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How to Read a French Fry: And Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science

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Widely singled out for its unique approach and witty, readable prose, "How to Read a French Fry" explores the fascinating science behind such ordinary cooking processes as mixing, frying, roasting, boiling, and baking.

334 pages, Paperback

First published August 12, 1973

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Russ Parsons

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5 stars
104 (20%)
4 stars
204 (40%)
3 stars
159 (31%)
2 stars
35 (6%)
1 star
6 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 69 reviews
Profile Image for Linda .
249 reviews3 followers
August 30, 2015
I loved this!
I consider myself (as do others, from comments) a pretty decent cook, though I could work on presentation. I'm a decent baker, but pastry has always thwarted me-to the point where I've generally just thrown up my hands and bought frozen pie shells whenever I'm required.
I was intrigued by the title when I got it from Daedalus, and now that I've read it, wish I'd read it years ago, when I first got it.
There are the things that I thought I knew, but didn't-such as sweet Vidalia onions are only worth the money if you're going to eat them raw.
Then there are the things I didn't know-such as that step where you chill the pie crust after rolling it out, really isn't optional, but rather quite necessary.

The author says that the books isn't meant to be a text on "kitchen science", but he does indeed present you with the science behind almost everything-except for the braising of meats, the one that confounds everyone. But if you're not into the science behind gluten, proteins, etc. don't worry-the author will summarize the points in a checklist at the end of the chapter.

The best part is that each chapter is followed by some recipes which allow you to experiment with and utilize your new knowledge--and some of them are healthy, so I'll be able to try them! Of course, I'll need to refresh some of the points before I cook up the recipes, but the summary points will help with that. This book was a really good buy!
270 reviews3 followers
August 25, 2013
My major disappointment with this book is that it is essentially a cookbook marketing itself as something else. The chapter text, which is why I picked up the book in the first place, is really quite good. It's a nice, readable version of some of what you would find in Harold McGee's quintessential book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Unfortunately, the text is far too short, and instead there is recipe after recipe building upon what you learned in the chapter, which is fine except that there are far too many. The fruit and veggies chapter had something like 15 pages of text and about four times that in recipes. Granted, that's the extreme case, but out of the 300 pages of the book, only about 100 pages of that is actual content of interest.

And it's really too bad - the writing itself is very appealing and well done. But because of this, it touches only modestly on six topics in the kitchen without really even touching probably the single most important one - salt! I really would have liked to see more text, since the author has such a knack for making the science more readable - On Food and Cooking is an incredible resource, but it's not the sort of book you read cover to cover. Unfortunately, neither really is How to Read a French Fry unless you forego 2/3 of the book and its recipes.
Profile Image for Katie.
713 reviews34 followers
August 23, 2009
I loved the information in this book so much that I started taking notes. In the book the author explains what is actually happening when you cook food. I started reading this book the day after I made fried green tomatoes for the first time, and it just so happened the the first section of the book was about the chemical process of deep frying. So then I totally understood the purpose of every layer of coating of the fried green tomatoes and why they were the consistancy they were... it was just really interesting. Just all of these things with making pie crust and sauces and salad dressing that I have observed as I've learned to cook.. now I understand it a little better. Some of it was a bit scientific and I really just don't understand chemical structures of proteins and fats and sugars and all that. I really enjoyed the book, but I'd only recommend it to people who really like cooking
Profile Image for Catherine Beebe.
12 reviews2 followers
April 3, 2008
This is fascinating - it's a nerd's cookbook. (That's a good thing). I needed answers behind the instructions in recipes as to why I needed to dry off food before pan-frying, or the wonderful magical egg. If you love to cook and you loved the lab portion of chemistry class, read this.
Profile Image for Celina.
317 reviews13 followers
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January 24, 2014
I finally managed to finish a book in the new year (sort of--I haven't tried any of the recipes). I've been too preoccupied with moving and settling in to a new city.

Not everything in this book was new to me; I learned a lot about food science from my mother, who once majored in the subject. But I learned a lot here: about frying, the way starches react at the microscopic level when cooked, and the Maillard reaction. I'm tempted to go into a food science textbook for more on gels and the emulsifying properties of eggs, as part of my quest for the perfect egg replacer. I'd like to keep this book on hand to consult while I'm cooking but I should probably give it back to the friend who lent it to me.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,810 reviews31 followers
July 2, 2013
The scientific why of cooking. This book is excellent. I really believe it will make me a better cook because it explained why I failed at grilling zucchini, why my strawberry sauce turned into jelly, and how I keep going wrong with emulsions. Understanding the underlying principles at work in kitchen chemistry is absolutely the best first step to becoming a better cook. I've already used it to make hard-boiled eggs with perfectly yellow yolks.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who ever cooks. A++, would buy in a spiral binding for ease of use in kitchen, will use to make delicious puddings.
Profile Image for Andrea James.
338 reviews37 followers
January 19, 2016
It would have been great if the recipes were more infused with the stories and explanations. The book starts each section with decent explanations of the whys and hows of food and then follows that with a bunch of recipes.

I would have been happy just to read the stories and explanations without the recipes (which I found sadly rather uninspiring).

I got this book second-hand for not very much at all and it's really easy to read so it didn't take much time and therefore I actually think I got a good amount of value from it even without the recipes.
Profile Image for Sarah Jane.
121 reviews21 followers
September 23, 2008
It was good for me to learn (or review, as the case may be) the information presented in this book to make myself a better cook. I think most everyone can benefit from a little course of the basics, and the hows and whys of cooking. For the most part, I skimmed through the meat chapter because it was grossing me out. As soon as he started talking about muscle fibers and melting collagen, I was done. I think I might be too squeamish to ever be a meat-eater. Oh well.
Profile Image for Katina.
362 reviews8 followers
February 26, 2009
This was an excellent Half Price Books find. It includes some very tasty-looking recipes that put the kitchen science principles discussed in the chapters to practice. I learned so much about onions and cell structure and I think I'll be able to put it to use in my cooking. I thought the chapters on "Meat and Heat" and "Fat, Flour and Fear" were especially interesting. This was a very practical book and I look forward to dropping its factoids in conversation.
17 reviews
September 27, 2011
Really enjoyed this book as an intro to Kitchen Science. It really helped to understand where I have been issues in my cooking. Its a very easy read, probably about 100 pages of actual material with the rest are recipes. Will probably require a couple more reads to truly grab every valuable kernel of information.

Profile Image for Brian.
44 reviews
July 20, 2012
Actual stories are too few. Need moar science and intrigue, less recipes. The recipes do look decent, but none of them are, like, beggin' to be cooked. Bummed, because the interview with this fella that I heard made me think this book was gonna become indispensable. I did learn from it, but not very much.
Profile Image for Charles.
32 reviews
August 21, 2008
If you enjoy watching Alton Brown on the Food Channel, you will love this book. Cooking as a science - things we do for best results explained and broken down into comprehensible instructions. I guarantee this book will make you a better cook no matter your skill level.
Profile Image for Jessica.
392 reviews29 followers
September 21, 2009
This was a bit more of a cookbook with scientific information thrown in than it was a science book with recipes thrown in. I was hoping it to be the latter. Lots of interesting information, and I am sure it will stay on my shelf to be referred to many many more times.
Profile Image for Rachel.
54 reviews
April 5, 2014
A really interesting look at why some foods do what they do. Half cookbook and half easy to read science book. It has a ton of recipes that I can't wait to try.
31 reviews
April 24, 2021
“Two prosier science-oriented metacookbooks I came across, Russ Parsons’s How to Read a French Fry and Michael Pollan’s Cooked, were at least meant to be consumed from beginning to end. But Parsons’s, though highly insightful, could have used some further conceptual zooming-out beyond detailing the chemical specifics of certain dishes (like the browning of the titular french fry) and ingredients (like how a berry’s cells change once it’s picked or refrigerated). And the few big thoughts gleaned from Cooked, which takes several detours into memoir and food history, seemed too elementary.”
Profile Image for Dominic Howarth.
105 reviews2 followers
September 8, 2017
I LUV food, which should be to no one's surprise. The only thing I may love more than food itself, is food science. This book is full of it. Awesome tips and interesting stories abound, plus delicious sounding recipes that range in a nice degree of difficulty. The prose is drier than say, Alton Brown, who's comical and grounded style usurps Parson's writing, but the book is still very good. Should be in many a kitchen.
Profile Image for Stephanie Jones.
242 reviews
January 12, 2023
If you are interested in the science of cooking this is a very well written explanation of the process. Parson was a charming teacher that draws you in and explains the simple effects of gravity on fish. I enjoyed the ride, my only negative comment is the recipes. I feel he choose recipes that he enjoys rather than filling the needs of the general public. I am unfamiliar with many of the recipes and ingredients only wanting to try a handful of the 100 that he shared.
Profile Image for Gloria.
772 reviews32 followers
June 14, 2017
Really really like this book. Easy to understand, easy to read. And I really like the fact that he included recipes at the end of each section.... because there is NO WAY i am going to retain the scientific information without actually having to use the science.... so this book is actually one I am going to purchase, so I can dip in and out of it easily!
175 reviews
July 10, 2017
This is a great little work horse of a book. Of course, I want more, but that's not really what it's intended to do. It's whets the appetite, with enough science to keep it interesting, followed by illustrative recipes. Great for any novice cook.
161 reviews
October 1, 2019
Very interesting information related to why prepared food comes out the way it does. Very useful. Also enjoyed that recipes were included after each chapter. This is a must read for anyone who enjoys cooking and/or baking.
Profile Image for David.
4 reviews
June 16, 2019
This is a really niche book, but if you like cooking and want to know the science behind it, this book is perfect for that. Really a fun read.
4 reviews
January 10, 2023
Very scant but interesting kitchen science in between dozens of pages of recipes. This is a cookbook in paperback form, not a science book with a few recipes as I initially thought when I picked it up. Nevertheless the information is solid and I will probably refer to it again both for cooking and interest!
Profile Image for Jen.
1 review2 followers
September 20, 2012
This book knocked my socks off! SO FASCINATING! I am not passionate about cooking. I enjoy it, I do it daily for my family, sometimes I like to have fun making new things, but I am no chef and cooking is not my passion. That said, this book was incredible. From literally the first sentence, I was hooked. Parsons takes a basic kitchen tasks or food types and, using the underlying science, tells how and WHY things in the kitchen work the way they do. After every single chapter I wanted more of that subject (each chapter is about a different type of food, from frying to fruit & vegetables to meats, etc.)
I passed this book along to friends who cook but don't read and insisted they read it. I passed it along to friends who read but don't cook and did the same. Anyone with even a passing interest in science should find this pure enjoyment.
HIGHLY RECOMMEND
Profile Image for Stuart Woolf.
132 reviews12 followers
April 2, 2016
This book was given to me by a former mentor, a food engineer who also gave me Owen Fennema's Food Chemistry. The books couldn't be more different: the latter is a dry, information-dense textbook that will teach you everything you want (and don't want) to know about food, whereas this book is written by a journalist (the food editor at the Los Angeles Times) seeking to enchant readers, who presumably hate science, with selected fun facts about cooking.

My attitude is, food writing is best left to scientists. This book wasn't bad, but there are better books for the nonscientist. My recommendation is to flip through a few pages of Harold McGee's On Food & Cooking and you'll quickly understand why this "french-fry book" should not exist.
106 reviews
June 10, 2007
Book about food, and the science of cooking. For example, why french fries have to be fried at a certain temperature to have that yummy crispy outside, and warm, not soggy inside. I thought that some of the topics were very interesting, but that some were not explained enough and others seemed to repeat the same thing over and over again. The book did include some recipes so you could try out the foods they were talking about.
Profile Image for Alejandro Jofre.
62 reviews1 follower
January 9, 2010
WHAT MADE ME READ IT: Rec by San Ramon Library
50th PAGE EVAL: Yummy, Lots of good food, ideas about food and the reasoning behind food
PLOT: A cooking Bible with Sciencia and great recipes that I will try soon
NOTES: I like the coments at the beginning of the recipes that puts them in a frame of mind. I want to try 90% of them.
IT MADE ME (DO) : Cook and test the hypotherisi, ideas, and shortcuts presented
IT MADE ME READ : More cooking books
Profile Image for SunnyD.
77 reviews36 followers
February 16, 2009
good for the boy. he's done a lot of cooking lately & is interested in it, and the way this book laid out info is perfect for him with his left-brain thinking. i thougt it was kind of interesting too.
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the boy seems to be enjoying it. i'll have to take a peek.
593 reviews7 followers
October 3, 2009
This was probably more of a 3.5 stars. It was fun reading and presented a lot of "aha!" moments. I feel like it is a reference book that I could go back to again. I already used a technique in the book to prepare some vegetables and it worked quite well. Anyone who likes to cook will enjoy this book.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 69 reviews

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