If the name J. Kenji Lopez-Alt doesn’t ring a bell, you’re probably not among the many thousands of hardcore foodies who have discovered him online and celebrated his all-out food-science geekiness, his cooking prowess and, more than anything, his ability to take classic comfort food dishes to new heights.
Readers likely found him during a search for how to make the ultimate hamburger (you have to grind your own meat), the very best fried chicken (brine, batter, fry, then finish in the oven), an even better version of Jim Lahey’s wildly popular no-knead bread (stick the dough in the fridge for three days after it rises overnight). More recently, they may have come across his two versions of chicken paprikash – one marvelously simple and delicious, the other wonderfully complex and, according to Lopez-Alt, 15 percent tastier.
For the past several years, Lopez-Alt, 36, has grown his fan base through his column, The Food Lab, on the website Serious Eats, in which he delves into mostly traditional recipes and dishes, breaks them down, tweaks them, turns them inside out and comes up with something better. In explaining what he has done, Lopez is intense, smart, funny, self-effacing and deeply curious.
With momentum from his column and a wealth of research at his disposal, Lopez-Alt has written a hefty new book that should be essential reading for serious home cooks. Weighing 6 pounds, 7.5 ounces (on Page 73 the author makes a strong case for why you should own a digital scale), “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science” (W.W. Norton, $49.95) mixes comprehensive recipes, in-the-kitchen experimentation, personal storytelling and luminous photography. He begins his book with, “I am a nerd, and I’m proud of it,” and spends the next 945 pages making you a believer.
To read one of Lopez-Alt’s recipes is to follow along on his journey, which may involve testing dozens of techniques and combinations of ingredients. A blow torch may or may not be involved. If the recipe includes the words “simple” or “easy,” it’s likely a dish you can pull together after work. If it says “ultimate” or “best,” be prepared to block out most of your weekend if you want to successfully cook it.
A charming combination of “Joy of Cooking,” Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking,” “Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques,” and the TV show “MythBusters,” Lopez-Alt’s intensely researched tome offers valuable and entertaining instruction for cooks both new and experienced.
“For millennials, this is the first cookbook they have to have,” said Serious Eats founder Ed Levine. “Some things just strike a chord and are in tune with the zeitgeist, and I think Kenji and The Food Lab are good examples of that. Kenji has this remarkable mind that combines curiosity of all kinds into something that is unlike anything else out there. Most of what comes across is that he combines this very geeky approach in the service of pleasure.”
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