Book review: Cooking for Geeks.

Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food
by Jeff Potter
O’Reilly Media, 2010

We have entered the time of year during which finding The Perfect Gift for family members and friends can become something of an obsession. Therefore, in coming days, I’ll be sharing some recommendations.

If you have family members and friends on your gifting list who are interested in science or interested in food (or interested in both science and food), then Cooking for Geeks is a book to give them that will have an impact that lingers for much longer on the palate than your run-of-the-mill book.

Partly this is because Cooking for Geeks is organized more like a manual (with sections on equipment, “inputs”, relevant variables for different cooking methods, etc.) than a linear narrative. Indeed, the book is also an astounding collection of fun things to try, whether with ingredients, cooking methods, equipment, or your own taste buds. There are at least a hundred science fair project ideas lurking within these 432 pages — although good luck to the kid who tries to pry this book away from the grown-ups, who will want to try the potential experiments themselves. Jeff Potter’s clear and engaging descriptions of issues like the chemistry and mechanics of leavening, strategies for adapting the kitchen equipment you have to perform the tasks you want to perform, or ways to avoid foodborne illness are interspersed with his interviews with food geeks of various sorts sharing their expertise, their recipes, and their enthusiasm for digging deeper and learning why things work the way they do. Basically, it’s almost a transcript of what I imagine would be the geekiest dinner party ever, and an invitation to recreate a piece of it in your own kitchen with your own friends.

There is so much good stuff in here that it’s actually a bit overwhelming. Here’s a tasting-menu of some of my favorite features:

  • A hands-on way to compare the levels of gluten in different kinds of flour (page 220).
  • Discussions of different culinary solvents, including the use of alcohol and water to isolate different compounds from the same raw materials in a bitters recipe (page 296), and the use of “fat-washing” alcohols (page 292).
  • An algorithm to optimize your cutting of a cake into not-neccesarily-equal slices in such a way as to satisfy the desires of N people hoping to get a slice of that cake (page 257).
  • An examination of factors relevant to the multiplication of bacteria in our food, shedding some light on what makes the “shelf-stable” items in the pantry less deadly than they might otherwise be — plus an exhortation to remember basic physics when deciding how to safely store foods in the refrigerator (page 162).
  • A discussion of why marshmallows made with methylcellulose melt when they are cooled rather than when they are heated (pages 316-317), including a recipe so you can try this at home.
  • A graph (page 159) comparing cooking methods by rate of heat transfer (plotting minutes to raise the center of uniform pieces of tofu 54 oC versus the temperature of the cooking environment). There’s something about a good graph that is deeply satisfying.
  • An examination why it matters what the bowl is made of when you’re whisking egg whites in it (page 253), as well as recipes for French Meringue and Italian Meringue which discuss why a slight difference in method can lead to a pronounced difference in texture (page 255).
  • In the eternal batter between weight and volume, a persuasive empirical case for measuring ingredients by weight (page 62).
  • Lots of discussion of the five primary tastes (bitter, sour, umami, sweet, and salty), including charts with suggestions on what to add to a dish to increase each of them — and another chart with suggestions for how to counteract a primary taste with which you’ve gone too far (page 115).
  • A discussion of the basis vectors for wine-food pairings and how to isolate them empirically (using lemon juice, sugar water, tea, and vodka) to taste your dish and figure out what kind of wine will go well with it. (page 89)
  • The recipes for crepes (pages 68-69), pumpkin cake (page 249), and chocolate panna cotta that uses agar rather than gelatin (page 311).
  • Suggestions for compounds you can play with (including lactisole, miraculin, and the humble Peppermint Lifesaver) that will mess with your taste receptors in interesting ways (pages 109-110).

A lovely feature of this book is that it makes no assumptions about the reader’s level of comfort or competence in the kitchen. Rather, it presents food and cooking as a realm where the newbie can learn some important principles (that also happen to be cool) and where the experienced cook can learn even more. Maybe the experienced cook has a larger store of “common wisdom,” but Potter puts lots of that common wisdom to empirical test to see just how wise it is. Moreover, the newbie may be in a better position to violate recipes and use methods “the wrong way” to discover what happens when you do.

As well, Cooking for Geeks makes no assumptions about just what kind of geek the reader might be. There is certainly a lot of real chemistry, physics, and engineering in this book (not to mention a healthy dose of biology), but all of it is presented in an accessible way, inviting the reader who is not (for example) a chemistry geek to use food as a reason to start taking chemistry more seriously.

Cooking for Geeks would make a fabulous gift for a curious person who’s interested in food or cooking. It pairs nicely with Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate and a quad-ruled notebook.

DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students 2012 update.

We’re less than four days from the end of this year’s Science Bloggers for Students drive, the last moments of Friday, November 9. And, I wanted to bring you up to date on the little post-Sandy challenge I issued last week. You may recall that I added three projects to my giving page from hurricane affected area:

Soil test kits for Dr. Charles E Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden, New Jersey, to help students in an environmental science class with their urban gardening project. — FULLY FUNDED!

Calculators for a math-intensive Earth Science class at a high school in New York City. —Needs just $135 more to be fully funded. So, so close!

A human body torso display model for a middle school biology class in Carteret, New Jersey.–Needs $653 more to be fully funded. A little harder, but still do-able by the end of the drive.

Remember I said that for each of these new projects that we got to full funding before the end of the drive, I would donate $25 to the American Red Cross for Sandy relief? You got one to full funding, which puts $25 from me into American Red Cross for Sandy relief. We have another project almost to full funding — which means I’m poised to kick another $25 to American Red Cross for Sandy relief. If get that third project that’s still in need of $653 fully funded, I’ll donate $100 to the American Red Cross for Sandy relief.

And, don’t forget that there’s still a dollar-for-dollar match from the DonorsChoose Board of Directors, good through the end of the drive on Friday (unless we blow through all $50,000 first, which would be awesome). Just enter SCIENCE in the “Match or gift code” field at checkout, and every dollar you give up to $100 will be doubled.

Way to be awesome, science fans! Let’s finish strong.

Science education: Am I part of the solution, or part of the problem?

In my blogging career (and even before), I’ve spent a fair bit of time bemoaning the low level of scientific education/literacy/competence among the American public. Indeed, I have expressed the unpopular opinion that all college students ought to do the equivalent of a minor in some particular science as one of their graduation requirements. I tell anyone who asks me (and a lot of people who don’t) that science is fun. Some of the very best teachers I know are science teachers.

But I wonder sometimes whether my exhortations are any help in turn the educational tide, or whether I’m just letting the current drag us in the wrong direction.

You see, I teach a philosophy of science course. (Actually, I teach multiple sections of it, and I teach it every semester.) And, at this university, that philosophy of science course satisfies the upper division general education requirement in science.

Yes, that’s right. Students can dodge taking an actual science course by taking a philosophy of science course instead. This yields throngs of students who are scared silly of anything scientific, and who know exactly one fact about philosophy: it’s in the Humanities college. (Humanities = fluffy, unthreatening classes where you read novels or watch films or look at paintings, and it’s all about what you think is going on, with no right or wrong answers. At least, this is what certain of my students assume before enrolling for this course.)

How on earth, given my aforementioned peevishness about science-scared students and community members, can I live with my role enabling the flight from learning some science?

It doesn’t hurt that some of the other options for filling this upper division science general education requirement have well-earned reputations for being “gut” courses (or as some like to say, “science-lite”). Notably absent from the list are many of the standard, science-major-y fundamentals. Instead, the list is heavy on physics for musicians, nutrition and exercise, and astronomy for people who will not do math under any circumstances. (The main exception: the offerings from geology and meteorology seem significantly more undiluted and rigorous ways to fulfill the requirement. Go earth and atmospheric scientists!) My course, I’m told, is actually kind of challenging. So even if the students are escaping a class in a science department, with me they’re not escaping work.

Also, the general education requirement was structured specifically to make students pay attention to the scientific method, to understand the difference between science and pseudo-science, and to understand science as an endeavor conducted by humans that has impacts on humans. As a former science student who took only the hard-core science courses intended for science majors, my experience is that we saw a lot of patterns of scientific reasoning, and we learned to extend these patterns to deal with new problems … but we didn’t have loads of time to get reflective about the scientific method. For me, that reflective awareness didn’t really happen until the semester I (1) started doing research, and (2) took a philosophy of science course. (Yes, both of those things happened in the same semester. I wish I could say I planned it that way, but it was serendipity.)

For the brief span of years in which I would have counted as a scientist, I think what I got out of philosophy of science made me a better scientist. (That I fell prey to philosophy’s charms and left science is another issue for another post.) And, the small cadre of science majors who take my course (perhaps because they’d be embarrassed to take a “physics for poets” kind of course) seem to get something useful from the course that they can bring back to their science-department understanding of science. In short, the science-y folk seem to think the course gives a pretty reasonable picture of the scientific method and the philosophical questions one might ask about its operations.

But what about the scared-of-science folk?

I can’t deny that there’s a part of me that wants to sign them up for intro chemistry (and biology, and physics). But I know full well that their hearts would explode from anxiety before they even got to the first quiz. Indeed, some have told me to my face that they think it’s “diabolical” for me to explain concepts like intertheoretic reduction or procedures for hypothesis testing using actual scientific examples (mentioning Boyle’s law and the details of the kinetic theory gases to boot). It’s hard to imagine these students willingly exposing themselves to courses where the scientific examples are the whole point. And, sadly, were they to confront their fears enroll in science courses, some of their instructors would decide up front that some of them were simply not smart enough to learn science.

I’m hopeful enough to think even the ones who are scared of science can come to understand something about the way scientist try to connect theories and evidence. I’m persistent enough to ask them to think about how scientists make decisions, and to make them do exercises where they have to try to think like scientists. I’m audacious enough to make them do research in the scholarly scientific literature, and to ask them to make some kind of sense of some of the articles they find there.

They may start out seeing my course as a way to dodge science, but by the end many of them are not as scared as science as they were at the beginning. (Or perhaps, they’ve shifted their fear to philosophy instead …)

Lately, though, there have been rumblings that maybe the upper division general education requirements — including the science requirement — should be scrapped, as a way to shorten the time to graduation (and, not coincidentally, to reduce the amount of money the state is putting up for the education of each of these students in our state-supported university system). There is not, to my knowledge, any plan to replace the learning objective-focused general education requirements with anything like a distribution requirement that might, for example, require everyone to take at least three courses from the sciences (and three from the social sciences, and three from the humanities or arts) in order to graduate without specifying which courses one should take. I would be wildly enthusiastic about this kind of distribution requirement … but the landscape that seems to be looming ahead is one of “less”. There would be less pressure for students to engage with material or ways of thinking outside their comfort zones, less expectation that a college graduate would have broad knowledge rather than specialized skills.

And, there would be even less opportunity to use a harmless looking philosophy course as a stealth weapon of science education.

So, while there’s a part of me that worries that my philosophy of science course enables the evasive maneuvers of students who are trying to avoid engaging with science instruction head-on, there’s another part of me that feels like I’m holding the line and helping more students to engage — and doing so in a time when the bean-counters are losing sight of whether it’s worth it for a state to pay a little more to have its population better educated about how science works.

DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students 2012: helping classrooms in the aftermath of Super-storm Sandy.

Super-storm Sandy did major damage to the East Coast, especially New Jersey and New York City. The offices of DonorsChoose are in New York City. Their fabulous staff is safe (and mostly dry) and their computer servers are up, which means the Science Bloggers for Students drive has been operational and ready to receive your donations. However, a bunch of potential donors to the drive have probably been kind of distracted keeping their own selves safe and dry.

So, a few things we’re doing about this situation.

FIRST, we’re extending the drive through next Friday, November 9. This gives our East Coast compatriots who are waiting to get power back a chance to join in the fun. The dollar-for-dollar match from the DonorsChoose Board of Directors will be extended to the end (unless we blow through all $50,000 first, which would be awesome). Just enter SCIENCE in the “Match or gift code” field at checkout, and every dollar you give up to $100 will be doubled.

SECOND, I’ve added three projects to my giving page from hurricane affected area:

Calculators for a math-intensive Earth Science class at a high school in New York City.

Soil test kits for Dr. Charles E Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden, New Jersey, to help students in an environmental science class with their urban gardening project.

A human body torso display model for a middle school biology class in Carteret, New Jersey.

In the event that we get these fully funded before the end of the drive, I’ll add more.

THIRD, for each of these new projects that we get to full funding before the end of the drive, I will donate $25 to the American Red Cross for Sandy relief. If we get all three fully funded, I’ll donate $100 to the American Red Cross for Sandy relief. If we fully fund additional Sandy-affected-area projects beyond these three, it will be an additional $25 out of my pocket to the American Red Cross for each of them.

If you hit your $100 limit on the matching funds, I know you’ll lean on your family and friends who care about science education.

We can do this!

We dodged the apocalypse, so let’s help some classrooms.

We’re coming into the home stretch of our annual DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students drive:

Science Bloggers for Students: No Apocalypse in Sight (Transcript below)

And, now until the end of the drive, you can get your donations matched (up to $100 per donor) thanks to the generosity of the Board of Directors. Just enter the match code SCIENCE in the “Match or gift code” field as you check out.

By the way, the Board of Directors has put up $50,000 in matching funds, so once you’ve hit your match code limit, you might want to nudge your family, friends, and social media contacts to give to worthy projects and get their donations matched.

My giving page for the challenge is here. You can find other giving pages from Scientific American bloggers here.

Thanks in advance for your generosity!

Transcript of the video:

Today is November 1, 2012, which means that the prediction that the world would end in October of 2012? Didn’t happen. Now what?

After your hard work laying in emergency supplies for the apocalypse, a new day dawns … and there’s stuff to do: dishes to wash, rabbit runs to clean, and public school classrooms that still need help getting funds for equipment, field trips, even basic classroom supplies.

Here’s where DonorsChoose comes in: Pick a giving page from the Science Bloggers for Students challenge. Check out the projects and find one that matters to you. Give what you can, even if it’s just a buck. And now, until the end of the drive, you can use the match code SCIENCE to double your donation, up to $100. Give a dollar, the project you’re funding gets two dollars. Give $100, the project gets $200.

The world didn’t end — this time. So take this opportunity to do some good and help some kids before it does.