Six Forty One - #1

Chris Chrzan
Chris Chrzan

Six Forty One is the Dewey number for Food and DrinkHi, I'm Chris
- librarian and food enthusiast - 
and this is the inaugural installment of my blog. Six Forty One
That's the Dewey number for food and drink... Yes, I'm super cool like that. 

I'll be using this blog to review and recommend some of my personal favorite cookbooks and other culinary nonfiction. I enjoy everything from fast food cheeseburgers to fancy five course tasting menus so there will be a variety of things featured here. Food can be a contentious subject, and I have plenty of opinions, but please don't take me too seriously. I certainly don't. With that out of the way, let's get to it...

I cook a lot, but I don't have any special aptitude for it. I just love to eat, and experimenting with new cooking techniques gives me the chance to eat a wide variety of things more often. My repertoire is heavy on comfort food -- fried chicken, meatloaf, cornbread, gravy, etc. etc. -- so whenever I'm trying something new or working on perfecting a classic I like to do a bit of background research on the techniques involved.

As is true for any subtopic in the 641s there are a great many books one can refer to for a refresher on the basic. One food reference book that is often considered an essential is On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee. This exhaustive book covers everything you'd ever want to know about food and cooking. Ever. As such, it's indispensable, but can also be kind of paralyzing. Most recipes that are more complicated than baking a potato usually require more than one ingredient and technique and it's easy to fall down a rabbit hole of research to the extent that you never actually do the thing. It's a great book to have, but a light read it is not.

A more accessible option is Cook's Illustrated's The Science of Good Cooking by the editors at America's Test Kitchen. Every time I go to cook something new I like to look for the Cook's Illustrated recipe first. Even if I'm using a recipe from a different cookbook I like to see how their preferred version differs because there is always a solid scientific reason for the choices they make. This is the same science-based ethic that goes into this book. The authors explain fifty "concepts" such as Resting Meat Maximizes Juiciness and Baking Soda Makes Beans and Grains Soft noting exactly why this is the case and how to incorporate the concept into your cooking. The benefit to resting meat is common knowledge, but other concepts, such as Bloom Spices to Boost Their Flavor may surprise you and prove useful many times over. The trouble with all this is that there is so much information here to absorb and the recipes kind of take a backseat to the main concepts of each chapter. Just like with, On Food and Cooking, if you're hoping to brush up quickly  before starting dinner you can easily get bogged down. Instead, I like to pick this one up occasionally to learn something new, or remind myself of something I'd forgotten.

My favorite reference book, which also happens to have many excellent go-to recipes, is Ruhlman's Twenty by Michael Ruhlman. The book covers twenty techniques that are fundamental to understanding how to cook well. To be fair, some of the "techniques" are just ingredients -- "Butter" "Egg" and "Onion" are examples -- and the first one "Think" is a short treatise on how to approach the act of cooking. Semantics aside, these really are the essential things to know about cooking. It is logically organized, you won't be overloaded with technical explanations and, unlike some other culinary reference books the recipes are a focus and not afterthoughts. You will want to work them into your regular rotation. An excellent cook, Ruhlman was a writer first and his skill in this area is evidenced in the clear explanations. Many of the recipes include photos not only of the finished product, but of the process so readers can see how a recipe progresses.

Ruhlman's Twenty is an especially excellent resource if you're less-than-confident in the kitchen, or if you just have a casual interest in cooking. The recipes are easy to follow and produce solid, delicious results. Ideas are presented and demonstrated without getting the reader lost in the weeds. If you like this book you will definitely want to check out some of Ruhlman's other excellent contributions to the genre.

So, there you have it. A few recommendations for learning the basics or doing some in-depth research depending on what suits you. All that, and I didn't even get around to mentioning the Larousse Gastronomique. Maybe next time. Until then...

Yours in gluttony,