- The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science
- J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
- WW Norton
In the hyperbolic world of food media, the words "perfect" and "best" lead recipe titles so often that they've been rendered almost meaningless.
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is fond of using these superlatives when describing a number of recipes in The Food Lab, his culinary magnum opus published last fall. Yet despite my aversion to abused adjectives, I kept agreeing with his boasts.
"Why, yes," I thought as I tasted his creations, "this is indeed the best vegetarian chili I've ever had."
If you are unfamiliar with Lopez-Alt, it means you haven't Googled a popular recipe in the past five years. He's the managing culinary director of the website seriouseats.com, as well as an MIT grad and a former chef. He approaches recipe development with monomaniacal zeal, then shares the delicious results with the infectious enthusiasm of the coolest teacher you had in high school.
Speaking of high school, there is a textbook-like intimidation factor to the 960-page tome, which doesn't even cover baking or desserts. Ironically, the goal of this book is to take the fear out of home cooking by helping us understand the science behind it. It does so with aplomb, but that takes time. You certainly don't need to read the 52 pages on steak cookery that come before the recipe, as it stands on its own; but if you want to become a steak boss, it's not a lot of homework.
I definitely upped my filet mignon game using Lopez-Alt's brilliant method of roasting the tenderloin whole at a low temperature, then cutting it into steaks before a quick sear in a hot pan. The recipe, which I've adapted below, yields gorgeous, evenly cooked beef – and it's a lot more foolproof than pan-frying the steaks from a raw state.
And that's the beauty of this book: Lopez-Alt's relentless pursuit of perfection yields hundreds of unconventional kitchen tricks. They include soaking dried pasta in hot water, instead of boiling, for baked ziti, and making a Parmesan crust for next-level grilled cheese. He also celebrates underappreciated techniques, such as steaming vegetables in the microwave.
So don't let the science angle scare you. Whether you read it from cover to cover or only tackle a few recipes, you'll come away from this book a better cook.