Gastronomer reviews 'Cooking for Geeks' by Jeff Potter

By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 4:19 PM

Geeks have gone from being the freaks of society - sometimes gifted, sometimes strange-looking - to being the glue of society. Our heroes.

In a modern world, most of us rely on them on a fairly regular basis. Our computers break down; the cellphone is in locked mode; a DVD player comes with an array of cords that will fit nowhere. We feel hopeless and inadequate, as though the world around us is governed by rules mysterious and byzantine. That's when we browse through our contacts in search of our most geeky friend or seek out the weird but brilliant computer whiz two offices down the hall. And they come to the rescue.

Until now, though, few of them have ventured into the kitchen. Geeks may be as unaccustomed to everyday household chores as we are to computer algorithms. A geeky friend of mine once admitted that if the Thai takeaway on the ground floor of his apartment building should close, he would starve.

This situation is bound to change, thanks to "Cooking for Geeks," by Jeff Potter, a former computer engineer who blogs at "We geeks are fascinated by how things work, and most of us eat, too," Potter writes. The 400-page book contains more than 100 recipes, including simple but somewhat unusual pancakes and more demanding concoctions such as an elaborate homemade gin and tonic and 48-hour brisket.

If one thing has influenced gastronomy this past decade, it is the advent of the chef-scientist. The ability to combine scientific innovations and understanding with something edible that is delicious or surprising (sometimes both) has been the triumph of "molecular gastronomy" or "modernist cooking." (There is no consensus on what to call this new phenomenon.)

Chefs, a group proudly vested in artisanal tradition, have started asking questions about denaturing of proteins and molecular composition of ingredients, using lab-style cooking equipment in the kitchen. Understanding exactly how temperatures affect different foodstuffs is at the core of Thomas Keller's sous-vide cooking; the playful application of new technology such as the super-cold "Anti-Griddle" has won Chicago-based chef Grant Achatz's Alinea restaurant accolades as one of the nation's best; and in Great Britain, self-taught chef Heston Blumenthal has been awarded three Michelin stars for his work as a modern-day Willy Wonka.

But although molecular gastronomy has revolutionized fine dining, it has done little to the way we cook at home. And that is where Potter's geeky approach to cooking comes in handy. Like a good geek, he tries to figure out what happens when we cook and how we can improve the way we approach the tasks at hand. It can be as simple as how to make perfect hard-cooked eggs by shocking them in hot and then cold water or how to gently poach salmon in oil as an easy and flavorful way to try low-temperature cooking at home. Tried and tested equipment, like a rice cooker, can be used for novel purposes, such as slow-cooking meats.

Most surprising to me is the way Potter is able to combine the simple and the complicated. He dares you to try far-fetched kitchen experiments, such as fat-washing alcohols to make bacon-infused bourbon and butter-infused rum, powdered butter and homemade pectin. He has an intense fascination for tricks and equipment: Making ice cream with liquid nitrogen is difficult, dangerous and expensive; making gin and tonic "from scratch" seems almost pointless.

But there is always a point, an explanation, even though the more outlandish recipes might not be so useful: "This isn't, in itself, a tasty recipe," Potter comments on his recipe for Gelled Milk With Iota and Kappa Carrageenan, but "it will give you a good sense of what a gelling agent does to a liquid."

Potter explains things we take for granted, such as how heat is transferred when we cook, and things we might not have known, such as how certain compounds in the food bind to one another and how various leaveners work.

When I started cooking, at age 10, I would make roast chicken again and again. I was intrigued with how the smallest change in the way I cooked the bird would affect the result. When I wrapped the chicken in foil, it would be nice and moist, but not as tasty as I had hoped for. When I used the broiler, the result would be tasty and crisped, but the meat would be dry. Combining the two, by roasting first and then wrapping in foil, yielded a flavorful and juicy bird. I remember wishing for someone who could explain to me what on Earth was going on. That is a wish I have made many times since.

Walking the bridge between everyday life and science is something that gives an exhilarating feeling of freedom. When you begin to understand the principles governing the world you live in, you can start manipulating and tweaking those rules; gradually, you can create your own reality. Potter's book is entertaining and enlightening, even for non-geeks.

Unlike most cookbooks, and certainly most food and science books, Potter's asks you to think and feel at the same time, to know when you must use a thermometer or digital scale to weigh your ingredients, but also to use your senses, to touch, see, smell and taste.

If you browse through it, as you would a normal cookbook, it is a lot of fun. If you read it from start to finish, it is one of the most useful books on understanding cooking, kind of like a rock-and-roll version of Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking."


30-Second Chocolate Cake

Olive Oil-Poached Salmon

Shocked (Hard-Cooked) Eggs

© 2010 The Washington Post Company