You don't need this book if you already subscribe to Cooks Illustrated or to its companion web site. You don't need this if you own the admirable Cooks Illustrated Cookbook. Each of these three resources will tell you all that you need to know as to "Why This Recipe Works," and the latter two even do it in wonderfully succinct head notes. All of the recipes in The Science of Good Cooking have already appeared in Cooks Illustrated and are readily available on the web site.
You don't need this book if you are a fan of the scientific cooking expertise of the estimable Harold McGee ("On Food and Cooking," Keys to Good Cooking") or the equally estimable Shirley Corriher ("Cookwise," "Bakewise"). Both of these writers will tell you all about "Why This Recipe Works" in prose that is considerably less corporate than that of the self-styled America's Test Kitchen. There is nothing "revolutionary," advertising hype aside, about a book that gets into the nitty gritty of the Maillard reaction. Other writers have covered this ground.
But let's say that none of the above applies to you. Well, then, do you like reading textbooks? The Science of Good Cooking is a textbook. It costs as much as a textbook and it would weigh down a backpack as surely as Introduction to Economics.
You like textbooks? While I could hardly have cooked my way through the 400 or so recipes in this tome, I did try (some more than once) a representative fourteen. So, in addition to lots and lots of useful information, here's what The Science of Good Cooking has for the cook:
A few brilliant recipes, one of which is the recipe for Whole-Wheat Sandwich Bread and another of which is the vodka-containing pie crust formula.
A number of very good recipes, among them the ones for Classic Brownies, Crisp Roast Chicken, Blueberry Scones, Scrambled Eggs, Ultimate Hummus, and Glazed Spiral Ham.
A few tweaks to otherwise perfectly good recipes, to wit Yeasted Waffles and Better Bran Muffins. These recipes belong to the Better Mousetrap Category.
A category of recipe I'll call The Science Experiment. Yes, you can make Classic French Fries using three quarts of expensive peanut oil; yes, you can use both a fry pan AND the oven to make excellent home fries; and yes, you can turn your countertop into a floury mess in pursuit of Flaky Buttermilk Biscuits. But do you really want to? Or do you want, to offer one example, the very simple and good (and cheap) recipe for Oven Fries that isn't in this book but IS on the Cooks Web site?
Since there's no accounting for taste, there are a few dogs, a representative of which is the Creamy Buttermilk Coleslaw, which I tried more than once. It's creamy, all right, but so bland that it made me grab for something--anything--horseradish, sriracha, chipotles--to wake it up. This is pretty much the case for a lot of the Asian-type recipes, as well; you'll be happier with a few more takeout cartons and a bit less scientific knowledge. (I await the day when Cooks tackles sushi.)
Do you need this book? You do if you've never heard of the Cooks Illustrated Empire of books-magazines-web sites. For the rest of us, it's a smart repackaging of material that's readily available in other corners of the Empire.