Who doesn’t adore J. Kenji López-Alt? With his exhaustive experiments and his irreverent prose, the Serious Eats columnist (his title there is managing culinary director) defines nerd charisma for the inquisitive cook. I have friends who worship at the altar of Kenji, as he is universally known. He’s a cooler Harold McGee, a protein-hacking Shirley Corriher, a calmer but equally obsessive Alton Brown.
At 938 pages and 6
Does it deliver? As long as you’re up for reading all the explanatory material between the recipes, you’ll be happy.
Protein is a Kenji specialty, so I had high hopes for his Tender Fancy-Pants Omelet.
My first attempt was in an eight-inch skillet, as specified; I measured it across the top, as one is supposed to do. Half of the resulting omelet remained liquid after the allotted setting time. Then I tried it in an eight-inch skillet measured across the flat base and got an omelet that more closely resembled the one in the step-by-step photos. But it still needed an extra minute or two just to get to the “baveuse” consistency pictured, with a scant dribble of runny interior rather than a pool.
A more successful breakfast contender was a microwave crispy potato cake, which entered my regular repertoire after a tweak or two. Strangely, López-Alt doesn’t mention what size skillet to use or how thick the potato cake should end up. (I found that a thin layer, no thicker than
My first attempt at Super-Flaky Buttermilk Biscuits, undertaken with a friend, turned out quite unlike their photo: flat, like an English muffin, not squat and bulky, like a Ring Ding. “Something is not right,” thought I, like Miss Clavel in “Madeline.” Was it my aged baking soda? Overworked dough? On the second attempt, I used fresh baking soda and a light touch, and worked swiftly. The texture was better, but the rise was the same. Something about the specs was definitely off: the 12-inch dough square or the four-inch round cutter. (I measured both.)
Several main dishes turned out better. I had my doubts about whether chunks of salt pork would blend smoothly into a corn chowder, but it turned out fine, with a summery sweetness provided by the corn alone, and with good body and silken texture from the floury potatoes and the corn’s natural starch.
Easy Skillet-Braised Chicken With White Wine, Fennel and Pancetta relied on pretty much the same technique you’ve always known for braised chicken parts: Sear them, set them aside, cook some aromatics, then simmer everything for a while. The flavor was good, with licorice overtones from the anise-flavored liquor called pastis. But the sauce left me wondering, because the directions said to cook until “the sauce is rich.” What density was I aiming for? How thick is “rich”?
The directions for pan-seared pork chops called for sustained attention and frequent flipping but resulted in a nicely gilded, non-warped chop. (Mine cooked in a little less time than expected; use a thermometer if you’re unsure.) The glaze was a two-minute ode to dark and sticky — molasses, bourbon, mustard, maple syrup — and made the chops taste agreeably like Boston baked beans in meat form.
Ultra-Crisp-Skinned Pan-Roasted Fish Fillets, like so much in “The Food Lab,” are a matter of technique: a hot pan to start and a relatively slow cook, including pressing with a spatula and monitoring with a thermometer. The skin was indeed crisp, but I learned the hard way that you have to keep the fish skin side up after cooking if you want to preserve that texture; otherwise, it simply steams.
“Ultra” is a much-employed López-Alt descriptor. The recipe for Ultra-Crisp Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder called for eight hours in a low oven. His test for doneness — sticking a fork into the side and twisting — didn’t work, so I ended up relying on a meat thermometer. Parts of the skin blistered and puffed enough to make us wish that all of it had. The instructions for the pan sauce, though, led to juices flavored with a burnt base and the distinct flavor of regret. But the texture and flavor of the pork were nothing to be ashamed of.
On the theory that everyone could use a weeknight recipe streamlined by science, I tried several pasta dishes. López-Alt’s method of cooking shrimp for his Pasta With Extra-Garlicky Shrimp Scampi depends on infusing his cooking oil with the flavor from the shrimp shells, and on garlic prepped three ways: minced in a marinade, smashed for the infused oil, and sliced and sauteed for the final dish. The pasta water plus lemon juice plus garlic sauce had tremendous flavor, but the outcome still seemed dry.
Penne Alla Vodka With Chicken made use of López-Alt’s famously nontraditional method of cooking pasta: placing it in the pot as the water heats to a boil. You know it’s done by testing for “al dente,” but how do you know what’s “2 minutes before it’s done,” the timing for another step in the recipe? The vodka sauce had the expected brilliant coral color, yet I longed for more intensity or sweetness there, similar to what one gets from the tomato paste often found in such a recipe. (None in this one.)
Ground beef processed with mushrooms is the secret to the unusually savory Weeknight Spaghetti With Meat Sauce (well, one of the secrets; the other is fish sauce). An immensely pumped-up umami quotient takes the place of hours of simmering, to powerful effect.
Basic Almost-No-Stir Risotto works as advertised. You soak the risotto first (reserving the water to preserve the starch). There are a couple of familiar moves, such as sweating the aromatics and toasting the rice in the skillet. But then you add most of the liquid at once and cook the rice undisturbed, except for a shake or two. Finished with a bit of cheese and cream, the dish is indistinguishable from risotto made the typical, constantly stirring way.
The book’s vegetable chapter is slimmer than some others. Are vegetables too straightforward to cook? Simply less interesting to the author? I did try two unconventional techniques for green beans, as opposed to the typical method: Boil a pot of water, blanch and shock.
The first technique, “cryo-blanching,” involves rapid freezing of the beans, and by “rapid” López-Alt means a couple of hours. Ice crystals puncture the beans’ cell walls, breaking down their structure, so you’re left with a defrosted vegetable that is partially softened but retains a bit of crunch. The technique did yield softened, if not quite tender, beans; it was the fried garlic that went with them that proved to be a hit. I ended up eating the dish with a spoon. The second technique, “micro-steaming,” used the microwave to cook green beans before they were tossed with olives and almonds and lemon. Neither method produced the tender crunch of blanched and shocked beans, or the same vivid color.
Does “The Food Lab” make good on its subtitle, “Better Home Cooking Through Science”? I’m not sure. More thoughtful home cooking, certainly. Better documented and more entertaining, without a doubt. Oddly enough, I did not find the recipes to be as specific as I’d hoped, but that might be because so much information is presented in “The Science of” sections. They are required reading.
For me, the book’s real value lies not in its authority, but its charm; not in its answers, but its questions. Everything I enjoyed about “The Food Lab” can be summed up with the following brief excerpt, about the color of red meat:
“Have you ever noticed how when you cut into a rare steak in an oxygen-rich environment . . . it starts out dark, then ‘blooms’ into redness? Now try the same thing in the vacuum of outer space. See the difference?”
In my 15 years of reviewing, no other cookbook has made me laugh so hard — intentionally. For that alone, it has stolen my heart, though it might not keep my loyalty.
Chang, who lives in New England, regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for the Boston Globe, NPR and the cookbook-indexing Web site Eat Your Books. She is the author of “A Spoonful of Promises: Stories & Recipes From a Well-Tempered Table” (Lyons Press, 2011). Her blog, Cookbooks for Dinner, is at www.tsusanchang.com.