Book Review: The Food Lab

There’s a short list of books I would describe as life-changing. “The Pragmatic Programmer” changed my understanding of the profession I’ve chosen. “Quiet” helped me accept myself for who I am. “Thinking in Systems” changed how I understand the world. There a couple of others, but not many.

“The Food Lab” changed my life by converting me into a confident home-cook.

I’ve always enjoyed food. That’s partly why I needed to lose 26kg. Because I enjoy food and because I like acquiring skills, I’ve wanted to become a decent home-cook for a long while. I’ve tried what a lot of people try. Find a recipe, try that recipe, try again until you get it right. Sometimes I’d make a decent meal. But I never felt confident doing it. A couple of years went by with me rarely making food at home.

I feel confident writing code. I understand quite well what happens with the code I’ve written. Not entirely, there are too many levels and abstractions, but well enough to be confident. As a curious geek, I’m used to knowing what’s going behind the scenes. I’ve figured out that’s what’s missing for me with cooking. I barely understood what happens when I apply high heat to a steak. I had no idea why I was using salt. I could’ve experimented, but those experiments would’ve taken a lot of time and ruined a lot of food.

Enter “The Food Lab.” It’s a massive 1,000 pages tome written by J. Kenji López-Alt, who starts the book with a proclamation “I’m a nerd, and I’m proud of it.” Kenji graduated from MIT. There he figured he loves science but abhors the practice of it. Thus he took up cooking.

Kenji’s background shows in his writing. “The Food Lab” is not a recipe book. It’s a textbook, a manual for cooking. While it’s full of great recipes, for me, they were secondary. More important was learning how salt affects the protein structure and why it matters. Did you know that scrambled eggs salted after cooking “weep,” but eggs salted 15 minutes in advance retain their moisture?

Kenji experiments a lot. He’s someone who’ll make a hundred attempts to find the best way to construct the perfect recipe. He writes down his findings and invites the reader to try some simple experiments at home. For example: an experiment called “Fat = Flavor.” Kenji suggests the reader takes three pieces of beef. Then the reader should add different fat (beef, lamb, and bacon) to each portion, grind each, form into a patty, cook and taste. The result - fat equals flavor.

I completed the book in a year. I’ve read it cover to cover, trying a lot of the recipes along the way. Each chapter, of which there are nine, took me about a month.

I’ve started slowly. When trying to recreate Kenji’s recipes, I would try not to make any mistakes. I would do double-takes, checking every ingredient and how many grams exactly I need to use.

Despite those double-takes, I was having a lot of fun. Primarily because the results tasted well. Kenji makes it easy and fun. He outlays everything in a precise manner and a fun geeky writing style.

Last week I came home from work and quickly whipped up a torikatsu dinner for myself. I didn’t follow the recipe. I didn’t need to. I’ve even made some small simplifications because I was cooking only for myself. It was delicious and making it felt almost effortless. And that’s the legacy of “The Food Lab”: I’ve acquired a skill I’ll be using years from now.

I can’t wait for the second volume of “The Food Lab,” which should be coming in early 2019. If you’re a home-cook or want to become one, I can’t recommend “The Food Lab” enough.