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A Cookbook for Geeks Brings the Scientific Method to the Kitchen

Geeks have come up in the world since the 1980s, when John Hughes movies depicted them as scrawny outcasts with headgear braces and excessive knowledge of things called "floppy disks." In the dot-com boom of the 1990s, the computer-savvy became millionaires, considered heroes instead of neo maxi zo...

Cognac gel in the shape of lego pieces, courtesy of www.cookingforgeeks.com


Geeks have come up in the world since the 1980s, when John Hughes movies depicted them as scrawny outcasts with headgear braces and excessive knowledge of things called "floppy disks." In the dot-com boom of the 1990s, the computer-savvy became millionaires, considered heroes instead of neo maxi zoom dweebies (possibly the greatest insult ever coined—thank you, Judd Nelson).

These days, people let their geek flags fly with pride, and the word has morphed to encompass anyone who is interested in a subject to an unusual degree. Even a certain blog we know and love has declared itself "generally geeky about all things edible."

A new cookbook by Jeff Potter, Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food, is aimed at those who fall in the original "computer and science enthusiast" meaning of the word—or, as Potter says on his website, the "innovative type who asks  why just as often as  what." Potter doesn't have a traditional culinary background—he studied computer science and visual art at Brown University—and Cooking for Geeks is not a traditional cookbook. It has some recipes, but it also contains interviews with prominent geek-foodies, including Adam Savage, the co-host of Discovery Channel's MythBusters; food science writer Harold McGee; and cookbook author/blogger David Lebovitz; plus explanations of food science, experiments, and tips geared toward gearheads, all sprinkled liberally with computer lingo. Chapter titles include "Initializing the Kitchen," "Choosing Your Inputs: Flavors and Ingredients," and "Fun with Hardware."

The recipes run the gamut from simple (asparagus steamed in the microwave) to date-impressing (duck confit sugo), and include useful information about what could go wrong and why things work the way they do. He explains scientific principles such as the Maillard reaction, which turns foods brown and generates volatile organic compounds that can make things taste good; the use of acids and bases to adjust pH levels (including an explanation for how the lime juice in ceviche kills common seafood-borne pathogens); and the interplay of the senses of smell and taste.

There's a whole section on molecular gastronomy, or "modernist cuisine," including instructions for making gels, foams and liquid smoke, and melting things in weird ways (like hot marshmallows that only melt as they cool). Another section explains in detail the sous vide method of cooking—Potter calls it "ultra-low-temperature poaching" of vacuum-sealed food that results in a uniform temperature and doneness. One of his ideas that I may try is cooking prepackaged frozen fish sous vide—it's already vacuum sealed, and since I live in the mountains, most of the fish at my supermarket has been (sadly) frozen anyway.

I don't know how many of the recipes I will actually use, but it's an interesting read. I have a feeling it will be a handy reference for future blog entries.
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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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