The Food Lab was one of the most hotly anticipated books to have been published in recent months. Its author, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, is the nerdiest - and one of the most respected - of all food nerds (he even writes in the introduction, "I am a nerd, and I'm proud of it").
After attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (graduating with an architecture degree), he worked in biology labs before becoming a cook. Eight years of restaurant cooking later, he began working as a test cook and editor for Cooks Illustrated magazine. Of which he writes, "Here was a job that finally combined the top three of my four greatest loves: tasting great food, the scientific pursuit of knowledge and the physical act of cooking (my wife would be the fourth) and it was a truly liberating experience. I discovered that in many cases - even in the best restaurants in the world - the methods that traditional cooking knowledge teaches us are not only outdated but occasionally flat-out wrong."
In his current role, as the managing culinary director of food website Serious Eats (seriouseats.com), he's probably best known for his column, The Food Lab, in which he tests iterations of recipes and cooking techniques. The topic can be as simple as making a hard boiled egg (with variables such as cold water vs boiling water; the freshness of the egg; cooking them in a pressure cooker, steamer or oven; and whether to let them cool slowly or to shock them by putting the just-boiled eggs in ice water); how to cook risotto; or the best technique for making porchetta.
Lopez-Alt writes, "The first step to winning is learning how not to fail. Have you ever made the same recipe a half dozen times with great results, only to find that on the seventh time, it completely fails?
"Oftentimes it's difficult to point to exactly what went wrong. If you're a tinkerer in the kitchen, you like to modify recipes a bit here and there to suit your own taste or mood. That's all well and good, and luckily, the first six times, your modifications didn't affect the outcome of the recipe. What changed on the seventh time?
"There are many ways you can vary from a written recipe, but only some of those forays will cause the recipe to fail. Being able to identify exactly what 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 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. You can modify as you see fit, fully confident that the outcome will be a success …
"Only by understanding the underlying principles involved in cooking can you free yourself from both recipes and blindly accepted conventional wisdom."
Those of us who were worried that The Food Lab would just be a physical (very physical; it weighs close to 3kg) collection of Lopez-Alt's online posts can rest assured that the book has information not available on the Serious Eats website.
My one complaint (and it's a big one) is that for all his precision, Lopez-Alt didn't take a stand against his publisher and insist on using weights as well as volume measurements (he uses some avoirdupois, but not often enough). In addition to being faster, easier and more accurate, weights can also save on the washing up. Does anyone really measure out a tablespoon of butter?
Lopez-Alt's recipes include buttermilk biscuits; crunchy oven fries; all-belly porchetta; all-American meat loaf; cheesy hasselback potato gratin; spaghetti puttanesca; bratwurst-style sausages; marinated grilled short-ribs with chimichurri; shrimp tempura; and maple-scented waffles.
The Food Lab - Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt