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Culinary Arts: A Guide to the Literature (April 2016): Standard Culinary Textbooks

By Jeffrey P. Miller and Jonathan Deutsch

Standard Culinary Textbooks

Culinary programs typically teach one of four main textbooks.  Three of the four are referred to as the “big three”: Sarah Labensky and Alan Hause’s On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals (originally subtitled “Techniques from Expert Chefs”), now in its fifth edition; The Professional Chef, prepared by the Culinary Institute of America, now in its ninth edition; and Wayne Gisslen’s Professional Cooking, now in its fifth edition.  These three textbooks are similar in nature, arrangement, and reach.  All have sections on the background of the culinary trade, professionalism, cooking methods, and baking.  All are plentifully illustrated volumes and include extensive reference material, either in text boxes or appendixes.  All approach food from a product standpoint, offering the various ways to cook a certain product before moving on to the next product.  The fourth common textbook, Culinary Fundamentals, which comes with a CD and was also compiled by the Culinary Institute of America, is similar in many ways to the “big three” but orders the instructional material by cooking method; that is, it looks first at the method and then suggests foods to cook using the methodology.  Although it enjoys less use as a textbook, Anne Willan’s La Varenne Pratique is equally valuable as a general resource.  Willan founded the prestigious La Varenne Cooking School; in this illustrated volume, she provides invaluable instruction in technique, texture, and results.

The science of the culinary arts is treated in Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (now in its fourth edition), Shirley Corriher’s Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking, and J. Kenji López-Alt’s The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking through Science, all of which offer the basic scientific principles behind the culinary arts.  The most rigorous in terms of science is McGee’s volume, which is arranged as a an encyclopedia with short entries about specific products in chapters based on food products.  Cookwise and The Food Lab are structured more like traditional cookbooks.  Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot, a wife/husband chef/blogger team, take a recipe-based approach to food science in their Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work.  In addition to basic home cookery, Kamozawa and Talbot tackle basic entry-level molecular gastronomy.  Paula Figoni takes on baking in particular in How Baking Works: Exploring the Fundamentals of Baking Science, which uses a product-based approach to guide readers through the pitfalls of baking.

Those interested in molecular gastronomy have two excellent options—both from the hands of Nathan Myhrvold.  The first is Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine, written with Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, which comprises five volumes plus a spiral-bound “kitchen manual.”  Myhrvold, a PhD in theoretical physics, and his team reexamine cooking from its roots, applying the latest scientific principles.  The cross-sectional photographs alone are worth the price of the set.  In her 2011 review of this set in The Wall Street Journal, Katy McLaughlin called this work “the most astonishing cookbook of our time,” and she may be right.  For the benefit of the home cook and amateur enthusiast, Myhrvold and Bilet created a single-volume version, Modernist Cuisine at Home.  This volume, which also includes photographs, is a useful alternative for those not wanting to spend several hundred dollars for the multivolume set.

Many textbooks take a narrower approach, treating the main components of meals—from amuse-bouches to desserts—or particular ingredients or techniques.  Among the former, from the Culinary Institute of America, is Garde Manger: The Art and Craft of the Cold Kitchen, a thorough compendium of recipes and instructions on technique.  The garde manger, i.e., cold kitchen, is often the first kitchen station to which a beginning culinarian is assigned.  This textbook includes more than five hundred recipes (many with illustrations) and detailed instruction on technique, and it covers such topics as brining ratios, artisanal cheeses, and microgreens.  In Professional Garde Manger: A Comprehensive Guide to Cold Food Preparation, Lou Sackett, Jaclyn Pestka, and consulting author Wayne Gisslen cover aspects of professional garde manger, from simple salads to presentation of foods on the buffet.  Color photographs show both processes and finished dishes.  Also emanating from the Culinary Institute of America, The Art of Charcuterie, by CIA chef John Kowalski, focuses entirely on the making of sausages, salamis, pâtés, terrines, and other cured meat specialties.  Photographs illustrate technique as well as finished products.

Baking and pastry are among the most popular culinary arts.  Textbooks on these subjects include general titles and works on such specialized topics as chocolate and sugar work.  In the general category are Baking and Pastry: Mastering the Art and Craft from the Culinary Institute of America; Professional Baking by Wayne Gisslen; and On Baking: A Textbook of Baking and Pastry Fundamentals by Sarah Labensky et al.  Potential companion titles to general cooking titles discussed above, all three of these works are voluminous in size and coverage, running the gamut of baked goods from yeast doughs, pastries, pies, cakes, croissants, frozen desserts, and custards to soufflés.  All are lavishly illustrated, and all aim squarely at the culinary student.  The Art of French Pastry by Jacquy Pfeiffer with Martha Rose Shulman has much to recommend it.  Pfeiffer is a renowned dessert specialist and has been teaching the art for nearly thirty years.  This useful accessible book is a mélange of text, recipes, and pictures with many useful entries on ingredients and techniques.  For the pastry specialist, Bo Friberg’s The Professional Pastry Chef, now in its fourth edition, is a good resource for those interested in the “fundamentals of baking and pastry.”  Friberg includes more than 650 recipes, many illustrated with luscious photographs by the author and/or line drawings illustrating techniques for garnish and plating.  For cakes in the French tradition, Bruce Healy and Paul Bugat’s The Art of the Cake: Modern French Baking and Decorating is quite valuable.  A useful compendium of French classics like genoises, Bavarians, charlottes, and mousse cakes, this volume includes line drawings that demystify many complicated techniques.  For those aiming at a high level of sophistication or wanting to work in the world of dessert showpieces, The Art of the Chocolatier: From Classic Confections to Sensational Showpieces and The Art of the Confectioner: Sugarwork and Pastillage, both by Ewald Notter, will be inspirational guides.  Notter is a World Pastry Team champion, and the recipes and pictures in these books reflect his expertise with chocolate and sugar.  Not for beginners, these detailed volumes represent the current state of the art in these areas.

The main parts of the meal are amply covered by the culinary texts discussed above, but, as an area of specialization, sauces are a specialization all their own.  James Peterson’s Sauces: Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making (now in its third edition) is the seminal work on the topic.  Winner of the James Beard Cookbook of the Year award in 1991, this title provides thorough coverage of the ingredients and techniques needed to make sauces of all types, from appetizer to dessert.  The newest edition adds coverage of sauces from Asian cuisines.

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