cookbook review: the food lab

“This is the best cookbook you own, don’t you think?” Ed said as he finished the end of The Food Lab’s pork meatballs with mushroom cream sauce. It was the 24th recipe I’d tested from J. Kenji López-Alt’s book, and yet another plate-licking winner. Ed’s declaration has serious weight, as he is my chief taste tester and has sampled the results from countless cookbooks. So is he right—is The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science the best cookbook on my shelf? I hate to pick favorites, but I can’t think of any other book that’s had so many things I wanted to make, given me so many keeper recipes, and taught me so much.

food lab review

The Food Lab is a scientific, meticulous 958-page book for cooks who like precision and perfection. As someone who prefers a kitchen scale to measuring cups and always has her Thermapen at the ready, it’s my kind of thing. I’ve been a fan of López-Alt’s Serious Eats column for years, so I was primed to love this book. Using his quirky, familiar tone, López-Alt takes readers deep into his laboratory, sharing his hypotheses, procedures, and results that yield hundreds of foolproof recipes. Sometimes that means the recipes are absurdly exact (you’ll need to add 12 ice cubes to the pot of water when hard boiling eggs), but it nearly always means they’re successful. Despite his exactness, López-Alt doesn’t want readers merely to follow his words to the letter, but rather to learn some kitchen chemistry and become better cooks through that deeper understanding.

clockwise from top left: pear-pram salad with soy vinaigrette; stovetop mac 'n' cheese; smashed cheeseburgers; pan-seared pork chops

clockwise from top left: pear-parm salad with soy vinaigrette; stovetop mac ‘n’ cheese; smashed cheeseburgers; pan-seared pork chops

This cookbook is not solely about recipes, but the recipes are amazing. Like, jumping up and down, try this and this and THIS amazing. As Ed’s comment suggests, I hit a bunch of home runs: the absolute best pancakes, an unforgettable pear salad, a rockstar baked ziti, and a fried chicken sandwich worlds better than anything available from a drive-thru. I only had issues with the stovetop macaroni and cheese, which came so close to ultimate nirvana that my struggle to get a satisfyingly silky texture was all the more frustrating.

clockwise from top left: classic baked ziti; pork meatballs in mushroom cream sauce; broiled asparagus with parmesan bread crumbs; crispy chicken sandwich

clockwise from top left: classic baked ziti; pork meatballs in mushroom cream sauce; broiled asparagus with parmesan bread crumbs; crispy chicken sandwich

The list of hits is long, but to fully assess whether López-Alt achieved his goal with this book, I have to ask myself: did I learn? Am I a better cook? Do I know more than to simply lean on these excellent recipes? The more I thought about it over the past few days, the more I realized that yes, I did learn. A lot. I know to go low and slow for a pan of crispy bacon. I know to brine chicken in spiced buttermilk before frying it and to mix some of the brine into the breading mixture for an extra craggy, crunchy coating. I understand why adding gelatin to a pork meatball will give it an impressively ideal texture. I won’t be salting my burgers until right before I smash them in a hot pan, but I will be salting my eggs 15 minutes before I scramble them.

clockwise from top left: sticky buns; roasted brussels and shallots; buttermilk pancakes with crispy bacon; grilled cheese

clockwise from top left: sticky buns; roasted brussels and shallots; buttermilk pancakes with crispy bacon; extra-cheesy grilled cheese

Although I now keep The Food Lab on my counter as a permanent reference, I had trouble knowing where to begin. I flipped through the book shortly after I got it, but wasn’t drawn in. There’s a lot of science and explanation and I felt that if I wanted to use the book, I’d have to study the lessons before each recipe. There are many color photographs in the book, but they aren’t the kind of full page, perfectly lit and styled glossies I’ve come to expect and they didn’t do much to entice me. It wasn’t until this year’s Piglet cookbook tournament on Food52 that I revisited the book. The first round reviewer of The Food Lab had success after success and that got me excited about the book again. Instead of approaching it like a textbook to slog through, I skipped the science and jumped straight in to the recipes. I discovered that I could have excellent outcomes without all of the background. That’s not how López-Alt wants people to use his book, but he knew that’s how people would use it, so he wrote the recipes to stand alone. After a few great dishes, I was completely hooked and I started reading more of the scientific explanations. I found them interesting and useful for a broader understanding as well as confidence-building for some of the more challenging recipes. Still, I’m glad to know that when I want to find a recipe for dinner, it’s safe to cut to the chase. And as for those amateur photographs, they’re tremendously helpful for seeing how the food will actually look and the visual tutorials are very valuable for the complicated recipes.

clockwise from top left: chili mac; ham, kale, bean stew; crispy smashed potatoes; egg salad in progress

clockwise from top left: chili mac; ham, kale, bean stew; crispy semi-smashed new potatoes; egg salad in progress

The Food Lab can seem intimidating—it’s massive, it has an austere cover, and it’s packed with an overwhelming amount of information—but once I dug in, I found a brainy, friendly voice eager to help me make better versions of the homey, classic recipes I love. The Food Lab is a book I’ve enjoyed getting to know and that I will return to again and again. I absolutely, unequivocally recommend it.

Below is the list of recipes I tested. Where available, I’ve included links in the titles.

Foolproof Hard-Boiled Eggs: fussy and precise, but effective for perfectly cooked hard-boiled eggs.

Light and Fluffy Scrambled Eggs: changed my scrambled egg game forever. Super flavorful, firm, but not dry eggs.

Crispy Fried Bacon: never again will I make bacon that is curly or rubbery (or both).

Basic Dry Pancake Mix & Light and Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes: the double-whammy of buttermilk and sour cream makes these the tastiest flapjacks ever.

The World’s Most Awesome Sticky Buns: these are truly great sticky buns made even better by the optional orange cream cheese icing. The dough didn’t proof as much as I’d hoped overnight, so I gave it one last proof (placed a pan of boiling water in the oven with the uncovered rolls for 30 minutes) before preheating and they baked up beautifully.

Extra-Cheesy Grilled Cheese Sandwiches [not the exact recipe, but close]: the trick is to griddle both sides of the bread and once you do it, you can never go back. I liked the optional extra step of adding grated parmesan to the outside of the bread for a frico-effect, but it wasn’t essential for me.

Easy Weeknight Ground Beef Chili: solid workhorse chili recipe with a couple of tricks (anchovies) for flavor boosting.

Easy Ham, Bean, and Kale Stew: a good, nutritional weeknight option that would be great for using up leftover ham on the bone (I used precooked diced ham, which was also good).

Maple-Mustard-Glazed Pan-Seared Pork Chops: I’m always impressed by a recipe that manages to make pork chops flavorful and juicy. The sweet sauce was a nice counterpoint to the salty meat.

Broiled Asparagus with Parmesan Bread Crumbs: spot-on broiling time and irresistible crunchy, cheesy, salty bread crumbs.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Shallots: good, but nothing revolutionary and the shallots charred too quickly.

Super-Crisp Roasted Potatoes: now that I’ve roasted potatoes in bacon fat, I can roast them no other way (unless I find duck fat).

Crispy Semi-Smashed New Potatoes: tasty, easy side dish made for burgers or steak.

Pork Meatballs with Mushroom Cream Sauce: savory meatballs that stayed juicy and tender. I couldn’t find Marmite (included as an “umami grenade” along with anchovies and soy sauce), but the meat was still very flavorful. This was one recipe that might have some issues, though – there’s no amount of salt specified for the pork (I used 1/2 tablespoon) and the amount of buttermilk for soaking the bread seemed woefully scant even after I doubled it to 1/2 cup. As a result, the bread didn’t get thoroughly soaked and it was harder to mix in to the meat.

Classic Diner-Style Smashed Cheeseburgers: super thin cheeseburgers with crispy, lacey edges are a specialty here in the midwest and I loved learning the technique to make them at home.

Fry Sauce: another Midwestern specialty that’s essential on a cheeseburger. López-Alt’s recipe is better than any diner version.

Perfect Easy Red Sauce: this had good flavor and was great for the Classic Baked Ziti, but it never thickened the way I’d hoped.

Ultra-Gooey Stovetop Mac ’n’ Cheese: this was the recipe I was probably most excited about. The idea is to make a version of blue box macaroni and cheese that’s creamier and ever better than the original. At first, it was amazing—a dead ringer for Stouffer’s (which I prefer to the blue box anyway), but it very soon lost its silkiness. A lot of people have reported that complaint for the online version of the recipe. I was able to get it smooth when I reheated it by adding a lot of whole milk to the mixture, but I wish I knew what when wrong with the original.

Cheesy Chili Mac: warm up the Weeknight Ground Beef Chili and the Stovetop Mac and Cheese, mix them together, top with more cheese, bake, and die a thousand deaths. So, so, so wrong/right.

Classic Baked Ziti: I trusted this recipe so much that I made two batches for a party without even testing it first. It was a huge hit and it’s now my go-to vegetarian ziti recipe.

Mild Red Wine-Olive Oil Vinaigrette & Basic Mixed Greens Salad: this was about as exciting as it sounds. Nothing revolutionary, just a solid vinaigrette recipe.

Arugula and Pear Salad with Parmigiano-Reggiano and Sharp Balsamic-Soy Vinaigrette: we went crazy for this. The dressing is unlike anything I’ve had—the soy makes it meaty and paired with earthy bitter greens it’s a lovely marriage with the sweet carmelized pears. The parm takes it over the top.

The Best Egg Salad: I don’t like egg salad, but Ed loves it, so I made this for him…and now I love egg salad, too. The flavors were bright and clean and the salad had the ideal balance of creaminess and crunch.

Extra-Crunchy Fried Chicken Sandwiches: I’d never fried anything before, but now I want to fry every day. The chicken was juicy, crunchy, and spicy. I never would’ve thought I could make something so professional at home, but López-Alt gives such clear instructions that I almost wasn’t afraid (Ed did the actual frying…but the next week I fried the pork meatballs, so I’m learning!).

2 thoughts on “cookbook review: the food lab

  1. Pingback: vacation feasting and a recipe for potato salad | butter poached

  2. Pingback: butter poached resolutions for 2017 | butter poached

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