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J. Kenji López-Alt's Food Lab provides ingenious innovations in home cooking

In this massive new cookbook, it's the techniques that matter, not the recipes.



Salmon cooked in a beer cooler isn't for everyone. It turns out, for example, that it's not for me. But that doesn't make J. Kenji López-Alt's method for cooking salmon (or meat) sous vide any less ingenious. Sous vide—a technique in which food is vacuum-sealed and cooked in a water bath at a precise temperature—usually requires either an expensive circulator to hold water at a constant temperature, or a large pot, a thermometer, and a lot of patience. For those of us with neither patience nor a water circulator, López-Alt devised a method that takes advantage of the heat-retaining qualities of a beer cooler: you add hot water to a cooler, put the salmon (or meat) into a Ziploc bag and squeeze all the air out, seal it, and put the bag into the water to cook.

Beer-cooler salmon is one of the more unusual techniques in López-Alt's new book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. López-Alt has been writing the Food Lab column (which is also about food science) for the website Serious Eats since 2009 and working on this book for almost that long. López-Alt wrote in a Serious Eats post that it was originally going to be 380 pages long, contain 100 recipes, and take a year to complete; five years after he began work on it, The Food Lab weighs in at nearly a thousand pages and has 300 recipes.

López-Alt focuses on techniques more than recipes; while his recipes are excellent (and meticulously researched), the book is really intended for people who want to understand why cooking works the way it does. I'll probably never make López-Alt's "ultra-fluffy mashed potatoes" because I don't have a ricer or food mill (or any interest in buying either one), but now that I know rinsing the starch from the cut potatoes before and after cooking makes for fluffier mashed potatoes, I've started doing that, and it seems to make a difference.

The book's length, coupled with the fact that it explores cooking scientifically, may make it seem intimidating. But for every fussy technique and complicated recipe (there are a few, though not many), López-Alt offers advice that actually makes cooking easier. For example, contrary to popular belief, dried pasta cooked in a small pot with just enough water to cover it turns out just fine, and it really doesn't matter whether or not the water is boiling when you add the noodles—or if it boils at all.

López-Alt, who graduated from MIT and is a former test cook and editor for Cook's Illustrated magazine, is obsessive in his investigation of classic cooking techniques and recipes. He'll repeat the same cooking experiment over and over again, changing different variables until he figures out the best and easiest way to cook whatever he's making. And the emphasis is on simplicity as much as perfection: López-Alt is always trying to eliminate unnecessary steps.

Even the sous vide salmon, which may sound complicated, is pretty easy to make. Getting the water in the cooler to the exact temperature you need is a fiddly business, but after you've got that worked out all you have to do is wait for the salmon to cook through. (To help the cooler retain heat, you wrap it in a towel.) López-Alt writes that the tender salmon "literally melts in your mouth," which is true—and a little disconcerting. I felt like I was eating salmon custard, which was nice for the first few bites, until it wasn't. I would've tried panfrying it to create a crust on the outside, but I suspected the soft salmon would disintegrate in the pan. I'd still try the beer-cooler technique with meat that gets finished with a quick sear.

Eggs boiled in increasing 30-second time increments - COURTESY W. W. NORTON & COMPANY
  • Courtesy W. W. Norton & Company
  • Eggs boiled in increasing 30-second time increments

I was skeptical, however, about López-Alt's technique for making hard-boiled eggs. He explains that eggs started in cold water that's heated gradually will stick to their shells, making them difficult to peel, but eggs cooked in boiling water from start to finish will overcook on the outside before they're done on the inside. His solution: drop eggs into boiling water (up to six eggs in a three-quart saucepan), boil for 30 seconds, then add 12 ice cubes—yes, exactly 12—which cools the water down so the eggs don't cook too quickly. Return the water to a subsimmer (about 190 degrees Fahrenheit) and cook for 11 minutes.

I've been hard-boiling eggs for years using the method that everyone on the Internet seems to favor—start eggs in cold water, bring to a boil, then turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let it sit for about ten minutes—and López-Alt's method seemed like too much of a pain to be worth it. I tried it out, though, muttering under my breath the whole time about ridiculous cooking techniques, ready to go back to my tried-and-true method the next time I needed to boil eggs. But then I tried peeling one of the eggs, and the shell practically fell off. The same thing happened with the next egg in the batch, and the next. A couple months later, I still haven't used any other method to hard-boil eggs. That might sound like a small thing, but (as I'm sure López-Alt would agree) cooking is really about technique. Reading the Food Lab column and now the cookbook has fundamentally changed the way I cook, one technique at a time.  v

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