The Food Lab

No, not her:DSC_0242


That’s Julep. Nothing makes her happier than standing next to the counter during meal prep and scarfing up whatever you drop, or stealing the occasional piece of toast from an unguarded child’s plate on the table, or cleaning up after the cat when she’s just barfed up her breakfast. Though truth be told, given the genetic soup Julep was ladled from, she’s more of a food hound than a food lab.

But no, what I’m talking about is this:

This is one of three cookbooks I got this year for Christmas, the others being Michael Ruhlman’s Twenty and Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast. Both are wonderful, but J. Kenji López-Alt’s (J-KLA, as I like to think of him) tops the heap, with hundreds and hundreds of pages of riveting reading about how things work in the kitchen. An MIT-educated food geek and veteran of a number of Boston restaurants, he was an editor at Cook’s Illustrated before moving over to Serious Eats. While to my mind Cook’s (which we subscribe to) manages to take a lot of the fun out of cooking–they get to play in the kitchen, so that you don’t need to–J-KLA, despite his similar analytical bent, puts the fun back in. Like Cook’s but amped up a notch, he describes in detail the many kitchen experiments he ran to figure out what techniques work best, but he gives you enough detail so you can figure out whether there’s some relevant variable you think he’s ignored that might make it make more sense for you to do things differently in your own kitchen. He also encourages you to question everything and think for yourself–maybe, unlike Cook’s, he hasn’t hit on “the best recipe” every time. So this is the book to read if you want to know how different cooking techniques work and so why recipes tell you to do what they do. Which, of course, means you can choose not to do what they tell you to do when you know there’s a better way. After reading this, you realize just how many confident assertions made by authors of other cookbooks just amount to passing on of kitchen superstition. It’s got plenty of recipes too, which illustrate his findings, but the real value is in the lengthy reports on his processes of discovery. Plus he’s just super-over-the-top-excited about cooking in a way that is completely infectious. Getting up in the middle of the night to try a new scalloped potato recipe he’s just devised and trying to convince his wife she should get up too? That’s J-KLA.

I will say that, deep down, I think I ultimately prefer the much more improvisatory, less rule-bound, arty-spiritual approach of Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, but I think absorbing a lot of J-KLA food geekery can make that approach work a lot better.

A couple of cool things from The Food Lab, which may fall into the ‘yawn, I already figured that out’ category, but if they don’t, hopefully you’ll think ‘holy cow, who knew!?!’

Cook dried pasta (fresh pasta is a different matter) in a small pot with a relatively small amount of water rather than in a huge pot with a high water to pasta ratio. Even though the temperature drops more when you put the pasta in the small pot of water, it comes back up to a boil in the same amount of time (because proportionately less water means proportionately less energy needed to heat it). The temperature does drop a few degrees more when you put the pasta in a small pot rather than a big one, but the temperature at which the pasta cooks isn’t crucial to its final flavor and texture, so that initial drop doesn’t really matter. Just be sure to stir it for the first minute to keep it from sticking and all will be well. Bonus: much starchier water at the end to use to thicken your sauce. Relatedly: adding oil to the water flavors the pasta not at all, but it does keep the released starches from sticking together and leading to messy boiling over.

If you want a good ol’ smashburger, start with a home-ground, loosely packed patty, then press it on the hot hot griddle within the first 30 seconds and you’ll get crusty deliciousness and lots of internal juice. Wait longer than that and the proteins set, meaning if you press it you’ll just squeeze out the juice and get a dried out, bland patty. So if you’re not aiming specifically for a smashburger, don’t press at all!

The hotter the fat when deep-frying, the more of it gets absorbed by the food. That’s because fat doesn’t get absorbed during immersion, when the heat is causing the moisture in the food to expand into steam and get pushed outward. When the food comes out of its immersion, however, the process reverses, drawing fat left on the surface of the food into the space vacated by the moisture. But! Lower-temp deep-frying does make the food taste fattier, as the fat will cool more quickly and feel different on your tongue.

There’s just so many cool things in this book! If you don’t want to buy it, a lot of the information can be found in J-KLA’s columns online. But if you’re like me, having a massive tome to pore over is a lot more fun than staring at a screen. (But thanks for staring at one to read this.)

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