Friday, 16 November 2012

Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter: The Hacker Way

One thing to Like about Facebook

Down to his last 11 bil...
For those of you who follow the stock markets, Facebook's recent IPO hasn't been its finest moment. Since debuting at a heady valuation $104bn, the company is now worth 42% less than it was in May. I understand poor Mark Zuckerberg is now down to his last $11bn. Lawsuits are already flying.

But if one good thing did come out of the whole mess it was Zuckerberg's Founder's Letter, which was included in the initial IPO filing. In it he laid out his vision for Facebook and the culture which brings it about. Just as Google used its 2004 Founder's Letter to set out the mantra "Don't be Evil", Zuckerberg believes in "The Hacker Way".

Setting aside your view on whether Zuck is a privacy-snatching scumbag (I tend to sit in the "yes" camp), there's much to admire here. As he says:
The word “hacker” has an unfairly negative connotation from being portrayed in the media as people who break into computers. In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done. Like most things, it can be used for good or bad, but the vast majority of hackers I’ve met tend to be idealistic people who want to have a positive impact on the world. 
The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo.
There's more, but in a nutshell the Hacker way is questioning, meritocratic and "can-do" attitude which is always trying to push the boundaries. Which believes "Done is better than perfect", and that "something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete".

So what's this got to do with cookbooks?

Well the answer is Jeff Potter's slug of culinary hacksomeness: Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food.

Don't ask what. Ask how and why

This isn't your usual celebrity cookbook. Jeff Potter doesn't have a posh restaurant or a michelin-starred diffusion chain (although he did get a TV gig on the back of this book). He's a old-fashioned IT geek and food nerd who decided one day to write a book.

And he didn't go through your usual publisher either. Rather take his cook to a culinary powerhouse like Artisan, Quadrille or [a curse on all their houses] Phaidon, Potter went to O'Reilly Media. This is a specialist tech publisher best known for publishing haute-geekologie texts like The Cathedral and the Bazaar (the canonical gospel of the open-source movement) or gripping blockbusters like Learning PHP, MySQL, JavaScript, and CSS, 2nd Edition (and yeah I'm sure if I read it this blog would look a lot better!).

And finally he doesn't think like your usual cookbook writer either. As he says:
At our core, though, all of us geeks still share that same inner curiosity about the hows and whys with the pocket-protractor crowd of yesteryear. This is where so many cookbooks fail us. Traditional cookbooks are all about the what, giving steps and quantities but offering little in the way of engineering-style guidance or ways of helping us think.
What you get is a book which doesn't just follow the recipe, but wants to understand where the recipe came from, why it works and how it can be improved. That is that Hacker Way.

Thinking not only about what works together, but why
it works together (click image for full table)
How does he do it? The book is laid out in three main sections. The first section deals with the stuff you should know before you turn on the oven: What sort of cook are you? What is your basic kitchen setup? How does physiology (and psychology) of taste work and why do flavour combinations come together? This is probably the weakest section of the book, but a necessary evil.

The second section is where he really gets going, analysing the key Variables which affect cooking - time, temperature and air (many chefbooks are full of hot air, but this is the first one which devotes a whole chapter to it...).

But its in the final two chapters where Potter really kills it, as he addresses the more, er, "creative" things you can do in the kitchen. He splits this into two chapters - one on chemicals ("software", as he calls it), and one on equipment and gadgets ("hardware"). This contains the stuff most recognisable from the Heston/El Bulli/Noma world of molecular gastronomy. With a vengeance.

But that's not all. Potter also gives dozens of recipes to demonstrate the principles. Note this isn't primarily a cookbook - the recipes standalone are distinctly uncheffy (although I am quite taken with the Calamari Crackling on p202). But what they do is practice what he preaches, by introducing startling new angles on old favourites. A chocolate cake is microwaved in 30 seconds flat. Duck confit is made without any duck fat. A Tiramisu recipe is repurposed as an engineering time/activity chart (via Cooking for Engineers)...

A new way to Tiramisu...

But that's not all. The text is also broken up by over twenty interviews giving expert insight on a variety of topics. Food science demi-god Harold McGee opines on Solving Food Mysteries. Le Bernardin patissier Michael Laiskonis chips in on Pastry Chefs. And don't miss Jeff Varasano's eye-popping digression on Pizza (if you haven't heard of him before, this is a man who's iconic pizza recipe runs to over fifteen thousand words). So as well as Mr Potter's wisdom you basically get a culinary boot camp thrown in for free.

Great hacks

But it's the hacker mentality that's at the heart of this. And this is a book full of great hacks.

Hacking is a mindset more than anything else. As Zuckerberg said, its the result of combining constant questioning with continuous iterative improvement. Potter also throws in the idea of "functional fixedness" - mentally restructuring your world so you use your tools in ways their designer never dreamed of.

This can be something as simple as slapping a few rubber bands on the each end of a rolling pin to allow you to roll a pizza dough out to a uniform thickness, or roasting peppers in a toaster. Or it can be as wild as clipping the lock off your oven and short-circuiting the electronics so you can use its 800c cleaning cycle to bake pizza (it worked, but Potter had to upgrade the oven door to missile-grade PyroCeram glass to keep the heat in).

This book is full of great hacks. If you don't feel like overclocking your oven, he explains how to make a Lego Ice Cream Maker. Or if a $450 Sous Vide Supreme is out of your price range he gives step-by-step instructions about how to lobotomise a slow-cooker with a thermocouple to create your own home-made sous-vide rig.

Julia Child eat your heart out.

But what's also refreshing is the hacks aren't just there for shock value. There are also simple things. For example Potter shows you how to calibrate your oven with a bowl of sugar (sugar melts are 177c, giving a precise reference point for oven temp). He outlines how to mill your own flour. And he sagely points out that the most overlooked but useful thermometer in the kitchen... is nothing more complicated than your hand.

Real science

The hacks go hand in hand with exposition. Everything Potter does is underpinned by hardcore food science (I'd expect nothing less from an engineer and a nerd). And this is a great book on food science.

The middle section, on Variables, gives one of the clearest explanations I've seen about how temperature affects food. And more important it isn't only how hot the food gets, but how long it stays hot. The idea of a time-temperature curve, and how it affects different cooking methods, is beautifully laid out in Chapter 4:

And he doesn't shy away from the nasty stuff. There's a whole section on foodborne illness for example, helpfully split out into sections on "Bacteria" and "Parasites". He gives great advice on how to avoid Bacillus Cereus and tapeworm, although unfortunately to nail both of them you need to both freeze your food and heat it above 60c. Tricky.

(And while not quite food science, but he also throws in a brilliant game-theory inspired cake cutting algorithm to make sure no-one complains about getting short changed.)

The highlight of the book though is the last two chapters. As I mentioned already, Chapter 6 deals with "software" (chemicals and additives) and Chapter 7 with "hardware" (food gadgets FTW).

The section of food chemistry goes through all the usual suspects you've seen popping up on A Heston Blumenthal TV show, with a clear explanation and practical examples. Potter is careful to put everything into a clear context.

Take colloids for example. While they may sound like a species of alien parasite, in fact they are simply a mixture of any two substances - gas, liquid, or solid - uniformly dispersed in each other but not dissolved together. Basically a suspension of A in B, or as he helpfully summarises:

Attack of the Killer Colloids...
There. Now you know. Chocolate is a Colloid.

If you don't know your Methylcellulose from your Maltodextrin then this is the place to come (Methylcellulose melts as it cools. Maltodextrin melts in the mouth). But what's also great is that Potter doesn't get carried away with his rocket science. He makes the very helpful point that using chemicals in food is nothing new, and backs it up by showing how salt, sugar, acids and alcohol are equally important in food science (Bacon-Infused Bourbon anyone?).

What a shockingly good recipe!
The last chapter on Hardware is the one with the really fun hacks - the overclocked pizza oven and DIY sous-vide machine all feature here. But there is also a comprehensive twenty-page teach-in on the techniques behind sous-vide cooking ranging from "standards" like 48-hour low-temp beef brisket to cute applications I haven't seen elsewhere, like using sous-vide to temper chocolate (one of the trickiest jobs in the pastry kitchen). Plus there's a bit of stuff on rotary evaporators, foam guns and anti-griddles, but I guess that's pretty much par for the course.

Better than Modernist Cuisine?

Of course when you have any book which deals with food science the elephant is the room is Nathan Myhrvold's five-volume, 24 kilogram opus, Modernist Cuisine (the only item in my collection that works better as a bedside table than a cookbook). While Cooking for Geeks covers much of the same ground, at 412 pages versus 2,438 for MC it's hopelessly outgunned in terms of depth.

But the funny thing is I think that Cooking for Geeks is actually the better book on food science.

You see its the Hacker Way in action. Modernist Cuisine represents Myhrvold's set-piece assault on the subject, where he brute-forces the problem with sheer weight of resources. To write his book he set up a fully staffed lab, including a hundred-ton hydraulic press, a rotary evaporator and an ultrasonic welder.

In contrast Jeff Potter had two feet of counter space plus a 2" x 4" board hanging across the sink. So rather than throwing money at the problem he falls back on his wits and his hacks. It reminds me of the (apocryphal, alas) story about NASA spending millions of dollars designing the absolute perfect Space Pen, and the Russians just using a pencil.

Reading them both, I actually find Cooking for Geeks gives a simpler, clearer and above all more fun explanation of what makes cooking tick. Our Nathan may have billions of dollars, dozens of experts and an autoclave, but Jeff has "Real Science, Great Hacks and Good Food".

I know which one I'd rather have...

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