Skip to main content

Harold McGee's 'Keys To Good Cooking' For Chefs.

What's the difference between wooden and plastic cutting boards? When should you throw out frozen fish? Harold McGee, an expert on the science of food and cooking, untangles these kitchen mysteries and more in his Keys to Good Cooking.

44:17

Other segments from the episode on October 21, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 21, 2010: Interview with Harold McGee; Review of the television program "Sherlock."

Transcript

*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20101021
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Harold McGee's 'Keys To Good Cooking' For Chefs

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the world of food, my guest, Harold McGee, is famous as an authority on the
science of cooking. He writes about why people perceive taste differently, how
heat moves in cooking, whether it's an oven or a microwave and how to take
advantage of that; why eggs solidify and how to best cook them or use them in
custards and creams; why some meats are juicier when cooked at a low
temperature; why beans give you gas and why it's so hard to roast a whole
turkey. Wait until you hear his suggestion of how to solve that problem. McGee
also writes about food safety and how to sanitize your kitchen.

Harold McGee's books can make you a wiser cook or, as in my case, help explain
why you're not a very good one. His new book is called "Keys To Good Cooking: A
Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes." He's also the author of the
bestseller, "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen." He
writes the Curious Cook column for the New York Times.

Harold McGee, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. HAROLD McGEE (Author, "Keys To Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of
Food and Recipes"): Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: One of the things I found really interesting about your book that kind
of sounds obvious, but I never thought about it this way before, you say people
perceive flavors differently.

And it's just not – it's not just that we like different things, we're actually
physically equipped differently.

Mr. McGEE: That's right. That's something that we've learned just in the last,
I don't know, 10 or so years. When we taste something, experience the flavor of
something, that involves two of our senses, the sense of taste, which happens
on our tongue, and the sense of smell, which happens in our nose. And we have
receptors on our tongues and in our nose to detect the chemicals that create
flavor, and it turns out that we all have different sets of receptors and
different numbers of receptors.

And so some of us are more or less sensitive to some flavors. Some of us can't
perceive flavors, certainly flavors. It's kind of like the flavor equivalent of
colorblindness. And so we all live in different worlds when it comes to tasting
foods.

GROSS: Yeah, you say some people have more taste buds than other people do.

Mr. McGEE: That's right. That's right. Again, this is something that we've only
really known for the last 10 years or so. And it goes a long way, I think, to
explaining why it is that people have such strong opinions about what they like
and don't like and how they can vary so much.

GROSS: And cravings.

Mr. McGEE: Yes, although cravings then gets into psychology, which is a whole
other area of variability and interest.

GROSS: I suppose. So while we're talking about taste, you write that the best
time to season food is shortly before serving it and often, like, when it's at
the serving temperature.

I always thought – see, whenever I read your books, I always learn that I'm
even worse cook than I thought.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Which is saying a lot. But I always figured that if you put in the spice
early, it gives the spice more time to flavor whatever it is that you're
cooking.

Mr. McGEE: Well, that's absolutely true. But it turns out that during the
course of long cooking, with flavors that you've added at the very beginning,
those herbs and spices are modified. Those flavors are modified, and they do
kind of integrate into the dish as a whole, but they lose some of the freshness
that they have when they haven't been cooked yet.

And so sometimes that's fine. Sometimes, all you want is that kind of slow-
cooked, relaxed, melded flavor. But sometimes you want a little bit of that
herb or spice to be a bit more prominent, a bit more noticeable on its own. And
that's when it's useful to taste at the end and then add a little bit of
whatever it is that you really want to taste to make sure that it's there.

GROSS: So right before serving?

Mr. McGEE: Yeah, and you're right that doing it at serving temperature is
important because flavor balances change with temperature. Foods taste
different when they're piping hot compared to when they're room temperature or
warm.

And so it's important to wait until the food is around the temperature that
you're going to serve it at and then do the seasoning.

GROSS: While we're talking about spice and flavoring, why is that lemon juice
or vinegar can make flavor brighter? I mean, you say acidity is especially
undervalued as a general flavor booster.

Mr. McGEE: That's right. And it turns out that again, one of the things we've
learned about the experience of flavor is that taste and smell really work
together as a kind of combined sensation for appreciating foods.

And so the aroma of a food can actually be changed by taste elements like
saltiness and acidity. And so it turns out that when we adjust things like salt
and acid, we're actually helping to make the aroma, the whole experience of the
food, that much more vivid.

And salt and acid are the two tastes in particular that help to bring out all
the other components of a food's flavor.

GROSS: Why does salt help enhance a food's flavor? I mean, you don't smell
salt. I don't think you do, anyway.

Mr. McGEE: That's right. So a couple of things happen. One is that salt changes
the chemistry of the food in such a way that it makes aroma molecules want to
leave the food. And strange as it may sound, the more an aroma molecule, a
flavor, wants to leave the food, the more easily we can perceive it because it
has to get up into our nose for us to notice that it's there.

So salt does that. Salt helps flavors kind of jump out of the food and into our
nose, and so we sense them more vividly.

And the other thing is that it seems to have an effect in the processing that
the brain does to the experience of flavor. If we eat a food that's got a
certain aroma, and it has no salt, our brain registers that and kind of gives
us not much of a sensation.

But if we add a little bit of salt, then the brain seems to be making a
judgment. Well, you know, there's something useful here nutritionally, and so
pay more attention to that flavor. And so the flavor becomes more prominent.

GROSS: So is there a difference in terms of how much aroma the salt releases if
you put the salt in while you're cooking or if you just sprinkle the salt on
the salt shaker after the dish is done?

Mr. McGEE: Well, it's true that when you add salt to a food as it's cooking,
it's going to encourage some aroma molecules to leave more readily than they
would otherwise, which means that they end up in the kitchen air so that the
kitchen smells nice while you're cooking, but the aromas have left the food.
And that's maybe not so desirable.

If you add it at the very end, then you don't have that kind of cooking period
loss, and the aroma molecules leave the food when you want them to leave, which
is in the process of eating.

GROSS: And since you value acidity as a flavor booster, and you talk
specifically here about vinegar and lemon, how do you use them in the cooking
process?

Mr. McGEE: Well, at the very end of cooking, when I'm making the last-minute
adjustments to flavor, I simply taste whatever it is, say a pasta sauce or
something like that. And then I actually do go through kind of a checklist, a
mental checklist, because we have only four or five basic tastes, and so I just
ask.

You know, does this have the right balance of salt? Does it, could it maybe use
a little sugar, a little sweetness not to make it sweet, obviously sweet, but
to just kind of round out the flavor? And the same with acidity.

Acidity is one of the flavors that is mouthwatering. Acidity makes our saliva
flow, and in the process of eating, that's a very pleasant experience. That's
why we talk about food as being mouthwatering, and acidity can really
contribute to that.

So I just try to run through that checklist and make sure that the sauce has
everything that it needs to taste as good as it can taste.

GROSS: Is acidity more mouthwatering than sugar and sweet?

Mr. McGEE: It is, yeah. It causes more saliva flow, you know, to take
mouthwatering absolutely literally. There are two tastes that are especially
mouthwatering. One is acidity and the other is umami, which is the flavor, the
taste of MSG, which we – it's a Japanese term, umami. The best translation for
it, I think, is savory.

It's again this kind of hard-to-define but mouth-filling, mouthwatering flavor
that you get from things likes aged cheeses, tomatoes, meat stocks, things like
that. And that's especially mouthwatering, as well.

GROSS: You mention MSG. I always think of that as just, like, a chemical that's
thrown in to make cheap food taste tastier.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McGEE: It is that. It is that, but the reason people add it, manufacturers
add it to food to make it taste better is that they discovered that it's there
in foods naturally, and this is their way of giving you the flavor of – or an
aspect of the flavor of tomato or parmesan cheese without actually giving you a
tomato or parmesan cheese.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Harold McGee. He writes about the
science of food and cooking, and his new book is called "Keys To Good Cooking."

So you write about how heat moves in cooking, to help us better understand the
principles of what makes our food taste especially good or what kills the
flavor and makes everything tough and bad. So what are some of the basic
principles we should know about how heat moves in cooking?

Mr. McGEE: Well, the most important thing in the case of something like meat -
meat and fish, and actually eggs and any protein food which is especially
sensitive to heat - is that we're trying to reach temperatures inside the food,
around 150 degrees Fahrenheit, something like that.

And of course, when we're cooking in an oven, the temperatures on the
thermostat go up to 500 degrees, and we're often cooking at 350 or 400, which
is much higher than that 150 that we're aiming for in the center of the food.

So what that means is that it's very easy to overcook. We're always using
higher temperatures to cook foods than we're actually aiming for in the centers
of the foods themselves. So it's good to realize that, and realizing that helps
you appreciate the value of low-temperature cooking.

So you can get some great flavor on a roast, for example, by starting it at a
high temperature in the oven to get some nice browning on the outside surface
on the roast.

But then what you want to do is turn the heat way, way down so you cook the
meat through much more gently and have a bigger window of opportunity when the
meat is the correct temperature inside, which is much lower than the cooking
temperature.

GROSS: Now why should you start with a high heat as opposed to ending with a
high heat?

Mr. McGEE: That's a very good question, and in fact, back in the old days, and
by the old days I mean the Middle Ages, that's exactly what people did.

And actually from the Middle Ages through about 1850 - I can be fairly precise
about that, because if you look at old cookbooks, as I love to do, many of the
old cookbooks say when you're roasting a piece of meat, start it far away from
the fire to begin with to cook it through very gently and then bring it close
to the fire at the very end to develop a nice color and flavor on the outside.

That was standard operating procedure until about 1850, when a German chemist
got into the act. He was not a cook, but he thought he knew how foods cook, how
natural materials heat and so on. And so he came up with the theory that
actually it's much better to start the meat at a very high temperature to seal
in the juices.

This man, Justus Liebig, was the originator of the theory that searing a meat
at a high temperature to begin with seals in the juices, and it turns out that
even though he was a chemist, he was completely wrong, and it was actually a
much better idea to cook things the old-fashioned way than his version.

That said, if you sear the meat at the very beginning, you get the high-
temperature cooking out of the way, and then you can cook as a gentle
temperature just as long as you need in order to get the center just right.

If you do it the other way around, if you cook gently until the center is just
right and then brown at the very end, then you risk, if you overdo the
browning, overcooking the inside. So it is actually practically easier, I
think, to do the high-temperature cooking at the beginning.

GROSS: Yeah, well, because I'm always in such a hurry, I've murdered a lot of
meals by, you know, just turning up the heat real high, figuring it's going to
cook faster this way.

Mr. McGEE: Yeah, yeah, and it does. But it's a bit like, you know, driving a
car – you're late for an appointment. You're driving fast down the road in
order to get there, but you don't know exactly where you're going, and so you
have to kind of check every driveway to see what the number is. And if you're
going too fast, you'll go right by the place you're trying to get.

And it's the same with cooking. If you're cooking at a high temperature, then
it's true that the food is cooking through faster, but it's much harder to put
on the brakes and stop it at just the right point, and that's why you end up
usually overcooking.

GROSS: So the principle here is that you want to pour in the amount of heat
into the food that can be conducted into the center of the food because
otherwise, the outside's going to get tough and burned before the inside gets
hot?

Mr. McGEE: That's right. That's another part of the story. And so ideally, what
you would do is cook the meat at a very high temperature to begin with, get a
nice flavor on the outside, and unfortunately, that's the only way to get that
wonderful browned, roasted flavor is with very high temperatures.

But then turn the temperature down almost to the temperature at which you want
the meat to end up on the inside because that way, there's no way to overcook
it. If you're shooting for 150 on the inside, and you cook it at 155, for
example, then you're going to have a much better result than if you cook it at
350 all the way through and end up with part of the meat, much of the meat in
fact, that's overcooked, and only the very center will end up at just the
temperature you're looking for.

GROSS: Okay, so you're talking about the low-temperature, slow form of cooking
meat. But if you look at the Chinese form of cooking, cooking that's done in
the wok is done on a very rapid process. So are they using a different
principle?

Mr. McGEE: Yeah, they are. They're cutting the meat up into very small pieces
that cook through in seconds. And they start with a very hot wok. The wok is
much hotter than the hottest oven is going to be.

And so what happens there is that you preheat the wok very hot, through in
these small pieces of meat that only take 15 or 20 seconds to cook through, and
that's about the same time that it takes for the outside to brown because of
the very high temperature.

And so they hit the perfect balance by means of the strategy, very high
temperature, very small pieces, very quick cooking.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Harold McGee. He writes about the
science of food and cooking, and he has a new book, which is called "Keys To
Good Cooking." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Harold McGee. He writes about the
science of food and cooking, and he has a new book, which is called "Keys To
Good Cooking."

Do you ever use a microwave, and if so, what do you use it for?

I do use a microwave a fair amount, and I use it for all kinds of things.
Microwaves are another very efficient way to heat foods because they are
generally absorbed most efficiently by water.

And so you can put a ceramic container into a microwave oven, and it will
absorb very little of the energy. Most of the energy goes into the food itself.

And it turns out when studies have been done on retaining vitamins in
vegetables, for example, that microwave ovens do a much better job than boiling
or even steaming. It's a very good, very quick way to heat foods, and I do cook
vegetables in the microwave.

I cook thin fish fillets in the microwave in just a matter of a minute or so.
It's also a reasonable way to cook something like polenta, which traditional
recipes would have you stand at the stovetop and drizzle - and bring the pot to
a boil and then drizzle the polenta grains slowly into the pot, stirring all
the time to make sure they don't stick to each other and so on.

In a microwave, you just mix cold water, polenta, put them in the microwave,
turn on the microwave, and basically the polenta grains swell and absorb the
water as they heat up, and you end up with – without having to worry about all
the usual things that you worry on the stovetop, and you get a very nice
polenta.

GROSS: I'm so surprised to hear that you maintain more of the nutrition of
vegetables in a microwave than if you're cooking it on top of a stove because
most people think of microwaves of, like, zapping the food and just basically
killing it, convenient but not nutritious. And you're saying the opposite.

Mr. McGEE: Right, and that's – I have to say that of course you can cook
vegetables badly in the microwave by overdoing them, but if you cook them with
as much care as you would boiling for example, so checking them every once in a
while to see what the color looks like and whether they're, you know, just
done, just past crunchy, it does turn out that because the process is so rapid,
microwaves will kill enzymes in the vegetables that actually degrade the
nutritional value.

So if you heat green beans, for example, as the temperature goes up, there are
enzymes in the beans that will essentially use up the Vitamin C that's in those
green beans, and if you let the enzyme do that, it'll do it until there's
almost none left.

But enzymes are sensitive to heat, but if you put them in boiling water and
keep the water at the boil, you kill those enzymes and maintain much of the
Vitamin C. The same thing is true in a microwave, where the energy is going
straight into the food immediately, and so it kills those enzymes very quickly,
as well, but without the problem you have in boiling of nutrients being leeched
out into the water.

In a microwave, you just – often you don't need to add any water at all,
otherwise maybe a tablespoon, and there's no cooking medium in which to lose
the nutritional value. So it stays in the food.

GROSS: My guest, Harold McGee, will be back in the second half of the show. His
new book is called "Keys To Good Cooking." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. We're talking about the science of
cooking with Harold McGee, who is an expert on why foods behave the way they do
when they're cooked and how to apply that information to recipes. McGee is the
author of the bestseller "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the
Kitchen." His new book is called "Keys to Good Cooking."

So you debunk some myths in your book and one of them is that cooking in liquid
will make food moist and you say that's especially not true if the food is
meat, fish, shellfish, dairy products, eggs. Why isn't that true? I mean
something swimming in water, shouldn't it be more moist?

Mr. MCGEE: Well, that's what you'd think and I think that's why the myth
persists is that it seems commonsensical. The problem is that protein-rich
foods are very sensitive to temperature. And so take an egg, the egg white is
90 percent water and just 10 percent protein. So you cook it and the protein
denatures and you end up turning the liquid white into a solid, where there is
this kind of structure created by the proteins and the proteins are holding the
water - the 90 percent water in the crevices between the proteins.

What happens when you cook something in water, often you'll let the water get
up to the boil. And if you let the water get up to the boil then the
temperature is 212 degrees, usually you want to cook protein-rich foods only to
about 150, that's when they coagulate and form that solid superstructure that
retains the moisture. If you cook them above 150 then that structure begins to
contract - begins to squeeze. It's almost like squeezing on a sponge which has
a lot of water in it. And what happens when you squeeze is that the structure
shrinks and the water gets squeezed out.

And so if you’re cooking in hot water, it's very easy to let that hot water go
way above 150 degrees - we're often cooking as I say, at the boil or at a
simmer. And if you let that happen long enough then you're going to overcook
the proteins and squeeze the moisture out.

GROSS: So is that why eggs become hard-boiled in boiling water?

Mr. MCGEE: That's right. And that's why you can get much tenderer eggs - hard-
boiled eggs, hard-cooked eggs, I prefer to call them, because you actually
don't want to boil them. You can get very tender and delicious hard-cooked eggs
by cooking them at a much lower temperature than the boil. Again, because it's
gentler on the proteins and so they don't get overcooked and their water
squeezed out.

GROSS: Is that also why milk curdles when you cook it - when you cook it past
the boiling point?

Mr. MCGEE: Actually, milk is a special case because it's proteins are actually
fairly resistant to heat. In fact, you can boil fresh milk until it reduces
almost to the point of solidifying. That's the basis of a lot of wonderful
Indian desserts, cooking sugar and milk down until it's this wonderful thick
paste - delicious. But what makes milk curdle more often than not is acidity.
Its proteins are resistant to heat but very sensitive to acidity. That's why we
can make yogurt, for example. And so if milk has been sitting around for a
while, it's not perfectly fresh, it's developed some acidity and then you heat
it, that's when it curdles.

GROSS: In writing about vegetables, you say - and I never knew this - that the
flavor of most vegetables are there to serve as chemical weapons to deter
insects and other creatures from eating them.

Mr. MCGEE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: That sounded really surprising to me, especially because some of the
like broccoli or zucchini when it's growing isn't particularly fragrant or
anything.

Mr. MCGEE: Well, exactly. It's not fragrant. But then you bite into it and it's
a different story. Zucchini is pretty mild, but broccoli is a good example.
Broccoli and all the members of the cabbage family have a very distinctive
flavor, which is due to chemicals that are there to deter insects for the most
part, from eating them. And so broccoli - raw broccoli - for example, is
pungent. Mustard greens, which are exactly in same family, has much, much more
pungency, so it is kind of a spectrum of strengths. But most of the flavors
that we enjoy in strongly flavored vegetables let's say, so cabbage family,
onions, garlic, things like that, are due to defensive compounds that the
plants make in order to prevent creatures from consuming them.

GROSS: Why does the flavor of those vegetables change so much when they are
cooked?

Mr. MCGEE: Well, because heat is a form of energy and whenever we heat
anything, if we heat it enough, we begin to transform the molecules that make
that material up. And the aroma compounds in foods are especially vulnerable
to, or maybe susceptible to change by heat and air because we are always
cooking in an atmosphere that contains plenty of oxygen. And so the more we
cook a food the more we're going to transform the molecules that make it up and
so more different the flavor is going to be.

GROSS: My guest Harold McGee. His new book is called "Keys to Good Cooking."
We'll talk more about kitchen science after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Harold McGee. He writes about the
science of food and cooking and he has a new book called "Keys to Good
Cooking."

In writing about food safety while you cook, you say equip your kitchen with
small and gauze bandages, antibiotic wound cream, and the fire extinguisher -
which leads me to ask, what was your worst mishap in the kitchen?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCGEE: Let's see, I was once not in my kitchen, but in another kitchen,
flambéing something, you know, adding it was - I think it was duck - and I was
adding some brandy and then put a match to it in order to flambé it, and that's
a wonderful way to get a nice kind of caramelized flavor in the food as well as
the flavor of the alcohol, and I had the vent on - the vent fan. So air was
being sucked from the stovetop surface up into the vent. And I lit the pan and
the flames leapt up and leapt onto the screen over the vent which was covered
with grease and the grease caught on fire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCGEE: And so I had this kind of column of flame from the frying pan up to
the vent and then I imagined through the vent and into the vent shaft up to the
roof. So that was pretty bad. I turned the fan off, covered the pot, and just
yanked the screen off onto the stovetop surface and it smoked a lot but it
didn't burn any further.

GROSS: So we asked some of the members of the FRESH AIR staff for some
questions that they want answers to pertaining to science of food and cooking.

Mr. MCGEE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So I've got a couple of those for you.

Mr. MCGEE: Okay.

GROSS: What's the difference between baking powder and baking soda?

Mr. MCGEE: Baking soda is sodium carbonate - bicarbonate. It's a pure chemical
and it's an alkali that reacts with acids to produce carbon dioxide gas. So
it's a very pure material and a single material. Baking powder is a mixture of
baking soda and an acid that will react with it in order to make carbon dioxide
gas together with some cornstarch to kind of give you more material to work
with so that it's easier to measure out. So baking powder is a complete
leavener, baking soda is half of a leavening combination.

GROSS: Which do you usually use? Does it depend on the recipe?

Mr. MCGEE: Yeah, it depends on the recipe. If the batter, for example, contains
an acid of some kind, like buttermilk is frequently used in griddle cakes,
pancakes, that kind of thing, then the baking soda will react with the acid in
the buttermilk to make bubbles. But if you are making a pancake recipe with
just milk, then you need baking powder because it doesn't have an acid in the
rest of the batter.

GROSS: Okay. Another question. Would you recommend wooden or plastic cutting
boards?

Mr. MCGEE: That has been a long-running controversy between manufacturers of
each, and it turns out that wooden cutting boards are good in a couple of ways.
One is that they're porous and so they tend to soak up juices - cutting juices
from cutting meats and fish, for example, and that carries the bacteria down
into the cutting board where they're not at the surface anymore. And the other
thing is that woods often antibacterial compounds in them and so they help -
they're kind of natural antibiotic in the surface of the wood.

Plastic cutting boards are easier to clean and are safer to put in the
dishwasher, for example. But they also will tend to develop scars and bacteria
can lodge in the scars and cause problems later. So I actually have a couple of
each and use both. And when the plastic cutting board develops scars, it gets
kind of rough to the surface, then I replace it.

GROSS: Okay. When you are thickening a sauce when should you use cornstarch,
when should you use flour and do they work on different principles?

Mr. MCGEE: Flour contains starch and so that's why it will thicken the sauce in
the same way that cornstarch does. Cornstarch is a pure starch. Flour has some
protein in it as well. And so when you make a sauce with flour the sauce is
quite to the opaque because it contains the proteins as well as the starch.
When you make a sauce with cornstarch it's going to be not exactly clear but
more translucent because it doesn't have the proteins to get in the way of
light passing through the sauce. So you can use both. They have different
appearances and they have different strengths because one is pure starch, the
other is only 70 percent or so starch, and so you need more flour in order to
get the same amount of thickening.

GROSS: Are they five, like, must-have kitchen items that you would name?

Mr. MCGEE: Well, let's see, I think two items that many cooks don't have but
that can make a huge difference are a scale and a good thermometer. And by a
good thermometer I don't mean the standard, what's called instant read
thermometer, which in fact, is nothing of the sort, but a digital thermometer
which are no longer that expensive. They're, you know, very reasonable - $50 or
so, it'll last for a good long time. And you want to look for one with a very
thin probe because the thicker the probe the longer the thermometer needs in
order to register the correct temperature, and because you've got that big
thick probe in there - in the middle of the steak or piece of fish - it'll
actually cool the thing that you are trying to cook down so you'll end up with
a lower temperature reading than the actual temperature of the food and so
you'll end up overcooking it. So a good digital thermometer that registers
quickly is a godsend.

And then scale because measuring ingredients by volume - cups, spoons, things
like that - just isn't accurate. You're weighing - you’re measuring with a
spoon or a cup not just the ingredient itself, but also the air that it happens
to trap because of its particular structure. So kosher salt, for example, is
much less dense than regular granulated table salt. And if the recipe calls for
a tablespoon and doesn't specify which, you can be off by a factor of two, even
though you’re measuring exactly a tablespoon. So a scale measures the actual
amount of salt, not salt plus air and just gives you much more control over
cooking.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Harold McGee and he writes about
the science of food and cooking. His new book is called "Keys to Good Cooking."

Now, you say that the thing that got you started along this path of studying
the science of food and cooking was when after watching the great Mel Brooks
Western comedy "Blazing Saddles," there's a great scene where everybody is
sitting around eating beans and then, shall we say, releasing gas, and so you
said that that got him to ask you the questions like why does that happen after
you eat beans, and you went and investigated and that got you down this path of
science and cooking. So answer the question for us.

Mr. MCGEE: Yeah. So it turns out that all seeds have storage foods in them to
nourish the seedling until the seedling is big enough that it can nourish
itself by photosynthesis, and so different seeds use different foods to feed
the seedlings. And it turns out that the bean family tends to feed its
seedlings with carbohydrates, that unlike starch or sugar our bodies are not
capable of digesting. We can handle starch and sugar molecules just fine but we
cannot deal with these oligosaccharides, as they're called. And so what happens
when you can't digest something, well, it just stays in your digestive system
instead of being absorbed. And it turns out that the bacteria that live in our
large intestine are perfectly capable of digesting these oligosaccharides and
when they do so, they generate a variety of gasses – actually, hydrogen,
methane, and that's why we end up with gas when we eat beans.

GROSS: Does cooking the beans help at all?

Mr. MCGEE: It does, because it can break those oligosaccharides down into
smaller subunits that our bodies can actually deal with and also just transform
some of them into other molecules that don’t cause the same problem. So cooking
does indeed help.

GROSS: You’ve been writing about food and the science of cooking for at least a
couple of decades now, right?

Mr. MCGEE: Yeah, since the late '70s.

GROSS: Okay. So what's one or two of the ways that you think the food landscape
has most dramatically changed since you started?

Mr. MCGEE: Oh boy, it has changed so much. When I first started writing, there
was not that much interest in specialty coffee, or coffee quality in general,
and nobody knew anything about olive oil, and balsamic vinegar had not arrived
on our shores. So much of the world food culture was unknown to us, and we
weren't as a people that interested in food. And then, I think for a variety of
reasons, we've become much more interested, much more aware, things are now
available - readily available in our local markets that were never available
before, and so it just seems to me that people are eating a much more varied
diet, much more interested in what they eat. And in the case of people who
still cook, they're interested in understanding that process and in how
understanding can help them do it better.

GROSS: So Thanksgiving is coming up, Christmas too, which for a lot of people
will be making turkeys, and one piece of advice I want to ask you about from
your book regarding turkeys is you say it is very difficult to roast a whole
bird and do it well. Why is that?

Mr. MCGEE: It's because the whole bird has two very different kinds of meat on
it, the breast meat and the leg meat. Breast meat is very delicate and really
dries out very easily above 150 degrees. The leg meat has a lot more connective
tissue, it's fattier, and it's actually much better at something more like 165
or even 170 degrees. But they're both on the same bird. They're both in the
same oven when you are cooking the bird whole, and so the question is, how can
you possibly get two different donenesses is in two different parts of the same
bird? It takes some thought and planning and some tricks to come as close as
you can.

GROSS: Share one trick with us?

Mr. MCGEE: Take the bird out ahead of time and let the legs warm up a little
bit while you keep the breasts covered with ice packs. That way you keep the
breasts cold, the legs warm up by maybe 10, 20 degrees, and that way when you
put the bird in the oven, you’ve already built in a temperature differential.
The breasts are going to end up at a given time less cooked than the legs, and
that's exactly what you want.

GROSS: Wow, that was going to look a little weird.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCGEE: It looks weird, yeah, to begin with, especially if you use an ace
bandage to hold the ice packs in place...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCGEE: ...because they're kind of slippery and - so that's what I do. So,
yeah, it does look a little peculiar, but what you care about is what the bird
looks like when it comes out.

GROSS: Well, Harold McGee, thank you for the explanations and the advice. Thank
you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MCGEE: Pleasure. Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Harold McGee's new book is called "Keys to Good Cooking." You can read
an excerpt of the book and find a list of all the tips he gave during our
interview our website, freshair.npr.org.

This is FRESH AIR.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
130697865
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20101021
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
A Modern 'Sherlock' Is More Than Elementary

TERRY GROSS, host:

This weekend the PBS anthology series "Masterpiece Mystery" imports the first
of three weekly TV episodes featuring the detective identified by the Guinness
Book of World Records as the most portrayed movie character. The character,
based on the short stories and novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is Sherlock
Holmes. The new TV series is simply called "Sherlock."

Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Before I previewed the three installments of the new
"Sherlock" TV series, I wasn't convinced we needed another adaptation of
Sherlock Holmes. Last year's movie version featured a solid star turn by Robert
Downey, Jr. but was much too overblown, underwritten and entirely unmemorable.
Besides, we already have Hugh Laurie as television's "House," who's basically
Sherlock Holmes as a doctor, with a limp. Except that instead of one Dr. Watson
as his companion and assistant, House has a whole team. And before solving his
case each week with a flash of brilliant diagnosis, House always gets it wrong
a few times - something Sherlock Holmes would never do.

But the new British import "Sherlock," beginning this Thursday on a
"Masterpiece Mystery" on PBS, gets everything right. It's a modern-day version,
with storytelling approaches to match. Sometimes, when Sherlock is explaining
the reasoning behind his astounding powers of observation, the camera zooms in
tight on the various clues, with whooshy sound effects, just like an episode of
CSI. And why not? This guy was the original one-man crime lab.

Sherlock Holmes is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, a young actor who has a
great-sounding name of his own. John Watson, M.D. is played by Martin Freeman,
the co-star of the original British version of "The Office," and the series is
co-created, with obvious passion for the original stories, by Steven Moffat and
Mark Gatiss, who last worked together on "Doctor Who."

That may sound like an odd team, but it's actually a great fit. Doctor Who,
like Sherlock Holmes, is worlds smarter than everyone around him and goes about
his adventures with a loyal companion in tow. And while Doctor Who is an alien,
Sherlock only feels like one.

This new "Sherlock" series definitely gets all that - and the changes it makes,
in telling new stories and reshaping the characters, are as smart as the
elements it retains. When Sherlock first meets Dr. Watson, for example, he
instantly sizes him up as a war veteran who's in therapy and who's just
returned from action in Afghanistan or Iraq. It may sound like an easy update,
but in "A Study in Scarlet," the 1887 story in which the two men met, Watson
had just returned from Afghanistan. And in this first TV adventure, called "A
Study in Pink," Watson's demand for Holmes to reveal himself, and his tricks,
is just as clever and delightful - even with all the "CSI" zooming and
swooshing.

In this scene, Holmes and Watson are riding to a crime scene when Watson
demands some answers from his baffling new acquaintance.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Sherlock")

Mr. MARTIN FREEMAN (Actor): (as Dr. Watson) Who are you? What do you do?

Mr. BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH (Actor): (as Sherlock Holmes) What do you think?

Mr. FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) I'd say private detective...

Mr. CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) But...

Mr. FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) But police don't go to private detectives.

Mr. CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) I'm a consulting detective. The only one
in the world. I invented the job.

Mr. FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) What does that mean?

Mr. CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) It means when the police are out of their
depth, which is always, they consult me.

Mr. FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) The police don't consult amateurs.

Mr. CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) When I met you for the first time
yesterday, I said Afghanistan or Iraq, you looked surprised.

Mr. FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) Yes, how did you know?

Mr. CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) I didn’t know, I saw.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) (Unintelligible) says military. Your
conversation as you entered the room...

Mr. FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) (Unintelligible)

Mr. CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) ...said (unintelligible) army doctor,
obvious. The face had turned (unintelligible) It looks really bad when you
walk, but don't ask for a chair when you stand, like you’ve forgotten about it.
(Unintelligible) partly psychosomatic. That says the original circumstances of
the injury were traumatic, wounded in action then - wounded in action sometime
in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Mr. FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) You said I had a therapist.

Mr. CUMBERBATCH: You have a psychosomatic limp. Of course you've got a
therapist.

BIANCULLI: This new version isn't just good, it's terrific. And the changes
bringing the characters into modern-day London are inspired. Sherlock no longer
injects himself with a seven percent solution of cocaine to get a buzz when
he's bored or baffled. Now he slaps nicotine patches on his arm, lots of them.
And this new Sherlock Holmes carries a cell phone. But, like the anti-social
misfit that he is, he much prefers to text than to talk. The three stories, new
spins on old themes, are about murders disguised as suicides, a deadly
smuggling ring, and a mad bomber. They're fast-paced and surprising and truly
exciting, and very well-acted.

That goes for the supporting cast as well. Rupert Graves plays Inspector
Lestrade, and the evil Professor Moriarty is here too. But I can't tell you
where, or who plays him, without spoiling some of the fun. Because Moriarty
loves disguises and loves to hide in plain sight.

Readers of the original stories know that already - but even if you're not
familiar with the old Sherlock Holmes adventures, you'll love this new
"Sherlock" series. However, if you are familiar with them, chances are you'll
love this new "Sherlock" even more.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthwatching.com and he
teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. His book,
"Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,"
has been published in paperback.

You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
130696712

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

22:30

From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong

Smart is nominated for Emmy Awards for her performances Hacks, about a veteran comic working with a Gen-Z comedy writer, and the crime drama Mare Of Easttown. Originally broadcast May 2021.

52:30

'Storm Lake' Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen discusses the battle to keep print news alive in small-town America. Cullen runs Iowa's Storm Lake Times, along with his brother, the paper's publisher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue