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Cooked

A Natural History of Transformation

By Michael Pollan
13-minute read
Audio available
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan

Cooked (2013) details the history of humanity’s relationship with cooking, baking and fermentation. These blinks explain how cooking became an essential aspect of being human while exploring the varied techniques people have tried and perfected to turn nature’s bounty into a delicious, nutritious meal.

  • People interested in culinary history
  • Foodies eager to understand why we cook they way we do
  • Fans of brewing, pickling or other fermented foods

Michael Pollan is a food journalist, bestselling author and a professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. His other books include The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food.

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Cooked

A Natural History of Transformation

By Michael Pollan
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan
Synopsis

Cooked (2013) details the history of humanity’s relationship with cooking, baking and fermentation. These blinks explain how cooking became an essential aspect of being human while exploring the varied techniques people have tried and perfected to turn nature’s bounty into a delicious, nutritious meal.

Key idea 1 of 8

Cooking food makes raw ingredients more digestible and more nutritious for humans.

Some people think that raw food diets represent a return to nature – a healthier way to live. But such logic is off base. If we didn’t cook food, we’d spend a ton of time just chewing it.

For humans to live well consuming just raw food, we would need a much larger gut and more powerful jaws. Our apelike ancestors did have these traits, but they came with a trade-off.

Primatologist Richard Wrangham hypothesized that before early humans began to cook, they spent over half their day chewing their food.

We can witness this today with chimpanzees that like to eat meat but don’t cook. When a chimpanzee eats raw meat, it has to chew for a long time, technically leaving it little time to hunt – not nearly enough time to properly support a carnivorous diet.

Regarding expended calories, eating hard-to-digest food is costly. For many species, the calories expended in digestion are nearly equal to the calories needed to move around.

Here’s where cooking food makes a difference. Cooking alters the composition of food both physically and chemically, making it more nutritious and easier to digest.

When we cook a protein-rich food like meat, the heat works to unravel the structure of the meat’s proteins, unlocking the energy within. These now weaker protein structures are easily digested by the enzymes in the human stomach.

When you boil an egg, for example, 90 percent of the cooked egg is digestible. A raw egg, in contrast, is only 65 percent digestible by the human gut. The same rule applies to many other foodstuffs: the more food is cooked, the easier it is for your gut to absorb the nutrients stored in the food.

Another benefit of cooking is that it makes food safer to eat. Some plants, like the root cassava, a staple of South American cuisine, is toxic when raw. Once cooked, it is safe to eat, nutritious and easily digested.

Cooking also works to preserve food. Thus raw meat that would spoil quickly remains edible for a longer period once it’s cooked.

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