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Omnivore - BOOK REVIEW: 'The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science'

Geek out with J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's new cookbook


? I've long been a fan of the Food Lab, AKA J. Kenji López-Alt's geeky recipe factory over on Serious Eats. His writing tends to focus on technique, and typically comes with headlines that instantly make you want to try out his recipes - like "Use Your Cast Iron Pan and a Tortilla to Make World Class Bar-Style Pizza in Under 12 Minutes" or "Make Your Own Just-Add-Hot-Water Instant Noodles (and Make Your Coworkers Jealous)." Really, what food nerd could resist click-bait like that? Not me.
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? His take on traditional French cassoulet? Brilliantly un-traditional in its use of chicken cooked in duck fat for flavor and a few packs of gelatin to improve the crust. His boast that a potato gratin recipe "might be the best potatoes ever"? It's true, thanks to the simple trick of standing the sliced rounds of potato on their sides. So when I heard that a Food Lab cookbook was hitting the shelves, I didn't need a witty headline to pique my interest - I knew a compendium of López-Alt's brilliant technique and witty, accessible writing would be worth reading. The question was - how exactly would the book build on the great repository of Food Lab goodness already online?
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? ??? The first thing you'll notice when you pick up The Food Lab book is its heft - 960 pages long, weighing in at six pounds eight ounces according to my now-bruised kitchen scale. Once you open the tome, you get reminder after reminder that this is a book meant for the geeks of the cooking world, those of us who appreciate questioning and rigorous trial and error. The inside cover immediately jumps in with typically-detailed (for López-Alt) conversion data, such as the weight in grams and ounces of six sizes of eggs, ranging from peewee (35g) to jumbo (71g). I never knew I might need such information, but now I have to locate some peewee eggs of my own, if only to have the opportunity to say peewee out loud a few times. Even the first photo in the book - 24 boiled eggs cooked at 30 second intervals to progressive degrees of doneness  - reinforces López-Alt's bent for a scientific, exhaustive approach to excellent cooking. And then López-Alt introduces himself... "I am a nerd, and I'm proud of it." 
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? Beyond the nerd embrace, I wasn't sure how López-Alt would manage to corral his far-reaching observations and experiments into book form. What you'll quickly realize is that he cares as much about digging deep into the WHY as he does about the HOW that a cookbook typically tackles. The introduction itself is a perfect example - 81 pages of exposition on applying scientific thinking to cooking, plus the basics of working effectively in a home kitchen. That intro touches on topics as far-ranging as sources of energy and heat transfer (convection, conduction, radiation, microwave), the essential gear required in a kitchen and how to maintain it, even a primer on the two main grip types when holding a knife. It's stuff you know you should know, but probably don't know. And now you do, thanks to López-Alt and his nerdy ways. 
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? The following nine sections of the book may seem a bit strange at first, at least taken from the perspective of what people look for in a cookbook. They mash up technique and ingredient and meal-type, as in chapter 1 - Eggs, Dairy, and the Science of Breakfast - or chapter 5 - Balls, Loaves, Links, Burgers, and the Science of Ground Meat. Roasts get their own chapter, "fast-cooking foods" like steaks and fish get another. Desserts are left out altogether. Despite the seemingly strange groupings, the structure starts to make sense when you actually approach the cookbook as a book of knowledge rather than a book of recipes. Sure, there are recipes, piles and piles of them, but the joy is in understanding why the piles of recipes are stacked up in López-Alt's own unique Dewey Decimal logic.
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? The recipes tend to cover staple dishes, things that won't necessarily excite home cooks based on their unique combinations of flavors, but rather on the solid technique employed to get to a great version of a familiar dish. So you'll find light and fluffy scrambled eggs, crusty fried bacon, basic quick waffles, basic vegetable stock, fast French onion soup, all-American pot roast with gravy, ultra gooey mac n cheese... you get the picture. Then there are some head-scratching exceptions to those basics, things like a wonderful chickpea and spinach stew with a heady dose of ginger, or a sharp soy and balsamic vinaigrette over sugar-coated pears and arugula. These random dishes feel like spur of the moment side trips rather than the main destination the book pursues - little lagniappes López-Alt just couldn't leave out because he loved them so much, even if they didn't quite fit with the flow of the book. 
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? In my eagerness to jump right in to test out the book, I must admit that I skimmed much of the reading and headed straight to the recipes. Let me provide counsel: harness all the patience and diligence you can muster to avoid that mistake. Skipping ahead does a disservice to the intent of the book and frankly the value of experiencing López-Alt's thought process. And, more importantly, it does a disservice to the home cook (AKA you or me) who happens to be trying to get the most out of the experience. If you do make my mistake, you're likely to have questions as you work through individual recipes. Like, why exactly am I freezing these green beans before I cook them? Or, how do I know what's too long to leave that rack of lamb in the warm water-filled beer cooler (and why the hell am I using a beer cooler to cook with in the first place)?
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? Some of the recipe instructions also leave a bit more unsaid or up to interpretation than I personally like to see, especially in a book that aims to deliver "better cooking through science." For example, I screwed up cooking a massive pork shoulder because the instructions didn't offer much guidance on the time required to cook different sizes of shoulder. Admittedly, I should have figured out that I needed to consult alternate sources to figure out the right cooking time, and López-Alt can't possibly spell out each and every iteration of a recipe or address every question. But the author's inherent authority and rigorous approach can also set an expectation of perfection and detail that is hard to fully deliver on. In other words, even López-Alt can't live up to his nerd street cred all of the time.
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? Part of the joy of the Food Lab series online is that a topic like length of time to cook a larger pork shoulder is exactly the type of question that might be found in the comments section beneath the recipe, which is likely to have an informative back and forth between López-Alt and his readers. Here, in book form, you're not going to get that same kind of dialog with the author, though it should be noted that López-Alt is very active on social media and is known to respond to questions in a timely manner (assuming he doesn't start to get inundated with questions thanks to the success of this book). You may even find yourself going back and forth between the printed recipes and the online versions, as there's a high degree of overlap between the two. Indeed, many of the recipes in the book have already been tweeted and Instagrammed and commented on ad nauseum across the interwebs over the past few years. What the book provides that the online recipes don't is a marker of López-Alt's thought process, his geeky A to Z approach in a zigzag line to the vast and deep topic of home cooking that he clearly loves so much. It's absolutely a line worth following. Just make sure you read about the journey and what it means before you start trying to chase it yourself. Then absolutely use the book in tandem with López-Alt's prodigious online efforts. While there's little in the book that explicitly bridges the two, any proper literary-cooking-science geek knows that print and digital each serve their purposes and can work together in harmony.
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? THE FOOD LAB: Better Home Cooking Through Science
? By J. Kenji López-Alt.
? W.W. Norton & Company. $49.95.