Return home

The Penguin Press



Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

Edited by Ann Godoff

New York Times Bestseller

Fire, water, air, earth—our most trusted food expert recounts the story of his culinary education.

In Cooked, Michael Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements—fire, water, air, and earth—to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer. In the course of his journey, he discovers that the cook occupies a special place in the world, standing squarely between nature and culture. Both realms are transformed by cooking, and so, in the process, is the cook.

Each section of Cooked tracks Pollan’s effort to master a single classic recipe using one of the four elements. A North Carolina barbecue pit master tutors him in the primal magic of fire; a Chez Panisse–trained cook schools him in the art of braising; a celebrated baker teaches him how air transforms grain and water into a fragrant loaf of bread; and finally, several mad-genius “fermentos” (a tribe that includes brewers, cheese makers, and all kinds of picklers) reveal how fungi and bacteria can perform the most amazing alchemies of all. The reader learns alongside Pollan, but the lessons move beyond the practical to become an investigation of how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, the soil, farmers, our history and culture, and, of course, the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Cooking, above all, connects us.

The effects of not cooking are similarly far reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume large quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends. In fact, Cooked argues, taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life.


Other books by Michael Pollan




“[Michael Pollan] has  said it best: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’ His newest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, adds a corollary: ‘And cook it yourself.’ No time? People always have time for what they consider important, and what is more important than your health? Home-cooked food contains better ingredients, and you know what you’re eating.” —Jane Brody column, The New York Times

“Because of the power of his prose and his reasoning, Cooked may prove to be just as influential as Pollan’s seminal book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma… The results are fascinating, but the magic of Cooked lies not in its ability to unlock the secrets of slow-roasting a whole hog or brewing beer… No, what Pollan pulls off is even more impressive: He manages to illuminate the wealth of connections that stem from our DIY time in the kitchen.” —The Washington Post

Cooked gets you thinking—and, hopefully, onyour way to the kitchen.” Chicago Tribune

Cooked provides a dazzling amount of food for thought—or more precisely, thought for food.” Entertainment Weekly

“Cooking can be about patience and letting things happen. Good things, on many levels.” —Mark Bittman column, The New York Times

Cooked is vintage Pollan—lucid, vivid, nimbly associative, insightful and just plain fun to read. It’s unlikely to spark a shift in consciousness, the way The Omnivore’s Dilemma did. Still, any Pollan vintage is an occasion for celebration, and this one is the perfect accompaniment, indeed the inspiration for, some terrific home-cooked meals.” Seattle Times

“[A] rare, ranging breed of narrative that manages to do all… In Pollan’s dexterous hands, we get the science, the history, the inspiration, ultimately the recipe. What feels like all of it. It doesn’t hurt that he also happens to be very funny.” —The Boston Globe

“As in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan is never less than delightful, full of curiosity, insight, and good humor. This is a book to be read, savored, and smudged with spatterings of olive oil, wine, butter, and the sulfuric streaks of chopped onion.” Outside

“Spurred by a number of objectives—improving his family’s general health, connecting with his teenage son, and learning how people can reduce their dependence on corporations, among others—Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma; In Defense of Food) came to the realization that he’d be able to accomplish all those goals and more if he spent more time in his kitchen. He began cooking. Divided into four chapters based on the four elements, Pollan eloquently explains how grilling with fire, braising (water), baking bread (air), and fermented foods (earth) have impacted our health and culture. … Engaging and enlightening reading.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)

New York Times best-selling author Pollan (The Botany of Desire; The Omnivore’s Dilemma) delivers a thoughtful meditation on cooking that is both difficult to categorize and uniquely, inimitably his… Intensely focused yet wide ranging, beautifully written, thought provoking, and, yes, fun, Pollan’s latest is not to be missed by those interested in how, why, or what we cook and eat.” Library Journal (starred)

“Having described what’s wrong with American food in his best-selling The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), New York Times contributor Pollan delivers a more optimistic but equally fascinating account of how to do it right…. A delightful chronicle of the education of a cook who steps back frequently to extol the scientific and philosophical basis of this deeply satisfying human activity.” Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Pollan’s newest treatise on how food reaches the world’s tables delves into the history of how humankind turns raw ingredients into palatable and nutritious food. To bring some sense of order to this vast subject, he resurrects classical categories of fire, water, air, and earth… Four recipes accompany the text, and an extensive bibliography offers much deeper exploration. Pollan’s peerless reputation as one of America’s most compelling expositors of food and human sustainability will boost demand.” Booklist (starred)

Author Q&A


Time is the missing ingredient in our recipes—and in our lives. I’m not going to pretend that the ur-braise I’ve described here can be made in just twenty minutes of “active cooking time” as the recipes now like to promise. There’s at least a half hour of that (chopping onions, sweating the mirepoix, browning the meat, etc.), and probably more if you cook the onions as slowly as they should be cooked. On the other hand, once that work is done, you can put the pot on low (or just throw everything in a Crockpot) and do something else for the rest of the afternoon—make the sides and a dessert, check your e-mail, take a walk—while the pot works its leisurely magic. But unless you make your braise in a Crockpot (which is always an option), you do need to be around to keep an eye on it, which for most of us today is a lot to ask, at least during the week. In households where both partners work outside the home, it is difficult, if not impossible, to weave this sort of cooking into the rhythms of weekday life.

Yet even on the weekends, most of us are moving too fast for slow cooking, even unattended slow cooking. So if we cook at all we clip ten- and twenty-minute recipes from the newspaper and throw expensive filets on the grill. This is certainly what Judith and I do most nights, and it took me awhile to get accustomed to the idea of spending several hours at a time in the kitchen, even on a weekend day. Coming into the kitchen, I always felt divided against myself, torn, because there was always something else, something more pressing, I could be doing with that time— e-mail, exercise, reading, watching television. But knowing Samin, my teacher, was going to be here for four hours of cooking, I eventually found that I could (like some of the meat we were cooking) relax into it, clear my mind of competing desiring, and give myself over to the work. When chopping onions, just chop onions.

This time became a kind of luxury, and that is precisely when I began truly to enjoy the work of cooking.

Sign me up for Serious Reads


A monthly newsletter featuring new and newsworthy nonfiction titles with exclusive excerpts and content from your favorite authors.

Serious Reads

Sign me up for Serious Reads, a monthly newsletter featuring new and newsworthy nonfiction titles with exclusive excerpts and content from your favorite authors.