The Food Lab »

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

You Asked The Food Lab 164 Questions. Here Are 164 Answers

It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.

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[Illustration: Robyn Lee]

UPDATE: I made an error when counting. There were 164 SETS of questions, but there are actually 233 individual questions. Wow, nice work guys!

Yesterday I told you I'd answer every single question you asked me. I thought to myself, "hey, here's an easy way to do a fun column this week without time to get into the kitchen. This'll be a snap!

Dear Serious Eaters, I severely underestimated you and your ability to ask fun, challenging, downright thoughtful questions. It's been a hard day's night, but I finally got through 'em all. All 164 of them. My apologies for the ones that I couldn't answer in a satisfactory way, and it's telling that the largest sub-section here is the "I don' t know" section. But if I learned anything from Bill & Ted, it's this:

All we know is that we know nothing.

—Socrates Johnson


Now, on with the answers! I tried to categorize them to make them a bit more... perusable. But still, 24,000+ words is 24,000+ words. I wish you the best of luck. You've brought this upon yourselves.

p.s. feel free to post any more questions in the comments. I'll try to get to them

On Recipe Tips and Troubleshooting

I love to make stromboli and calzone from pizza dough and assorted fillings, always including cheese. I bake them for 20 to 30 minutes at 400 degrees for a nice brown exterior. But usually some cheese erupts through the steam vents or the (not-so-well) sealed ends and bakes into a greasy slab. Should I try a lower oven temp (less browned dough) or a higher, quicker bake? Or something else? Many thanks for your ideas.

First off, I'd seal the ends better and make your vents bigger. Is the dough in the center still doughy when you pull it out of the oven? It sounds to me like you need a higher temperature since the interior is getting too hot (the cheese is erupting) before the exterior is browned to your liking.

Alternatively, let your dough ferment for longer. A couple extra days in the fridge. This will help it brown faster in the oven as more carbohydrates are converted to sugars and the pH of the whole thing goes down.

I have trouble getting a good cracking coat of sugar on my creme brulee. Sometimes I get unmelted burnt sugar or wet unhardened sugar. I've tried brown, white, combo, brule torch, hardware torch, broiler. At different times of the year (i.e. humidity levels). Any secrets? (I did a search earlier this month on SE but didn't see a post on this).

http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/images/20100114-cremebrulee.jpg

[Photograph: Caroline Russock]

It just takes some practice. You do need a strong torch (I use a hardware torch). Tilt the cup and work from the bottom towards the top. If you go the other way around, you end up burning the already-melted sugar at the top side of the ramekin.

How do you prep corn tortillas for tacos? Is there anything quicker than griddling every single one on both sides?

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

For pre-made tortillas, the best way is to steam-griddle them. I heat two small carbon steel or cast iron pans over two burners (just to make the process go faster). Dip a tortilla in a bowl of water and place it directly on the dry skillet. The water will steam off, softening the tortilla. Let it sit long enough to char in spots, then flip to the other side.

Stack the warmed tortillas on a plate wrapped in a clean dish towel. This will help them continue to steam and soften.

If you want to go the extra mile and make your own, try this recipe

I have a homemade pasta question. Is it really necessary to use so many yolks? Why not the whole egg? Also, how would something like spinach be added to maintain texture? Thank you kind sir.

Egg whites are mostly water. Too much water will create too much gluten, which leads to tough pasta. Yolks are mostly water too, but have a good amount of fat in them which helps coat the flour limiting gluten formation. Spinach doesn't add structure, it weakens it!

How does one effectively use garlic?

I'm not sure how to answer the first question. Garlic can change flavor depending on how it's cooked. Raw, it's got a sharp, pungent, spicy flavor. Cooked slowly, it mellows out and sweetens. Cooked until browned, it gets even sweeter and gets some caramel notes. Some dishes benefit from raw, others from cooked. The real key to garlic is to make sure you're using real garlic, not the jarred junk that tastes of tennis shoe bottoms!

Is there a practical way to combine your Jucy Lucy and making any cheese melt like American recipes? In other words, is it possible to put some other cheese in a Jucy Lucy and still have it come out okay?

Sure is. Make the melty cheese, then pour it out into small dishes and allow it to set. Use that cheese slice in your Jucy Lucy. Ta da!

What is the secret to perfectly crisped fried chicken skin?

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

Once again, you're gonna have to wait for my book on this one, but I do really like Thomas Keller's recipe from Ad Hoc. The key is to dip immediately before frying so that there's no time for gluten formation to occur. This gets a shattering crisp crust with no toughness.

Dehydration is the real key to thin, not fatty, not flabby chicken skin. Overnight rest uncovered in the fridge with a baking soda rub works wonders (check out the science and recipe here—it works for fried chicken too).

I've never roasted duck before. I bought a nearly six-pound bird and am making a french dish friday night: Canard à l'Orange. What are the common pitfalls with roasting duck? Am I going to be able to make the skin amazing? What about with a bird this large? And finally, and tips for the specific dish?

The most common pitfalls are not rendering the fat properly, which leads to greasy meat and flabby skin. Follow the tips here and just sub out your orange glaze for the Peking duck glaze, and it should work out just fine.

Here's something I've always wondered: doesn't the common instruction to take two forks and "shred" chicken (or any other cooked meat) for, say, tacos, or chicken salad, contrast with the dictum that meat should be sliced against the grain? Isn't shredding essentially cutting along the grain?

Yes it does, but in some cases you're not necessarily going for the tenderest possible results. Chicken breast is pretty tender on its own, so you want to get a bit of that texture in there. That said, I usually limit the size of my shreds by cutting the meat with a knife across the grain first into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces.

I've just learned that it's egg whites that are responsible for the sulfurous odor I don't like in eggs. I'm wondering if I can make custards using just yolks, and what other applications that ordinarily use whole eggs I could eliminate the whites from. I know I need whites for angel food and other sponge cakes, and mousse. What about for muffins, ordinary cakes, cheesecake. I know how to cook a "boiled" egg to avoid the sulfurous green ring, but is there a trick to counteract the sulfurous odor of egg whites in other applications?

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

It is indeed the whites. But if you're making your custard and sponge cakes right, they should smell sulfurous. That's an indication they're overcooked. I'd suggest trying again, this time using a thermometer!

What is the best way of preventing ground meat skewers from drying out? How do you make a ground lamb kebab all succulent and juicy in a normal home kitchen?

Two things: First, salt is key it dissolves myosin (a meat protein) that causes the meat to bind together, making it easier to hold moisture. Secondly, don't overcook. Use a thermometer and don't let it get above 145°F or so in the center.

On Economics

Once and for all, The question is why do hot dogs come in packages of ten, and hot dog buns come in packages of eight? : )

It's all about the Benjamins.

On Funny Colored Meat and Fizzy Soup

I've been storing my gazpacho in mason jars for easy grab-n-go lunches this summer. But when I open the lid at work, the soup bubbles up and it's all carbonated. And it tastes fizzy, like club soda has been added. It's not old, freshly made a day or two ago. Why is this happening and how do I prevent it? Is it something to do with the glass jar? I don't remember this happening when I stored leftovers in plastic storage containers.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Does it have to do with the glass? Yes and no. The answer is that your soup is fermenting. Those bubbles are carbon dioxide produced by bacteria feeding on your soup. In plastic, you won't notice as much since the excess CO2 can escape (plastic is gas permeable). With a mason jar, there's nowhere for the gas to go, so it stays dissolved in the soup, making it fizzy. It's probably safe to eat with a minor fizz level, but I'd be careful about storing too long.

When cooking tough cuts of beef for long periods of time (days) sous vide, the exterior turns green. I've seen confirmation of this a bunch of places, but no explanation for why it happens. Is this an issue with oxygen and the use of a home grade vacuum sealer? Does this occur with meat sealed in a chamber sealer? Would presearing the meat prevent the meat from turning green?

I've not actually seen this happen, but question: are you salting your meat before sticking it in the bag? If so, my guess would be that the warm environment is speeding up the curing process, which can actually cause a greenish tinge in meats as myoglobin is converted. Kind of like how a ham can have a greenish iridescence to it when sliced.

Or perhaps you just need to take off the green colored shades.

Hi. I seem to consistently have this problem/issue arise when I'm making caramel sauce. Once my sugar and butter reach the color that I want, I add the liquid (e.g. cream, juice, liquor) to thin out the caramel to the consistency that I want and, I assumed, to stop the cooking by dropping the temperature. However, after all the sizzling and hissing caused by adding the liquid, the caramel suddenly is much, much darker than when I added my liquid. Obviously, I'm doing this by estimation, and not with a thermometer... Is this happening bc the caramel bubbles on top before adding the liquid is obstructing the visual of the true color of the liquid caramel underneath? Or does the caramel actually cook more really fast when I add my liquid?

It's your first guess that's right. Bubbles will scatter and diffract light making things seem lighter in color. Think frosted glass vs. clear glass. The frosting makes it appear white. When you add your liquid, the caramel cools and stops cooking. The bubbles go away, and its true colors emerge.

Also, for the love of god and all that is delicious, use a thermometer!

Why the New York steak, cooked sous-vide (in Sous Vide Supreme), in 54C for one hour is grey-pinkinsh inside (http://miciwan.com/steaks/IMG_7794_new.jpg), rather than juicy red, like those on your photos? Why it turns even more gray if I keep it in the water bath for longer (it's still juicy, but nothing close to being bright red)?

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Is your sous-vide rig calibrated? Looks like it might be running a little hot.

On Baking and Measuring

Ounces: How can I tell if a recipe is asking for a measurement by weight or volume?

No easy answer to this. Most of the time if it's a solid ingredients, it's by weight, if a liquid, by volume, though most good baking recipes are written 100% by weight. Check the front of the book you're using, and if it doesn't specify, then you should probably look to a different book.

Is moist cornbread possible? If so, how?

Five words: golden shower of bacon fat.

For recipes that that generally require a stand mixer to make the dough, what is a good alternative for those that don't have one? Do you mix everything with bare hands, can you use a hand mixer, a mixture?

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Have you tried the no-knead method? It's generally what I use when I'm at a vacation home or camping and don't have a mixer with me. It works for nearly any type of bread so long as the hydration is high enough (at least 55% or so).

I often see the instruction to "cover tightly with plastic wrap" in recipes for proofing dough. Does restricting air flow to the dough play a roll in the proofing process or is this simply to keep debris out of the dough as it rests?

The plastic wrap is not to prevent air from getting in, it's to prevent moisture from escaping. If you've ever left a piece of dough out in the open air, you'd see that it forms a tough dehydrated skin within a matter of hours. Plastic wrap prevents this.

Proofing pizza dough: differences in the finished dough as a result of proofing in plastic tupperware-type container vs individual metal container vs plastic dough tray vs wood dough tray. Also, does initial bulk proofing impact finished dough vs dividing and proofing in balls without an initial bulk ferment. Basically, a Food Lab on proofing taken to crazy levels :)

Coincidentally, I just made a deal with Adam to go in together on a set of aluminum proofing trays, so I'll make sure that either myself or Adam reports back on our findings!

Why bother tempering eggs? I know if you add them to hot liquid, the proteins will coagulate and clump. But why not just incorporate them to the liquid from the start and heat the whole thing together?

It's just a safety precaution. Easier to accidentally overcook or unevenly cook eggs if you have to sit there stirring them in a pot the whole time as they come up to temperature. It's safer to just heat your liquids, then add the eggs and only have to stir for a few minutes.

If you really love whisking eggs and cream though, no reason to temper them!

What is your best value when you buy eggs, specifically sizes not cage free vegetarian fed all of that nonsense. If you buy large vs x large vs jumbo and they keep inching the price up 30 cents per size. And is the volume gained in the whites and the yolks or just the whites?

Volume is gained in whites AND yolks. Here's what you've got:

  • Jumbo: greater than 2.5 ounces
  • XL: 2.25 to 2.5 ounces
  • L: 2 to 2.25 ounces
  • M: 1.75 to 2 ounces
  • S: 1.5 to 1.75 ounces
  • Peewee: 1.25 to 1.5 ounces

I don't know the egg prices in your area so I can't say, but just multiply those numbers by twelve, but some basic algebra should get you your answer.

The bigger issue is that most recipes call for large eggs, so even if XL or Jumbo were cheaper, you'd have to compensate when making recipes.

A weird question: Pancake recipe - four liquids (melted butter, milk, veg oil, eggs) four dry (flour, 3 tsp sugar, 3 tsp baking powder, salt). If I double the recipe the pancakes don't puff up the way they do with a single batch. But if I make two single batches, then mix them together, they do fine. I swear. Why do you think that is?

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Excessive mixing can overdevelop gluten and drive air out of the batter. To combine those ingredients in a large bowl with a double batch requires you to stir too vigorously. Mixing in two separate batches fixes that problem. It's the same deal with tempura batter.

I often find layer cakes dry, and sometimes I think that maybe I should try an oil based cake. Any suggestions? Looking for the perfect, moist yellow cake.

What do you use for your cakes, butter? I'd suggest increasing the fat, the egg yolks, and cooking just a little bit less.

Does wheat bran have gluten in it? Internet sources don't seem to agree on if there is or not.

It's a trick question because "gluten" itself doesn't exist in flour. Gluten is the protein matrix that forms when milled flour is mixed with water. Wheat bran in and of itself doesn't have gluten, per se, but it can develop a tiny bit of gluten when you mix it with water. The main inhibitor of gluten development is that the rough shards of bran cut up gluten as it forms. So the answer is... yes and no?

A reason for most of the time being said to use unsalted butter for pastries and leavened dough? (but that too much salt can inhibit yeast's work...?)

It has more to do with being able to control salt content than inhibiting yeast's work. Unsalted butter should be called for in ANY recipe, not just baking, because it gives the cook complete control over how much salt goes into the food instead of being dependent on how much salt is already in the butter. I don't keep salted butter at home.

Can you mix flours of different gluten levels to produce a composite flour with similar characteristics to an unmixed flour with that gluten level?

To a degree, sure. But protein content is not the be-all end-all of flour. The protein from hard red winter wheat is quite different from that of say, soft white wheat.

How do you convert a dough recipe that uses yeast to one that uses a sourdough starter? I'd imagine you'd need to subtract some of the flour and liquid from the recipe, but is there a particular ratio or rule of thumb? Is it different for white flour vs. whole-grain flours?

Check out the final ratio of flour to water in the recipe, then make sure that however much starter you add, your final ratio is still the same. You don't have to be super precise in how much starter you add. Add too little, and just let it proof longer. Too much? Just proof shorter. In the end, it's all about how the dough looks at various stages. When a recipe calls for a doubling of volume during proofing, for example, follow that visual cue, not the specific timing which can depend on a wide variety of factors like temperature or yeast activity.

On Using Spices

A lot of Indian recipes want me to put spices in the cooking oil to 'bring out the flavor.' But hold up! Aren't the particles that flavor these spices super volatile? By tossing them in at the very beginning of the cooking process won't I have severely diminished or destroyed their flavor by the time I serve? Or is this only the case for ground spices, and whole spices can take way more punishment? I gotta know!

Heating whole spices does two things: it forces volatile flavor compounds out of larger cells so that they are more easily released when the spice is subsequently ground. It also causes many complicated chemical reactions between these compounds that produce a range of new compounds each with their own aroma, adding complexity to the spice.

Toasting ground spices will cause the second reaction, but yes, many of the volatile compounds will escape into the air (I.E. if you can smell it, it's not in your food). It's best to toast whole spices, then grind them.

Many Indian recipes call for toasting spices in a fat, in which case many of the fat-soluble compounds will be released and trapped in the fat so that it can be more easily and evenly incorporated into the rest of the dish. Thai curries start with a similar process.

What is the best way to get a really smooth Indian curry if you start with whole spices in the pan? I have tried straining it but sometimes I feel like the majority of the curry's body gets left behind in the strained portion. Blending works - but there can still be some grittiness left over from say, whole cumin and coriander that I started with.
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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Start by toasting whole spices, then grind them in a spice grinder before continuing with the recipe. Make sure you have a good spice grinder, like this one from Krups. Barring that, get a better blender.

On Cocoa Powder

OK, here's a question. I'm aware of some of the differences in flavor between dutched (alkali-treated) cocoa and natural cocoa. Accordingly, there are some recipes that point to a preference for dutched cocoa. However, what if all you have is natural cocoa. Clearly, the lower pH of natural cocoa would alter a recipe that relies on chemical leveners (e.g. baking soda v baking powder), but I'm curious if there is a way to also help natural cocoa taste more "dutch-like."

For example, could you add a portion of baking soda to elevate natural cocoa's pH and would it then lead to some of the same "smoothness" of flavor like that of dutched cocoa? Just wonderin'.

For those who don't know, Dutch process cocoa is cocoa powder that's been treated with an alkaline solution to neutralize some of its acid. I've never tried to Dutch cocoa myself, since it's so readily available. Dutch process cocoa consistently scores better and tastes more "chocolatey" than natural cocoa in blind taste tests because by getting rid of some of the harsher, acidic, fruitier flavors, the deeper richer background flavors can come through more easily. That's why most recipes call for it.

It's worth a test yourself if all you ever have is natural cocoa. Let me know how it turns out, your idea is a good one!

On How Flavors Affect Flavors

When I eat dried korean squid (ojinguh) followed by a sip of alcohol, new flavors come out - and it changes depending on the alcohol - whether it's beer, red wine or something like soju. it's not just a "beer goes well with salty foods" kind of thing - i'm tasting different things.

Some flavorful compounds are more soluble in alcohol than water or oil. Most likely, these compounds are picked up by the alcoholic vapors and delivered selectively to your nose and soft palate (that's why I like to add some booze to me chili).

Same question, but this time eating salt-fermented korean squid (ojinguh jeot) followed by tomatoes. there's a bit of "tomatoes taste good with salt" but there's definitely something else going on in my mouth

It's the interaction between glutamates (found abundantly in tomatoes), and inosinates (found in dried fermented fish products). They both trigger an umami reaction in the mouth, but when combined, can be an order of magnitude more powerful, like when the elements combine to bring forth Captain Planet.

Why does red wine enhance heat/spiciness from foods? (Or is it just my imagination.)

Spiciness is not a flavor, it's sensed in the same way that touch is perceived, as if your tongue is being pinched or burned. Alcohol can irritate this sensation just like pouring rubbing alcohol on a wound can make it hurt more.

It's my experience that eggs (and to some extent cheese) act to significantly reduce the "hot" of hot peppers and pepper sauces -- e.g. when I put Tabasco on my omelette. Why?

Fats in eggs and cheese coat your tongue which both dilutes the oils in hot sauces and prevents them from getting too close to your tongue.

On Cooking Vegetables

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Hi.. I have a weird broccoli question. I seriously loathe broccoli but for some reason when I cut it into tiny pieces, and roast it , it becomes wonderful and I could eat it every day. I don't know why , except I can only assume that it's the water -- when I roast it, since the pieces are so small, the water is dried out of it and the outside gets almost caramelized and changes taste? Why does that taste SO good to me while steamed broccoli takes so vile? Oh and this same thing goes for cauliflower... 
Thanks!

You're exactly right. Smaller pieces lose moisture faster, and with less moisture, the broccoli can get hotter, triggering the Maillard reaction. This is the browning reaction that occurs between proteins and sugars to create hundreds of flavorful compounds. Roasted broccoli and cauliflower will develop sweet, nutty flavors that are, as you said, pretty awesome. It's the reason why I love the brussels sprouts pizza at Motorino so much.
It's also my favorite way to cook broccoli. You could try stir frying too, letting it sit in the pan a bit to brown.

I live at altitude and notice that when I sautee, everything browns/burns much faster than recipes predict--probably 30% faster: onions, spices, etc. Is it just because the air is also a lot dryer up here (and therefore I should add a little bit of water to the pan to counterbalance), or is it something about altitude/boiling point (in which case, what do I do?)

It's the latter. Water boils at a much lower temperature so foods dry out faster in the skillet and thus start to brown faster. I'd just think of it as a positive boon. You can cook much faster! But if your goal is to reduce browning, have a mister or a small cup of water handy and just add a bit of water to your pan whenever it threatens to burn.

Also, what is a foolproof method for making polenta and what cornmeal/polenta should you buy for the right texture and no clumps?

Traditional method always works for me: bringing water to a boil, dumping the polenta in in a thin stream while you whisk, then slow-cooking it with plenty of stirring. I prefer using traditional polenta, which takes about 40 minutes to an hour to cook, but then, I kind of enjoy the whole slow process.

The real key to great polenta? Lots of butter and cream.

On Cookies

Roasting Plant / Tom Cat Bakery

[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

When baking cookies, I am sometimes not content with the size that is being asked for. If I were to make the cookies a bit bigger, what else should change? Do I need to change temperature or how long they bake? If I want the same texture but just bigger do I flatten the cookie out a bit? Does making them bigger affect how they spread? This would all be very helpful things to know.

There isn't a universal answer to this question, I'm afraid. American cookies that spread as they bake and end up with crispy edges won't work if you simply double the size as they'd start to set before completely spread. You end up with burnt edges before the center is cooked, like trying to make a giant pancake.

Lowering the oven temp by 50°F or so should work, though you'd have to experiment based on the specific recipe.

Do you know of a recipe for chocolate chip cookies where the cookies are baked twice - sort of like biscotti?

Afraid not... but biscotti are made by baking once at a normal temp, then baking at a very low temperature to dehydrate.

Wow, this is amazing and daring. I'm assuming you knew what you were getting into.

 Some baking questions for now: How do I achieve the perfect chewy chocolate chip cookie? In other words, I'm looking for that slightly gooey center. No thin crispy cookies for me.


Use this recipe from Jacques Torres. It's insanely good, crisp on the edges, but gooey in the center.

What make Macrons have feet(pied) when you bake them? How do you make perfect macarons?

The feet form because heat is transferred to the bottom of the cookie via conduction through a metal pan. It heats faster than the rest of the cookie. Just like bread in a hot oven puffs up before it has time to form a crust and set, same thing happens with the bottom of the cookie. It expands rapidly before the exterior begins to set, pushing out and forming little feet. The top of the cookie, on the other hand, cooks relatively slowly, and so less expansion.

We've got a great macaron recipe on the site right here!

Why do some cookie recipes call for 1 tbsp light corn syrup to be added to the dough? I understand the use of corn syrup when making a simple syrup (invert sugar, etc), but why only a tablespoon in cookie dough? When the recipe makes 48-odd cookies, what does this contribute? I've tried leaving it out and, personally, can't tell the difference.

I'd guess probably not a lot in that case, but corn syrup is more hygroscopic than sugar (water likes sticking to it), which can help keep cookies moister and chewier as they bake. That's the idea behind mixing regular sugar and corn syrup.


When baking large batches of cookies, there is sometimes an obvious difference between the first tray and the last, usually in the way the edges crisp up or the spread. It has nothing to do with the temperature of the trays, because I always make sure they are fully cooled before the I put cookie dough on them. I suspect it has to do with the temperature of the dough as it sits on the counter, but I also get undesirable results if the dough chills too much in the refrigerator. What is the solution to make the cookies uniform from start to finish?

I'd guess it has more to do with the way your oven cycles, though temperature of the dough may have something to do with it. I'd store your dough in a little cooler to help it keep its temperature from batch to batch, and if your oven has a convection setting, use it (turn down the dial by 25°F or so first) to help even out changes in oven temperature over space and time.

Here's a basic procedure that I've always wondered about... in almost every recipe for a baked good (cookies, cakes, quick breads, etc) you start with a creaming method, and then if you have liquids and a dry mix to incorporate you alternate between each (which makes sense) and always end with the dry. Why end with the dry? Couldn't you just as easily end with the wet?

Sure could. My guess is that it's just convention that got written into practice. Give it a shot the other way around and see how it works out for you.

How do you bake cookies with a light, crisp exterior yet gooey interior a la Levain Bakery's cookies? How important is the mix of flour in achieving this? Jacques Torres' CCC recipe calls for (8 1/2 ounces) cake flour and 1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour... doesn't that simply create a protein mix roughly akin to AP flour?

See above. That Jacques Torres recipes rules. I've done it with A/P and it works just fine.

Why are there so many questions about cookies and desserts? I thought you weren't into sweets that much.

Why indeed?!?

On Soft Meat

Kenj...my question relates to pot roast. Over the past few years, my fiance and I have tried about 4 or 5 different pot roast recipes, none of which came out very good. Maybe with the exception of our most recent effort, where the meat tasted dry and tough right after it finished cooking but after sitting in the refrigerator overnight somehow the meat seemed much more tender and juicy. Why is that? Also, is there some pot roast recipe out there where the meat will be tender and juicy right after cooking it, also without overcooking the potatoes and veggies?

I have a pot roast recipe coming out in my book, so you'll have to wait for a specific recipe, but the reason it tastes better in the refrigerator overnight is that it reabsorbs liquid as it rests. Take a look at the graph in this post. A roast will reabsorb about 3% more liquid overnight. The key to the best pot roast, however, is to make sure to cook low and slow in the oven, with the lid slightly ajar on the pot (this keeps the liquid cooler by about 15°F, leading to more even, gently cooking.

On Menu Suggestions

What is a good dish that can be made for a large dinner gathering. Talking about 10-12 people, with limited time to cook the day of, but can be prepped the day before. I'm not finding a lot outside of pasta.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Whoah, talk about open-ended question!

Soups are great, I find roasting a couple of chickens is very easy and takes about 10 minutes of active time. Roast chicken is probably my go-to for easy, filling, crowd-pleasing dinner party stuff. Butterfly the thing and it'll cook in a real hurry. Try this recipe. How about an nice big cassoulet? Or a choucroute with sausages and smoked ham hocks?

Real hard question to answer unless I know more about what you like. What say we get to know each other first. THEN we can talk dinner?
Do you have any suggested dishes for a Chinese themed dinner party for 6-8 people where my wife and I would love to be enjoying the party and not spending all the time in the kitchen. Do you have any favorite Chinese cookbooks I could order to help? Any suggestions for Chinese themed cocktails or beverages? We are looking for fairly authentic Chinese recipes and have no problem tracking down hard to get ingredients but need to cater to some...North American palates. Sorry for the long question - suggestions on good books would be more than sufficient to help us out!
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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

When planning dinner parties, my only rule is to make sure that there are a variety of cooking methods involved. That way I can optimize kitchen space by having burners and oven going at the same time. A good menu might be:

7 dishes, 4 burners and an oven. You can space them out over time to make it easier. Appetizers then mains (that way, you can also reuse the frying wok to stir fry in).

I hate spending money on the crappy cafeteria food at work, but don't always have time to make my lunch. I would like to "cook once, eat lunch for a week" but I only have a microwave and hot water as cooking devices at work. What would be good, basic food to cook and freeze? And can I get short grain white rice to freeze well? (I could eat chicken thighs, rice and veg for half my meals with different sauces...)

Steamed rice freezes EXTREMELY well. I always have a ziplock bag full of frozen rice in the freezer to reheat in the microwave when I want something quick and easy. I'd suggest buying a whole chicken, roasting it, using the mat for various meals, making a stock out of the carcass for soup, and having some rice in the freezer to grab and go (chicken soup with rice?)

On Chemicals

Can you replace xanthan gum for cornstarch to thicken sauces. how?

You can, but it varies depending on the recipe, and you won't get exactly the same final texture. Sorry I can't be more specific.

What is the scientific explanation for the synergistic effects of combining peanut butter with chocolate?

It's an under-studied phenomenon known as the Reese's effect. Currently the findings are only available in trade journals that I don't have access to, but when they're finally revealed, boy is the world in for a change. A gooey, sticky, chocolatey change.

Kenji, sorry to add yet another question to the many but I have a question about vegetarian marshmallows (no gelatin) . I've tried to make them at home with agar agar powder but they were a massive failure and didn't set up. 

How do you make marshmallows with agar? Thanks!!

I'd suggest trying a Kosher gelatin, which are usually vegan, such as Lieber's Unflavored Gel

I'm currently fascinated with thickeners (mostly as applied to puddings). I have a million questions, so I'd love to know if there's a great science or cookbook resource for thickener info.

Absolutely. Check out Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot's Ideas In Food. The website is a great resource, as is the book.

I like to nuke Okinawan sweet potatoes in the microwave but have noticed that the flesh tends to turn a bizarre green when the spuds are cut open. Leaving aside the wisdom of the cooking method, why does this happen - a case of some compound in the flesh reacting with the air?

Are you talking about the white kind or the purpler? I've never seen it happen with Okinawan sweet potatoes, but I do know that with immature garlic, there are compounds that are precursors to chlorophyll that will react with each other and turn green in the presence of either sunlight or acid. Heat can hasten these reactions (to a degree). Something similar is probably going on inside your yam.


On Cook's Illustrated and Chris Kimball

What do you think of Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen recipes and cookbooks? they seem to take a pretty scientific/experimental approach like you do. are they worth shelling out the money for?

Having worked for them for three years, I have a lot of respect for their product. Their books are generally the first place I go when I want to get some basic ratios and techniques for a recipe that I'm not completely familiar with, though I do take their suggestions with a grain of salt. Their tastes tend to run... blander than mine. What's great about them is they explain enough background that you can confidently make changes to recipes to suit your own taste. I'd heartily recommend their books.

One caveat: many of their books are repackagings/overlap heavily with their other books, so make sure you look through each one before deciding what you want. The great big "New Best Recipe" book is one of the best deals on the market. Thousands of good recipes, for about $35.

Why did you leave Cook's Illustrated and how did you end up back there? Unless I'm wrong, there was a period of several months where you weren't with them recently? You said ask anything!

I left because I got married and my wife had to move to New York for school. I worked freelance for them as an editor and recipe developer for about a year before breaking ties completely when I started writing my book last year. I haven't been on staff there since last April, or thereabouts. You may still occasionally see a recipe of mine in the magazine or tv show because they operate on a schedule that sometimes goes as far as a year in advance.

Anything really outstanding you've been wanting to tell us, your loyal readers, about your time at Cook's Illustrated? (Like, is Kimball really as odd as he comes across in his columns?)

I had a great time at Cook's Illustrated. My only complaints would be that they have a very very narrow view in terms of the types of recipes and the voice you can use when writing for them, but it's hard to fault them for it, since it's worked for so long.

I used to play a game where I would try to sneak in dirty phrases into my stories and see how far up the editorial latter it would get before someone noticed. One time Chris Kimball himself had to mention that describing the chicken fat leaking out of a roast chicken as "a golden shower" was probably not a good idea for our readership.

Kimball is an odd ball, but in a totally different way than he comes across on camera or in his editorials. He's a business man, plain and simple, and he's made a great business based on a great product and a laser-sharp image. I have utmost respect for the man.

On Bacon and Breakfast

©iStockphoto.com/Juanmonino

What is your preferred method for cooking bacon strips? Pan? Oven? On Optimus Prime's engine block? Does the thickness of the strip change your cooking method?
Best is on the overturned lid of a Dutch oven in the woods on a brisk late summer morning in the woods while everyone else is asleep (so you can sneak some pieces yourself). At home, cooking for a crowd I use the oven. Cooking for one or two, I'll use a big cast iron skillet or sometimes the microwave regardless of the thickness.

Does bacon have pheromones? If not, why do i lust for it every time i'm near it.

Take a close look at yourself in the mirror to double check that you are not a ham.

I'm looking for filling breakfast foods, healthy preferred. Cereals don't usually cut it, probably because they're all sugar and starch and no protein. Obviously boiled (and other kinds) of eggs should be on the list, and I'm suspecting Baked Beans should be too (although if you know of reasons to reconsider, let me know), but I was hoping you could provide some other suggestions. Warm is good but not needed, long time to prepare is bad as I need to get to work after eating, you know?

I don't generally eat much by way of breakfast, but when I do, beans and eggs are right there on the top of my list, as is my absolute favorite breakfast, tamago gohan. Two minutes to prepare, and insanely delicious and filling.

How about frying an egg? What's the best way to cook the yolk enough, but not overcook the white? Variable to consider: butter/oil/... salt/no-salt, temperature of the pan before addition of the anything/temperature before addition of the egg/temperature changes throughout the cooking process.

It's all in what you want. Marco Pierre White prefers his eggs slow cooked in butter so that they don't get any color on them. I far prefer mine to have really crispy, browned edges. I generally fry my eggs over relatively high heat with a good amount of oil, bacon fat, or duck fat (I don't use butter because it burns at the temperatures I fry at). My trick is to tilt the pan and use a spoon to baste just the white of the egg with hot oil so that it bubbles and sputter and cooks really fast. That way you get the best contrast between crisp, bubbly white and rich liquid yolk.

How do I make good hashbrowns from fresh potatoes? I always end up making a gluey mess. Frozen potatoes seem to work ok, but I often want to use up some potatoes by making hash.

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Maxwell Street Omelet. [Photograph: D.H. Lee]

Try grating them on a box grater, then rinsing them briefly to get rid of excess starch (don't rinse too long or they'll never soften!)

Same question again, crispy pork skins? (Got a big ol' hunk of pig skin hanging out in the freezer waiting for me to be brave enough to make cracklins...)

Boil the skin until tender, scrape the excess fat off the underside, dry it carefully in the fridge on a rack overnight, then deep fry. Puffy, crisp, crackly skin!

What's the easiest/most foolproof way to poach an egg at home?

First, make sure you have the absolute freshest eggs possible so that they retain their shape more easily. I use the vortex method: swirl the water in the pan at just below a simmer, then carefully tip the egg out of a cup into the center of the vortex. Keep it moving so it doesn't rest against the bottom of the pan.

If you don't care about perfect shape, here's another method that works: butter a very small bowl or round-bottomed cup. Put the egg in it. Carefully lower the whole thing into the hot water, allowing the water to gently pour over the top of the bowl onto the egg. Let it sit like that in the post for a couple minutes, then carefully use a thin metal spatula to prize the egg out. It should slide out easily.

What is the optimum length of time to boil a NY bagel?

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[Photograph: Adam Kuban]

As long as it takes. No, see the next question:

I bake my own breads, and even though I live near NYC, I like the challenge of making my own NY style water bagels. However, whenever I make them, I find they come out fairly flat, a problem I never run into with any other kind of bread. I've read that the boiling process possibly causes the bagels to over-inflate and collapse. Is this a possible cause, or is there some other explanation for why it is so difficult to get bagels to properly rise?

Adam Kuban wrote a masterful post about how to make bagels. Have you seen it?

On Crustacean Dismemberment

Why do you have to cut the eyes/mouth off a soft shell crab when cleaning them? What will happen if you eat crab gills (soft or hard shell)?

The eyes and the sacs behind the mouth will explode if you try and deep fry or pan fry a soft shell crab without removing them, which isn't the end of the world, but can get hot grease all over you. Believe me, it happened more than once at restaurants I've worked in. Crab gills won't kill you, but they have an unpleasant texture and flavor.

On Asian Food

Do you know those egg rolls that they serve in the old New England Polynesian-style Chinese places like Kowloon? They're big and thick, and full of this dark green vegetable which is sort of pickle-y tasting and is decisively not cabbage! 

What *is* that stuff? I'm addicted, and I'm worried that these restaurants are going to go extinct before I can convince a staff member to share the recipe!

I'm not quite sure, but I'd guess it's Zha cai, a preserved root of the mustard plant.

How can I do a good stir fry when I don't have a gas stovetop?

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A flat-bottomed wok is best for indoors, but for the best stir fry, use the Alton Brown method: set your wok over a half charcoal chimney full of glowing hot coals.

Marinading/Infusing Tofu. I've tried nearly every method I can find or think of to infuse flavors into my super firm tofu except one-dry frying then marinade. This morning I cooked it at 200F in the oven for 30 min and now it's braising. Is there any sure-fire method I can follow?

I don't have a satisfactory answer for this one. I personally revel in the blandness of tofu. It's a great counterpoint to a flavorful sauce, like barely sweetened whipped cream on a rich chocolate pudding. Sorry!

My question is actually recipe specific. I love - as in, LOVE - spicy salt and pepper squid in Chinese restaurants. I can't figure out how best to batter/bread the fish fillets so they're crispy but not heavy. I usually finish the dish by quickly tossing the fried fish fillets in hot oil, chopped green onions and jalapenos, which I like a lot, but the salt mixture seems off. Advice please! :)

Also, what are some of Hambone's favorite eats and treats? Every time I see a picture of him longingly staring at a donut, etc., I imagine the poor Trix rabbit being tormented by those kids from my childhood. I want to hear about his favorite food things, play things, activities...etc. More Hambone! :)

I make spicy salt and pepper shrimp by brining them first in heavily salted water, then very carefully drying them with paper towels and tossing them in corn starch. I then deep fry them at 425°F for just 30 seconds or so and immediately transfer to a paper towel-lined bowl to drain. Finally, I'll stir fry sliced garlic and chinese long green peppers in a bit of oil, add the shrimp, and then add plenty of ground white pepper and salt. Should work just as well for the shrimp. The key is to make sure everything is dry before adding the corn starch so it doesn't form too thick a layer, and make sure the oil is hot enough and you cook in batches small enough that it stays hot.

As for Hambone, he's still too young for me to trust myself to make his food, but I'll start cooking it within a month or so. I try and mix up the recipe for dog food to keep the pup interested, but here's a basic recipe with about the right ratio of fat to meat to veg to grains. His favorite activities include nuzzling your feet, napping, chasing strangers around the office, and generally behaving extraordinarily well (such the opposite from Dumpling, but equally lovable!). His favorite toy is a knotted up towel or sock. He's teething now, so gnawing on anything'll do.

I am obsessed with the "chinese restaurant fried chicken wing" -- the dry (not coated with sauce), simple wing (usually not a thick batter or anything) that I assume is an american chinese food thing. Many restaurants make them, a few well. I've never succeeded in getting it quite right. what the hell is going on with those? it seems incredibly simple but there is something subtle going on.

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Fried Chicken Wings from Mission Chinese Food [Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I'm currently in the process of working on a new fried chicken wing recipe using Chinese restaurants as my source. From what I gather, freezing is an essential part of that process. The chicken wings are fried once, frozen, then fried a second time directly from the freezer.

I've not yet done enough testing to confirm whether or how it works, but I'll definitely get back to you on this.

What are good vegetarian substitutes for the fish sauce and shrimp paste in Asian recipes?

There are no good substitutes, but there are several mushroom-based vegetarian fish sauces on the market that will do alright. You can also sub soy sauce for fish sauce if you can't find the vegetarian options, though the flavor will change.

what exactly is gui zhou chicken? i know it's on several nyc sichuan menus (most famously at grand sichuan), but i haven't been able to find a recipe in any of the chinese cookbooks i've consulted, nor has using google yielded any relevant results...

It's pretty similar to Kung Pao chicken, except it uses pieces of chicken that are lightly battered and deep fried in place of stir-fried chicken chunks. It's also a little heavier on the vinegar. I'd start with this recipe, but instead of stir frying the chicken, dust it with corn starch after its marinade and deep fry for about 1 minute until the pieces are crisp. Then proceed with the recipe as written.

what makes fish "sashimi" grade? I have heard some conflicting stuff about frozen fish killing whatever that makes raw fish harmful... is this true? what's the safest way to buy/use raw fish?

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

There's no official definition of "sashimi grade," but it can mean a few things. For fresh fish, it means it was caught very recently (usually within days, if not that day), bled and cleaned then immediately chilled and kept chilled through transportation to maintain freshness.

Some fish are caught in big boats that stay out at sea for months. These boats are equipped with deep fast freezers that can freeze a whole fish without doing much damage to its flesh. If you ever see a frozen whole tuna at an auction, it looks like a log of wood, its so stiff. This deep freeze does indeed kill harmful parasites.

I've got a pretty good guide to shopping for fish in my ceviche post. Those rules apply to sashimi or sushi as well.

How do American-Chinese food restaurants make the beef in their beef and broccoli so lip-smackingly tender? I've tried everything to replicate it at home, even baking soda!

Long marinade in soy-bases sauce. Soy has natural proteases (those are enzymes that break down proteins) that will break down mea. Try thin slicing against the grain followed by an overnight marinade.

Is there any science behind velveting chicken? What is it about Cornstarch that "tenderizes" the meat?

It doesn't tenderize the meat but does prevent the exterior from overcooking and drying out, making the whole thing seem more tender.

And the question that has plagued me for a long time... what's the secret to making soft, thin, Indian rotis/chapatis?

Let your dough rest to relax gluten, use a press or a rolling pin. If you want them extra thin, you can cook them like chinese pancakes: press two disks of dough together with a thin layer of oil brushed in between, roll them together, the griddle them together and peel them apart when they start to puff. Half as thin!

On Shiny Foil Hats, Metaphysics, and Purple Jump Suits

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[Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Hey Kenji, this is a bit of an oddball question, but maybe up your alley. How close can a plant come to creating meat? Plants sometimes create things they want us to eat -- fruits for example -- but it seems like, try as they might, they never produce something as delicious as meat. What's holding them back?

Weirdo.

No, seriously, the reason meat tastes better to us than plants are a) probably social and/or b) because meat is nutritionally much more dense and contains more the things that were harder for us to come by during our evolution. As to why plants can't produce meat... I have no idea, you'll have to ask the flying spaghetti monster.

My question has to do with categorization of foods as snack food. How would you define a snack as opposed to another type of food? I believe that all food can be snack food if the person eating the food is eating it AS A SNACK. My friend Ahmed believes that a food is only a snack food if the producer of the food INTENDS it to be such. We have contacted the Snack Food Association of America, but they clearly had an agenda and kind of avoided the issue. I'd appreciate your insight.

Freakazoid.

Kidding. This is a pretty metaphysical question. I'd have to put hand-held in my criteria for snack food. So a small plate of pot roast is NOT a snack food. I'm probably more aligned in thought with your friends.

Do you enjoy your leftover pizza cold or reheated?

Nutcase.

I mean... Both ways, depending on the state of my constitution and how much work I'm willing to put in. But if reheating, I use this method.

Is there any way to bring Julia Child back from the dead?

Eww...

Yes, but first we need a jar of Ash-2-Life.

Is it true that using butter to shave will give me baby soft skin and eliminate the nicks?

Wacko.

No, but rubbing babies named Nick with softened butter will eliminate the need to shave. Seriously, just try it.

On Coca-Cola

Where can I find Coca-Cola in NYC in glass bottles larger than 8oz?

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

You can get Mexican Coke at Costco for $17.99 a case in 12-ounce bottles. Down near our office, you can get it at the bodega on Spring and Wooster, or somewhere thereabouts. There are a number of latin bodegas that have it in the area. You can get it in the supermarket on 133rd and Lenox as well.

If wine and food pairing professionals would expand by including ALL beverages, not just wines (and possibly beers), what do you think they would recommend pairing with pizza?

I go with Ice cold Coca-cola or birch beer.

On Mucus-like Foods

Is natto ever tasty? Or does it always taste like slimy ammonia? How can I tell if it's "good natto" or if it's gone off (assuming it can go off)? (seriously, I want to like it, but, blargh)

It shouldn't smell like ammonia ever. If it does, it's off. If it's moldy, it's off. If it smells like the boil-infested feet of an 800-year-old swamp-dwelling ogre, you're good to go. I like it in small amounts with rice, but it's not for everyone.

On Regrets

Do you regret your offer to answer every single question?

Not yet. Check back on me after the next 50.

On Shady Logic

In the Mission Street Food cookbook, Anthony Myint suggests brining chicken in salt and oil in order to keep it crispier than brining in salt and water. I'd think the salt never gets into the bird because it doesn't flow through the oil. What do you think? (Ideally you'd try it and report, but I understand).

Sounds like a sham to me. Salt does not dissolve in oil (it just sits at the bottom), so I don't see how it could possible get transported to the chicken. That said, I love love loved Mission Chinese Food.

On Fables

Is Anansi a spider or a man???????

I'm not sure, all I do know is that the lazy bastard do little as he can.

On Drinking

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

How important is it to add a splash of spring water into a glass of Scotch?

Only as important as you think it is. I know pros who do it both ways. I take mine with a single ice cube which I usually let melt a bit before drinking.

You = alone on a deserted island w/ an unlimited supply of ONE alcoholic beverage. What is it?

Assuming that the beverage is there to help me pass the time and not to help me survive, I'd probably go with bottles of Premiere Cru Chassagne-Montrachet (that'd be fancy-pants pinot noir). Goes equally well with hand-caught crabs, wild boar, or even mangoes and coconut!

Well, maybe not a "Food Lab" question, but a Beer Lab one! Either way, highly enjoyable. But as for the question: Aluminum cans vs Glass bottles. Do beers really turn bad in glass bottles quicker? Does aluminum give beer a metallic taste? Is there one that's definitely "better," or is it all just in our heads?

I haven't done any testing on beer specifically, but yes, aluminum keeps drinks fresher than glass bottles for two reasons: air and light. The seal on a glass bottle is not as tight as a perfectly sealed aluminum can (the plastic gasket coating under the metal lids is gas permeable, aluminum is hermetic). Light causes reactions that will eventually alter flavor as well. Store your beer in a cool, dark place, and most of these differences go away.

If your travels take you near Manchester, CT - want to grab a beer?

Absolutely!

Ohhh boy Kenji haha... are you regretting this yet? I just moved to New Haven, CT from California and...well, I'm trying to get used to making separate shopping trips for groceries vs wine/alcohol. WHY are the alcohol laws around these parts so antiquated? On that note, (if you do drink) what is your favorite red wine, white wine, and cocktail?

Old puritan laws die hard. Did you know that you can't buy electrical appliances from a supermarket in New Jersey on a sunday? At least you're not in Boston, where it's even worse!

My favorite red is Pinot Noir, my favorite white is probably Sancerre, Vouvray, or a good Pouilly-Fumé, and my favorite cocktail is the Sazerac.

On My Man Will

Who would win in a fight, you or Will Gordon?

What day is today? Thursday? Probably Will. I'm not really one to exchange in fisticuffs. In the words of Michael Jackson...



Do you think you could drink Will Gordon "under the table"?

Not unless he was already there to begin with...

On My Job

With unlimited resources, what would be your dream project at The Food Lab? Also, what's been your favorite or most surprising discovery so far?

Dream project is to build a fully functional test kitchen so that I can open the door to all the other dream projects I have. Or is that sort of like wishing for more wishes?

My favorite discovery so far is that I can actually make a living doing what I love doing best. That and how to make awesome french fries.

Often in Food Lab entries the large amounts of food used in the experiments is mentioned. I know that the complete screw-ups are probably trashed, but what about what comes out edible but just not up to the standards you're seeking? Does it get chucked, shared with friends, given to homeless shelters, what?

My wife and mother eat tons of leftovers, as do all of the doormen in my building, some neighbors, coworkers, friends. I don't chuck much of anything!

Does SE pay well? I was going to ask for a ballpark figure, but that's some personal shit.

It allows me to do exactly what I want to do most and earn a living out of it. My job/life satisfaction (and I assume that of my colleagues) is through the roof, and I wouldn't exchange that for ten times the pay (sorry, intentionally dodged that question!).

Should Ed give you a raise/bonus for answering all these questions??

Absolutely he should.

Would you be interested in hosting a cooking show focused on the science of the recipes? (I bet it would be awesome!)

Yes indeed, we're working on it :)

How practical and important do you think the topics covered on Serious Eats but more specifically on Food Lab are to the average person?

I strive very hard to make sure that every article I write has something that the average person can apply in their every day life, if not verbatim, then at least as a concept or an idea. No point in writing, testing, and discovering if nobody is ever going to use your discoveries!

On Asking Me Anything

Sounds like a reddit AMA post :) Really... it's not the cesspool some might think it is. If I put up an AMA Request for a competent cook who writes well, with a sense of humor, would you go there and play?

I'm on Reddit way more than I should be (handle: kenjialt). I'd consider doing an AMA, though I may wait until my book comes out so I have a little more interesting to say. But go ahead and post the request so we can at least gauge the level of interest in it.

On Beans, Flatulence, and Pudding

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

Why aren't there more pressure cooker recipes out there? There's a whole slew of slow cooker recipes out there. I want my food FAST, not slow.

I don't know! My only guess is that not enough folks own pressure cookers around here. Go to my wife's hometown of Bogota at 8,000 feet, and there are plenty of pressure cooker recipes!

How long do you think it'll take a fart to travel up a bathtub of chocolate pudding? Will it reach the surface, or remain suspended until the pudding dries out and crumbles? 

I was drinking with friends and we argued about this for hours and could not come to a conclusion.

An interesting question that I've often pondered myself. It really depends on the brand, the depth of the bathtub, and the, er... explosiveness of the flatulence. So with nice creamy Kozy Shack in a normal NYC apartment 18-inch deep tub and an average wind breakage, I'd guess no more than a minute or two, especially if you're moving around. But fill up a deep Japanese tub with that thick gloppy Trader Joe's stuff, and your release may never see the light of day.

How does one cook beans in a pressure cooker to a creamy texture without bursting their skins?

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Soak them in salt water overnight. Salt will displace some of the calcium and magnesium ions in the beans' skins so that they soften more easily, preventing them from bursting.

On The Number 42

What's it all mean?

We're all just unsoaked beans in the great big pressure cooker of life, man.

What is the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything?

I'll answer your question with a question of my own: How many roads must a man walk down?

On Pickling and Preserving, and DIY Projects

what are the top things that people should be making/preparing/cooking at home themselves instead of buying but typically don't (because they didn't know you could or don't know how.) to make the list it should be relatively easy with basic kitchen equipment and at least one of the following: cheaper, tastier, healthier.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Top five things to make yourself (these things are always in my pantry):

  1. A good vinaigrette in a squeeze bottle.
  2. <"http://www.goodeater.org/2010/05/14/meta-pantry-roasted-chile-oil-re-blog/">Roasted chili oil, which is great in all sorts of situations.
  3. Homemade vanilla extract: steep a whole split vanilla pod in a cup and a half of vodka for a week. Use just like regular vanilla extract (cheaper and tastier).
  4. Pancake mix. Just combine your dry ingredients in a large batch ahead of time so all you need to do is add eggs, milk, and fat.
  5. Flavored soy sauce. Throw your garlic or ginger scraps into a container filled with good soy sauce in the fridge. Ready-to-use dipping sauce or stir-fry sauce.

i've been doing a lot of preserving of vegetables - pickling, kimchi, etc. I'd like to get into preserving meats and fish as well. i've done gravlax and beef jerky, and i saw the recent "cook the book" on duck ham. i'm looking for other ideas on DIY home recipes that are easy, don't require fancy equipment and won't make me sick.

Luckily, we have an entire new column devoted to precisely this! Stay tuned there for more recipes and tips.

How much store bought yogurt should I use as a starter? I have seen multiple amounts. Does the amount of starter affect how well the yogurt sets or just the sourness?

I use about a tablespoon per cup or so, though with less it'll still work, just take more time. The key is to add enough that your milk turns to yogurt before souring from other, bad bacteria.
How much does incubation time affect how the yogurt sets?

The longer it incubates, the more sour and thicker it will become.
Is there any reason to heat milk from a just opened, fresh gallon of milk higher than the incubating temperature (110ish)?

No reason, unless you really like hot milk, in which case, more power to you.

Living smack on the equator can be a good and bad thing. Good because lovely fruits all year long but bad bkuz any attempt I make at preserving that good haul goes bad within weeks, even the refrigerated ones. I blame it on the constant heat but it might be something I'm doing wrong. Please help! Thank you.

If it's refrigerated, it shouldn't make a difference where in the world you are. Just make sure that you're using reputable recipes. Preserved fruits and pickles should last for several months in the fridge.

I grew my own potatoes this year - Is there anything I need to do to prepare them for storage for use during the winter? I've been just digging them out and using them, but don't want to do that with 3 feet of snow cover.

Keep them in a root cellar if you've got one. In a cool, dark, not-too-moist environment, they should last a few months. If you don't have a place to store them, I'd cook and freeze them. Here's a great thing to have on hand in the freezer all the time...

On Equipment or Lack Thereof

I'm planning on purchasing a refurbished Kitchenaid Mixer (Professional Heavy Duty Series - 5qt) in the near future and I'm wondering if you're aware any underlying issues with buying used mixers from Kitchenaid in particular.

The weak link in Kitchenaid mixers is the plastic gear on the drive shaft. I've heard reports of this breaking on people who overwork their mixer and it's a bitch to replace, but I if you're buying a certified refurbished product direct from the company, it should have the exact same warranty as the original product, right?

I am looking for stainless steel cookware. I don't have an All Clad budget, is there a cheaper alternative that isn't junk? Restaurant supply an option.

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Yes! Check out the Tramontina sets. As far as I know, currently ONLY available at Wal-Mart, but they are nearly as good as the All-Clad, and a crazy good bargain to boot It's what I use at home.

Years ago I bought a molcajete in Mexico. Despite multiple attempts at seasoning it, food still comes out gritty. How can I fix it?

What are you pounding in it? Molcajetes are great for pounding soft vegetables and seeds, but not for say, grinding spices. It could also be that you just got a dud. If you've been using it years and it still chips and flakes, I think it's probably the latter.

First of all, I'm a big fan. Thanks for everything that you do for this site. My questions pertains to microwaves. The only real cooking appliance I have access to is a microwave. Are there general guidelines for baking food in the microwave? I know certain foods fare better than others. I've found old microwave cook books in thrift store, but their recipes aren't that appealing. What is your advice?

Baking is extremely hard in the microwave because you won't develop browned crusts or any of the great flavors associated with baking or roasting. Generally, thin foods work better in a microwave, because microwaves cook fast but have a tough time penetrating meat more than say, a centimeter or so. You overcook the outside before the interior is cooked.

Microwaves are great for steaming, however. Place your veg on a plate or bowl, add some water, cover, and microwave. It works better than the stovetop even (for small amounts of food, that is).

But my question is related to Almond Toffee and copper pots. I make large quantities of it for the holidays and want to speed up the process. I currently use an All Clad pot but when I turn up the heat to high, constantly stirring, the stainless bottom will get dark and sometimes burnt pieces will get in the toffee. Do you think a copper pot will do the same thing?

Copper certainly transfers heat more efficiently than stainless, but I'm afraid it's not a magic bullet. It's also insanely expensive. Patience is key here.

What's the best way to keep your knives sharp, short of taking them to a professional?

http://www.seriouseats.com/assets_c/2010/04/20100423-sharpening%20-%2001-thumb-560x373-85353.jpg

Get a stone, then follow this slideshow.

How much does the quality of a gas burner matter (as in, are home cooks incapable of reproducing some things that restaurants can do with their strong burners)?

A burner is just a tool. A good cook should be able to cook good tasting food on any kind of burner. That said, a good burner can be very useful for say, boiling water faster and harder or putting a harder sear on food or stir frying. A good tool can help make your food better, but bad tools are never an excuse for bad food.

I use glass containers sometimes for aniline dyes (for Ukrainian eggs). Can I be confident that I can thoroughly clean the dye from them, or will some dye stick to the glass at the molecular matter, and does it matter? i.e., if it sticks to the glass then presumably it won't migrate into the food.

Glass is pretty impermeable and inert. I wouldn't fret.

Have you ever tried to sous-vide in a crock pot? Maybe just turn it on low and leave the cover off while it goes?

Tried it and it doesn't work. A crockpot has a cycling thermostat, so it hovers around a set temperature, but is very unreliably, varying by as much as 25°F as it holds its temp. It's also much too hot for most sous-vide cooking unfortunately. Here's a way to hack it though!

On Icy Treats

What are the differences between the various icy treats: sorbet, gelato, sherbet, ice cream and custard. I've seen gelato with heavy cream and ice cream with 8 egg yolks. What distinguishes these different treats or do they all blur together?

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

The world of frozen desserts is not as strictly defined as, say, the world of Magic, The Gathering, but there are some general guidelines. Sorbet is dairy free, sherbet is fruit-based but contains a small amount of dairy (1 to 2% fat by weight), ice cream is technically simply churned frozen cream without eggs (though that definition is pretty much never used), while frozen custard is ice cream with eggs (though for all intents and purposes, ice cream and frozen custard are the same thing). Gelato typically doesn't contain eggs, and has a lower fat content and higher sugar content (thus is softer at a given temperature) than American ice cream, though again, this is more of a guideline than a rule.

How do i store homemade ice cream w/o it turning all icy overnight

Ice cream turns icy when moist air in the freezer condenses on its surface. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the top surface of the ice cream before putting the lid back on.

Where is the best scoop of ice cream you've ever had?

Sweet Cream Ice Cream from the original Steve's in Boston (it's long gone). Nothing else comes close, though I am partial to the burnt caramel from Toscanini's or the Sweet Cream from Herrell's (started by Steve of Steve's) in Northampton, MA.

On My Personal Life

Can you make friends with salad?

Well you might be able to make friends, but you certainly can't win'em.

Is there anything you absolutely will NOT eat?

I hate the smell of banana peels in enclosed environments. I'm not a fan of really stinky dehydrated shiitake mushrooms. I won't eat dolphin or monkey or any animal that's either endangered or more sentient than say, a pig or a dog (I would eat dog).

How'd you meet your wife? And how did you propose to her? 
(Hope it's not too personal!)
I met my wife when I was cooking for her fraternity house at MIT (It was a co-ed frat, of which I was also a member when I was an undergrad). She was too shy to really talk to me for 5 years or so. After a recent break-up, I made a deal with a friend of mine to go on five dates with five girls in five days to get back into the swing of things. I never made it past day one.

I proposed to her at the end of an incredible seven-course meal at Craigie Street Bistrot (before it became the equally awesome Craigie on Main—one of my favorite restaurants in the world). The kitchen wanted to put the ring around the handle of a demitasse spoon served with a sour milk pannacotta for dessert. That wasn't quite my style.

In the end, it came slung around the rib of a wild boar chop on our last savory course. The first time ever that I didn't finish a course at Craigie, I was too happy to eat!

What is your favorite food?

Mapo Tofu!

If you were a hot dog would you eat yourself?

First I'd probably look in the mirror and say, "Oh my god, a talking hot dog!" Then I'd examine my skin to make sure it's natural casing. Finally, I'd do a tester bite on my lower abdomen.

Who'm I kidding. Yeah, I'd eat me.

What are your top five favorite books on food? Any plans for one of your own?
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You can check out my required reading list here! (hint, top choice = McGee, duh.) And yes, there is a Food Lab book coming out next fall published by W. W. Norton. Stay tuned!
And why is George your favorite Beatle?

Not sure. I think it's something in the way he woos me.

We all know that the moon is NOT made of green cheese. But, what if it were made out of barbecued spare ribs?... Would you eat it then?

If I could find a way to the moon, you bet I'd like to give it a taste.

If George is your fav Beatle, who is your favorite Monkee?

Is this a riddle? Can I say Davey Jones?

Also, how did you get into the food industry (MIT grad?)

I was looking for a non-academic job summer after my sophomore year in college (because I was sick of working in biology labs for the last three summers), so I went looking for a job as a waiter. I happened to stop into a restaurant that was looking for cooks, so I volunteered. It was the world's worst restaurant (I was a Knight of the Round Grill at the Fire and Ice in Harvard square), but it was enough that it put the kitchen bug in me.

I worked in restaurants part time for the rest of my college career, then went full time after that, working my way up until I was working at the best restaurants in town. Finally, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to give recipe writing a try. That's when I started working at Cook's Illustrated and found my true passion (that would be exploring the science of every day foods). Rest is history.

How are you, man? What's new? How's the new pup working out?
Well, I'm almost wrapped up with the writing for my book. Should be done by next friday, weighing in at around 800 pages, so that's pretty exciting. Hambone is a dream. I've never seen a better behaved, more loyal little puppy in my life. I've also recently started re-watching the last couple seasons of Battlestar Galactica. It's a pretty darn good show, though Katee Sackhoff really annoys me (not as much as she did in Season 8 of 24, thank god). OMG, [redacted] is a Cylon!

On Listicles

Entirely off the topic of food - consider this an intermezzo - what are your top five favorite records of all time, and, briefly, why? Top five favorite movies? Non-cookbooks (this can include non-instructional but food-related books)? Top five favorite adult beverages?
Favorite Records:

  • The Beatles, Rubber Soul: just their happiest, most finely tuned, punchiest record, and still sounds like four guys sitting around playing music and having fun together)
  • The Beatles, Revolver: OK, sometimes this is my number 1. It's like Rubber Soul—written and recorded at the same time—but a little trippier. The Beatles at their best, before they got into the overproduced drudgery that is Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour).
  • Radiohead, The Bends: This is Radiohead back when they still played real instruments and had a bit of balls about them instead of just whining about everything. Mildly irate musical geniuses are so much more fun than mildly depressed musical geniuses.
  • U2, The Joshua Tree: Not sure I have to explain this one. I mean, it's when U2's sound was still original and Bono could scream the crap out of change-the-world type lyrics without making them sound silly.
  • Hmm... last one is always the toughest. I'd go the easy way and pick another Beatles album (in truth, they hold all top five slots for me), but how about, oh, the Postal Service, Give Up. The songs are insanely catchy, and I really love his way with words. He appeals to the music lover and the geek in me.

Favorite Movies:

  • Ghostbusters. Easily the funniest movie of all time. No human being would stack books like this.
  • Twelve Monkeys. Terry Gilliam at his best, with great performances by Brad Pitt and even Bruce Willis. A total mindf*ck movie that is smart and eery and well written.
  • The Empire Strikes Back. Is it cliché to pick Empire over the other ones? I don't care. It's the best.
  • The Big Lebowski. I saw this movie in the theater the day it came out having absolutely no idea what it was about. I was totally unprepared for the unbridled feast of cult-forming comedy that came forth. May I just be a hipster here and point out that I liked the Big Lebowski before it was cool, or would that be very un-dude? :)
  • Rushmore. Latin America and whatnot... But moving on, coincidence that Bill Murray is in two of my top five? I think not.

Runners up: Hard Days Night, Edward Scissorhands, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, UHF, Annie Hall (or perhaps Take The Money and Run), Revenge of the Nerds, and the first two Back to the Futures.

Favorite Non Cookbooks:

  • Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut. My favorite writer of all time. Such simple words, but he cuts straight to the core of what it is to be American and alive today.
  • Sideways Stories From Wayside School, Louis Sachar. Clever, funny, creative, appealing to both adults and kids, basically everything a kids book should be.
  • Lolita, Nabokov. Unlike my wife, who reads two books a week and devours War and Peace for fun on the weekends, I'm not much of a literature reader. But this one moves me, a lot. A Russian guy who can write like a French guy writing in English. That's just crazy smart!
  • Roald Dahl's short stories for adults. Wickedly clever, dark, and taughtly written. He's the master of the surprise twisted ending. His kids books are no slouch either!
  • In The Night Kitchen, Maurice Sendak. Does this count as a cookbook? Ok, so I like kids books. What of it?

Favorite Adult Beverages:

  • A Sazerac.
  • A Red Hook
  • A Royal Gin Flip
  • A good Scotch
  • A good pinot noir

Further Thoughts on Regrets and Chilling

First, Do you regret making this post? Second, When blanching foods, can running them under the coldest faucet water have the same effect as an ice bath?
First, nope, still having fun! And second, in general yes. If you're in a restaurant and make a ton of food, then no—tap water won't cool it fast enough. At home though, yeah, that'll work just fine for normal amounts of food. And despite what Modernist Cuisine might tell you, shocking in ice water does have an effect.

On Chickens and Turkeys

First off, George is a highly underrated Beatle, while my guitar gently weeps is a classic, excellent choice. As for my question, Harold McGee did a little piece with you discussing brining and the use of herbs, spices or alternative liquids in brines. His thought was that the aromatic compounds and other larger aldehydes, ketones and whatnot were way too large to penetrate any significant depth into the meat. I've always been a little uneasy with that thought, as others like Alton Brown and CI routinely call for flavored brines using things other than sugar and salt. I'd like some finality on this issue before I smoke my turkey for Thanksgiving.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Agree wholeheartedly with your George assessment.

As for flavoring brines, yeah, those molecules are large, and don't really travel that far into a bird. They do flavor the surface however, so they are worth including. The major problem is that most of the aromatic compounds in them are not really water soluble, so you have to find a way of extracting them first. Boiling them in the brine then letting it cool before adding the turkey or chicken will help.

The other thing to bear in mind is that a marinade is less effective when there's salt in it—salt will selectively penetrate and bind with the meat, preventing other larger molecules from doing so. Think of the turkey as a plane with only so many seats. All of the salt molecules have assigned seats, but the flavor molecules are flying standby.

In order to get your meat flavorful in a salty solution, you need to add many more flavorful ingredients than you normally would. That's why chicken brine recipes call for like 30 cloves of garlic. It needs to compete with the salt.

What and where exactly is the chicken oyster?

Same place where the human oyster is: right where the thigh joint meets the back, way up on the spine.

What are you making for Thanksgiving this year (or if what you make changes every year and you're not sure, what did you make last year)?

Turkey! It's always turkey, but I try and vary the way I cook it each year so I can test out different methods. Last year it was done sous vide. This year I might try and go Peking duck style, slow cooked, super crisp skin.

On Chilis and Heat

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I am lucky enough to have access to Hatch Chillies (Both Hot and Mild) how do I adapt your green Chile recipe to use them?

Easy! Just take out the poblanos and cubanelles from the recipe, and replace them with 10 hatch chilis, you lucky duck!

why do Flaming Hot Cheetos only burn after you try to stop eating them and not while you're actually eating them??

While eating them, you're stimulating nerves in your tongue and sending signals to your brain that wash out some of the conflicting signals trying to indicate pain. Same thing happens with really hot Thai food for me.

It's the same reason we scratch mosquito bites. Stimulating the area around the itchy part will flood your brain with signals that dilute the original pain.

On Self Confidence

Oh my god, *no*. I've had at least three separate occasions where I've wondered something that would be right up your alley, but now I can't remember *any* of them. DAMN.

I know—you were going to ask me how many hot dogs Slimer has in his mouth when he pops out of the hot dog cart in Ghostbusters. The answer is 12. Glad I could be of service.

On Puppies

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

Is there a Dumpling/Hambone 2012 calendar in the works? Many of us would love one! I know you don't want to profit from your pets, so we would be glad to purchase them at cost! ;-)

Afraid there's not going to be a calendar of them. Though I suppose I can't stop you if you want to print out pictures of them yourself and stick'em on a calendar. Just don't sell'em :)

I'm assuming that you cook for Hambone too. What does he generally eat? What's his favorite treat?

He's still on canned and dry puppy food, but I'll start cooking for him in about a month or so!

Pls give us more Hambone! He's super cute! What are his favourite treats?What do you feed him to make him that adorable? :D

Rainbows, cupcakes, and bright-eyed dreams stolen from little children as they sleep.

Just kidding. Dried squid is his favorite. That and salt and vinegar potato chips.

On Rice and Grains

What's a foolproof way to make white and brown rice without a rice cooker? Thanks Kenji!

I'll pass on this one. If there's one thing I've never been able to do, it's cook rice without a rice cooker. My wife gets no end of pleasure out of mocking me for this, which is usually when I delegate the task of scrubbing out burnt rice from the bottom of a pot to her.

The only easy foolproof way I've found is to boil it in a huge amount of water then drain it when its done. You don't get quite the same texture as properly steam-boiled rice, but it gets the job done.

Even a cheap rice cooker will do a great job at cooking rice. Just get one :)

On Hopes and Dreams

Hi Kenji - I think I have a good idea, but I'd like the opinion of someone with your level of national food knowledge. I want to start a macaron stand in a Chicago farmer's market next summer. I don't have any formal pastry training, but am intelligent and a perfectionist, and I know there will be a number of certification/food safety hoops I'll have to jump through, which I'm fine with. I'm worried that maybe the macaron fad has passed though, but buoyed by the fact that I could only find less than a couple dozen results when I googled "macaron Chicago." (to understand more of my reasons for opening a stand, here's my blog: www.macmaker.wordpress.com) So thumbs up or thumbs down?

I'm not one to stomp on dreams, so I'd say thumbs up. However, make absolutely sure you do your research and that you are prepared to have your life completely taken over by this project. Running a food operation is no small feat, no matter how simple the idea is. You'll be working night and day like you've never worked before, and you'll probably make less money than you've ever made before. If you're prepared for that, then by all means, go for it!

On Fresh Seafood

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I live in long island, right on the border of queens. i love raw oysters - why the heck can't I find fresh, reasonably-priced oysters ($1 or less) out here. I live 20 minutes from a town called Oyster Bay! ... any suggestions?

Oyster bay was named that back when oysters were far more abundant than they are now. Overfishing and pollution has seriously messed up fisheries and oyster beds around New York. That said, most wholesale oysters from the East Coast run at around 75 to 85¢ apiece if you're buying from a restaurant or store, so you understand that they have to make a markup to make profit. Your best bet is to find a local restaurant with a $1 oyster happy hour (but sniff them before you shoot them).

On Taco-Like-Objects

When I was in elementary and middle school back in the late 80s (Lodi Unified School District in California), my all-time favorite school lunch item was this thing called "taco pockets". They were similar to calzones/pierogies but the best way to describe them would be a savory fried donut filled with piping hot taco meat and cheese. Where can I find them?!!! I've exhausted the internet.

You've been scouring the internet when all you need is to look inside yourself. Those tacos live on in your dreams. Or perhaps at Jack-in-the-Box.

On Sisters, Awesome and Otherwise

How did you get to have such an awesome older sister?

She may be awesome but at least my significant other brushes her hair and wears underwear (occasionally).

On the Hopelessness of Whole Wheat

Your NY-style pizza posts have made me (a Long Islander living in MA) very, very happy! My question is, is it possible to make a 100% whole-wheat pizza crust that has the proper texture and doesn't taste, well, entirely too healthy?

It's not possible as far as I know. Whole wheat flour has bran in it, which physically impedes the formation of gluten. That's why whole wheat breads and crusts are always denser than white flour breads.

Questions I Won't Answer... Yet.

How can I make a replica of a Chik-Fil-A spicy chicken sandwich at home?

Buy a block of marble and a chisel. Chip away all the bits that don't look like a Chik-Fil-A spicy chicken sandwich.

But seriously, I haven't tried one, but it's on my list now, thanks for the tip!

I don't know whether this would be the subject of an entire Food Lab investigation, or a Q and A forum such as this: Risotto. How important is the white wine? To stir or not to stir? Is the kind of rice very important (Carnaroli or Arborio?) Some people swear by the microwave method, but I'm too chicken to try it. I assume it's not as creamy as the stirred variety, but is it OK in a pinch?

Big question, and one I'm planning on doing a food lab column on, so you'll have to wait...

Can we get a pastrami food lab?

I've been toying around with smoker-less pastrami and have not had great success yet. But I will certainly share it with you as soon as I crack it!

Kenji, is there anyway to speeden the process of smoking meat? Instead of waiting 14-16 hours for a whole brisket, could we somehow cut down the time to maybe 8-9 hours while also keeping the tenderizing effects of the low and slow method?

Yes there is... but you'll have to wait for my book to come out :)

I probably have too many questions to ask here, but I only have one that is weighing on my mind. So, I'm a DC native whose been overseas for five years. Now when I say overseas, I'm talking Peace Corps overseas---off the beaten track by far. While I've always loved local cuisine everywhere I've been, there are certain tastes from home that must be quenched. In most cases, I've homemade great approximations, except for one... The DC Half Smoke! I have access to most all I need: beef, pork, casings, smoker, and spices, to make 'em; but I don't have a good recipe. Any ideas?

I've only had a half smoke once in my life and have never attempted to recreate it. It was pretty frickin' awesome though. Tell you what—when you get back stateside, let's grab a hot smoke together and see if we can't figure it out.

Having already tried making Heston Blumenthal's take on the hamburger, will you ever try tackling any of the other recipes from his In Search Of Perfection series? In particular the pizza recipe, I think anyway, is one that would probably be of interest to slice readers.

I'm actually not all that interested in trying his other recipes. His books are really more about the ideas and thought behind the recipes than the recipe itself. As for the pizza, we've explored many of the ideas he brings up in that recipe already, so I don't see much benefit to trying his recipe verbatim.

I don't know if you get out to Long Island much, but do you have a favorite restaurant out here? We don't get to the city much but are always looking for new spots to try in our neck of the woods.

Afraid I don't, but keep an eye peeled on the site—we'll be heading out there on a scouting road trip in the next couple weeks.

Got a favorite/ultimate recipe for sweet Italian sausage?

I do, but... the recipe's in my book. You'll have to wait for it! (hint: the key is proper salting and handling of the meat)

Same question, BBQ sauce? (I'm partial to the sweet and tangy variety but am interested in anything you happen to favor)

Haha... same answer as for the sausage :)

At yakitori places they are able to skewer chicken wings in a butterfly manner. How do you do this at home?

Sorry man, not exactly sure what you're talking about. If you link to an image, I could tell you.

Okay, Kenji. You've revolutionized carnitas, cheese sauce, and salsa verde for me. Can you formulate or share a recipe for a really rich, sweet, thick red tomato sauce? I'm talking Maggiano's style, ladle over lasagna, not fresh and bright, but heavy and glorious. Does this make any sense? Good luck with all these!

I have a rich tomato sauce recipe... coming out in my book. Hold your horses!

Molecular gastronomy is still quite popular in the cooking world, and it has always impressed me. Going to those restaurants is not something I am really interested in doing/able to do. So, I'm wondering if it's possible to try some simple molecular gastronomy techniques (is that too much of an oxymoron? is there really anything simple about molecular gastronomy?) at home? Or, is it something that is just out of reach of the average home cook?

So glad you asked. Just wait until next week: we're launching a brand new column on easy molecular gastronomy experiments aimed at folks just like you who want to get their feet wet.

I challenge you to clone the recipe for Al's #1 Beef's Italian beef with hot giardiniera in Chicago. Can you do it?

Challenge accepted, dependent on when I get to actually taste the thing.

What do you think of African cuisine? Have you ever tried it?Will you try it,given the chance?If you have tried it,please do tell us all about it. Thank you.

Africa is... large. I haven't tried anywhere close to all African cuisine, but I love love love North African cuisine with it's combination of rich, sweet, and savory flavors. Check out some pictures here.

Amy's Bread Red Velvet Cake: I have tried desperately to replicate this at home. There's a recipe in "The Sweeter Side of Amy's Bread" which yielded an acceptable buttercream replica but the cake itself was terrible. I followed the recipe to the letter: weight measurements, cake flour, careful mixing technique/time/pan/oven temp etc. etc. Such a disappointment.


I would be thrilled to have your take on that cake... at Amy's Bread it's a tender fine-crumbed dream. Can't figure out how.

I'll add Red Velvet cake to the mix some day!

I (like you) looooooooove burgers. About twice a month, I get together with some friends and family for burger nights, and we make creative, nontraditional burgers. Some of our successes have been burgers topped with chile relleno and a burger inspired by a crunchy roll (a burger topped with shrimp tempura, crushed tempura, and eel sauce). I'd love to get some inspiration from you if you have any fun, creative ideas.

I'm a burger purist at heart, but toppings can be fun. You know what, I'll do a burger lab post about a few good interesting topping combinations just for you!

On Eating My Words

[Of COURSE somebody was going to ask me the very questions I asked in the header to my previous post. Doh!]

Why green beans turn drab as you cook them (or how you can prevent it)?

Cells near their surface burst under the heat which initially causes the underlying green color to appear even more vibrant. At the same time, it releases acids into the cooking water. Acid can affect the structure of chlorophyll, causing it to lose a magnesium ion, converting it into a molecule called pheophytin, which is olive green in color.

The best way to prevent it is to cook in plenty of water (to dilute the acid), and don't overcook!

You can add a pinch of baking powder, but that has its own problems: it gives a soapy aftertaste and mushy texture to the beans.
Why good ice cream melts more slowly than bad ice cream?

Good ice cream has less air incorporated into it (known as "overrun"). It's denser, so melts more slowly.

What the heck is methylcellulose, and what do fancy chefs use it for?

Methylcellulose is an organic compound made from cellulose. It's used by chefs as a thickener and emulsifier. It has the interesting property that it firms when heated, unlike most gelling agents which get softer when heated.

Who makes the best blenders?

Vita-mix!
Should you be using plastic, glass or wooden cutting boards?

Don't use glass. It ruins your knives. Do use wood, it's good on your knives and is actually not any more dangerous than plastic in terms of bacterial contamination. Or so say some people these days. I use it because it looks awesome and is nice and sturdy.

Why don't they refrigerate their eggs over in Europe?

Well they do in some parts, but it comes down to washing. In the US, eggs are all washed, which cleans them, but also gets rid of the waxy cuticle that makes them airtight. Our eggs are porous, so prone to new contamination. Unwashed eggs are hermetically sealed, so don't need to be refrigerated.

Who was your second grade teacher?

Amy. We had a pet rabbit in class named Phoebe. I once spat on Phoebe when Daniel Powell dared me to. Daniel Powell told on me. It wasn't my best day. He later went on to dare me to eat rubber cement. Guess what. I did that too and he told on me again. Daniel Powell and I are no longer friends.


Why is George your favorite Beatle?

It's just a rumor.

Who do you think you are?!?

No, who do you think YOU are?!?


On Food Safety

Rice is supposed to grow spores of bad stuff very quickly if left at room temperature, but I have often left out rice and beans overnight and eaten the next day. I use converted rice (can't help it. I love the stuff). Is it safer to leave out converted rice than other rice? processed more in a way that destroys some of the spores?

I've never heard of that phenomon, but yeah, I'd imagine polished, converted, par cooked rice would be cleaner than regular rice. I'm afraid that's not a great answer, but perhaps a call to the USA Rice foundation will help you out?

Ever since reading On Food and Cooking I've been nervous about using "old" celery, and I've thrown out a lot that I probably didn't need too. What is too old, and how do I tell, and how bad is it, really, to eat old celery?

I use my celery as long as it's not started to change color or is so limp that reviving it in a bowl of cold water doesn't even work. Then again, I'm very unsqeamish about such things.

Re Kenji's non-spoiling burgers at room temperature. Does this mean that if I take a turkey sandwich to work and it needs to spend 4 hours at room temperature that I'm better off putting it on a plate on the desk for the duration rather than leaving it wrapped up in a bag?


If you want a dried out turkey sandwich, then yes. I assume that's not your goal. Four hours at room temperature is perfectly safe to consume, so don't sweat it! I mean, every time you eat, you're taking a risk. It's a spectrum with purified autoclaved water on one end and human feces on the latter. Four-hour turkey and old celery fall pretty close the the purified water end on the line.


What's your opinion on the sodium nitrite dilemma? I'd like to cure bacon at home, and according to Ruhlman's Charcuterie book it requires pink salt (sodium nitrite) to do so properly. But I also know a lot of folks that steer clear of the stuff, and they all think I'm crazy for actively incorporating it into home preparation. Can I omit pink salt in home-curing bacon? Is there a real health risk to doing so? Will the flavor/texture not be the same?

Sodium nitrate is the pink salt used to cure certain types of charcuterie. It's what sets the oxygen in the myoglobin molecule to keep the meat nice and pink. It also affects flavor. Your bacon will not taste the same without nitrates or nitrites added to it, it won't look the same, and it won't last as long, though it can still be plenty tasty. I know some people fret about the health risks, but I selfishly believe (selfish because I like eating bacon and hot dogs) that everything in moderation is the key to balancing good health and pleasure.

what are the safety guidelines for refridgerator pickles? is there a minimum ratio of vinegar or salt needed, or does that not matter as long as it's kept in the refridgerator? i'm trying to experiment with less tart/salty pickles but don't want to get sick. max temperature?

You do indeed need to have enough vinegar and salt. I don't know the actual minimum, but I generally don't go any lower than a 2.5% acetic acid solution, which equates to a 1 to 1 ratio of vinegar to water.

The "I Have No Clue" File

Is there any way to make just muffin tops that actually taste like the ones you rip off a whole muffin? The special pans don't seem to work for me...

If Kenji *does* answer all of these, this will certainly be a world-record length post for him. :)

Never tried those special pans, so don't have an answer for you, but if you figure it out, Bam—millionaire!

Can you make clotted cream at home? I have access to fresh non-ultra pasteurized cream from Amish farmers - was wondering if this was a way to preserve it for longer.

Sure can, so long as your cream isn't homogenized! put the cream in a double boiler and bring it up to at least 180°F, then let it cool really slowly. The cream should all come to the top where it can then be scooped off. There's your clotted cream for you!

What are your tips for making great breads that are 100% whole wheat (or other whole grain flours)?

Whole grain baking is something I am woefully undereducated in, so I won't even pretend to be able to answer this question in a satisfactory manner. My tip? Go ask Jim Lahey.

What is it about onions (sliced, red ones in particular) that their scent can permeate containers and linger on your hands like nothing else?

I honestly don't know. I mean, I know what makes onions smell, but I'm not sure why it sticks around longer than other aromas. Most likely it sticks around just as long, but it's easier for you to sense smaller amounts of it than other aromas.

I have a severe milk allergy. I've been mostly successful in modifying my recipes to deal with my allergy. The thing I've been wondering is the best whipped cream alternative. I can never make a really silky mousse because I can't find a good substitute!

I don't do much by way of diet-restriced cooking, but fortunately our That's Nuts columnist Lee Zalban just posted this great looking recipe for vegan cashew whipped cream. Try it!

Here's one for you in honor of SE's (and my) love of cereal...What is the BEST way to ressurect soggy cereal that's been exposed to air for too long in an open box? I've tried toasting it in an oven, but it just gets burnt, and the sugary goodness is lost! Help Kenji!

Sorry man, like I said, I haven't eaten breakfast cereal in probably a decade (nothing against it, just never really occurs to me to buy it). Perhaps Leandra has an answer for you (that is, if she's ever held an open box of cereal long enough to let it get stale).

My question is regarding the nutritional content of moose meat, typically associated with hunting, which can be a fairly common protein source for many in Canada (where I'm from). I've been told that, because of their diet of lilypads and swamp goop (which is very nutrient-rich), moose meat is actually the most nutritious of any meat out there. Is this a case of hunter's hyperbole, or is there a grain of truth to this?

I tested this by attempting to subsist on a diet of lilypads and swamp goop for a week. That week did not end well (a painful incident involving an amorous moose and an extra-large set of antlers).

Honestly, I'm not a nutritionist so I don't think I can give you a good answer to this.

I wondered if you have a good recipe, or at least a general ratio, for making puddings with tapioca flour (not pearls). I love the unique texture of puddings I've had using it, but it's hard to get right at home. Also, what are the limitations on tapioca as a thickener? It seems like it never sets right when I add flavoring ingredients- the pudding looks great, then I add flavor extracts or even chocolate, and it thins out pathetically. I'd love to know if I'm doing something else wrong, or if it's just a ratio issue.

I don't have a tapioca pudding recipe, but I'd guess it has to do with the pH of the flavorings off the top of my head. That is, off the top of my head I'd guess it's the pH of the flavorings. I don't keep flavorings on the top of my head.

Ok, this is related to food! I live down in Georgia where the sun is burning hot each summer. What is the best way to grow/care for blueberries? It seems like every bush we plant shrivels up and dies, even though I've searched up how much water they need and everything. And (just out of curiosity) what is your favorite recipe using blueberries?

You'll have to ask a horticulturalist about this I'm afraid. I'm proud of my green thumb, but I have a feeling my success in the garden has more to do with good luck and perhaps the lead paint chips in my soil than any sort of innate ability.

Most likely the sun is just too bright at that latitude. Not all plants can grow in all areas!

Hi Kenji: Have you heard of "Bread Improver" or "Bread Enhancer"? In some instances I think it's even called "Yeast Food". It's supposed to be something that you add to your bread dough (I imagine it looking something like Cream of Tartar) to make softer loafs. I'd love to find out where to get some in the states! Thank you!

The only bread improver I've heard of is called the toaster oven. Sorry!

I frequently want to make desserts or baked goods that rely heavily on dairy, such as heavy cream, whole milk, butter, etc. However, for dietary reasons, I often need to make things dairy-free. What are the best substitutes for dairy ingredients in baked goods? I can't just use soy milk all the time, right?

I wish I could answer this, but my experience with dairy free cooking is extremely limited.

What's the best cornmeal pizza crust recipe out there?

I haven't experimented much with cornmeal crusts, but Peter Reinhart has yet to steer me wrong. I defer to the master.

My question is about rugelach and cream cheese doughs in general. I assume the cream cheese is what gives the dough that soft flakiness, as apposed to crispy flakiness, but is there any way to replicate this without using dairy? I can use anything else, just not dairy.

Sorry, dairy-free baking is not my strong point. I'd guess some sort of palm oil or shortening mixed with a nut butter or soy milk might be the answer though. Mayonnaise? Sorry I can't be more useful.

What's the best Indian food you've ever had?

Oof, tough question, and honestly, I can't give a straight answer here. Probably somewhere in London.

Similar question about whether I can use any utensils or pans (metal and glass) that I've used with polymer clay. I know the instructions say to dedicate pans and utensils to the clay and not to reuse them for food, but they are seemingly less casual about getting the clay on hands, will will eventually handle food. If it will come off hands, why not off glass or metal? I usually use rubbing alcohol to remove polymer clay from my hands.

I'm afraid I'm not familiar with polymer clay...

I love McDonald's Hot Caramel sauce (on their caramel sundae, which is basically the only thing I consume from them...), but I can't find any sauce to replace it when I crave it at home. (like Hershey's classic caramel sundae sauce, which contains virtually the same ingredients, but has such an annoying corn taste). Any tips / brand suggestion?

Unfortunately I don't. I've never had it.

On Finishing this Damn Project

Phew, bedtime!

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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