In this column I often write about food as it relates to nutrition and health. But what about the food itself?


Like many people, I am interested in food as both an enthusiastic consumer and a passable home cook.


The popularity of food and cooking magazines, websites, and television shows suggests that I am not alone. Even “reality” shows have moved into home and restaurant kitchens giving us a lesson in what to do – and not do – when preparing and enjoying meals.


I suspect that our collective “Food IQ” has increased as a result. That said, many people, including some experienced cooks, don’t understand the most fundamental processes involved in preparing food. We cook, but we don’t necessarily know how cooking works.


Why not spend some time this summer learning about food and cooking? You are probably looking for a good book to read at the beach (or pool or hammock) anyway, so here are few suggestions.


While these books contain recipes and teach cooking techniques, they are not cookbooks or culinary arts texts. These are books about the science of food and what happens when it is prepared.


But don’t be afraid – the explanations will be clear to even the most science-phobic reader. Here are three you can take to the beach (and one you can’t).


“Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” by Michael Pollan


The author of several excellent books, including “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” which contains what is perhaps the best nutrition advice ever (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables.”), is back with a new book about how food becomes food. He explores how fire, water, air and earth make the our food safe and edible.


“On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” by Harold McGee


This update and revision of the classic 2004 book covers nearly everything about food and cooking, from the nutrients in food to the chemical reactions that occur during cooking. McGee is an expert at explaining food science in a way that is easy to understand without dumbing it down.


“What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained” by Robert Wolke


This is the first of two books, the second is “What Einstein Told His Cook 2, The Sequel: Further Adventures in Kitchen Science,” about what really happens in the kitchen. Together these books are essentially a chemistry class focusing on what food is made of and what happens when you cook it. Entertaining and educational, it’s a chemistry class you will appreciate every time you prepare or eat a meal.


“Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking” by Nathan Myhrvold


This isn’t a so much a book as it is an encyclopedia of cooking. It is a collection of six books totaling 2,438 pages and weighing more than 50 pounds. This is one you can’t take to the beach! It is based on work done in the cooking lab, a research kitchen that resembles a high-tech science lab. The book contains recipes, as well as detailed descriptions of the science underlying the cooking process. It also has some of the most compelling images showing what happens when food is cooked.


Learning more about the food you eat and the way it is prepared can help you make choices that can lead to a healthier diet. These books are a great place to start, whether you are reading at home or at the beach.


Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.