook Decoder" by the chemist Arthur Grosser. It's clearly written for the non-scientist. Since that time, there have been many others. My favorites are "What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained"  by Robert Wolke, also a chemist, and its companion volume. Wolke is a delightful writer who artfully combines clarity with depth and a great sense of humor. Though organized logically by chapter topic, it is written as a series of questions and answers, rather than a straight narrative.  I like Wolke's books enough to have given several copies as gifts to cooking friends with a sense of curiosity and to one professional chef (he loved it).

 

I also liked "How to Read a French Fry" by Russ Parsons. All of these books (Grosser, Wolke, Parsons) contain recipes that illustrate the principles and are largely pretty good recipes as well. These authors obviously enjoy both food and writing about it, as do I.   

 

 

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