The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science doesn’t have a single recipe within the first 80 pages.
Instead, J. Kenji López-Alt takes his time talking about what knives, tools and other kitchen accoutrement you need and why.
It’s only after that he turns to breakfast (my personal favorite meal of the day) and spends 44 pages just on eggs.
Just. On. Eggs.
López-Alt is a man on a mission to find the best ways to cook, using science to back it up. You might know his name from Serious Eats, the website where he serves as managing culinary director and runs The Food Lab (from which his cookbook got its name). He loves food, plain and simple. That’s why this book has 958 pages and not a single one of them is dedicated to desserts. “They just aren’t my thing,” he writes in the introduction, “and rather than fake a few of ’em, I figured I’d just own up to the fact that they just don’t interest me in the way savory food does.”
What it does have is a four-page cheese chart, so I know that Lopez-Alt and I are cut from the same cloth.
If you know me in real life, you know I’m a nerd. A big nerd. I sign up for López-Alt’s method of cooking (and find similar methodology in Alton Brown and Jet Tila) because he backs up every move with science. I also give him bonus points for the asterisks scattered throughout, making references to things like volcanic explosions.
I also love to cook, and I love a challenge. This is one of the few times I’ve grabbed a cookbook and sat down on the couch to read it like a novel. I read this book for over a month before trying the techniques involved, mostly because the writing is so engaging that I couldn’t put it down to pick up a spatula. The Food Lab taught me how to perfectly soft-boil an egg, which is not an easy task. It also taught me how to fry a French fry — the trick is parboiling with some vinegar-spiked water, freezing and a double trip through the fryer. Also, how to cook a steak in a beer cooler. (Seriously, go read this book.)
Beyond the obsessive-to-the-point-of-concern level of detail that goes into every recipe — painstakingly recollected by López-Alt in each chapter — The Food Lab is filled with gorgeous photography taken by the cook himself, as he prepared recipes for the book. One striking image is a carton of eggs with the tops lopped off, soft-boiled in 30-second increments to show the gradient of done-ness.
This book isn’t for folks looking for a one-stop shop for all types of recipes, but it is for those cooks, both amateur and professional, who are looking for well-reasoned (and well-seasoned) recipes from a dedicated chef who explains why you should trust the recipes he gives you. López-Alt takes topics like sauces, roasts, frying, salads and steaks (oh, the steaks) and explains why certain cooking methods excel and the research he conducted to prove his point.
If you’re hesitant to shell out for a book that weighs as much as a newborn baby, I get it. Try out some of his recipes beforehand or browse The Food Lab blog to get a sense of his style. If you need me, I’ll be in the kitchen, trying out this recipe for New Orleans-style red beans and rice.
Amanda Gray is the web content editor at Notre Dame Law School. Previously she worked for the South Bend Tribune, The Goshen News and DestroyTheCyb.org, an online nerd news outlet. Find her on Twitter at TheAmandaGray or email firstname.lastname@example.org.