Sheryl Canter

Book Review: Cooking for Geeks

Cooking for Geeks

I was attracted to the basic concept of this book: an analytic approach to cooking that includes the whys and wherefores, not just the whats. But, for the record, I would like to clarify that as a software engineer I would call myself a “nerd” rather than a “geek”. The word “nerd” derives from the word “drink” spelled backwards. The nerds were the ones who stayed back at the dorm and studied while everyone else went out and got hammered. Geeks, on the other hand, have no special technical or intellectual gifts. They’re just inept – socially and physically uncoordinated, messing up even the simplest tasks.

The first two chapters of this book are targeted towards geeks – people who have never stepped foot inside a kitchen and don’t have any concept of nutrition. The author uses programming code as metaphors for basic cooking concepts. Now who could possibly be this in-the-dark about cooking, and find computer code enlightening as metaphor? They would have to be male. No girl grows up without any exposure to the kitchen. So the target audience is apparently the stereotypical male programmer sitting behind a keyboard 18 hours a day living on pizza and soda pop. I thought these were creatures of the 1980s and now extinct – either dead from the all-pizza diet or evolved into healthier eating, while younger programmers were not spoiled by homemaker mothers into total kitchen ignorance. Perhaps I’m wrong. Are you still out there??

The book gets much better after the first two chapters, which – in the author’s defense – he does say you can skip if you are experienced in the kitchen.

Fun Facts (Mostly Right), Great Recipes

Once you’ve cleared Chapter 2, you are rewarded with countless interesting bits of lore on the science of cooking and eating. For example, I learned I could check my oven temperature (and oven thermometer) with sugar, which melts at 367°F. Who knew? And did you know that salt makes foods taste better by selectively filtering out the taste of bitter?

These are just two examples. The topics cover everything from how taste and smell combine to create flavor to how knives are made. The book is filled with great recipes, too – over 100 of them, organized into categories in the Recipe Index. Between the fun facts and the yummy recipes Cooking for Geeks is truly nerd heaven.

That said, it does fall down in places. Cooking for Geeks is written with an air of authority, as though it’s giving the last scientific word on each issue it addresses. Much of the information is excellent, but it’s not always complete, and in the end it’s just one guy’s opinion.

For example, take the section on pots and pans. The author recommends nonstick frying pans – he himself uses them. I don’t use nonstick cookware ever. I know DuPont says they’re safe – of course they’d say that. But studies show that nonstick pans contain dangerous toxins that are released when the pan is old and the surface starts flaking into your food, or when you heat the pan above medium-low temperature, which people do all the time. Pet birds will drop dead of fumes from an overheated nonstick pan, and the fumes are not so great for humans, either.

The book also contains some bad advice in the section on cast iron cookware. Definitely do not do this (boldface mine):

As with frying pans, when washing cast iron, don’t use soap. Instead, rinse the pan and wipe the inside to dislodge any stuck-on food, and then place the pan back on the stove. If the food is really stuck, throw in a few tablespoons of course [sic] salt and a spoonful or two of vinegar or lemon juice, and “sand” it off with a paper towel.

Never ever put an acid in your cast iron pans unless you have stripped the seasoning and are now trying to remove rust. Vinegar or lemon juice (or tomatoes) will actually dissolve the iron itself, potentially damaging the pan. You shouldn’t cook acidic foods in cast iron, either. Not only can it strip the seasoning and damage the pan, it can cause excessive iron to leach into your food. The coarse salt is a good idea, but use olive oil with the salt, not an acid.

It’s also been my experience (and is logically true) that a mild dish soap will not harm cast iron. As I’ve written in my previous blog posts about stripping and seasoning cast iron, I think the oft-repeated ban on soap arises from a time when soap was homemade from lye and very harsh.

Just Add a Grain of Salt

But let me not get stuck on small nits when there is so much good in this book. If you love good food and you love to understand how things work, check out Cooking for Geeks. You can learn how to make ginger syrup for your own homemade ginger ale. Or check out the 30-second chocolate cake (it really works). Or the many fine main dish recipes. Just treat the book as a starting point for exploration and not biblical truth, and all will be well.

9 Comments

  1. Jeff Potter says:

    Thanks for your kind words!

    Regarding nonstick pans, the compound in the studies you cite is PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). Industry is phasing it out (see http://www.ewg.org/node/21303); modern non-stick pans no longer use that compound. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee that the replacement compounds are “safe”, but they have so far passed scrutiny.

    Regarding the salt and lemon juice, you are absolutely correct; that should not be done to cast iron. When I get a chance, I’ll go back to my original manuscript and see what it says; off-hand this sounds like a copyedit glitch. (Salt and an acid is used for cleaning copper, which is probably where the confusion came in.) Thanks for pointing this one out to me; I’ll get it fixed in future re-prints.

    Happy Cooking,
    Jeff Potter

  2. Felix says:

    i wandered by hoping to find another amazing article about cast iron, and hope you will enjoy this page about the origins of “nerd”:

    http://www.eldacur.com/~brons/NerdCorner/nerd.html

    p.s. there’s other neat stuff at that web site.

  3. Very interesting article on the origins of the word “nerd”. Thanks! 🙂

  4. Proud Geek says:

    I’m not sure I follow your description of a Geek. According to this diagram, it seems you mistook a Geek for a Dork.

    http://laughingsquid.com/nerd-venn-diagram-geek-dork-or-dweeb/

    C’mon Girl! Get Your Geek On!

  5. Bill Woods says:

    “Geeks and Nerds”
    http://xkcd.com/747/

  6. LOL, Bill. Good one. 🙂

  7. Albert says:

    Creatures from the 80s that are now extinct? The type you are referring to have not all died off (yet) and some are just now evolving more completely to healthier eating. While I did not completely fit that stereotype all the time, in the past I vacillate between months on end of the pizza/soda diet and healthy and semi healthy eating and living, even up to a couple years ago. It is not that I did not know better, I knew what it meant to eat healthy, I just too often took the easy route. I stumbled upon this blog recently while looking for cast iron seasoning advice and everything you say here makes a lot of sense based on my experience.

  8. Kai says:

    Hi There:

    You mention not using non-stick pans. What do you recommend instead?

    With Respect,

    Kai

  9. I use cast iron, ceramic, and glass cookware. Properly seasoned cast iron is fairly non-stick. I wrote some highly trafficked posts on this:

    First do this:
    http://sherylcanter.com/wordpress/2010/02/black-rust-and-cast-iron-seasoning/

    Then do this:
    http://sherylcanter.com/wordpress/2010/01/a-science-based-technique-for-seasoning-cast-iron/

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