Welcome to the Osmocosm

Harold McGee explains the science behind a universe of smells

Durian, the king of fruits—and smells (Flickr/luzge)
Durian, the king of fruits—and smells (Flickr/luzge)

Harold McGee’s 1984 book On Food and Cooking—revised extensively in 2004—changed modern cuisine, inspiring the molecular gastronomy of Ferran Adrià as well as the weeknight creations of humble home cooks everywhere. McGee’s latest book, Nose Dive, is a companion encyclopedia to On Food and Cooking, and it focuses on the most overlooked of our senses: smell. When we bring a fresh oyster or a glass of wine to our lips, what makes us detect minerality or grassiness? When did the molecules that we smell first appear? What happens to these volatile molecules when we transform our food, whether through cooking, fermentation, or some other process? Listen to McGee explain this universe of smells—which he dubs “the osmocosm”—and you’ll never breathe in the aroma of fresh-baked cookies the same way again.

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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