I had a baby today! Okay, not a living, breathing, poke-it-in-the-belly-and-watch-it-react type of baby, but at six pounds nine ounces, it's just about the size of one. And, unlike a real human baby, this one had a gestation period of over five years and came preloaded with all kinds of useful information. It's also non-gendered, which made naming it pretty difficult.
I ended up naming it The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, and it's the result of a little over five years of long, sleepless nights in the kitchen and at the computer. It's certainly the greatest accomplishment of my career, and I couldn't be prouder to unleash it on the world today. If you're interested in buying it, you can find it wherever books are sold, or order it online from a number of retailers on my website. (The website also has 48 excerpted pages and images from the book, if you want to take a look inside.) And if you're interested in chatting with me and getting your book signed (or perhaps eating some delicious food), I'll also be going on tour! Check out my website for a list of events, and stay tuned to my Twitter account and Facebook page, as I'll be adding more tour cities and dates as they're confirmed. If I'm not coming to a city near you, bear with me: I'm working hard on figuring out a way to get signed books (or, at the very least, bookplates) to anyone who would like them.
The Origins of The Food Lab
The very first article in my column, The Food Lab, was published on October 9, 2009, which makes it nearly six years old. It was about perfect boiled eggs, and it was full of puns and misinformation. Such is the way of science: No matter how sure you are of yourself, you must always be prepared to be proven wrong in the future, oftentimes by yourself. (I thoroughly updated the boiled-egg article in 2014 and expect that version to stand for at least another half decade.)
I wrote that article after a lunch I had with Ed Levine, Serious Eats' overlord and founder, where, over a burger, he suggested that I write a column about food science. Yeah, that sounds fun to me, I said. I boiled a few hundred eggs, I wrote a few thousand words, and I sent it in. At the time, I was a freelance writer struggling to make it in New York, living with my grad-student wife in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with literally no windows. I'm fairly certain this is illegal, but we were in no position to argue. I was cooking private dinners for an Upper East Side family to make ends meet (who knew you could scrape together a meager living making reheatable bean burritos and mac n' cheese?). Even though Serious Eats was still an uppity young blog at that point, I was so infatuated with the passion and humor and inclusivity of the site that I had absolutely no problem writing a couple thousand words about boiled eggs for a rate that would barely buy me three dozen of them in the current San Francisco market.*
*This was back in the rough-and-tumble early days of food blogs, when nobody could afford to pay a decent rate for stories. Thankfully, those days are quickly receding.
It was the best decision I ever made.** The reaction that article got when we published it was mind-boggling to me. I wrote it because it was interesting to me. Little did I know that there was this vast audience out there, thirsty for food science and, apparently, for terrible humor and puns. I couldn't believe it! The thought that I could churn out these tests at home and tap out a few words on my computer, and that there, out in the world, were thousands of folks who were interested in learning about how science might help them lead more delicious lives, was incredible. I've always been the type of person to work on only the things that deeply interest me. For the first time in my life, it looked like the circle of "things that interest me" might actually overlap with the circle of "things that will let me earn a living."
**If my wife is reading this, it was the second-best decision I ever made.
Within a few months of the column's launch, under the prodding of Ed and his wife, Vicky (a literary agent who, for some reason, wanted to represent me), I decided to write a book. I spent a couple of months researching the market, writing up a table of contents, deciding what recipes would be included, and putting together a proposal for a book. A reasonably sized, 380-page book with about 100 recipes in it, to be published a year later.
I won't bore you with the details, but one year and 380 pages came and went. What I wound up with, five years later, is one thousand pages long, with around 300 recipes, thousands of full-color photographs showing step-by-steps and comparisons of testing results, charts, graphs, do-at-home experiments, and lots and lots and lots of words, including a foreword by my living idol, Jeffrey Steingarten. Hopefully, you'll find some of them useful and interesting. It's hardcover with nice, thick, semi-gloss pages with a binding that's designed for laying flat without the pages jumping up or flopping around as you cook. This is a book that's gonna be equally at home on your coffee table, your kitchen counter, or if you're a night owl like me, under the covers with a flashlight.
I would like to make one thing clear here about the book: It's not a recipe book. Yes, there are several hundred recipes in it—the majority of which are, incidentally, brand new, though some of the greatest hits from the site appear in its pages as well. But, with a ratio of one thousand pages to 300 recipes, there's quite a bit more other stuff. (As a point of reference, The Joy of Cooking is a 650-page book with 4,500 recipes. Its recipe-to-page ratio is about 20 times greater than mine!) This is a book for people who want to learn the hows and the whys of cooking. It's a book about technique, a book about food science, a book about how to learn to feed yourself and your loved ones more deliciously. If I did my job right, by the time you're done reading and cooking your way through it, you won't even need any of the recipes, because by building your knowledge and your skills, you'll have all the building blocks you need to create your own recipes and traditions in the kitchen.
How good does that sound?
Some Words of Thanks
I wrote the words, tested the recipes, and took the photographs for this book myself, but a book is far, far more than a collection of words and pictures. If you're eager to get to the excerpt, you can skip right to it, but I wanted to take a quick second to send out some good vibes. The acknowledgments and thanks I give in my book span four columns, and those don't really even begin to cover the breadth of people who've helped me out along the way. (And, indeed, some of those folks who did most of the tasting grew in both breadth and width because of it.) Here are just a very few of the most important—the folks that loom largest in my legend.***
***Please excuse the odd turn of phrase. I cribbed it from George Harrison the first time I saw A Hard Day's Night and have been using it ever since.
Thanks to my family, first and foremost my wife, Adriana, who, despite losing her husband between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m. for several years straight, still seems to love me (or at least tolerate me). My mother, who has gotten over her initial misgivings about my throwing away my education to become a cook, and has since become one of my biggest fans. Both of my sisters, my father, and my grandfather, who I all sincerely hope can make it to our house for Thanksgiving this year, because sing-alongs are just no fun on my own.
Thanks to Ed Levine and everyone on the Serious Eats team, both the old-timers who were with me when The Food Lab all started, and the incredibly talented and hard-working new faces who've managed to bear with me through the insanity leading up to its release. I want to thank every chef and line cook and dishwasher who's taught me how to be a better cook and a better person.
Thanks to my agent, Vicky Bijur, who has done far more for a first-time author than any agent should rightly be expected to do. Thanks to all the folks at my publisher, W. W. Norton, especially my editor, Maria Guarnaschelli, who is not nearly as fearsome in real life as she is in reputation.
Thanks to the late Don Herbert, a.k.a. Mr. Wizard, who taught me almost everything I know about science and everything I know about how to make it entertaining and sticky. Without him, I'd probably be doing something far less interesting, though perhaps sleeping a bit more.
And, of course, thanks to each and every reader. You guys are the reason I'm able to make a living doing the thing I love doing most in the world, which, by pretty much any measure I can think of, is a dream come true.
Excerpt From The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science
Here's a short excerpt from the introductory chapter of the book. You can expect some more excerpts over the course of the next couple of weeks. I sincerely hope you enjoy them.
What's In This Book?
About twenty years ago, celebrated food scientist, author, and personal hero Harold McGee made a simple statement: contrary to popular belief, searing meat before roasting it does not "lock in the juices."* Now, saying this to a cook was like telling a physicist that rocks fall upward or an Italian that pizza was invented in Iceland. Ever since the mid-nineteenth century, when German food scientist Justus von Liebig first put forth the theory that searing meat at very high temperatures essentially cauterizes its surface and creates a moisture-proof barrier, it had been accepted as culinary fact. And for the next century and a half, this great discovery was embraced by world-famous chefs (including Auguste Escoffier, the father of French cuisine) and passed on from mentor to apprentice and from cookbook writer to home cook.
*McGee was not actually the first to debunk this theory, but it was the first time anybody took real notice.
You'd think that with all that working against him, McGee must have used the world's most powerful computer, or at the very least a scanning electron microscope, to prove his assertion, right? Nope. His proof was as simple as looking at a piece of meat. He noticed that when you sear a steak on one side, then flip it over and cook it on the second side, juices from the interior of the steak are squeezed out of the top—the very side that was supposedly now impermeable to moisture loss!
It was an observation that anyone who's ever cooked a steak could have made, and one that has since led restaurants to completely revise their cooking methods. Indeed, many high-end restaurants these days cook their steaks first sealed in plastic in low-temperature water baths, searing them only at the end in order to add flavor. The result is steaks that are juicier, moister, and more tender than anything the world was eating before von Liebig's erroneous assertion was finally disproved.
The question is, if debunking von Liebig's theory was such a simple task, why did it take nearly a hundred and fifty years to do it? The answer lies in the fact that cooking has always been considered a craft, not a science. Restaurant cooks act as apprentices, learning, but not questioning, their chefs' techniques. Home cooks follow the notes and recipes of their mothers and grandmothers or cookbooks—perhaps tweaking them here and there to suit modern tastes, but never challenging the fundamentals.
It's only in recent times that cooks have finally begun to break out of this shell. Restaurants that revel in using the science of cookery to come up with new techniques that result in pleasing and often surprising outcomes are not just proliferating but are consistently ranked as the best in the world (Chicago's Alinea or Spain's now-closed El Bulli, for example). It's an indication that as a population, we're finally beginning to see cooking for what it truly is: a scientific engineering problem in which the inputs are raw ingredients and technique and the outputs are deliciously edible results.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not out to try and prove to you that foams are the way of the future or that your eggs need to be cooked in a steam-injected, pressure-controlled oven to come out right. I'm not here to push some sort of newfangled, fancified, plated-with-tweezers, deconstructed/reconstructed cuisine. Quite the opposite, in fact.
My job is simple: to prove to you that even the simplest of foods—hamburgers, mashed potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts, chicken soup, even a g#%amn salad—are every bit as fascinating, interesting, storied, and delicious as what the chefs wearing the fanciest pants these days are concocting. I mean, have you ever stopped to marvel about exactly what goes on inside a hamburger when you cook it? The simultaneous complexity and simplicity of a patty formed from the chopped muscle mass of selected parts of a remarkably intricate animal, seasoned with salt and pepper, seared on a hot piece of metal, and then slipped into a soft toasted bun? You haven't? Well, let me give you a quick rundown to show you what I'm talking about.
Hamburgers start as patties of beef...no, let me back up a bit. Burgers actually start as ground beef that's then formed into...no, sorry, even further back. Hamburgers start with whole cuts of beef that are then ground into.... Wait a minute, let's get all Inception on this and go one level deeper: hamburgers start with cows—animals that live exceedingly complicated lives, that can differ not only in breed and feed, but also in terms of exercise, terrain they're exposed to, how and when they're slaughtered, and whether they live on grass their whole lives or are supplemented with grain. From these animals come many cuts of meat that vary in flavor according to fat content, their function during the animal's life, and its specific diet. Blending specially selected cuts will lead to ground beef with the optimal flavor and fat profile.
From there, it's just a simple matter of grinding, forming patties, and cooking, right?
Not so fast. How you grind your beef can have a profound impact on the texture of the finished burgers. Think all ground beef is created equal? Think again. And what about salting? Do you salt the meat and blend it in, or do you salt the outside of the patties? How do you form those patties? Pressing the beef into a ball and flattening it works, but is that really the best way? And what causes those burgers to puff up into softball-shaped, spherical blobs when you cook them, anyway? Once you start opening your mind to the wonders of the kitchen, once you start asking what's really going on inside your food while you cook it, you'll find that the questions keep coming and coming, and that the answers will become more and more fascinating.
Not only does answering questions about burgers help you to cook your burgers better, but it also reveals applications to all sorts of other situations. We start big fat burgers off on the cooler side of the grill and finish 'em with a sear in order to get a nice, perfectly even medium-rare color throughout, along with a strong, crusty sear. Guess what the best way to cook a big fat steak is? You got it: the exact same method applies, because the proteins and fat in a steak are similar to those in a hamburger.
Still not too sure what I mean? Don't worry, we'll answer all of these questions and more in due time.
The First Step to Winning Is Learning How Not to Fail
Have you ever made the same recipe a half dozen times with great results, only to find that on the seventh time, it completely fails? The meat loaf comes out tough, perhaps, or the pizza dough just doesn't rise. Oftentimes it's difficult to point to exactly what went wrong. If you're a tinkerer in the kitchen, you like to modify recipes a bit here and there to suit your own taste or mood.That's all well and good, and luckily, the first six times, your modifications didn't affect the outcome of the recipe. What changed on that seventh time? Could it be the extra salt you added? Perhaps the temperature of the room? Or maybe it's that you ran out of olive oil and used canola instead. Perhaps your stand mixer was on the fritz, so you blended everything by hand.
The point is, there are many ways you can stray from a written recipe, but only some of those forays will cause the recipe to fail. Being able to identify exactly which parts of a recipe are essential to the quality of the finished product and which parts are just decoration is a practical skill that will open up your opportunities in the kitchen as never before. Once you understand the basic science of how and why a recipe works, you suddenly find that you've freed yourself from the shackles of recipes. You can modify as you see fit, fully confident that the outcome will be a success.
Take a recipe for Italian sausage, for instance. The recipe in this book has you combine pork shoulder with salt and some aromatics, let the meat rest overnight, and then grind it and knead it the next day. Now, you've tasted my Italian sausage, and fair enough, you think it's got too much fennel. Okay, so you use less fennel and more marjoram the next time instead. Because you've read the sausage chapter and understand that the keys to a great-textured sausage are the interaction between the salt and meat and the method by which the ground meat is mixed, you're confident that changing the spicing will still allow you to produce a great-tasting link. At the same time, you know that salt is what dissolves muscle proteins and allows them to cross-link, giving your sausage that snappy, juicy texture, so you can't cut back on the salt the same way you can with the fennel. Likewise, you know that you can make your sausage out of turkey or lamb if you'd like, but you can't change the fat content if you want it to remain juicy.
Fact: Cooking by rote—even when your mentors are some of the greatest chefs in the world—is paralyzing. Only by understanding the underlying principles involved in cookery can you free yourself from both recipes and blindly accepted conventional wisdom.
Starting to get an idea of what I'm talking about? Freedom. That's what.
Why This Book?
In many ways, the blog format is ideal for the type of work I do. I get to write about things in a pretty informal way, and in return, my readers tell me what they think, ask insightful questions, and let me know what they'd like to see me tackle next. It's communal, and I owe my success as a blogger as much to my readers and my ever-supportive, always-fun, incredible coworkers and fellow bloggers as I do to myself.
That said, there are limits to what the blogging platform can support. It's great for short articles, it does pictures okay, but good charts? Good graphs? Good, easy-to-understand layout? Long-form content? Forget about it. That's where this book comes in. It represents the culmination of not just a decade and a half of cooking and studying the science of everyday foods, but of years of learning how to apply this science in ways that can help home cooks cook everyday food in better, tastier ways.
What you won't find in this book are fancy-pants recipes calling for exotic ingredients or difficult techniques or chemicals or even much special equipment beyond, say, a food processor or a beer cooler. You also won't find any desserts. They just aren't my thing, and rather than fake a few of 'em, I figured I'd just own up to the fact that they just don't interest me in the way savory food does. (Remember that whole thing about not doing anything that I don't love doing?)
What you will find here is a thorough examination of classic recipes. You'll find out why your fried chicken skin gets crisp, what's going on inside a potato as you mash it, how baking powder helps your pancakes rise. Not only that, but you'll discover that in many (most?) cases, the most traditional methods of cooking are in fact not the ideal way to reach the desired end results—and you'll find plenty of recipes and instructions that tell you how to get better results. (Did you know that you can par-cook pasta in room-temperature tap water? Or that the key to perfect French fries is vinegar?)
You'll probably find that I talk about my wife and my dogs a bit too much, and that I'm an insane fan of both the Beatles and the pun, that lowest form of wit. I may rightfully be accused of making abstruse references to any or all of the following topics: The Simpsons. Cartoons and movies from the 1980s. Star Wars. British comedians. The Big Lebowski. MacGyver. To these crimes, I plead guilty, but I will not repent.
Occasionally you will come across an experiment designed for you to carry out yourself at home. All of these experiments are party-friendly, and most of them are kid-friendly, too, so make sure you've got company around if you're going to attempt them!
Some of you may use this book solely for the recipes, and there's nothing wrong with that. I'll still like you. I've done my best to write them as clearly and concisely as possible, and I guarantee each and every one of them will work as advertised (provided you follow the instructions). If they don't work for you, I want to hear about it! Others may read through the entire book without ever cooking a single thing from it. I might even like you guys more than I like the recipe-only guys, for it's what's going on behind the scenes, or under that well-browned crust, that really interests me.
If you're the armchair-cook type, you're in luck. This book was written to work from front to back. Recipes in later chapters build on basic scientific principles discussed in earlier chapters. On the other hand, if you like skipping around—say, potato salad doesn't interest you, but roast beef sure does—well, you won't have much trouble, either. I've done my best to make each lesson self-contained, cross-referencing earlier chapters when necessary.
One thing I want to make clear here: This book is nowhere near comprehensive. Why would I put myself down like that? Well, it's because the whole point of science is that it's a never-ending quest for knowledge. No matter how much we know about the world around us, the world inside a block of cheese, or the world contained in an eggshell, the amount that we don't know will always be much greater than what we do. The moment we think we know all the answers is the moment we stop learning, and I truly hope that time never comes for me. In the words of Socrates Johnson: "All we know is that we know nothing."
If there are three rules that I think would make the world a better place if everyone followed them, it'd be these: challenge everything all the time, taste everything at least once, and relax, it's only pizza.
So Why Trust Me?
When I chime in on online message boards, when I write blog posts that make some pretty bold claims (like, say, that frying in hotter oil actually makes food absorb more grease, not less), I often get the same questions shot back at me: says who? Why should I trust you? I've been cooking my food [X] way since before you were born, who are you to say that there's a better way?
Well, there are a number of answers I could give to this question: it's my job to study food, test it, and answer questions about it. I have a degree from one of the top engineering schools in the country. I spent a good eight years cooking behind the stoves of some of the best restaurants in the country. I've edited recipes and articles in food magazines and on websites for almost a decade. These are all pretty good reasons to put your faith in what I say, but the truth of the matter is this: you shouldn't trust me.
You see, "just trust me" was the way of the old cooks. The MO of the master-apprentice relationship. Do what I say and do it now, because I say so. And that's exactly the mentality we're trying to fight here. I want you to be skeptical. Science is built on skepticism. Galileo didn't come to the conclusion that the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around, by blindly accepting what everyone else was telling him. He challenged conventional wisdom, came up with new hypotheses to describe the world around him, tested those hypotheses, and then and only then did he ask people to believe in the madness that he was spouting from behind that awesome beard of his. He did, of course, die under house arrest after being tried by the Roman Inquisition for all of his troubles. (Let's hope that doesn't happen to any of you budding kitchen scientists.) And that was for something as trivial as describing the shape of the solar system. Meanwhile, we're here tackling the big issues. Pancakes and meat loaf deserve at least as much scrutiny!
The point is this: if at any time while reading this book you come across something I've written that just doesn't seem right, something that seems as if it hasn't been sufficiently tested, something that isn't rigorously explained, then I fully expect you to call me out on it. Test it for yourself. Make your own hypotheses and design your own experiments. Heck, just e-mail me and tell me where you think I went wrong. I'll appreciate it. Honestly.
The first rule of science is that while we can always get closer to the truth, there is never a final answer. There are new discoveries made and experiments performed every day that can turn conventional wisdom on its head. If five years from now somebody hasn't discovered that at least one fact in this book is glaringly wrong, it means that people aren't thinking critically enough.
But some of you might be wondering now, what exactly is science? It's a really good question, and a topic that's often misunderstood. Let's talk about it a bit.
- Excerpted with permission from The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, available wherever books are sold from W. W. Norton.