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How to Read a French Fry: And Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science

How to Read a French Fry: And Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science

by Russ Parsons

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In a book widely hailed for its entertaining prose and provocative research, the award-winning Los Angeles Times food journalist Russ Parsons examines the science behind ordinary cooking processes. Along the way he dispenses hundreds of tips and the reasons behind them, from why you should always begin cooking beans in cold water, to why you should salt meat


In a book widely hailed for its entertaining prose and provocative research, the award-winning Los Angeles Times food journalist Russ Parsons examines the science behind ordinary cooking processes. Along the way he dispenses hundreds of tips and the reasons behind them, from why you should always begin cooking beans in cold water, to why you should salt meat before sautéing it, to why it's a waste of time to cook a Vidalia onion. Filled with sharp-witted observations ("Frying has become synonymous with minimum-wage labor, yet hardly anyone will try it at home"), intriguing food trivia (fruit deprived of water just before harvest has superior flavor to fruit that is irrigated up to the last moment ), and recipes (from Oven-Steamed Salmon with Cucumber Salad to Ultimate Strawberry Shortcake), How to Read a French Fry contains all the ingredients you need to become a better cook.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Parsons explains the science behind kitchen common sense, then illustrates it with recipes . . . the recipes are some of the most appealing ever." - Deborah Madison

"Russ Parson’s new book is fascinating to read and totally useful in the kitchen." — Jeffrey Steingarten

" If you want to know why onions make you cry, are terrified by hollandaise or curious to find out why good cooks add old oil to new, this is the book for you.
The recipes not only tell you the what, but also the why. I learned a lot." — Ruth Reichl, editor in chief Gourmet magazine Gourmet

The Barnes & Noble Review
There are a number of good books that have tackled food science already. Some do so elegantly, like the vintage Cooking with Pomiane, while others, like Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, take a more scholarly approach. Russ Parsons's How to Read a French Fry surpasses them all by combining elegance and scientific knowledge with a lively enthusiasm and more than 100 good recipes.

Why does a little mustard help the emulsion of a vinaigrette? Why can you stick your hand in a 450-degree oven, but not in 212-degree boiling water? Why is the classic American pie dough so much trickier to make than a traditional European short crust? "Cooking," says food editor and author Russ Parsons, "is full of questions that science can help answer -- questions you might not have even thought about asking, but questions that can make you a better cook."

Parsons is eager to teach us about the mysteries of meat and heat, the second life of fruits and vegetables, the complexities of frying (deep and shallow), and the transformation of tough starches like beans into tasty little pillows. Each chapter addresses a basic process, slips in a number of tips and techniques to take advantage of the science, then follows with recipes that exemplify the process. The chapter on eggs, for example, ranges from the science behind hard-boiled eggs, hollandaise, and mayonnaise to tips on hot and cold emulsion sauces, and recipes for Green Goddess Salad and Chocolate Pots de Crème. It's a delicious course for cooks of any level. (Ginger Curwen)

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this unique book, Los Angeles Times food editor Parsons combines complex science (rendered accessible to lay readers), workable cooking techniques, and excellent recipes. Each chapter addresses a specific culinary-scientific process (e.g., deep-frying, the secret post-harvest life of fruits and vegetables), provides a list of rules to follow therein, then offers a range of recipes that use the technique in question. In a chapter titled "From a Pebble to a Pillow," for example, Parsons explains the various ways in which grains, beans and other starches cook. He clears up myths about cooking beans and explains what makes an apple "mealy" (it's the pectin). The chapter ties up with some guidelines for preparing starch-thickened sauces, pasta, etc. Recipes include Smoky Cream of Corn Soup, a flour-thickened concoction, and a Gratin of Sweet Potatoes and Bourbon. The recipes are never gimmicky but are genuinely appealing, for instance Smoked Tuna Salad in Tomatoes and Lavender Fig Tart, and they are evidence of how a handful of techniques can turn out diverse results. Scientific information is handled in a light tone with plenty of examples. With his analyses of frying, roasting, and other processes, Parsons proves that the unexamined dish is far less rewarding than the meal we understand. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Award-winning journalist and Los Angeles Times food editor Parsons offers this delightful book that is one part kitchen science, one part cookbook. Ever wonder why onions make people cry, or why some potatoes are better for boiling rather than baking? The author answers these questions and discusses other basic issues like cooking processes (e.g., frying, emulsifying, and roasting). Using the premise that an understanding of the basics enables people to become better cooks, the book uses science to explain process. It then demonstrates with more than 100 recipes, ranging from macaroni and cheese with green onions and ham to apricot-almond clafoutis. While the author's conversational tone simplifies complex scientific processes, it sometimes makes it difficult to glean information; thankfully, each section contains lists of cooking tips and advice for quick reference. Recommended for public and academic libraries. Pauline Baughman, Multnomah Cty. Lib., Portland, OR Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Parsons (the food editor of the ) has written a book that explains in detail the science behind food and its cooking. We learn about such things as gluten, water, and cellulose, what they do and why, and how to make the essential elements work for us in the kitchen. Many recipes are included, which are undoubtedly tasty, though they refer to scientific details we've never bothered to wonder about. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Houghton Mifflin Paperback
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)
Age Range:
9 - 12 Years

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt


Have you ever noticed that a whole onion smells different from one that’s been cut? Have you ever wondered why? Here’s the answer: Physically, an onion is 90 percent water, trapped in a fairly flimsy network of cellulose. Within that network is a subnetwork of smaller cells, called vacuoles. These vacuoles separate a variety of chemical components suspended in the water. It’s only when the vacuoles are ruptured, either by cutting or by smashing, that these chemical components combine and then recombine again and again in a cascade of chemical reactions, creating the smell and taste we associate with raw onions. Most simply put, what happens is that the contents of these separate vacuoles combine to form a variety of sulfur-rich compounds called sulfonic acids. These acids in turn combine to form still more compounds that provide most of the fresh-cut onion character. What’s more, this chain of reactions happens in a flash. It’s a little miracle. In fact, not until the 1970s had science advanced to the point that it could begin to decipher what happens in that fleeting instant between the time your knife touches the onion and the fumes reach your nose.

Think about it: the chopping of an onion is one of the most common acts in all of cooking. Any good cook has done it thousands, probably millions of times. Yet how many have ever stopped to think about what is really going on? All of this is neither trivial nor purely technical. For example, it’s important to realize that these sulfonic acids are extremely unstable, meaning they go away quickly. One of the places they go, of course, is right up your nose, which triggers the crying response we associate with chopping onions (for this reason, these chemicals are called lachrymators, from the Latin word for tears). More critically, they are both water-soluble and heat-sensitive, which means that the chemicals will dissolve in water and will vaporize when heated. In short: soak an onion or cook it and those acrid flavor characteristics go away. By the same token, and perhaps just as useful, chill an onion or rinse it under cold water and you won’t cry as much when chopping it. Also, a sharper knife will damage far fewer cells than a dull one.

And what about those so-called sweet onions, the Vidalias or Mauis or whatever you want to call them? Though sweet onions cost significantly more, they usually contain no more sugar than plain five-pounds-for-a-dollar yellow storage onions. They taste sweeter because they are much lower in the acrid sulfuric compounds (as well as in the enzyme that produces much of the onion flavor). The practical application of this is that while raw sweet onions are delicious on hamburgers or in salads, it is spendthrift to cook one. Take away those sulfuric acids by cooking, and a yellow storage onion will actually taste much sweeter than the so-called sweet. You can even make raw storage onions taste sweeter by soaking them in several changes of cold water (hot water is more effective at dispersing the acids, but even that small amount of heat will begin to cook the onion, breaking up the delicate physical framework and robbing it of its crispness). Each time you rinse the cut onions, you will note that the water becomes milky. That is the trail of the sulfurous compounds. Use vinegar to rinse them, as they do in Mexico, and your onions will seem even sweeter, because the remaining sulfuric acids are overshadowed by more palatable acetic acids.

There are other lessons for the cook in this little bit of onion chemistry. For example, now it should be clear why the size of the dice you cut is important. The smaller the pieces of onion, the faster the cellulose framework breaks down and the faster the sulfuric compounds go away. Chop an onion small and it will melt into the background, its residual sweetness forming an almost imperceptible harmonizing flavor. Leave it large if you want both texture and flavor to retain some bite. You can control the effect by how you cook the onion as well. In a hot pan, it will cook so quickly that some of the sharp flavor will remain, as will some of the crisp texture. Cook it slowly and, again, it will melt into the background, flavoring everything else without retaining much of its original identity. What’s more, all of these things are equally true for the other members of the onion family: garlic, shallots, chives, green onions and leeks. They are all built the same way; the differences in flavor are due to subtle differences in the chemicals involved. Garlic, for example, follows the same process but breaks down into a slightly different set of chemicals.

The kitchen is full of such little miracles, from the browning of meat to the emulsion of a sauce. How are various meats different from one another? Why do you cook pork differently from beef? How do various cuts within the same type of meat differ? Why do you cook a leg of lamb longer than a rack? And what about chicken and fish? How is frying different from roasting, and how is steaming different from either of these? Why are some potatoes better for boiling and others for baking? Why can you stick your hand in a 450-degree oven but not in 212-degree boiling water? Cooking is full of questions that science can help answer -- questions you might not have even thought about asking but that can make you a better cook.

In the good old days, you learned to cook in the kitchen. You worked at the elbow of a master -- your mother, a great chef or the fry cook down the street -- and you absorbed the basics. You learned by watching and repeating. You saw what they did and then you tried to do it yourself, mimicking as exactly as possible every act they performed. When you had absorbed a sufficient amount of knowledge, you then became the teacher, passing along exactly the same lessons in exactly the same way.

There is much to be said for tradition, but as a method of instruction, it has its drawbacks. In the first place, it puts an enormous burden on the talents of that one teacher. If your mom/chef/fry cook was, let us say, something less than supremely skilled, bad habits may have been passed along every bit as easily as good ones. It’s a fairly limited way of cooking too. If you ever want to move beyond your teacher’s range of dishes, you’ve got to find another mentor, or you’re out of luck. There’s the story about the daughter who is learning to cook. Her mother teaches her that when cooking a ham, you always cut off the shank end. She asks why, and her mother explains that that’s the way her mother taught her and that it is done to tenderize the meat. She asks her grandmother why, and the grandmother tells her that that is the way her mother did it and it’s because the meat tastes better that way. Puzzled, she visits her great-grandmother out on the farm and asks her for her story. “Well,” she says, pointing at the little old wood-fired stove, “That’s the only way I could get it to fit.”

But perhaps the biggest drawback to tradition as a way of instruction is that it assumes there’s someone around who is actually cooking. More and more, that seems to be a dangerous assumption. While microwave meals and TV dinners may be a boon to busy working families, they have been deadly to the tradition of home cooking. We are now three and sometimes four generations removed from the age of real cooks -- those who made do using the raw ingredients at hand, without the aid of food industry shortcuts.

But by now this is an old song. What’s rarely asked is whether we would be willing to listen even if those imaginary teachers of the past were still around. We’ve changed, and the unquestioning following of instructions no longer seems to be part of our makeup. Give an instruction, from “Work!” to “Duck!” and the immediate response is, “Why?” “Because” is not an acceptable answer. We want to know why something works. How it works. What happens if you do this instead. Really? I’ll try it myself and see.

Even the way we approach a recipe -- probably as close as we can come to those mentors of old -- has changed. On the one hand, because of this lack of mentoring, the amount of detail required in a recipe has increased almost exponentially over the past few generations. At the turn of the century, it was perfectly understood for a writer to instruct, “Prepare in the usual manner.” Today a recipe not only needs to explain what the usual manner is but needs to include how the ingredient is to be cleaned and cut before cooking (and in some cases what it looks like and where it can be bought), the size and type of pan it is to be prepared in, the type of heat it is to be cooked over and for exactly how long and, ideally, several indications of progress -- and eventually doneness -- along the way. The problem is, almost no recipe can be written in enough detail to cover every possible question that might arise.

That’s not to say we know less about food today. In fact, maybe the opposite is true. No matter how uneducated most people are about the process of cooking, we tend to be extremely knowledgeable about eating. While it might have been possible for cooks in the past to master merely by rote the dozen or so regional specialties that would have been any cook’s repertoire, things are different now. Today we eat -- and, hopefully, cook -- across regional and cultural boundaries. Not only is someone in Atlanta liable to fix Boston baked beans for dinner, he might try his hand the next night at pad Thai. Any reasonably proficient foodies can discuss the intricacies of dishes made in countries they may have trouble locating on a map. We can debate the provenance of almost any ingredient listed on a restaurant menu. And we have developed very definite opinions about how we want our food to taste. We have eaten at the tables of the most creative chefs in the country, and we know what we like -- even if we don’t know how to roast a chicken.

The trick, then, is to provide the answers to basic cooking questions in a way that people can understand enough to follow them. The physical processes of cooking are, after all, universal. Browning a piece of meat works exactly the same whether it is being done in a wok in Sichuan or in a padella in Padua. That is where this book comes in. It is not intended to be a food science textbook. There are plenty of those, and if you are interested in what you find here, you can move on to them. Rather, this book is about getting you to pause for a minute to examine some of the important processes in cooking, to explain the science behind them and then to tell you how you can use that knowledge to improve your own cooking. You can think of it as a kind of modern cooking class, one that uses basic scientific principles to explain culinary truths -- and does it with a minimum of technical language.

At this point, some of you are probably heading for the door. It’s that “S-word” again. Science has gotten a bad name lately. We equate it with everything from sophisticated weaponry to Frankenstein-like experimentation with life itself. It has become synonymous with not just technology but technology run amok. What could be more ironic? As science becomes more and more an intrinsic part of our lives, we have come to loathe it as something completely separate and foreign. Yet at its most basic level, science is nothing more than a way of answering questions about the things that happen to us every day. It is not something separate from the natural world; it is a way of looking at the natural world and trying to understand it. Perhaps the problem is that science as most of us experience it -- at second hand, through reading reports -- has moved so far past the questions that concern most of us that we no longer see the connections. Trips to Mars and explorations of the gene code are doubtless fascinating, but neither has much application to life. Maybe what is needed is a return to real science, to questions that we laypeople ponder. Nowhere is there a better laboratory for this than the kitchen.

Some fear that turning toward kitchen science means turning away from the art of cooking, as if the two were contradictory. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If it makes you more comfortable, think of this as an anti-cookbook. We’ll begin with some science, then proceed on to practical advice. Finally, there are recipes that demonstrate the things you’ve read. Once you understand these basic processes, you will be free to cook well even without any recipes at all. You’ll know how to get the results you want, and you’ll be able to adjust the recipes to fit your taste and the ingredients you have on hand. The only limit will be your creative ability. In the same way, this book can also be read as an explication of other cookbooks. You’ll no longer have to rely on the cookbook writer to tell you how hot the flame should be, how brown the meat should be or when something is done. You’ll know for yourself. It’s the next best thing to having mom -- the scientist -- there explaining everything.

In some cases, the connections between the recipes may seem a bit tenuous until you’ve read the chapters. For example, what exactly do a vinaigrette and a chocolate pudding have in common? Well, look at it this way: Vinaigrette is an emulsion -- a combination of two ingredients that don’t normally get along (oil and water). Mayonnaise is an emulsion made using eggs. Hollandaise is a hot emulsion made with cooked eggs. Puddings are nothing more than stiffened emulsions of cooked eggs. One thing leads to another. The kitchen is routinely rich in such unexpected connections.

Copyright © 2001 by Russ Parsons

What People are Saying About This

Mark Bittman
Russ Parsons not only unravels some of the intrigue of the kitchen but, in entertainment fashion, shows us why this understanding matters. The great recipes are a bonus and make How to Read a French Fry invaluable.
— (Mark Bittman, New York Times columnist and author of How to Cook Everything)
Paula Wolfert
Mouthwatering recipes, fascinating information and charming commentary.
— (Paula Wolfert, author of Mediterranean Grains and Greens)
Deborah Madison
With passion and enthusiasm, Russ Parsons explains the science behind kitchen common sense, then illustrates it with recipes. His book makes me feel smarter and more in control. As if that's not enough, the recipes are some of the most appealing ever.
— (Deborah Madison, author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone)
Thomas Keller
Russ Parsons knows that the best cooking comes from a genuine understanding of basic techniques, and he illuminates them here with lively writing and smart recipes. This is an unlikely creation: a kitchen-science book that makes you hungry, and it's also a cookbook that teaches, from an authority on food and cooking.
— (Thomas Keller, chef and owner of the French Laundry and author of The French Laundry Cookbook)

Meet the Author

RUSS PARSONS is the food and wine columnist of the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of the best-selling How to Read a French Fry, a winner of multiple James Beard Awards for his journalism, and the recipient of the IACP/Bert Greene Award for distinguished writing. He lives in California, which produces more than half of the fruits and vegetables grown in this country. He has been writing about food and agriculture for more than twenty years.

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