The Food Lab: Taking home cooking to the next level

If you like to cook and haven’t picked up The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji Lόpez –Alt, you have a treat in store. The author is passionate about cooking and is obsessed with flavor. He has a degree in architecture from MIT, has gained experience in restaurant kitchens, takes a scientific approach to his craft, and can be followed at a successful blog, Serious Eats. The Food Lab is notable for its wonderful color illustrations, delectable recipes, descriptions of the best utensils to prepare superior dishes, and scientific explanations as to why certain techniques work and others do not. Although strict adherence to his guidelines will cost much more than the price of the book, he has several ideas of how to pare down your list of wants to a reasonable and affordable level.

Lόpez –Alt starts with the basics of kitchen science and then proceeds to his nine food groups—eggs and dairy, soups and stews, fast-cooking meats, vegetables, ground meats, roasts, pasta, salads, and fried foods. While mindful of nutrition and health, his emphasis is on preparing delicious food. Throughout the book he outlines experiments he has performed to test theories and accepted truths about how certain foods should be prepared. Sometimes prevailing wisdom triumphs, but frequently it fails, and the kitchen scientist develops a new construct. The book is brimming with enthusiasm, ideas, and different ways of looking at and preparing food.

Although Lόpez –Alt likes to prepare his own food and food for others, he does not have an antipathy to processed food or ingredients. He plays down fears about added chemicals in our food. For example, he describes how chemical leavening works as sodium bicarbonate and the accompanying acid in baking powder react to make perfect pancakes. He has no qualms about adding monosodium glutamate (MSG) to his dishes to bring out the umami taste. For those readers concerned about the much maligned MSG in their food, he points out which ingredients, such as soy sauce, can be used as substitutes. Processed ingredients he uses frequently include balsamic vinegar, beer, evaporated milk, kosher salt, mayonnaise, pasta, and unsalted butter. He is very fussy about his ground meat, however, and prefers chopping his own selected cuts of beef.

As a food scientist, I am impressed with the author’s basic understanding of the chemical nature of food as well as the microbiological consequences of food fermentation and unsafe practices in the kitchen. He is very strict when it comes to using a thermometer to judge when a food has been cooked to perfection. I admit to being a little skeptical of his directions to get around ServSafe guidelines for some of his dishes. In my mind he appears to skate on the side of deliciousness at a potential safety risk. My three courses in food microbiology scared me witless about lethal microbes leading me to sacrifice some flavor for a greater certainty of safety. While not raising to the level of a home chef, I do prepare a few meals at home each week and have found many of his tips to be quite useful. For instance, when preparing hamburgers, I now know how to prevent the patties from rising in the center when frying them and how often they should be flipped on my backyard grill.

I can’t praise The Food Lab enough. It is ideal for serious home chefs who want to take their craft to the next level. It is even more appropriate for the novice who is interested in getting serious. The book is filled with recipes, colored illustrations of how to perform important kitchen tasks  and tips on how to improve one’s cooking life. If you have someone on your holiday-gift list who loves to cook and has not heard of this book, The Food Lab might be just the perfect gift.

Next week: Feeding the hungry during the holidays and beyond

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