The Food Lab – A cookbook review

If I would have the time & space and plenty of people to eat all the food, I wouldn’t make just one or two batches of ice cream at a time. I would make 10, varying all those parameters I’d be interested in to understand. Different flavours, different structuring agents, yogurt vs cream cheese, with aging and without aging. The same for pancakes, bread, muffins, etc.

(Un)fortunately, I don’t. Instead, I make one or two ice cream batches at a time, always changing something and learning as fast as we can eat what I make.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt on the other hand, has managed to make this his job. Trying things over and over again and debunking food myths as he goes. He’s been writing on Serious Eats for some time and there’s quite a bit of posts on this blog that refer to his posts when we’re trying to figure something out!

In 2015 he published a massive, it’s heavy!, cook/science book: The Food Lab (affiliate link). Whereas it’s not my favorite book in our collection, it is definitely really nice and unique. Let’s explain why.

Please note, this page contains Amazon affiliate links. This means that, at no extra cost to you, we will earn a small commission if you buy through these links. Always feel free to buy somewhere else (e.g. your local book store).

The author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

We already quickly introduced Kenji at the start. But he’s not been writing for Serious Eats forever. He has a degree in architecture (after starting biology) but already during university discovered that cooking was his true passion. Once graduated he started working in kitchens and did so for several years.

One of the things he noticed, combining his science background and cooking experience, is that a lot of kitchen wisdom is more myth than fact. Over time he became passionate about exploring this further and the book, the Food Lab (appropriate name for sure), is a clear example of it.

Tip: Want to get to know Kenji better? He’s done two great interviews with one of my favorite podcasts, Freakonomics: Food+Science=Victory & Why you shouldn’t open a restaurant.

Design & Lay out

First of all, the book is big. It’s a whopping 958 pages long and there’s probably only about 300 recipes (still a lot of course, but for such a long book you might expect more). However, keep in mind, that a ‘simple’ rcipe for scrambled eggs easily takes up 5 pages. As we’ll discuss in the next section, it really is all about the content, not necessarily about appearances.

That doesn’t mean the book doesn’t look good of course. It’s got nice photos, although they’re probably more made with a scientist in mind, than a perfect Instagram setting (which I find perfectly fine). One of the first photos in the book is a top shot of 24 eggs boiled at 30 second intervals, from 0 to 12 minutes. It’s a great photo! Throughout the book there are a lot of photos explaining phenomena and techniques.

front view of meat loaf
Meatloaf from the Food Lab ; the recipe made perfect sense. However, if you half the amount of meat and forget to adjust the quantities of the other ingredients it might not be perfect anymore (which is what we did), but it still is tasty!

Content

The book is dived in 9 sections (not counting all the introductions on kitchen gear, a basic pantry, etc. which so many books contain, although Kenji definitely goes a level deeper in explaining everything). There are three sections on meat, a section on vegetables, frying and pasta to name a few.

Within each section Kenji first gives a general introduction to the topic, which is alway interesting to read. In the section on soups and stock for instance he starts with a quick introduction on the importance and stocks in the French kitchen. They take a lot of time though, so he then goes on to explain how to make one if you don’t have as much time. Next follows an extensive explanation of chicken and how to make it into a wonderful stock.

The recipes

After these introductions follow the recipe for the chapter. These can be 1-page long or over 5 pages. Kenji has definitely tried to find the ‘perfect’ version of every recipe in the book. Even though I’m not a big fan of ‘perfect recipes’ (they’re never going to be perfect for everyone), I like how he really explains why he has chosen to do a recipe the way he has done.

In a lot of cases he’s done a bunch of trials to get to the recipe he has and has actually thought it through. As you might have noticed when reading this website, I don’t think it’s important to follow a recipe exactly. It’s most important that you understand what’s going so that you know where to freestyle or substitute, while it still turns out good.

The recipes Kenji has developed (such as the meat loaf at the bottom of the page) are definitely American focused. That said, even if you don’t cook American food, the science will be the same. You might not want to follow the recipes exactly, but you might find his observations useful and interesting.

Meatloaf

As shown in the photo above, one of the recipes we made was the meatloaf. Even though we didn’t follow the recipe exactly (making a simple calculation error), it still turned out great and we learned a ton along the way (which is why it’s evaluated in a separate post).

Overall evaluation

Kenji is not a big dessert fan, he mentions so himself in the introduction and he has thus left the dessert section out. I myself am more of a dessert/baking fan, so I sometimes try to look up a baking recipe in his book for guidance, but won’t find it. That said, I’m glad he sticks with his strengths and hasn’t decided to just add some mediocre ones.

Aside from that, this book isn’t one you should buy for the recipes itself. You should buy it to learn and then perfect your own recipes using Kenji’s tips, tricks and ways of thinking.

I must admit that I don’t use this book very often, but now that I leaved through it again, I definitely should, because I came across fascinating articles on frying french fries and pancakes again.

One of the reasons for not using it as often as I should, is that I don’t find it that easy to look things up if I’m interested in something. The organization of knowledge via recipes is probably the reason for that. But, that’s me comparing the book to On Food and Cooking which has that more encyclopedia feel to it.

If you’re into food and really understanding it, kenji’s book is an accessible way to do so. It goes very deep into the ‘why’ of recipes and clearly a lot of time and effort have been put into it. Things weren’t just tested once, they have been tested until perfection giving you a lot of lessons along the way.

Excited? You can buy The Food Lab here (affiliate link).

Food Lab front cover

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