November 17, 2015
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt explores the science of home cooking
A self-described science nerd, and proud of it, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt planned a career in biology when he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1990s. He was the type of kid who chose Nickelodeon’s “Mr. Wizard’s World” over ABC’s “Full House.”
The only problem was, much as he loved science, he absolutely hated working in biology labs.
“The physical experimentation was mind-numbing,” he recalls. “It just wasn’t for me.”
What he did like endlessly tinkering around with was food.
In the summer of his sophomore year at MIT, the New York native took a job as a cook at a Mongolian grill-style restaurant in Boston’s Harvard Square. As he writes in his newly released cookbook, “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science” (W.W. Norton, $49.95), the experience didn’t just flip a switch in his head; it jolted his entire being.
“Like a head-injury patient who suddenly develops a brand-new personality, something snapped the moment my hand touched a knife in a professional kitchen,” he writes. “I was no longer in control of my own destiny.”
Which was weird, he concedes in a recent phone interview from his home office in San Mateo, Calif., where he tests the science behind recipes for his popular blog, “The Food Lab.” He’d never cooked a meal in his life before college.
“I didn’t even know how to hold a knife,” he says.
Flash forward a dozen years and Kenji — as he’s known by his many Twitter and Instagram followers — not only wields the tool with authority, but through his food writing has made anyone who’s willing to swallow his or her fear of sharp edges into an expert, too. In all, he devotes 15 pages to knives in his 958-page tome.
A one-time test cook and editor at Cook’s Illustrated, Kenji today is managing culinary director at Serious Eats, the James Beard-winning food website founded in 2006. His Food Lab column, which aims to explain the underlying processes of cooking, is one of the site’s most popular features. His cookbook of the same name continues the fun, with hundreds of original recipes and more than 1,000 photographs.
With his conversational way of writing, the 35-year-old makes the mundane, occasionally complicated and always scientific roots of cooking seem fascinating. His first column six years ago, written on spec for $50, explored the best way to boil an egg; his second tackled how to blend burger meat. He’d end up doing hundreds more, eventually turning a freelance gig into a full-time job and becoming a respected industry voice and cultural icon in the process.
Food science in 2009 was priming for prime time, thanks to cooks such as Alton Brown of the TV show “Good Eats.” So a regular column was an easy sell, Kenji says.
“I was writing it because it was fun for me,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “I was trying to work as little as possible by doing something I’d want to do in my spare time anyway.”
What’s inspiring about Kenji is that he never went to culinary school but instead honed his craft by reading, watching and cooking. All throughout college he worked in restaurants while poring over every cookbook he could get his hands on. Upon graduation with a degree in architecture, he started cooking full time, working for some of the best chefs in Boston.
“I saw it as my education,” he says. “If I ever got to the point where I wasn’t learning, I moved on.”
Initially, his mother wasn’t too happy with his chosen profession. Born in Japan, she viewed cooking as the type of job you get when you can’t get a real job, no matter how great the restaurant, Kenji says. But eventually she came to see that he was using his science-based education after all: to demystify cooking techniques by breaking down recipes and ingredients.
If you’re perfectly happy with the way you’re cooking, there’s no reason to change, he says. “But recipes only teach you to cook one thing.”
Science, on the other hand, forces you to think about your food and how techniques apply from one to another to suit your taste or make cooking more efficient.
“Learning about the ‘whys’ of ingredients frees you in the kitchen,” he says. “You’re not chained to a certain way of doing things, but can make your own judgement as to the end results.”
For instance, you might like a velvety mac ’n cheese while your spouse likes it dry. The science in his cookbook will show you how to do both (add eggs for the creamier version).
The original contract called for just 350 pages. But the book quickly snowballed into almost 1,000 over the five years it took to write. About 70 percent is new material; the rest are greatest hits from the column.
He often looks to the Internet for inspiration when developing a dish — he recently built a mash-up McWhopper burger — but they also grow out of his experiences. Research-heavy, recipes typically take about two weeks to write and test, he says, although not always. He has been working on a Chicago pizza and ramen recipes for years.
With chapters on essential kitchen gear and pantry items, the book serves as a modern reference book for those learning to cook. But it also will appeal to seasoned home chefs who wonder if there’s a better way of doing something. For the first time, I made biscuits that were flaky instead of heavy as hockey pucks, and I also discovered the secret to the lightest, fluffiest pancakes (egg whites).
A hulking 6½ pounds, “The Food Lab” also makes a handsome coffee table book, especially since Kenji suspects some of its readers don’t cook at all, but are simply interested in pop science.
The book is such a hit that he’s already planning another in February called “Fork Free” that will train his scientific eye on casual foods you can eat without utensils. Until then, he’s on a book tour that will take him to both coasts. (On Oct. 23, he’ll be part of a roundtable talk on food innovation during the Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend in Washington, D.C.; register at americanhistory.si.edu/events.) And he’s trying his hand with an experimental, science-based video series funded by Indiegogo.
But it’s the writing paired with cooking research, typically between midnight and 4 a.m., that fuel his culinary engine.
“Coming up with good metaphors and ways to distill complex ideas into easy words, that’s fun,” he says. “One of my core philosophies is to write for everybody.”
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.
Super Flaky Buttermilk Biscuits
The key to ultra-tender biscuits, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt writes in “The Food Lab,” is to keep the dough cold, and not overmix it; knead the ingredients until they just come together.
His terrific recipe calls for a “laminated” pastry, or one that has been folded over itself (in this case, three times) to form many layers. It works — my biscuits, usually as light as hockey pucks, were incredibly flaky!
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup sour cream
10 ounces (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus additional for dusting
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch pats
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 425 degrees. Whisk together buttermilk and sour cream in small bowl.
In bowl of food processor, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Process until blended, about 2 seconds. Scatter butter evenly over flour and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal and largest butter pieces are about ¼-inch at their widest. Transfer to large bowl.
Add buttermilk mixture to flour mixture and fold with a rubber spatula until just combined. Transfer dough to floured work surface and knead until it just comes together, adding extra flour if necessary.
With rolling pin, roll dough into 12-inch square. Using a bench scraper, fold the right third of dough over the center, then fold the left third over so you end up with a 12-by-4-inch rectangle. Fold top third down over the center, then fold the bottom third up so the whole thing is reduced to a 4-inch square. Press dough down and roll into 12-inch squares. Repeat the folding process one more time.
Roll dough again into a 12-inch square. Cut 6 4-inch rounds out of the dough with a floured biscuit cutter. Transfer rounds to a parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing them about 1 inch apart. Form dough scrapes into a ball and knead gently 2 to 3 times until smooth. Roll dough out until it’s large enough to cut out 2 more 4-inch rounds, and transfer to baking sheet.
Brush top of biscuits with melted butter and bake until golden brown and well risen, about 15 minutes, rotating pan halfway through. Allow to cool for 5 minutes and serve.
Makes 8 biscuits.
— “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking through Science” by J. Kenji López-Alt (W. W. Norton, Sept. 2015, $49.95).
Light and Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes
Whipped egg whites makes these buttermilk pancakes lighter and taller. Don’t overmix — the more you stir, the more gluten develops and the tougher the pancake. Also, be sure to cook the pancakes immediately because once you mix the batter, the baking powder and soda start activating. If you let it sit even a half-hour, the bubbles that make the pancakes light disappear.
1 recipe Basic Dry Pancake Mix (recipe follows)
2 large eggs, separated
1½ cups buttermilk
1 cup sour cream (can substitute with more buttermilk)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Butter or oil for cooking
Warm maple syrup and butter, for serving
Place dry mix in large bowl.
In medium bowl, whisk egg whites until stiff peaks form. In large bowl, whisk egg yolks, buttermilk and sour cream until homogenous. Slowly drizzle in melted butter while whisking. Carefully fold in egg whites with a rubber spatula until just combined (there should still be plenty of lumps).
Heat a large heavy-bottomed nonstick skillet over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add small amount of butter or oil on griddle and spread with a paper towel until no visible butter or oil remains. Use a 1/4-cup dry measure to place 4 pancakes in the skillet and cook until bubbles start to appear on top, and bottoms are golden brown, about 2 minutes. Carefully flip pancakes and cook on the second side until golden brown and completely set, about 2 minutes longer.
Serve pancakes immediately, or keep warm on wire rack set on a rimmed baking sheet in a warm (200 degrees) oven while you cook the remaining 3 batches. Serve with warm maple syrup and butter.
Serves 4 to 6.
Basic Dry Pancake Mix
This recipe can be scaled up to any size.
10 ounces (2 cups) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Combine ingredients in medium bowl and whisk together. Transfer to an airtight container. Mix will stay good for 3 months.
— “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking through Science” by J. Kenji López-Alt (W. W. Norton, September 2015, $49.95).
“Americans are proud of their meatloaf, and rightfully so,” writes J. Kenji Alt-Lopez in “The Food Lab.” His recipe is seasoned with what he calls his “umami bombs” — anchovies, Marmite (a funky yeast extract spread) and soy sauce. He also leaves out veal, a traditional mix-in, and cooks the loaf free-form.
1/2 cup homemade or canned chicken stock
1/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 ounce (2 packets; about 1½ tablespoons) unflavored gelatin
2 sliced high-quality white sandwich bread, crusts removed and torn into rough pieces
4 ounces button or cremini mushrooms, clenaed
3 anchovy fillets
1/2 teaspoon Marmite (I used peanut butter)
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon paprika
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped (about 2 teaspoons)
1 small onion, roughly chopped (about 3/4 cup)
1 small carrot, roughly chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 stalk celery, roughly chopped (about 1/2 cup)
2 tablespoon unsalted butter
12 ounces freshly ground pork
1¼ pounds freshly ground beef
2 large eggs
4 ounces cheddar, provolone, Monterey Jack or Muenster cheese, finely grated (about 1 cup)
1/4 cup finely minced fresh parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup ketchup
1/4 packed brown sugar
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine chicken stock and buttermilk in liquid measuring cup and sprinkle gelatin evenly over the top. Set aside.
Place bread and mushrooms in food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Transfer to bowl and set aside.
Add anchovies, Marmite, soy sauce, paprika and garlic to processor bowl and pulse until reduced to a fine paste, scraping down bowl as necessary. Add onion, carrot and celery and pulse until finely chopped but not pureed.
Heat butter in 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until foaming. Add chopped vegetables and cook, stirring often, until it is softened and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Stir in buttermilk mixture, bring to a simmer and cook until reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Transfer to bowl with mushrooms and bread, stir thoroughly to combine and let stand until cool enough to handle, about 10 minutes.
Add meat mixture to bowl, along with eggs, cheese, parsley, 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. With clean hands, mix gently until everything is thoroughly combined and homogenous; it will be fairly loose.
Transfer mixture to a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan, being sure that no air bubbles get trapped underneath. Tear off sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil large enough to line a rimmed baking sheet and use it to tightly cover the meat loaf, crimping it around the edges. Refrigerate meat loaf while oven preheats to 350 degrees. (Meatloaf can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.)
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position. When oven is hot, remove meatloaf from refrigerator and, without removing foil cover, carefully invert it onto the rimmed baking sheet. Loosen foil and spread it out, leaving pan on top of meat loaf. Fold up edges of foil to trap the liquid that escapes from the load while baking. Bake until just beginning to set, about 30 minutes.
Use a thin metal spatula to lift an edge of the inverted loaf pan, jiggling until it slides off the meat loaf easily, leaving meat loaf on the center of foil. Return to oven and bake until meat loaf registers 140 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 40 minutes longer. (There will be a lot of juices.) Remove from oven and allow to rest 15 minutes. Increase oven temperature to 500 degrees.
For glaze, combine ketchup, brown sugar, vinegar and pepper in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking, until sugar is melted and mixture is homogeneous, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
Use a brush to apply some glaze to meat loaf in a thin, even layer, then return to oven and bake for 3 minutes. Glaze again and bake 3 more minutes. Glaze one more time and bake until glaze is bubbly and a deep burnished brown, about 4 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to rest 15 minutes. Cut and serve with any extra glaze and mustard or ketchup. Leftovers are just right for slicing into sandwiches.
Serves 6 to 8.
— “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking through Science” by J. Kenji López-Alt (W. W. Norton, September 2015, $49.95).