Master Blender Jeff Potter Chats from the Kitchen Lab, Cooking for Geeks

There is so much to chew on in Cooking for Geeks (O' Reilly) by Jeff Potter that I did not know where to start or stop when doing the prep for this interview.

To get things in gear, I decided to stick to 12 questions, here they are:

Q: Jeff, Cooking for Geeks, is it more about hardware (kitchen tools) or software (recipes)? What part does experimentation plays?

It's really about the approach to both. Kitchen tools and recipes are just aids for creating a meal and a good experience.

Q: Are hands really best tools in the kitchen? What would you list at Number 2 and 3?

Hands, sense of smell & taste, and eyes are probably the most important things; but if you're going with a more traditional definition of a kitchen tool, a cutting board and measuring tools (volume/weight scale) would be quite important.

Q: You disapprove of Kitchen Tools as a gift, if you were to break that rule would you start with a fire extinguisher?

There are so many differences between, say, something like knives that it really boils down to personal preference. This is why I don't think one should give kitchen tools as gifts in general. If you are going to give a gift, I'd start with a gift certificate.

Q: Can you explain the notion of 'smelling chemicals' while cooking?

Our sense of smell is based on sensing chemicals—our noses are quite literally chemical sensors—so when it comes to cooking and smell, anything you detect will, of course, be some set of chemical compounds from the foods that you are working with.

Q: What prompted you to make ice-cream with a Lego contraption?

Just to see if it could be done! Not everything has to be practical; sometimes it's just amusing to see what one can do.

Q: You quote Meg Hourihan on dangers of following recipes blindly, besides burning ingredients other drawbacks you would like to share?

Recipes can become crutches—you can begin to rely on them to the point that you depend on them to be able to turn out a meal. It's like calculators—if you never do arithmetic "by hand", then you can get to a point where you can't do it by hand.


Q: Enlighten us on 'fat washing' and alcohols?

Some chemical compounds aren't soluble in water, but are in ethanol. By taking something like bacon and soaking it in, say, vodka, those compounds will dissolve into the liquid.

Q: What's the point of making liquid smoke?

Liquid smoke is one of those fascinatingly simple things. It's just smoke vapors distilled through water! For all the fear about nasty, artificial chemicals, it's nice to see that something like liquid smoke is actually so "clean", in a certain sense.

Q: How and why can you do flash pickling? Does it alter the end flavor?

Flash pickling is basically a method for getting a liquid "into" a food. Take cucumbers, which have lots of small air pockets. By putting them into a vacuum chamber, surrounding them in a liquid of your choice, evacuating and then re-pressurizing the environment, the air gets removed and then the empty pockets refill with the surrounding liquid, allowing you to inject whatever flavored liquid you like into the food.

Q: Why are so many geeks and techies into food?

I think I'd put it more broadly: why are so many people in general into food? I think this is because it's a fun pastime, and no longer viewed as a chore, but more of as a luxury or hobby.

Q: Is there a danger in being too analytical about food , getting lost in process rather than enjoying sheer pleasure of cooking and sharing food with others?

It depends on the person—as long as you're having fun with it, then I think that in and of itself can be pleasurable.

Q: What was your worst cooking misadventure ever?

I once tried to decant a 2 liter bottle of soda. It didn't work so well—the carbonation came out of suspension all at the same time; and the soda sprayed all over my kitchen all at the same time. Huge mess.

Thanks Jeff for taking us on your Magical Mistery Kitchen Tour.

Should I add a 'don't try this at home' notice to some of the experiments shared above?

(* illustration is Jeff signing first autographed copy of Cooking for Geeks)

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