Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wednesday, August 26, 2015: Maximum Shelf: The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science

Norton: The Food Lab by J Kenji Lopez-Alt

Norton: The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Norton: The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Norton: The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science

by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

The Food Lab is an impressive tome, more than 900 pages. But unlike other cookbook staples for home cooks--and yes, The Food Lab should definitely be considered an essential volume--it's about far more than recipes. Where The Joy of Cooking and How to Cook Everything are primarily sets of step-by-step instructions for preparing a wide variety of dishes, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt has included a mere 300 recipes in his massive book. The rest of the space is dedicated to exploring the science of food and recipe construction, as well as recommended tools, tricks and techniques.

Lopez-Alt was previously editor of Cook's Illustrated magazine and is now managing culinary director of, where he authors "The Food Lab" column on food science. The Food Lab draws on those experiences to offer readers a guide to improved home cooking through scientific understanding. In the introduction, he writes, "Being able to identify exactly which parts of a recipe are essential to the quality of the finished product and which parts are just decoration is a practical skill that will open up your opportunities in the kitchen as never before. Once you understand the basic science of how and why a recipe works, you suddenly find that you've freed yourself from the shackles of recipes."

In order to do that, one must start with the most basic of basics: a well-stocked kitchen. Therefore, the book opens with recommendations on key kitchen equipment for the home cook (the pots and pans one must keep on hand, which utensils are critical, what unitaskers to skip) and the pantry basics no home kitchen should be without (dairy products, grains, spices and salts, canned goods--and how to store them all appropriately). In both sections, as in dish-specific guides later in the text, Lopez-Alt is conscious of cost, explaining when cost-saving makes sense (a good heavy cleaver, for example, need not be fancy) and where it makes sense to splurge a little (your chef's knife should last a lifetime; a digital thermometer will be your best friend).

With the basics of kitchen equipment established, Lopez-Alt dives next into the food--and the science. The rest of the book is divided into nine sections:

  • Eggs, Dairy and the Science of Breakfast
  • Soups, Stews and the Science of Stock
  • Steaks, Chops, Chicken, Fish, and the Science of Fast-Cooking Foods
  • Blanching, Searing, Braising, Glazing, Roasting, and the Science of Vegetables
  • Balls, Loaves, Links, Burgers, and the Science of Ground Meat
  • Chickens, Turkeys, Prime Rib, and the Science of Roasts
  • Tomato Sauce, Macaroni, and the Science of Pasta
  • Greens, Emulsions, and the Science of Salads
  • Batter, Breadings, and the Science of Frying

Though one could dip into and out of each section on a whim, the book's structure allows for cover-to-cover reading--unusual for a cookbook--and the scientific explanations and theories behind each recipe build over the course of the text. The recipe for Buttermilk Biscuits expands on the science explored in the recipe for Buttermilk Pancakes from 20 pages earlier; the 10-page recipe for All-American Meatloaf draws on the scientific exploration of ground meat (including instructions on how--and why--to grind your own at home) found in earlier recipes for homemade sausage; understanding how starch interacts with oil, as explained in a recipe for aglio e olio, is helpful in following the science behind the Ultra-Gooey Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese recipe 40 pages later.

Throughout the text, scattered among humorous and engaging anecdotes about his experiences experimenting with food, Lopez-Alt has included asides on techniques and ingredient-specific recommendations. These include little things like how to hold a knife properly; scientific explanations of why cutting meat against the grain yields more tender bites; and handy charts on things like how different additions (milk, water, cream, butter) change the consistency of scrambled eggs and what types of cheeses are best for what applications.

While much of this may sound too simple for a practiced home cook, the science behind each recipe ensures that even the most experienced chef will learn something new here. "Once you start opening your mind to the wonders of the kitchen, once you start asking what's really going on inside your food while you cook it, you'll find that the questions keep coming and coming, and that the answers will become more and more fascinating," writes Lopez-Alt. The Food Lab is an invitation to start that questioning. And with a no-fuss, no-frills approach to cooking, The Food Lab promises to become essential for the cookbook shelf, with thoughtful, reasoned explanations for how to make classic American dishes the best they possibly can be. --Kerry McHugh

W.W. Norton, $49.95, hardcover, 9780393081084

Norton: The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: Breaking Free from Recipes

photo: Peter Tannenbaum

A graduate of MIT, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt previously served as editor of Cook's Illustrated magazine. He is currently managing culinary director of Serious Eats, where he also authors "The Food Lab" column, dedicated to exploring the science of food. His book of the same name (W.W. Norton, September 2015) expands the content of this column with more than 900 pages of food science, recipes and full-color photographs. Lopez-Alt lives in San Francisco.

The Food Lab is full of recipes, as well as narratives about cooking and food science, making it a very readable cookbook.

I wanted it to be a book that people would use in the kitchen, but also one that people who don't cook would find interesting to read. It's part cookbook, part pop science.

The recipes are meant to be recipes that people can cook all the time, and that people of any skill level could follow. If you want to just follow the recipes, you're going to get a result that works. But if you're a more advanced cook reading a recipe for something simple, I've tried to put enough background and information on testing and questioning conventional cooking knowledge that you will perhaps learn something new.

Introducing the book, you say that once the basic science of a recipe is understood--both the "how" and the "why"--the cook is freed from a recipe's constraints.

Yes. People learn recipes by rote, from their parents and grandparents, and then follow every single step start to finish. That's understandable; it's hard to figure out which part of a recipe is really important and which part can change with so many different steps.

By teaching people the science behind recipes, I hope to give people the opportunity to experiment for themselves and figure out how to achieve the results that they want.

For example: maybe you don't like your roast chickens specifically the way that I like mine; maybe you want a different texture or seasoning. Understanding how heat and meat and skin and salt interact can let you make the recipe serve your own personal tastes.

Now you can start with your favorite recipe or your mother's recipe and then really make it your own.

The Food Lab grew out of your column of the same name on Serious Eats, which all started with a post on boiling eggs. How did that come about?

I told the founder of Serious Eats that I'd always been interested in doing a column on food science. He said I should, and we'd call it The Food Lab.

It seemed like eggs were a natural place to start: they're uncomplicated and yet simple, they're cheap, everybody eats them. And for boiled eggs in particular, people have all these thoughts on best methods to make them, so it just seemed like a topic that was ripe for easy, inexpensive experimentation. It turned out to be insanely popular.

The column has evolved over the years, but it's all based on that very first post: tons of experimentation on dishes common to the American repertoire and food that people take for granted.

How much of the book is new content, and how much will feel familiar to long-time fans of the online column?

The methodology and the concepts will obviously feel familiar, but as far as the actual content, it's about 75% new. I took some of the biggest hits from the column and included those, because they will be of interest to people who never read the site. But a book is a different format than a website, so my approach for what recipes to include and not include was different from how I think about what to include or not include online.

How does about writing a whole book differ from doing shorter pieces?

A lot of the most difficult work was not the writing itself, but the organization: making sure that when people needed a certain piece of information, they could find it easily; making sure the layout fit the content; etc. That's stuff you think about in an article, but organizing 3,000 words into a story is a lot easier than organizing 1,000 pages into a coherent book.

And then there are photographs of various steps of each experiment, recipe and technique scattered throughout every narrative.

Those are mostly the product of my own obsessive natural tendencies. I take photos of everything I cook all through the cooking process, specifically because I never know when I'm going to want that picture for something. So the pictures you see in the book are pictures I took as I was working on recipes.

When you work on recipes, do you work out of a test kitchen or in your home?

No, this book was written 100% out of my apartment in Harlem. I don't live there anymore, but it was a one-bedroom apartment with a little tiny kitchen.

You make a point of recommending affordable tools and equipment, as well as highlighting inexpensive ingredients in your recipes.

That comes from my days with Cooks Illustrated. If you want people to cook your recipes, you have to make sure that it doesn't use fancy equipment and that it takes into account real-world strains.

So that was one of the basic parameters of the book. This was going to be something that people would learn from, but also that was accessible to more than just a small niche of people who were willing to spend tons of money.

There are a few places in The Food Lab, like in the recipe for Garlicky Sautéed Spinach, where you come to the conclusion that the traditional way of doing things really can't be improved upon. Are there other classic recipes and techniques you'd never change?

When I start working on a recipe, I don't set out to disprove anyone else. I just want to know what is the best way to do something, regardless of whether it's traditional or something new.

I think people can get caught up in the idea of besting tradition, but sometimes tradition is right and is tradition for a reason. Actually, quite often tradition is right. When that's the case, I want to tell people that it is--and then hopefully explain why it is.

With so many recipes and techniques in the book, are there any you want to highlight?

I really love the Stovetop Mac and Cheese. That's a food that everybody grew up with. The goal was to make a recipe that was maybe 25% more time-consuming than just opening up a box and pouring out the cheese packet, but would be many, many, many times tastier. So it's still a really easy recipe, thrown together in the time it takes to boil pasta, but it's way, way better than anything you'd get out of a box.

More so than the recipes, the techniques and construction are what I think sets this book apart from other cookbooks.

With this first book wrapped up, what are you excited to be working on now?

We've recently started this Food Lab video series, which is based on the column. Like the column, it's more about food science than straight cooking. That's something I'm pretty happy with, and have been working hard on for the last few months and will be doing a lot more in the future. --Kerry McHugh

Photos excerpted from The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by Kenji Lopez-Alt. Copyright ©2015 by J. Kenji López-Alt. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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