Ever wondered how to pan-fry a steak with a charred crust and an interior that's perfectly medium-rare from edge to edge when you cut into it? How to make homemade mac 'n' cheese that is as satisfyingly gooey and velvety-smooth as the blue box stuff, but far tastier? How to roast a succulent, moist turkey (forget about brining!)—and use a foolproof method that works every time?
As Serious Eats's culinary nerd-in-residence, J. Kenji López-Alt has pondered all these questions and more. In The Food Lab, Kenji focuses on the science behind beloved American dishes, delving into the interactions between heat, energy, and molecules that create great food. Kenji shows that often, conventional methods don’t work that well, and home cooks can achieve far better results using new—but simple—techniques. In hundreds of easy-to-make recipes with over 1,000 full-color images, you will find out how to make foolproof Hollandaise sauce in just two minutes, how to transform one simple tomato sauce into a half dozen dishes, how to make the crispiest, creamiest potato casserole ever conceived, and much more.
J. Kenji López-Alt is the managing culinary director of SeriousEats.com, author of the James Beard Award–nominated column The Food Lab, and a columnist for Cooking Light. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Adriana.
When I brought this book home from the library, I was expecting a Cook’s-Illustrated-style analysis of food science through recipes, perhaps with a little more flavor and panache than those guys seem to be able to manage. On first flipping through the book, I thought I got what I was looking for. The book design is pretty slick, with all kinds of offset colored boxes full of at-home experiments to try and tips about choosing ingredients, etc. The photographs leave a little something to be desired, but this is a fairly utilitarian affair, so I could forgive that. Given the heft of this book (a whopping 958 pages), I was expecting something a little more exhaustive (there’s no baking or dessert section and 75% of the recipes involve meat), but that’s ok.
My first experiment out of this book failed miserably. His directions for “foolproof” soft-boiled eggs with shells that slide right off yielded barely-cooked flaccid eggs to which the shells still stuck, taking the only cooked part of the white with them. I’ve been making soft-boiled eggs since I was about ten years old and I’ve never failed so completely at it. Like Lopez-Alt, I’ve tried every old wives’ tale for easy-peel eggs and I’ve come to this conclusion: eggs are inconsistent and unpredictable organic objects and you’re never going to find a rule that will work for every one. If the egg wants to peel, it will peel. If it doesn’t, it just won’t.
This is a truth that Lopez-Alt just can’t accept. After the egg failure, I got suspicious and read through the (81-page) introduction to check out his science. Man, was that opening a can of worms. I can’t speak for other people’s taste in cookbooks or cooks, but this guy is really not for me. My first big warning sign was his blatant, pervasive misogyny. Just about every other page he makes some crack about his wife or his mom which range from mild (“I realize now that dislike of vegetables is entirely my mother’s fault (sorry to break it to you, Ma)”) to incredibly offensive (“Whether stirring sauces, tasting soups, or gently whacking cheeky spouses who disturb you in the kitchen, a wooden spoon is the tool you’ll want 90 percent of the time...”). I’m sorry, but YOU CANNOT JOKE ABOUT SPANKING YOUR WIFE. EVER.
This kind of attitude is something I can never excuse, and it’s made worse when coupled with the history of efficiency and science in the kitchen. I’m not going to outline a whole thesis here, but if you want a good read on the way that efficiency experts changed housekeeping/cooking by undercutting women’s confidence, paved the way for exploitation by advertisers, and increased women’s dependence on their husbands, check out Glenna Matthews’ Just a Housewife: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America. I’m not saying that everyone who writes a cookbook needs to be aware of this history, but if you are literally recreating it in the year 2015, you need to do some research. The Food Lab presents the perfect example of a “professional,” “scientific,” male cook debasing a traditionally female craft, improving it “through science,” and feeding it back to (primarily female) home cooks who, according to him, have been so hobbled by following old wives’ tales that they never stopped to think scientifically about why their beef is tough.
On top of all this, after following what was perhaps the easiest recipe in his book, I can’t even trust that he knows what he’s talking about.
I could go on about the gendering of cookbooks and cookery, the absolute ridiculousness of trying to study something as complex and subjective as food in a scientific setting, and about the way that cooks like Lopez-Alt teach home cooks that their instincts aren’t worth trusting. I will simply leave you with what I feel is the ultimate truth of cooking: cook with care, thought, and love, and nothing you make will be inedible. It is darn hard to completely ruin a meal if you use your head, eyes, and tastebuds well. Science and tradition both have very little to do with it.
Pro: The book contains useful and well-researched information on how to cook different food types, and the author provides supporting evidence for why one should use a given method.
Con: Humor is subjective, and the author's sense of humor apparently differs greatly from my own. To me, his writing style felt strained and forced, like he was insecure that the information about the science of cooking wasn't enough: he needed to tap dance, too. In addition to the author trying too hard, I also found some jokes to be in poor taste.
For example: "It helps to imagine sugar molecules as a bunch of circus midgets (OK, “little people,” if you will). When they’re all standing in a row, it’s easy for us to identify them as midgets. But stack them up on one another and throw a trench coat over ’em, and they’re effectively hidden."
He recognizes little people as the preferred term, and then goes ahead and uses the other anyway?
Normally when you mix fat molecules with water, no matter how thoroughly you combine them, like MIT nerds at an all-girls-college mixer, they eventually separate themselves and regroup.
So the implication is that the MIT nerds are all male, and that none of them are capable of socializing, while also suggesting that the young women couldn't possibly be interested in science? Way to make some sweeping generalizations and reinforce outdated stereotypes there, J. Kenji López-Alt.
He also pokes fun at his wife a lot. I assume she's okay with it, given that she married him, but I came to this book for the practical information, not for someone who seems to be auditioning for a standup special as "The Comic Chef."
You could avoid a fair amount of this by skipping straight to the recipes and flipping to reference pages if needed. I wish I'd realized that sooner rather than later.
The detailed cooking research is excellent: I just wish the author had made that his sole focus.
4 stars for the information. 1 star for the author's writing style. 2.5 stars, rounded down.
Most of my favorite recipes, the ones I cook again and again, are from J Kenji Lopez-Alt's posts for Serious Eats. I have made some of his recipes upwards of twenty times, and they are always delicious. And when I saw he was publishing a cookbook, I ordered it immediately. I took it on faith that it would be my new favorite cookbook, and even though I've only read the introduction and skimmed the recipes, I'm already in love with The Food Lab. It has useful charts (my favorite so far is the extensive 4 page cheese chart, followed closely by one on flavored mayonnaise), step-by-step photographs, and science (please imagine me saying 'science' like I'm a wizard who is also fond of jazz hands). It is also full (of course) of recipes that you know will work, taste good, and are meals that a normal person will want to and be able to make. This book is great and you should read it.
I am a professional cook who reads/uses a lot of cookbooks, and this is my favorite one.
This book is amazing - full of recipes for staple foods that are impeccably researched with all the reasoning for the details within each recipe explained. I'm literally reading my way through the whole book (not finished yet but I feel like 250 pages in is enough to write a review).
This book is almost as much a textbook as a cookbook, which is how I like it. There are tons of graphics and pictures, in addition to cheap ways to DIY expensive cooking machines (don't have $500 to spend on a sous vide machine? Use a beer cooler!). The one thing I could do without is all the supposedly humorous pokes at his wife - they get really old. Other than that, totally kickass.
Most of the science here seems valid, if not all. Can’t say for certain yet. Does rely heavily on meats. ‘Merica!
There are weird quirks like having a page on aioli but not having a recipe for it, and things like that.
The biggest reason for the three stars was the blatant misogyny and general character of the author. To be frank, he comes off as a self centered a**hat. I’m very torn about this book, as I do not want to financially support a man that represents a lot of what is wrong in the restaurant industry, but there really is value in the pieces where Lopez-Alt’s personality is muted (the science and such). My first warning was the picture on page 16. You have to see it to believe it. If this is how he presents himself in a polished, edited book I’d hate to see the live version.
the intro to the frying chapter where, to summarize, he says that he actively hides fried chicken from his wife with the implication that she wouldn’t be able to control herself and eat it all. Ever tried just talking to her about it instead of putting it in a book?
“I take it out of the fridge and realize that, once again, my wife has finished off all but the last drop, forcing me to make more.”
“She, being South American, wants our firstborn daughter to have the beautiful Spanish name Salomé. I told her that she can name our first daughter Salami...” ????
“It’s a lot like my lovely wife, who will quietly suppress tiny annoyances until suddenly the slightest disturbance sends her into an all-out rage. Unfortunately, the wooden spoon method [put a spoon in it...] does not work on her.” Seriously? This is terrible. Like, marriage counseling terrible.
There’s a really weird metaphor about MIT nerds and an all girls college mixer on page 802-803. Even if you agree with the idea, this guy really had nothing better?
“I make it a point to inform the waiter, my wife, and perhaps a few of the surrounding tables of the chef’s loose lexical morals and the liberties he or she is taking by obfuscating two of the world’s great sauces.” I hate this guy
Lopez-Alt projects as a try hard, pedantic misogynist that is completely full of himself. It is unfortunate since the recipes and the science do provide good value. Maybe buy a used copy so he doesn’t get extra benefit.
I am both a geek and a nerd, and I love understanding the science of all sorts of stuff that interests me. Cooking has always been something that I enjoy on an occasional basis, but with the Covid-19 pandemic placing the entire world in lockdown mode, cooking has become an essential daily activity. I believe that understanding the science of cooking would enable me to break out from just blindly following recipes to being able to improvise as well as being more confident in the kitchen.
I came to know about the existence of The Food Lab through a website called Serious Eats which has many great articles that really helped me become a better cook; not just the actual act of cooking itself but kitchen organisation and food preparation. Of course, just reading won't make one an adept. Lots of practice is required, and there's no better time to get more under my belt than during this period where homecooking is practically the best and safest way to get one's meals.
The Food Lab is a huge book that is loaded with tips on various types of cooking. Only baking is absent because the author is not a fan. I can't even begin to list all the interesting facts and tips that I've learnt reading this book. Just one example which I've put to good use today was how to avoid the dreaded pop or explosion in the microwave when one is heating up soup; by placing in a wooden spoon to increase the 'nucleation sites' in the liquid. It worked like a charm with the tomato soup (which used to always explode just before it reaches the right temp) I was heating up for lunch.
I didn't go through every single recipe or technique in this book though. Deep-frying is one form of cooking that we would not do at home simply because it uses too much oil which is hard to store or disposed of. We'll still turn to restaurants whenever we felt like having deep fried food. I did learn enough to help me become a better informed cook in the home kitchen.
Even if you don't feel like getting this book (mine was an e-book borrowed from the local library), check out www.seriouseats.com for loads of information and great advice.
I didn't get to read this cover to cover but I read a fair amount of it and I'm sort of obsessed. As an engineer, this book was written for people like me. People who want to understand what is going on in their pan so they can correct issues or errors or simply figure out how they can substitute something in the future.
I have thoroughly enjoyed this book. It has A LOT of information. To me it has been like The Joy of Cooking meets Alton Brown's show Good Eats. A good introduction of the basics but with a conversational writing style that makes cooking seem so approachable. What I like best about it is all of the photos and graphs that help explain what is going on in the cooking process.
If I didn't already own Joy and Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, I would definitely purchase this book. But it's hard to justify its purchase since I own the others.
It is very, very detailed. I recommend this for anyone who loves to know the how and the why. I do not recommend this for anyone who just wants to throw stuff in the pan and get it on the table fast. To use a phrase my husband loves this book is "about the journey, not the destination."
Didn't finish. All the misogyny. Constant "jokes" about his wife and probably all the other women in his life. Didn't really enjoy his humour. Thought the science and explanation of science of food would be more straight forward but his humour fell flat. Was a fan of author from Serious Eats (his recipes turn out really well) but after reading his book... Not much anymore.
I like the idea and concept of this book. It's great to have a spotlight on how science is a tool for everyone including the everyday homecook. However, the author's narrative is a bit pompous. He treats the readers like children and spouts about the virtues of the scientific method very broadly for a good chunk of this book. He then proceeds to spend very little time actually practicing the scientific method ie: experimental design, setting up his controls and variables, make a hypothesis, and describe the results with quantifiable detail. For example, In the Pizza crust experiment, he spends a good part of the chapter setting up a double blind taste test, which is a pretty fair design, but then spends only a couple lines describing the results. Mostly saying, all the tasters couldn't tell the difference, except the one with harder water(high mineral content) was more crispy. but mostly there as no difference. But humans like crispy. Like WTF that's your entire description of the results?!!?? Give me information about average pore sizes of holes in the dough, give me weight of the cooked dough, resistance to sauce penetration, changes in gluten formation, tensile strength of cooked dough, etc. There is literally an entire field of food sciences he can cite articles with experiments from. I was also turned off by the "jokes" and condescending ways he refers to women and his own wife. For example, he unnecessarily compares the length and quality of a relationship he has with a Pot and his personal relationships with women...?? I get it, you like your fancy Le Creuset dutch oven your mother gifted you. Why not just say, "I really love this pot, I'll keep it for the majority of my lifetime". It reads like an affluent College Bro wrote it...and has to put in some derogatory things about women to sound cool. The faux self deprecation jokes also fall fairly flat. Just not a good look..... Change your vibes dude.
I read a lot of cookbooks. Like, a lot. Like, I'm getting raised eyebrows from my husband as our floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, which is overcrowded as it is, spills out with dozens of cookbooks. "You have the internet!" he cries. "You don't need these!"
Oh, but I do.
I never give myself "credit" for reading a cookbook because it's cheating. A bulk of the pages are taken up by pictures, ingredients lists, and procedures. It's a textbook of deliciousness, not a novel.
That concept gets thrown out the window with The Food Lab, a 900 page, concussion inducing book which tackles the science of food and offers best practices for table favorites. Alt's book tells a story rather than throws a ton of recipes at you, and like On Food and Cooking reflects on how food has evolved and how it brings people together, rather than giving us our 85th recipe for the best chocolate chips cookies (spoiler: there are none better than these).
My only critique is not a fair one: there are basically 3 whole chapters about meat - ground meat, roasts, and "fast-cooking foods" (that last chapter is misleading, it's really all about steaks and chicken and the ilk). And... uhhhh... I don't eat meat. So 3 whole chapters of this book are totally useless to me. Please hold your commentary. I am well aware that my non-meat-eating was the personal choice of 13-year-old me and most people eat meat and cookbooks are going to have meat and I just have to deal. That being said, I wish we had gone more in depth with things I love... like bread... and kicked the meat to the curb (there is NOTHING about bread baking in here. Nothing! What is more science-y than bread baking??? Harumph).
I picked up a few new tricks and concepts, so that was cool. I only had to read less than 2/3 of the cookbook since a big portion of the cookbook was meat.
However, I vigorously disliked Lopez-Alt's writing style and verbal tics, especially his repetitive jabs at his wife and his mother. I 100% agree with this review's points about the gender politics around cooking
Glad I checked this one out from the library, since I have no need for this behemoth in my kitchen. I wish he would have made a separate book that just had all of his handy and useful charts, though...
I think that Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a far superior book.
Exhaustive book detailing essentially many ways to cook meat. For someone who is so obsessed with scientific evidence, it was rather surprising that he did not include any mention of baking whatsoever. And his sad attempts at stand-up comedy really rubbed me the wrong way.
Partly a case of "it's not you, it's me" but I got to be honest and say that, for me, it was just okay. I should have suspected that I'd be put off my the borderline-misogynistic energy of a man putting out this very science-heavy cookbook--don't get me wrong, I love science! But it has the same energy of those fanboys who think they're "real" fans because they memorize statistics and girls are "lesser" fans because they write fanfic or whatever. There's just something about the energy of this approach that rubs me the wrong way. It's also just way too fucking big/long/overwhelming. I get the point was to be a sort of magnum opus of cooking but that just isn't what I fucking want from a cookbook. It's quite meat-heavy (shocker) and I'm just personally not interested in learning the best way to make my own sausages. I didn't read through this whole thing because damn, it's so fucking long, but even looking through all of the recipes, I think I found like 3 to bookmark? So many of them are basic enough that I've already found ones that work for me, or I just wasn't into the flavor profile. So yeah, this book wasn't for me, and it very much feels like it wasn't *meant* to be for me, either. Glad I got this from the library.
The best cook book I’ve ever read. By approaching cooking from a scientific perspective you’ll make progress quicker, understand why certain techniques makes sense (and why some don’t), and eventually develop an intuition for discovering things yourself.
I also highly recommend Kenji’s YouTube channel and articles on SeriousEats
Easily the best cookbook I own. This science based cook book not only has killer recipes, but actually teaches you how everything comes together in a meal. I have learned cooking concepts from this book that I have applied to many different meals and I am a better chef for it. A+!
I am the kind of cook that gets a recipe, and pretty much disregards so much of it by improvisations, substitutions, and approximations, that it really can't be called the same recipe. Most of the time it turns out great, and this is because I'm the kind of person that looks for inspiration, principles, and methods in a recipe rather than instructions. This makes this a fantastic cookbook for me- it discusses recipes and why they work, and seeks to find more efficient, tasty, or fool-proof methods to cook by analyzing the science. If you are a methodical instructions-follower, however, you will still enjoy reading about the food experiments and have a recipe to accompany it that is clear, accurate, and tested.
This cookbook is a heavy tome of massive food analysis. I would say I've only cooked 2% of the recipes in here so far (and I've been trying to actually follow them, for once), but it has inspired me to methodically improve my cooking skills. The first chapter is just eggs cooked every way- fluffy and creamy versions of scrambled eggs, boiling, frying, and onward. Though initially I meant to cook all the things in order, I quickly grew tired of all the egg-cooking and skipped to the vegetable and poultry sections, which each offer several recipes featuring specific cooking methods, like steaming, broiling, sauteing, and more.
Even if I'm not cooking every recipe, I've really enjoyed reading the tests and reasoning behind why food works the way it does. Fans of Cooks Illustrated and Good Eats will love the in-depth analysis. Cooking everything in here will take some time, but is a sure way to sharpen your culinary expertise.
Confession: I did not read every word of this book. I also returned it to the library without copying recipes. That being said, this is EXTREMELY well done. It's not something I want/need in my very pared down collection of four cookbooks (five if you count the manual that came with my pressure cooker...). I have López-Alt's recipe for pork butt in my notebook of internet recipes. I'll definitely be looking to him for more meat recipes, in particular. I also think I'm going to adopt his noodle-cooking method (boiling water to cover the noodles, let sit until cooked through).
I have no doubt that every recipe in this book would turn out perfectly, given the author's obsessive testing. I have found this to be true of his former employer, as well (America's Test Kitchen/Cook's Illustrated). I'll continue to keep an eye out for his recipes on Serious Eats.
This is an excellent book! Everything you ever wanted to know about cooking food and recipes! I read this cover to cover and tried many of the recipes and every one came out fabulous! It makes a wonderful reference book too. I do read his blog and there is some overlap but not enough to deter recommending this book. Every home cook could benefit from reading this!
I'm italian, so when it comes to cooking, I'm all about tradition. But I'm also an engineer, so big fan of scientific method too. In this book, Lopez-Alt does both worlds. He approaches traditional recipes, trying some improvements based on trial-and-error. An example: if you love cooking, you probably read somewhere that when cleaning fresh mushrooms you should never ever rinse them under running water, because they would absorbe a lot of liquid, like a sponge. But is that true? Lopez-Alt approach is this: let's try both methods, then evaluate the results using objective measures (in this case, let's measure the weight of the cooked mushrooms, so we'll know how much water they really absorbed. Spoiler: not that much really, so it turn out you CAN rinse mushrooms). I just love this kind of approach, so I'll be really busy in the next few months experimenting with these recipes. A recipe book that should be on the shelf of every amateur cook.
As far as food/cooking related books go, this one was pretty entertaining. It took me awhile to get through this book because there was so much to learn from it and I was impressed at its breadth of coverage in everything from the material of your pots/pans and their impact on your cooking, to how a difference in temperature can change your dish. If you have any interest in food or cooking and how/why certain techniques are used and which ones are or aren’t effective, this is a really cool read.
By far the best cookbook out there if you want to really learn about how and why your cooks and is the way it is. A very scientific type approach to cooking. This is an essential cookbook for every kitchen.
I like the "idea" of cooking more than I actually like cooking. Actually, that's not true: I do like cooking, but it has to be on my terms. This means that I like to cook all by myself with no distractions. I like to follow a recipe to the letter, I don't like to experiment, and I'm pretty lazy . . . but I like the feeling of accomplishment that comes when food is ready to eat.
This book is great for looking up justifications. The author uses science and engineering to explain why things work better when you do something this way or that. It's written very well: it explains scientific concepts in an approachable way and is funny.
I only read the introduction and skimmed the rest. Therefore, I'll mark it as "read" but I won't rate it.
Whereas the overall theme and subjects tackled is are interesting and nice, and the photography very high quality I am overall very disappointed. To me, the title implies a scientific approach. Using Fahrenheit, ounces and quarts is decisively unscientific to me -- but I can imagine the commercial interest in gearing for the US market and can understand that. However, cups of lightly packed brown sugar, teaspoons of salt and any other volumetric measurement for dry ingredients is as far ways from a real Food Lab as you can get.
For me, it is a missed chance and I wouldn't recommend this book in general and certainly not to people that are serious about cooking.
This is a huge book so I didn't exactly READ the whole thing, but skimmed it and read the parts/recipes that really interested me. To really get all out of this book that you should I think you should own it. Tons of useful, interesting information about how and WHY to cook things a certain way for the optimal results. The author has a great sense of humor as well and made me laugh out loud in parts. A book I wouldn't mind owning.