Food & Drink

Science becomes delicious in ‘The Food Lab’

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, a well-known online writer and chef at the website Serious Eats, uses science to test cooking techniques and ingredients at his home in San Mateo.
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, a well-known online writer and chef at the website Serious Eats, uses science to test cooking techniques and ingredients at his home in San Mateo. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

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.

I like readers who will challenge what I’ve written, someone who will point out areas I didn’t consider or where my experiment was set up wrong.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

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.”

Scientific approach

Lopez-Alt’s upbringing, education and work history give him a unique set of tools to be a food star. His father, Frederick Alt, is a professor at Harvard Medical School whose research laboratory, according to the website, deals with “the elucidation of mechanisms that generate antigen receptor diversity in the Immune system.” His mother is of Japanese descent and, as Lopez-Alt notes on the book’s dedication page, “would have preferred (him to be) a doctor.”

Though his given name is James Alt, he grew up using his middle name Kenji. When he married, he and his Colombian wife, Adriana Lopez, who has a Ph.D. in cryptography and works at Google, combined their surnames.

In his youth, Lopez-Alt excelled at science and attended MIT, where he soon concluded he didn’t want to spend his life in a lab. He wound up with a degree in architecture but soon fell into cooking. He did stints at fine-dining restaurants before landing a job at Cook’s Illustrated, a magazine known for its boundless tests to achieve at the best possible recipe.

Lopez-Alt recalls tackling 113 pie dough variations before arriving at a novel new ingredient to impede gluten development: vodka. Much of his job entailed delving into recipes and techniques and seeing how they could be improved. So he was spending time in a research lab of sorts, albeit with tastier trappings.

“Cook’s Illustrated was a great place to work,” he said. “It was the first job I had where I could pursue both my passions at the same time – food and science. I got paid to basically run little science experiments in the kitchen.” More than anything, Lopez-Alt said the job helped him understand home cooks – their approach, their interests, their struggles.

945Number of pages in “The Food Lab”

While at the magazine, Lopez-Alt became obsessed with burgers and is among the first to popularize the idea that home cooks should grind their own beef for the ultimate in flavor and texture. During his time at the Boston-based magazine, he and a fellow editor, Bryan Roof, were planning to launch a burger restaurant and set about taste-testing dozens of burgers. During one trip to New York City, Roof recalls joining Lopez-Alt for a day-long gourmet burger binge – 10 burgers over 10 hours, with cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon in between.

Roof, who is now food editor at sister publication Cook’s Country, says Lopez-Alt’s talent for explaining ideas to readers was immediately apparent. “The key to his success is he’s an excellent writer and he always has been,” Roof said. “He was always serious about his recipe development, very driven. He’s also very opinionated and knowledgeable. I like to say he’s a humorous know-it-all.”

When he and his wife moved to New York so she could pursue her doctorate at New York University, Lopez-Alt started freelancing for Serious Eats. His first piece was on how to boil an egg and he was paid $40. That was in 2009. A year later, he was working for the site full time. As managing culinary director, he found himself with far more freedom to explore his passions. The couple later moved to San Mateo, and most of Lopez-Alt’s work for his column is conducted in their small, well-appointed home kitchen.

“When I started the Food Lab, the goal wasn’t to write something that would be popular and gain an audience,” he said. “I wrote about what interested me. The fact that it has an audience now and, it turns out, there are other people out there who like the sames things I like, is great. That’s almost the definition of the perfect job, doing something you’re passionate about.”

By all accounts, Lopez-Alt works hard at his ideal job. On her Facebook page earlier this fall, Adriana Lopez-Alt noted the launch of her husband’s book and provided some context, writing that he worked on it for years from midnight to 4 a.m.

“Truth by told, I don’t know how he can sleep so little,” she wrote. “I can’t count the number of times I woke up at 3 a.m. to find Kenji in the kitchen, making macaroni and cheese, mixing dough, or breaking down a chicken. Our tiny NY apartment always smelled like steak, and our dining room was permanently blocked by photography equipment. Then came the revisions, the re-factoring, the re-writing. Five years seems very little to have gotten so much done.”

Lab results

Given his depth of research, Lopez-Alt can occasionally be impatient, if not downright prickly, with online naysayers who scoff at his recipes or take pot shots at his reasoning. On occasion, he will engage them on Twitter, though he tends to let loyal readers handle trolls on Serious Eats. That’s not to say he is averse to debate. In fact, he welcomes it.

“I like readers who will challenge what I’ve written, someone who will point out areas I didn’t consider or where my experiment was set up wrong,” he said. “That’s what the heart of science is, to be able to challenge things, to be skeptical and build on past knowledge.”

During a recent visit to the couple’s San Mateo home, Lopez-Alt was smoking a dry-rubbed turkey in the backyard, checking on it frequently and taking photos of each step in the process for an upcoming article. Inside the house, he opened the door to his large pantry to reveal an inventory of electric pressure cookers he’s testing. Lopez-Alt is a big fan of pressure cookers and has adapted many recipes for them. He is also an advocate of woks and cast iron pans. If you follow him closely, you would have learned that, contrary to popular belief, it’s perfectly OK to clean your cast iron pans with soap and water.

His book’s chapter on essential kitchen equipment is a celebration of a food nerd and his many toys. In it, he goes into detail on how to season and care for your cast iron pans, why wooden cutting boards are safer than you think, the eight pots and pans every kitchen needs, why an $86 instant read thermometer is “money well spent,” and a whole bunch of stuff on knives – which ones you need, how to hold them, East vs. West blade styles, and a 12-step rundown on how to sharpen them with a stone. Squeeze bottles? You need lots of them – for salad dressings and more.

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.

Serious Eats founder Ed Levine

What about canned tomatoes? Lopez-Alt goes into detail about which ones you should buy and which you should avoid. Lopez-Alt busts the myth that cold water comes to a boil faster than hot. But he says cold water is the way to go for cooking “because hot water will contain more dissolved minerals from your pipes, which can give your food an off flavor.” On nearly every page, there are revelations, stories, puns, recipes and photographic evidence.

Upping the ante on geekiness, Lopez-Alt tests the relatively new idea put forth by Harold McGee, the food scientist and author, that it is better to flip a steak numerous times during cooking. Lopez-Alt cooked numerous steaks and found that flipping every 30 seconds cooked the steak more evenly than flipping it only once, He also found that it cooked faster than flipping every 15 seconds. The steak “spent too much time in the air above the pan rather than in direct contact with the pan itself.”

These days, Lopez-Alt, rarely eats the meat he cooks, in part because of the abundance of burgers he devoured years ago (the burger joint plans fell through when he and Roof couldn’t secure financing). Each February, he publishes a month’s worth of vegan recipes on Serious Eats.

Released in September, “The Food Lab” became a New York Times bestseller. Lopez-Alt already has a deal for a follow-up book and is trying to develop a TV show that uses food science to solve real-world cooking problems.

It is only fitting that the last dish Lopez-Alt deals with in “The Food Lab” is french fries. The author talks about the four traits of great fries, the anatomy of a potato, the “dreaded hollow fry,” and much more. If you don’t have any plans this weekend – and you already have your $86 instant read thermometer and versatile wok, you might want to tackle “The Ultimate Quintuple-Cooked Thick and Crisp Steak Fries.”

As the author will tell you, “These fries are a pain in the butt to make. They are a project, and you’ve got to devote a significant amount of time to them. But man, are they killer.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

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