The Food Lab: a review

As a kid, growing up in a household with an abundance of cookbooks, I always wondered what the best possible recipe for chocolate chip cookies was. The cookies my mom makes are excellent, obviously, but they’re slightly different from the recipe on the bag of chocolate chips, which is slightly different from the recipe in the ever-reliable Silver Palate Cookbook, which is slightly different from the first Google result for “chocolate chip cookie recipe”. There may be an infinite number of different chocolate chip cookie recipes in this world. I wanted to try all of them and determine, once and for all, the BEST one, and then make that one forever and live in superior cookie bliss.

I never actually went through with this project, but J. Kenji López-Alt did. His account of his cookie odyssey portrays a man determined to reveal every last one of a recipe’s secrets. When I read it, I was delighted to see that someone had actually put in the time, effort, skill, and scientific knowledge to learn everything about the chocolate chip cookie. Want dense, chewy cookies? Melt the butter first. Prefer them light and firm? Cream it with the sugar. López-Alt has his own idea of what constitutes a perfect cookie, and that’s the recipe he provides at the end of the article, but he also equips his reader with the knowledge to fine-tune it to their own tastes.

The cookie investigation was part of López-Alt’s regular column on Serious Eats, The Food Lab, in which he delves deep into the workings of classic recipes. These columns, plus lots more instructional and reference material, have been collected in a doorstopper of a cookbook also titled The Food Lab. I was thrilled to receive it as a Christmas gift and, having had the chance to put it to use, can confirm that López-Alt’s book lives up to his column, and more.

Of course, that’s a trivial statement for the many parts of the book that actually are the column. If your only interest in a cookbook is as a repository of new recipes, it might be wiser to browse the online Food Lab archives rather than buying the book. In fact, I’d recommend checking out the website to anyone interested in the cookbook. The Food Lab effectively has the most extensive try-before-you-buy offer I’ve ever seen in a cookbook. Butterflied Roasted Chicken with Quick Jus would be my recommendation for a good example of López-Alt’s typical approach: an everyday recipe, tested and perfected. (A note, however: the online and book versions aren’t always identical. For example, the website recommends trussing a whole chicken if you aren’t butterflying it, while the book claims that trussing a chicken actually makes it cook more unevenly.)

Though many of the recipes in The Food Lab can be found for free online at Serious Eats, there’s much, much more in the book than recipes. They don’t even start until page 101! Much of the book describes how López-Alt developed the recipes: the techniques he compared, the standards of his tests. He also includes a wealth of information on cooking beyond recipes, such as tips on evaluating ingredients. (Do free-range, organic, etc. eggs taste better or have other advantages? López-Alt looked into it.) His breezy, engaging style makes what could be dry instructional material into a delightful read.

I do have some criticisms of the book. As I noted above, there are occasional discrepancies between the column and its printed version, and it’s not always clear which version is best. I doubt these differences amount to anything groundbreaking – trussing or not trussing a roast chicken won’t ruin it – but they are something of a hole in the book’s idealized presentation of food research. The insistence that what López-Alt does is “science” also began to grate on me after a while because, well, it’s not. I don’t think any of his tests are double-blinded. There’s no statistical analysis anywhere, and honestly I think the datasets might be too small for it to work. (For example, when testing brining a chicken breast vs. not brining it, it seems like he used one brined chicken breast and one non-brined one – the percentages of weight lost after cooking that he gives are drawn from just one test, not averaged from many.) That’s not really a problem for a cookbook, and I do trust the claims in The Food Lab, because its author is an experienced cook and he tested the recipes in ways more rigorous than cookbook authors normally do. But there’s a difference between trustworthy information and scientific fact, and it makes me a little uncomfortable to see the veneer of the latter applied to the former.

The other concern I have with The Food Lab is more practical, but certainly still a matter of taste. The recipes are almost all for dishes the typical American home cook has some sense how to make already: egg salad, chili, hot buttered peas. That’s not strictly a bad thing, but it does mean that one of my favorite pastimes, paging through a cookbook for dinner inspiration, doesn’t work well with The Food Lab. The book’s innovations are in technique and refinement of the recipes, not flavor combinations. Of course, this kind of food isn’t everyday to everyone; if you’re new to American home cooking, The Food Lab would make an excellent comprehensive introduction.

So should you buy a nearly thousand-page cookbook? If you’re really into home cooking, I’d definitely recommend at least testing out the recipes. The Food Lab is the kind of cookbook that could become a well-used reference for years to come.