★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Keni López-Alt | September 2015 | W. W. Norton & Co. | Hardcover $49.95
Ever wondered how to pan-fry a steak with a charred crust and an interior that’s perfectly medium-rare from edge to edge when you cut into it? How to make homemade mac ‘n’ cheese that is as satisfyingly gooey and velvety-smooth as the blue box stuff, but far tastier? How to roast a succulent, moist turkey (forget about brining!)—and use a foolproof method that works every time?
As Serious Eats’s culinary nerd-in-residence, J. Kenji López-Alt has pondered all these questions and more. In The Food Lab, Kenji focuses on the science behind beloved American dishes, delving into the interactions between heat, energy, and molecules that create great food.
López-Alt is a director and columnist at Serious Eats, one of my favorite food websites. Almost every recipe or technique I’ve tried from SE has been worthwhile, so I had high expectations for this cookbook. I was not disappointed!
First, here’s something you need to know about me: I love science-based anything. If someone is going to put the time/effort into trying out different techniques or gathering data on the most efficient use of X, I am happy to read all about it. (See my review for Cooking for Geeks for another example of excellent food experimentation.)
Here’s another thing about me that affects this review in particular: I enjoy cooking (and enjoy eating good food even more), but I’ve been in a cooking slump lately. This is due to a number of factors: schedule changes, high-stress events, finally coming to terms with the fact that my spouse just does not enjoy about 80% of the stuff that I like to eat, and other stuff like that. So when I do cook these days, it’s almost always going to be something tried-n-true and not too labor/time intensive. So that’s a huge part of the appeal of this book for me — the recipes have already been thoroughly tested and a great many of them happily do not require the cook to spend hours in the kitchen (although several do, if that’s your thing).
Beyond that, though, this is also a “book-book” as well as a cookbook. In other words, it isn’t just a collection of recipes. Personal anecdotes, investigations of various methods, and informative graphs/charts abound.
As an example of exactly how thorough López-Alt gets in this book, let’s take the section on making chicken stock. He explains a bit about the history of making/using stock and the various versions of it before jumping in to the experimentation. What part of the chicken makes the tastiest stock, or the most gelatin-y stock: wings, legs, breasts, or the leftover carcass? What is the best method for clarifying the stock or removing extra fat? What is the best storage method and how long can it be stored? And then: what kind of soups make the best use of this perfect homemade chicken stock?
Of course, you can use the traditional method of throwing a bunch of stuff in a pot and simmering it for a few hours, or you can just buy the dang stock from any grocery store, but that’s not the point. If you want the best possible chicken stock that makes the most efficient use of your time and kitchen resources, The Food Lab can tell you how to do that — and more importantly, WHY you should do it this way.
The thing that pushed this into 5-star territory for me, though, is the physical qualities of the book. There are a ton of full-color illustrations, the pages themselves have a nice thickness and a slight gloss to them (helpful for messier cooks like myself), and the binding is sturdy and — best of all — the book lays flat so that the pages stay open to whichever recipe you need with no struggle. These things are all signs of a cookbook constructed with real attention to detail.
- Serious Eats – “The Food Lab”
- J. Kenji López-Alt
- The New York Times: In ‘The Food Lab’, the Science of Home Cooking
- NPR: A Kitchen Science Savant Shares His Secrets in ‘The Food Lab’
- Wired: The Ultimate Book for Science Nerds Who Cook
This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge.
Publication information: López-Alt, J. Kenji. The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2015. Print.
Source: Purchased from Barnes & Noble.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.