The Food Lab, a Belated Review

[September 3, 2023; updated February 2, 2024]

I finally bought The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.  I made a few recipes, and they turned out well.  Mostly.  But before I get into those, I want to talk about the philosophy of the book.

Kenji is a professional chef, doing professional chef things.  While the recipes are generally better than a “standard” home cooking recipe, they are also more involved.  Everything is written in a homey way that makes you think Kenji just cooks this way at home every day, and you could too, but you’re not a professional chef.  You don’t have the years of practice to put all this stuff together efficiently.

The book itself is clearly the passion project of one person, organized as a collection of blog posts interspersed with recipes.  This leaves coverage somewhat spotty compared to a “regular” cookbook.  The only rice recipe is risotto, for instance.

[January 2024 Update]  I have not made any more recipes from this book since publishing this page.  Part of it is the amount of wisdom crammed into this review🌎 of the book.  Particularly:

…[C]heck out Glenna Matthews’ Just a Housewife: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America. I’m not saying that everyone who writes a cookbook needs to be aware of this history, but if you are literally recreating it in the year 2015, you need to do some research. The Food Lab presents the perfect example of a “professional,” “scientific,” male cook debasing a traditionally female craft, improving it “through science,” and feeding it back to (primarily female) home cooks….

Another part of it is that Kenji, as a “professional chef,” has lost touch with home cooking entirely.  His goal with every recipe is to take authentic food, that real people with limited time can actually prepare and eat, and move it toward his own food culture.  It gets nettlesome to read so many ingredient lists packed with umami.  Maybe these recipes just aren’t any good, if they need so many palatants.

The book itself is laid out strangely.  It has recipes, but it’s not organized to be used as a cookbook.  It’s a collection of blog posts about cooking, that are presented without any structure beyond the inchoate chapters.  Crème fraîche and ricotta end up in the breakfast chapter, and not next to each other, either.  (I am not waking up in the morning and making some ricotta?)  “Chicken” is primarily found in two separate chapters (fast cooking [parts], and roasts [whole bird]), with the vegetables and ground meat chapters between them.  The index mainly covers the titles of the blog posts, sidebars, and recipes; there is no ingredient index.

Actually using an individual recipe, it was difficult to plan the rest of the meal, because there are no prep/cooking times listed.  The only way to get an estimate is to read the recipe, note down any times given, and wildly guess at the times for the rest of the steps.  This was especially acute for the “fast” French onion soup, where it seemed like both my guesses and the timed steps in the book were extremely optimistic.

It’s deeply disappointing.  I had such high hopes for the book.  I remembered reading and liking his column on Serious Eats back in the day.  But this book is headed for the donation box.

It really sucked the wind out of my sails when the “fail-proof” recipes that were developed… started failing.  Micro-steamed corn especially; even my wife, with decades of experience being the primary home cook, couldn’t really tell what was going wrong.  The fact that pot roast did not finish (DNF) is a reflection of my own failing trust in López-Alt to deliver on his promises.  When I wanted a pot roast that I knew was good, I put down the book and got out my wife’s recipe cards.  [End update.]

So, how about those recipe reviews?  (Full disclosure: much of the following text has been shamelessly self-plagiarized from my tumblr, but this is probably the only one that search will be able to find.  You’re welcome.)

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Fluffy Scrambled Eggs
Worked perfectly, but my wife disapproves of the amount of effort.  She has since perfected making fluffy eggs in a Corningware in the microwave.
Hard-boiled Eggs
Just what I had been looking for.  With the ice-shock technique, the secret to peeling the eggs nicely has been… cracked.
Oven-fried Bacon for a Crowd
We already did our bacon in the oven, but having specific temperature and timing has made it a lot more consistent.
Ultra-Gooey Stovetop Mac and Cheese
Finally, a souce that matched the texture of the boxes, while being made with real cheddar cheese.  We still haven’t tried the baked variant.  [January 2024: I’m a lot less keen on eating emulsifiers.  It’s unlikely that the baked version will ever be made, or the stovetop version made again.]
Perfect Easy Red Sauce
I mashed up Kenji’s and my own recipe.  One particular issue is that I put the basil in late, because it is a delicate flavor that shouldn’t be overcooked.
Super-Crisp Roasted Potatoes
These were twice the effort of our normal approach, but came out delightful.  Like the mac and cheese, it is nice for the long-standing puzzle to be solved.
Burgers
The puffy center has been banished.  I had been developing the exact technique of making the center of the raw meat thinner, but apparently not aggressively enough to really achieve anything.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Spatchcocked (Butterflied) Chicken
It was fine, but difficult to clean up all the splattering.  I am also the lazy kind of person, who might prefer to break down the bird entirely.  This would also have been a lot easier with proper poultry shears, but that part is really on me.

⭐⭐⭐

Fast French Onion Soup
This is only “faster;” dinner ended up an hour later than initially expected.  There is no time estimate for any recipe, and this one is bottlenecked on cutting so. many. onions.  Because speeds vary, it’s not clear that a good time estimate can be created.  Furthermore, Kenji advises against the use of beef stock for quality reasons, but the problem with that is: using chicken stock makes the result delicious, but wrong.  [January 2024: I will probably try this again, with the french fry blade on the mandoline slicer, and beef stock.  But then it’s definitely not the “recipe as given.”]
New England Clam Chowder (from Serious Eats) [February 2024]
I wanted clam chowder—the correct kind—and my wife mentioned that Kenji had a recipe she liked.  It wasn’t in the book, though; it was published a year later on Serious Eats.  I went there, I got the recipe, I followed the steps.  I got a great tasting clam chowder that was decidedly thin, with a remnant of the foam created by my wife blending it in the Vitamix.  The broth separated again over the course of the meal anyway, so what was the point?  This will only be, at best, the starting point for my own recipe.

⭐⭐

(Nothing yet)

Micro-steamed Corn on the Cob
The first run went fine, but future runs never cooked properly.  The tassel end was done, but the stem end was starchy.  We soon went back to our original method.  That is, we put the corn (husk removed) in a covered dish with a splash of water for 2:30 per ear, turning once.  Whatever the problem with Kenji’s method is (freshness? size? getting a husk to actually turn partway through?), it lacks reliability.

DNF

Pot Roast
I ended up using my wife’s favorite recipe instead of Kenji’s.  However, partially covering it instead of leaving it uncovered made it better.  The thing about The Food Lab is that there is often background information, which is helpful to any recipe.
Penne Alla Vodka with Chicken
I messed this one up, and I haven’t revisited it.