The Food Lab's Reading List, Day 5: How to Read a French Fry

Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt

Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads..

I strongly feel that there are certain times in life when the only reasonable thing to do is to make mayonnaise. High up on that list of times is right after finishing Russ Parsons's How to Read a French Fry. Read it and you'll find that even if your mind protests, your legs will start carrying you to the kitchen, your arms already reaching toward the eggs and oil. You know that feeling, right?

Thus far, my book picks have ranged from those about the industry (Kitchen Confidential and The Making of a Chef) to those about food science and history (On Food and Cooking and The Man Who Ate Everything). Today I'm expanding that spectrum into a third realm: home cooking.

How to Read a French Fry is partly a book on food science and partly a recipe book. More importantly, it showed me not what a food science book can be, but what a food science book doesn't have to be. For one thing, it's relatively short, at around 300 pages, over half of which are recipes. If you just sit down to read the prose, you can easily breeze through it in a day, and, to be frank, once you start reading it, that's probably what you'll end up doing. For another, most of those recipes don't even have headnotes—they simply accompany a long introductory section in each chapter. And the book works just fine like this.

Parsons's book doesn't try to be everything to everyone, and it doesn't pretend to be an encyclopedia of food science. Instead, it's a well-curated package of only the most useful and interesting scientific tidbits, with a straightforward, "just the facts, ma'am" approach. Each of the six chapters is about a single basic concept of food science: how frying works, how vegetables ripen, how beans and pasta soften, how meat reacts to heat, how eggs are the most useful culinary tool on the planet, and how fat, flour, and water come together to form pastries and cookies. Each of those chapters starts with a lengthy essay covering the basic scientific principles involved, followed by a few pages of bulleted cooking tips and tricks, along with a handful of recipes (the book contains over 100 recipes in all).

Six subjects. That's it. Yet the book doesn't feel incomplete or light. He's smart about the topics he picks, choosing techniques that typically inspire fear in home cooks (deep-frying and pastry!) or ingredients that people cook with frequently enough to have opinions on (pasta, eggs, meat). It's a method of attack and organization that I ended up using in my own book, which, despite its length, is actually pretty limited in scope. (There's no seafood, no baking, and no dried beans or grains, for instance.)

When I finished reading it, I did get a bit of the same "Wait, I was watching that!" feeling I got when Heroes was canceled, but that thought was quickly supplanted by thoughts of mayonnaise. I just had to make some. It felt like it was Christmas morning, I'd just gotten a new nail gun, and I couldn't wait to (bang!) start nailing things. The book made me feel empowered. Not only did I understand the basics of emulsions and how to stabilize them, I also knew what to do if things started going wrong. Wobbly bowl? Pow! Damp tea-towel ring to stabilize the base. Emulsion starting to break? Boom! Mustard to the rescue. Ended up with oil-and-egg soup instead of mayonnaise? Ka-pow! Break out the food processor and drizzle it in.

It turned out I didn't need to actually use most of those tricks, but simply knowing I had them in my tool kit made me realize that, often, the only thing lacking in our basic cooking skills is confidence. This idea of offering readers detailed troubleshooting guides and tips to incrementally improve their recipes is a lesson I took to heart and consistently try to implement in my own writing. It's the lifetime manufacturer's warranty of recipes: something you might never have to use, but are going to be damn happy you have in your back pocket for those times when you really need it.

You can buy How to Read a French Fry here.