Early in The Food Lab, J. Kenji López-Alt writes, "Once you start asking what's really going on inside your food while you cook it, you'll find that the questions keep coming and coming, and that the answers will become more and more fascinating." That's exactly what it's like to cook from this book based on the Serious Eats column of the same name. Both the book and the column are centered around the theory that many of the cooking techniques we consider sacred are outdated or flat-out wrong. The solution? Science.
López-Alt has a science background (he studied at MIT and spent time toiling in biology labs) and years of cooking experience (before Serious Eats, he worked in restaurant kitchens and at Cook's Illustrated). Still, there's something wonderfully amateur about his approach. Throughout the book, he questions generally accepted cooking rules and then designs a kitchen experiment to not just determine their merit, but to find the best, most efficient way to make something and yield delicious results.
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Science in the kitchen isn't new. As López-Alt acknowledges, Chicago's Alinea and the late, great El Bulli in Spain are just two examples of science-minded kitchens. And while The Food Lab has much in common with these temples of modern cooking, you won't find any foams or tweezers here. López-Alt sticks to standard equipment and supermarket ingredients, and his recipes are for familiar everyday dishes like chili and mashed potatoes. The difference is that they're broken down and reconfigured to create the ultimate, no-fail versions.
Burgers are a López-Alt obsession. Consider his Pub-Style Thick and Juicy Cheeseburgers, along with his ground meat chapter, your short course to earning a masters in burger science. López-Alt has done a lot of burger experiments, so you'd be wise to follow his instructions. Make a dimple in the center of your patties, and you'll suffer none of the burger bulge that plagues so many BBQs.
In another perfect example of the López-Alt approach, he ignores the common technique of searing meat to lock in juices. He starts on the cool side of the grill, then moves to the hot side to develop the perfect crust. He also recommends the broiler, because its high heat maximizes browning and crust formation. If your broiler is on the bottom of the oven, the flipping and cheese-adding can be tricky. And do be careful: In the broiler, meat can quickly go from medium rare to well done.
Most of the recipes are classics, but Pasta with Sausage and Red Sauce-Braised Broccoli Rabe is a López-Alt original. Naturally, he has some unconventional ideas about pasta. Going deep into the science, López-Alt explains why cooking pasta in a large amount of boiling salted water isn't actually ideal. In the end, his version isn't wildly different. You place the pasta in a large pot, cover it with hot water, add a pinch of salt and bring it to a boil. López-Alt also recommends reserving a full one and a half cups of the pasta cooking water, which may be a good rule of thumb but is way more than needed here.
Cheesy Broccoli or Cauliflower Casserole is a slightly more virtuous cousin to macaroni and cheese, and process-wise, fairly similar. López-Alt uses protein-rich evaporated milk to help emulsify the cheese sauce, plus gelatin for extra creaminess. He also has you blanch and drain the veggies, then spread them out onto a baking sheet so the water can evaporate and your casserole won't be soggy. This is also López-Alt's alternative to shocking blanched vegetables, a classic technique he tested into irrelevance. In terms of flavor, there are few surprises here. Season aggressively and be generous with the hot sauce. The shallot and parsley bread crumbs add crunch and bright, oniony flavor; they really make the dish.
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