Keys to Good Cooking with Harold McGee and Lucy Waverman

It takes a special event to extract me from the comfort of my couch on a cold Monday night in late November. This week, I was lured out of the house as a guest of the Globe Recognition program at Good Cooking for All.  I mean, you don’t turn down an evening with Harold McGee and Lucy Waverman, do you?

McGee was in town to promote his new book, Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes (buy on Amazon Canada or Amazon US) and this event combined an informal Q&A led by Lucy Waverman with four interactive cooking stations where some keys to good cooking were revealed to lucky participants!

Keys to Good Cooking, McGee emphatically states, is not a cookbook,  rather a companion to cookbooks that belongs in the kitchen – a book that can easily be referred to during the active process of cooking.  It’s kind of like having Harold hovering over your shoulder as you cook, at the ready should any questions arise.

McGee is probably best known for the 1984 classic On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen and he is also the author of the occasional New York Times column, The Curious Cook.  He fell into food writing by way of an early interest in astronomy (but he found he preferred the ideas to the actual practice) followed by a PhD in literature.  When he couldn’t find a job with his degree, he moved into the area of food science – the science of the everyday, played out in the arena of the kitchen, where we take matter from nature and transform it with heat and our hands.

McGee had a hand in inventing the term “molecular gastronomy”, though he claims it is an ugly term, preferring to call it “experimental cooking”, suggesting that avant garde cooks are not working with molecules, rather, they are exploring possibilities with  ingredients and heat, possibilities that have not been explored before.  McGee does not believe that this type of experimental cooking will replace good Italian, French, or even English cooking, but is an alternative.

So what pearls of wisdom did McGee share with us?

* High or low heat for roasting meat? Both!  McGee recommends starting a piece of meat at as high as 500F to get the outside really brown and crispy and then lowering the heat to as low as 200F until the meat is cooked, giving a perfectly roasted outside and a juicy interior.

* How do you dispense a small amount of water into flour when making pastry?  Use a spray bottle!  Calibrate it so you know how many sprays equals a tablespoon for example. (why didn’t I think of this??)

* Best Before dates are always very conservative.  Food generally won’t go bad or make us sick, it just won’t taste as good.  Similarly, regarding freezer burn, safety of food is not an issue, it’s more the taste. But you can eat food with freezer burn. You might not like it but it won’t hurt you.

* To minimize air space in liquids when freezing, cover them with a layer of oil. When you are ready to defrost, simply scrape the oil off the top. No freezer burn there!

* Plastic or wooden chopping board?  McGee says the the 10-20 year battle between the two camps proves that there really is not much difference between the two in terms of which is “better, easier to clean or safer.”

* McGee’s picks for the most important pieces of equipment in his kitchen? A good thermometer and a good scale.

* Gas or electric stove?  In terms of efficiency, McGee says electric all the way, since the gas flames are often heating more than the pot on top of them, whereas electrical hotplates or coils are heating only the pot touching them.

After an entertaining half-hour chatting with Lucy and answering her questions, McGee observed the interactive cooking demos at the four stations: Vegetables and Herbs, Comfort Food, Meat and Steam, in the gorgeous Market Kitchen by Miele in the St Lawrence Market.

Each station featured a tip from Keys to Good Cooking and “small plate” dishes prepared on the spot, using techniques from the book.  Crostini with portabella mushrooms and brie, sliders, steamed dumplings and a corn soup made for an eclectic meal with a quick cooking lesson thrown in as a bonus – my idea of a perfect night!

I slipped away between stations to get my book signed…  Harold was charmingly approachable and easy to talk to.  We chatted a bit about the electric vs. gas debate and of course I asked him to sign my book. Hey, after getting up the courage to give James Oseland my card at IFBC this past summer, I have no qualms (well, maybe some) about chatting to famous people…  Harold strikes me as the type of person who would be very fun to cook with, full of fun facts and figures, but totally down to earth at the same time.

Thanks to the kind folks at Random House, I now have two copies of Keys to Good Cooking which can only be a good thing for you…

Yes, I am giving away a copy of Keys to Good Cooking to one lucky reader!

I am opening this up to anyone, anywhere, though as I will be paying the postage myself, I reserve the right to send it the most economical way possible (it’s quite heavy!). But I would love for one of you to enjoy this book for the holidays!

To enter, simple leave a comment telling me what your two favourite kitchen gadgets/tools are (I wonder if you share McGees choices of a thermometer and a scale).

For a bonus entry, tweet this message:

I entered to win a copy of Harold McGee’s new book @eatlivtravwrite ! You can too

and come back to leave me a comment letting me know you did.

You have until Wednesday December 8th at 6pm EST to enter and I will announce the winner on Thursday, December 9th. Thanks for entering, contest is now closed.

Did you see my entry for Project Food Blog Challenge 8 – Pumpkin, eight ways? I am one of only 24 bloggers left from an original pool of 600!  I would so appreciate your vote to advance to Challenge 9 where we have to review a restaurant.  Voting runs from 6AM Pacific Time, Monday  November 29th through 6PM Pacific Time on Thursday, December 2ndSimply click here to vote (note: link no longer live).  Thanks in advance for your continued support.

106 thoughts on “Keys to Good Cooking with Harold McGee and Lucy Waverman”

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  2. What a cool event to be able to go to!! I don’t really own gadgets… I think I’d have to go with my scale for sure, and my corkscrew for opening wine – at least those are the two that I use the most 🙂

  3. My two favourite gadgets?

    1) Double-hinged waiter’s corkscrew. (Lagioule, mon preference.)
    * What is cooking without having a glass of wine?

    2) Hi-fi stereo. (No, NOT an MP3 player, laptop with tinny speakers, surround DVD system or combo unit…)
    * Music is an essential ingredient in my cooking.

    As I’m obviously NOT entering for the book, thought I should come to the party with a couple eclectic choices here. 🙂

  4. Oh my dear…two most essential cooking gadgets?

    Well I must say one good knife – I prefer a smaller one. One one good saute pan (that can go in the oven).

    With those two things, almost anything is possible…

    A cat to keep one company isn’t a gadget, but is a wonderful kitchen addition as well!

  5. I would have to say the two that I use the most are of course my kitchen scale, and given my plethora of them…. the handy dandy rubber kitchen spatula. 🙂

  6. A giveaway? How can I resist? And such a fabulous book too! Great idea Mardi! Thanks!

    So, hmmmm…. my two favourite gadgets. First one is a no brainer. Whisk wins hands down. Believe it or not, after 30 years of cajoling from my Mother, joined recently by my daughter Lindsey (Hot Polka Dot), I have just recently purchased a stand mixer. Yup, me and my whisk accompanied occasionally by a hand mixer have ruled the kitchen for many a year. There is something about a whisk that keeps you in touch with food prep. The look and feel. Changing texture and weight. A sense of accomplishment. So has the stand mixer fully replaced my whisk? No way.

    Second item? “Gadget” seems a rather light weight term for something with the presence of a Mac truck. My beloved cast iron Wok (with a capital W). A Wok with a history. A Wok with weight. A Wok with attitude. Treasured by my grandmother in Indonesia, shipped to Holland and eventually brought to Canada by my mother. As hand luggage believe it or not (before the days of weight restrictions). Seasoned to perfection by years of loving use, it is the backbone of many a family Rijsttafel. A family heirloom.

    So there you have it. Wok ‘n Whisk are the Rock ‘n Roll of my kitchen!

    p.s. Tweeted and voted too! Do I earn a third entry? 🙂

  7. That would have been a fun night!

    My favourite gadget is my microplane rasp. And my immersion blender/mini chopper. That being said, “On Food and Cooking” makes very regular appearances as well.

  8. This is a hard one. The two things I use the most are my metal measuring cups and my favorite chef’s knife. Of course, I do love my screwpull wine opener, my microplane grater, and my handy wooden spoon…but that’s more than you asked for. 🙂

  9. I could not bake without my scale for accuracy and parchment paper for efficiency. (If parchment is not considered a tool, I’d definitely go with my microplane.

  10. Hmmm… I have to pick just two? McGee’s choices are good, but I think my favourites are my Microplane zester (because I’m a citrus addict, so lemon and orange zest go into almost everything I make) and my food processor (it’s a knuckle-saver when grating vegetables like potatoes and carrots).

    BTW, I am so jealous you got to meet McGee. He seems like a very interesting and approachable sort of guy, at least in the interviews I’ve read.

  11. Just two favorite gadgets? That is TOUGH…food processor definitely (when mine was malfunctioning, really felt the loss) and then I guess my coffee grinder for fine grinding spices and herbs.

    People are mentioning what I consider tools: mine are the microplane and this Norwegian branchy thing that really gets rid of the lumps when you whisk with it. Also my extra big spatula. A long time ago I found an “expanding spatula” for making omelettes: it has three layers of the spatula part and unfolds like a fan when you press a lever. Would love to find that again!

  12. Hrmmmm….Well I definitely agree on the scale, an indispensable tool for baking for sure.

    For the other, I would have to go with the boring but obvious answer of my knives! I would be nothing without them!

  13. I have to say, my two favorite gadgets are my immersion blender (everyone should get one)… it’s the best way, in my opinion, to blend soups. And, as everyone has said, the food processor is my baby… I even mix dough in it.

  14. I tweeted this and although it is hard to pick two favorite kitchen gadgets I will go with my favorite knife (medium size used mostly for slicing veggies) and my garlic press (I’ve found that garlic is the way to a man’s heart).

  15. For moi, the microplaner and my Santuko knife; now dreaming of a Thermomix though! Great book for a giveaway Mardi. Have heard so much about it!

  16. Really loving your site–it’s one I’ve been checking everyday for a while now.

    So…my favorite kitchen tools? My kitchenaid mixer is an absolute delight. And so are my LeCrueset dutch ovens. Although, are they really tools? I think so because they’re more than just pots–they do magical work all on their own. 🙂

  17. I don’t know if it’s considered a gadget, but I LOVE my induction cooktop. Has the best of both worlds with electric and gas and boils large pots of water in 90 seconds (really- I timed it!).

    Second would be good knives- you can do everything with 2 or 3 good knives.

    Thanks for the giveaway. It looks like an great book!

  18. Tweeted @3katgirlz

    My two fav gadgets are my hand blender as it is easy to wash – i don’t like lots of dishes 🙂 and my good set of knifes love them!!!

  19. Kitchen towels is the first one. So versatile and can be used for: wiping, gripping, as a potholder, damp cover, cleaning aid, etc.
    Then would be my hot water pot that dispenses instant hot water whenever I need it. That’s just 2! Smile!!!

  20. I agree with Rosemary, a good chefs knife and a saute pan do it for me…..however my extra addition is not a cat but two English Bulldogs! Wonderful company and great for cleaning up any spills.

  21. Love his common sense, also hate the term molecular gastronomy; it makes food sound so unappealing and manage quite fine with an electric stove so very happy he didn’t diss them!

    My fav kitchen gadgets are my scale and my 100 year old rolling pin; not because I use it more than other tools but because it was my Grandmothers and every time I pull it out of the drawer, heck, every time I see it I’m reminded of the sweetest person I have ever known.

  22. And I’ll take my cue from friends Merry Jennifer and Ken; I also tweeted hoping to reduce my chances of winning!

  23. For me, that would be my mandoline (because my knife skills suck) and my scale, because I like to use european baking recipes that are based on weight.

  24. He has some great commonsense tips, but I still love my gas stove 🙂

    I have to say my two favorite kitchen tools/gadgets are:
    a) Wusthof 10” chef knife, solid, balanced and razor sharp. It makes quick work of most tasks.
    b) My KitchenAid stand mixer, as it not only looks great but can do virtually anything with the right attachments.

  25. Mardi, what a cool event to go to and that is so awesome you got to speak to him! Fascinating and awesome that I can feel good about my electric stove and less embarrassed by it.

    My two favourite kitchen tools are my Santoku kitchen knife and my electric knife sharpener. Henckels are so difficult to keep sharp but I love my knife and wouldn’t want to live without it.

    I tweeted it too! 🙂 Thanks for the giveaway Mardi.

  26. Hi, Mardi. This was a fun post, and I’m jealous, as I like both Lucy and Harold’s work.

    While I agree with Harold’s love for the scale and thermometer, I als0 like – in the electronic category – my mini-food processor (which I use more often than the big version or the stand mixer) as well as a flexible silicone spatula, as a non-appliance.



  27. “LOVE” my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. But my two choices are
    1) Husband, to do the cooking
    2) Dishwasher, for cleanup.

  28. LOL! That is really funny – I just wrote a post over the thanksgiving holiday about the top 5 kitchen items I found most useful…the top two were my family (taste testers) and my espresso machine…but those aren’t gadgets, so I’d have to say my wooden spoon and my garlic press.

    Also, Mr. McGee’s story is amazing – interesting turns in his life. And wonderful tip with the spray bottle!

  29. I don’t know if either of these qualifies as a gadget but I will say my favorite things that i cook with are my ancient cast iron skillets. I use them almost daily and they are my favorite roasting pans. LOVE THEM

    I guess my second favorite gadget, if I can’t choose a glass of a nice, chewy red wine would be favorite chef’s knife.

  30. I wish I could have made it for the talk myself.

    I would have to say my favourite kitchen tool would have to be the microplane grater. I started out just using it to zest citrus fruits, but now use it on al almost daily basis to grate ginger, garlic, cheese, chocolate and even nutmeg. I love the fact that it is easy to clean (just stick it in the dishwasher) and because it is stainless steel, it doesn’t absorb or hold on to odours so I can switch it between savoury, sweet and pungent ingredients without a problem.

  31. Hard to pick, but I’m helpless without my sharp chef’s knife and silicone spatula. 🙂 I’m jealous you got to meet and chat with him! I wouldn’t know what to say.

    Congrats on Round 8 of Project Food Blog!

  32. Great post about two of my culinary idols! My two favorite kitchen gadgets would be my Microplane and fish spatula. My cooking tweezers come in a close third.

  33. My two favourite kitchen gadgets would have to be:

    1) My heavy duty stand mixer – I use it nearly every day for one thing or another, and am pretty sure I would not survive without it.

    2) My kitchen knife set. Using good knives changes the whole cooking experience. Being a klutz while using said knives also changes the cooking experience, but they’re useful nonetheless.

    🙂 Thanks for the chance to win!

  34. I dont know what qualify has a kitchen gadget but I say my favorite equipment items for baking or cooking would be my set of garnishing knives and a whisk lol

  35. Great kitchen knife and a food processor. It eases the work in the kitchen. Cannot imagine working with a blunt knife! It is hell! And how can one NOT have a food processor. You can use it for baking as well!

  36. Oh, how to choose? Favorites? A great knife that stays sharp and my microplane graters. But every time I cook at my mother’s I find myself missing things I rely on in my own kitchen: heavy pots, wide-mouth funnel, food processor, KitchenAid mixer, and the scale, of course.

  37. If I’m baking my two favourite tools are heat-proof silicone spatula and my digital scale.

    If I’m cooking my two favourite tools are heat-proof silicone spatula and my cast iron pan

  38. Hi Mardi. Love the new post! My favorite gadgets are my microplanes and a mandoline. I tweeted you message to let everyone know about your great contest

  39. This is a tough one, but I’ll go with my apple corer because I use that so often and my metal tongs. Not the most interesting, but they are well-used in our house! I’ll re-Tweet this right now.

  40. Funny, but my favorite tools aren’t the tools I use all the time. They’re my necessaries. My favorites? I have an egg-slicer that I love. It’s strung with wire, and is great for slicing mushrooms and strawberries. My other favorite tool is definitely my mandoline: it produces such crisp, thin, uniform slices!

  41. My hubby knows how much I would need this book hehe.
    My two indespensable kitchen gadgets: the scale for sure. After all, I’m italian, we cook and bake with grams/kilos and still now I reject doing so with cups/tsp.
    The second: a rubber spatula. Boy isn’t that magic?
    And thanks for anticipating some of the tips 🙂

  42. First, Im SO jealous. McGee is THE MAN. I actually have his book on my wish list. 🙂
    love my immersion blender, and my juicer

  43. Awesome little tips there…, love the spray bottle idea & I too went… ‘why didn’t I think of that’.

  44. What an incredibly fun night! My two favorite gadgets currently are my brand new Cuisinart Super Deluxe food processor (not it’s really name, but it’s the one with the nexting bowls…and it’s amazing) and my chef’s knife. Guess I just like to chop stuff, any way I can!

  45. Hi Mardi – Great job in the PFB! Sorry to see your entry without the trophy 🙁

    Love this post and love reading everyone’s responses. My favorite by far is a sharp chef’s knife. I cooked recently in a kitchen without any sharp knives and it was impossible! After that, I have to say a can opener because Wilson doesn’t like dry kibble.

  46. My favorite kitchen tool is my pair of tongs. I use them for everything! But it’s tough having to choose a second one. I suppose the other tool/gadget I use the most is my Microplane — cheese, zest chocolate, so many ways to use it!

  47. My 2 can’t-live-without gadgets? My rice cooker (sorry, I’m Asian) and my Kitchen Aid mixer!

    Also, what a fabulous giveaway! Cheers! Will be tweeting about it!

  48. Hi Mardi!!

    McGee is one of my favorites – use his 1st book all the time!! Favorite gadget is an oven thermometer – given how many ovens I cook in, I honestly can’t cook without one!

  49. My favorite kitchen tools would have to be my kitchen scale & my chefs knife… I Think those are the two I use most often!

  50. What great hints, Mardi! Thank you so much for sharing. I’d have to say my two favorite kitchen tools are my mandoline (what a wonderful way to get perfect slices etc!) and my microplane. Hope you have a wonderful weekend!! And, condolences on PFB. I was sure you’d make it to the next round 🙁 Take Care, Kate

  51. Mardi, I just want to tell you how PROUD I am of how well you did in PFB. You did a wonderful job throughout and know that you have many fans, regardless of the competition (myself included).

    I love this giveaway! It’s quite hard to pick my two favorite tools. I am a bit of a gadget freak. But I’ll stick with the “basics:” A wooden spoon and my laptop (ha! For referencing my recipes and documenting new ones as I cook).

  52. I would have to say that my two favorite tools would be my kitchen aid mixer and my spatulas 😀 It’s hard to pick though because you use so many different things in cooking/baking. I love my cast iron pans too! I’m with Liren, You did a great job in PFB! <3

  53. Excellent giveaway! I have his other good, The Science & Lore of the Kitchen, and I love it!

    My favorite tools would be my cleaver (who needs a whole knife set?), and my kitchen shears. Hmm . . why do I like sharp things so much?? 😉

  54. Wonderful review and article…Yes I have seen your entry and voted 🙂
    Does a French Press count? And my injector…
    And would be happy to tweet it for you 🙂

  55. I’m a big fan of Lucy Waverman. My two favourite kitchen accessories? Probably my measuring cups and my hand mixer. I’m pretty low tech!

  56. I love my 8 inch chef’s knife and my kitchen aid mixer. I love gadgets though so there are a lot of things that would make the ‘honourable mention’ list…

  57. I FINALLY got a Microplane the other day, after wanting one for literally years (and being too stingy to buy one… yes, too stingy to spend $40 when I’m sure I’ve spent easily that on complete junk in that period of time) and I almost went into a rapture when using it to zest an orange yesterday. I’m not sure what my housemate thought of it. So, I will answer this for one of them, even though it’s not really one of my super favourites, but because it caused me so much excitement recently.

    Number two is my kitchen scales for sure. After finally getting electric scales after having analogue for so long, I wondered how I ever survived without them. A godsend for a baker, especially an often-weary baker. Double hooray for the tare button.

    Looks like a really great idea for a book, too!

  58. Well, since I’m obsessed with bread, my first choice is my bowl/table pastry scrapper – simple but oh so useful!

    Second is my food processor, since there is nothing that I can make without it lately!

  59. Would have to be my chefs knife and microplane zester I think, as I use both of those nearly every day. Was had to leave my ice cream maker out though, as that is definitely a favourite even if not used as much as the others 🙂

  60. Mardi, I think I’d have to say I’m a sucker for an 8 inch offset spatula.
    It spreads butter on toast, ricotta cheese in between layers of lasagna, as well as stirring color into my royal icing. Oh, and for frosting small cakes, it’s a real miracle.

    Let’s not forget a digital scale. Because I weigh EVERY ingredient I use in a recipe. And, because it can handle up to 11 pounds, I can keep an eye on Mitzi’s weight.

  61. I wonder what my husband would say if I cooked with Harold hovering over my shoulder? 🙂 Great book for the cook-passionates among us! My favorite kitchen tools are my fabulous kitchen knife and my grater/zester. Love them! Hate to think of cooking without them.

  62. My two favorite gadgets would have to be my digital scale and instant read thermometer. I also retweeted the contest.

  63. Love this post – and H. McGee! My favorite tools are my 10″ Shun knife and tongs. The scale comes in a close third. And my microplane… Cripes, can’t possibly pick two.

  64. I agree on the scale but, since I have never been able to find a thermometer I would call good, I’ll say food processor or mandoline as my other favorite. I really dislike chopping 🙂

  65. Having my own lime and lemon trees in the back yard, I would have to say my favourite and most used gadget is my citrus press. Second choice is my thermomix machine.

    Having purchased Foodies of the World and Around My French Table, there is no doubt in my mind that Keys to Good Cooking would also be a worthy recommendation to have in one’s kitchen.

  66. my two favorite kitchen gadgets are my microplane and my new digital scale which has made my baking better by leaps and bounds

  67. Good thing I saw your reminder about this or I would’ve forgotten to enter!

    I’ve actually been thinking about this for a while, because as far as kitchen gadgets go, I love ’em all. I lust after a sous-vide and a food processor to join my array of gadgets in the kitchen, but when I really have to think about the two things I use the most they’re really rather low-tech: my vegetable peeler and my whisk.

    I know, that’s not all that gadgety, but my veg peeler is awesome. The handle is quite wide and rubbery so fits in your hand easily, and the blade is also wide, so you can peel things really easily. Also, I find myself using my whisk more than I use anything else in my kitchen. I even found myself without one during a catering gig so I went out and bought one. I couldn’t live without either, despite them not really being “gadgets”.

    I would also like my kitchen to essentially be a giant laboratory, but that’s a tale for another time.

    Jax x

  68. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve needed a thermometer when cooking. Why don’t I just buy one already? But since I’ve never owned a thermometer, it is not one of my top two kitchen gadgets. I’m going to go with my stand mixer and the Chef N’Palm vegetable peeler.

  69. Thanks for the chance to enter, Mardi! My most used kitchen gadgets are my little timer (which I use far more often than the oven timer) and my vegetable peeler/spiralizer. Hope you’re having a lovely week! 🙂

  70. Definitely my silicone spatula and my OXO tongs. They go in the dishwasher each time! Had to think for a while, though, because I also love my Microplane and my tasting spoons!

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