Harold McGee dishes on Keys to Good Cooking

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You might remember Harold McGee from On Food and Cooking, a culinary bible for those interested in learning how food interacts with the body (and why certain foods taste so darn good while others, well, don't). Now McGee has taken On Food and Cooking to the next level with Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Food and Recipes, which he'll discuss and sign at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue.

We caught up with McGee to ask him about the inspiration behind this latest tome, and how he intended readers to use it.

What was the inspiration for writing Keys to Good Cooking?

It started, really, with people telling me that they enjoyed On Food and Cooking, but when they had a particular practical problem or issue to deal with, it would often take them a long time to find the relevant paragraph, because there's so much information in there. We have lots of recipe books, but no books that kind of distilled the basic principles of cooking and gave practical advice for ingredients and recipes without actually going into recipes themselves. And also, so many recipes these days are giving rationales -- sometimes scientific, founding explanations for things that are often unreliable -- that I wanted to provide a touchstone for people when they want to find out what's going on.

How did you intend for readers to use this book?

I intend it to be used whenever something comes up that is a question or a problem that leaves you puzzled. So different people start out with different levels of experience in the kitchen and different degrees of confidence, and some recipes are great and some are terrible. So my idea is that the book will live in the kitchen, and when questions come up, or you're choosing a recipe, you can look at the section of the book that's relevant. It's very succinct, it's key words and plain declarative sentences meant to provide information quickly and not really to be lingered over.

It's a very accessible book -- how did you manage to condense this scientific information in a way that was readable and usable?

I guess it comes from having done it for thirty years, and also just again trying to make it as simple as possible. Because there are so many different kinds of things to cover, I really couldn't dwell on any of them for very long. So I didn't want use terms that I would then have to explain, which would take up more room and slow the person in the kitchen down, who's trying to get an answer and get back to cooking, so I just tried to strip it down to the absolute basics.

What kind of feedback have you gotten so far?

The only reaction I've gotten has been the blurbs on the back, because those people got advance copies. I'm still waiting to hear. Basically, what the nicer blurbs say is that it's like having me in the kitchen to ask questions of, and that's kind of what I was trying to do, is provide advice from my perspective.

And what can people expect at the booksigning?

No demonstration, I don't think, but what I like to do with all of these is leave plenty of time for questions and answers, because everybody's got some. We never run out.

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