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'Cooking for Geeks' delves into scientific aspect of the culinary art

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Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010

Heat normal curiosity over burning obsession to produce the geeky mindset of Jeff Potter. He has turned it into a fascinating book that is more concerned with the science behind good cooking than simply following recipes.

In some families, Grandma's recipes are the gold standard. Some people simply follow the directions on the backs of packages. Others invest in serious cookbooks, which can provide years of delight. But Potter found cookbooks left him with unanswered questions.

"I am the geek for whom I wrote my book," he says.

His "Cooking for Geeks" (O'Reilly Media, $34.99) is the product of a year of research. He says his geekiness is inborn, claiming his parents were told at his birth: "Here's your son, and here's his keyboard."

Potter's book tour reaches Pittsburgh Monday, when he'll appear at two locations of Carnegie Mellon University ... naturally.

"Geekiness is a combination of intellect and very strong interest, often in a technical subject," says David Andersen, an assistant professor of computer science at the university. "That's exactly the attitude that Carnegie Mellon specializes in and attracts,"

Potter, 34, was born in Silicon Valley in California to a physicist father and musician mother. He remembers making pancakes with his dad when he was in first grade and made his first cookbook around 1984. But 10 years after college, he still was stumbling through cooking, learning through trial and error.

"I had fun doing it, but never understood the bigger aspect -- why things are done a certain way," Potter says. Writing his book legitimated for him the time he spent -- seven days a week for a year -- to answer questions about an activity he feels is important and fun.

"Cooking has changed a lot in the last 50 years" Potter says. "It's no longer as much a chore as a leisure activity. Everybody is so pressed for time these days, and, frankly, lazy in some ways, that they don't want to spend time learning to cook. To me, that is a great travesty."

Potter integrates the scientific elements in cooking to the point that recipes serve to illustrate scientific points. In writing about the primarily variables of time and temperature, he begins by writing about the breaking down of proteins, the Maillard reaction that produces browning through the recombination of amino acid and certain sugars and the caramelization of sugars.

It is science of the utmost practicality.

Potter includes experiments to sharpen perception of smell and taste, and discusses the science behind combinations of flavors.

The book is enriched by 21 interviews, most with avid but nonprofessional cooks. They have interesting stories to tell and useful tips to share. Whimsy is definitely not excluded. One woman compresses her recipes to Twitter length.

"Cooking for Geeks" could serve anyone getting into the kitchen for the first time. The second chapter, "Initializing the Kitchen," begins with "Calibrating Your Instruments," such as the accuracy of oven-temperature settings.

"One of the litmus tests for me will be knowing my book helps someone turnout a better meal and know enough to go off recipe," Potter says.

Potter's book is no substitute for family traditions and good cookbooks. But then, his goal was different -- to produce a model for thinking about cooking, one that encourages informed creativity. No doubt, some people will find all the science off-putting, but for many others, it will strip away the mystery of why things work or don't in the kitchen.

Additional Information:

'Cooking for Geeks'

What: Book signing, talks and demonstrations by author Jeff Potter

When and where: 5 p.m. Monday at Rashid Auditorium Gates and Hillman Centers, Carnegie Mellon, Oakland. Free, but seating for the public is limited. Details: 412-268-8525

When and where: 7 p.m. Monday at The Waffle Shop, 124 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty. Free. Details:



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