There’s a moment for most cooks when we simply want to know more. And then more. Fortunately, there are many new cookbooks ready to give us insight. Here’s a taste of some of them.
“The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking through Science,” by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt (W.W. Norton & Co., 958 pages, $49.95). J. Kenji Lopez-Alt was born to the scientific method. His grandfather was an organic chemist and his father was a microbiologist. Lopez-Alt followed in their footsteps, graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he discovered he didn’t like the slow pace of the biology lab. Instead, he uncovered a passion for cooking that led to eight years of restaurant work, followed by a role as a test cook and editor at Cook’s Illustrated magazine.
From there he became chief creative officer at Serious Eats website (seriouseats.com), where he was known for his “The Food Lab” column, in which he applied the scientific method to all sorts of culinary questions: What’s the difference between meatloaf and a burger? What makes chicken skin crisp and golden? If you have a convection oven setting, should you use it?
The result is a wowzer of a book, filled with recipes and 1,000 photos, and answers to questions you never knew you needed to ask. This book is not only for serious culinary geeks but also for those whose curiosity pulls them in unexpected directions. Although recipes illustrate his explanations (in the chapter “Chickens, Turkeys, Prime Rib, and the Science of Roasts,” there are more than 40), this feels less like a cookbook than it does a remarkable reference on the science of cooking.
“Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Cooks, and Good Food,” second edition, by Jeff Potter (O’Reilly, 471 pages, $39.99). Whether it’s an explanation of steel-cut oats or a way to calibrate your oven, a discussion of steam and its effect on popovers or the science behind crispy, chewy cookies, Jeff Potter informs us clearly and offers experiments to prove his points. The book includes interviews, via Q & As, with 23 authorities in the food world who add their insights to the discussion, from Jacques Pépin to Deborah Madison, Jim Lahey and Harold McGee. Porter includes 100 recipes, plus diagrams and black-and-white line drawings in this fun volume, which reflects the look of a high-school science textbook.
“The Laws of Cooking … and How to Break Them,” by Justin Warner (Flatiron Books, 332 pages, $35). Who knew there are 11 laws of cooking (also known as flavor combos that work)? At least that’s the number that Justin Warner has developed in his first book, and it sounds not only reasonable, but intriguing. Each is named after a classic dish that the particular law represents.
There’s the Law of Peanut Butter and Jelly (fat meets fruit), the Law of Coffee, Cream and Sugar (bitter meets fat and sweet), the Law of Gin and Tonic (aromatic meets aromatic) and, well, you’ll have to read the book to find out the rest.
Each chapter reflects one of these laws, with recipes that demonstrate the concept and with ways to pump up your cooking skills. It’s a lively, entertaining book with an original premise that will attract anyone interested in “why.”
Warner appears on the Food Network (the winner of the eighth Food Network Star season), plus he’s the host of Foodie Call on the Food Network site. And he’s in the kitchen as chef at his restaurant Do or Dine in Brooklyn.
“Genius Recipes: 100 Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook,” by Kristen Miglore (Ten Speed Press, 253 pages, $35). The first in a growing collection of books from the Food52 folks, this simple volume is a stunner. Based on a weekly column of the same name on the Food52 website (food52.com), Miglore’s book curates the best of recipes that she — or her readers — finds, along with tips and culinary tricks that bump up our culinary skills. Recipes range from Fried Eggs with Wine Vinegar to Chicken Thighs with Lemon, and Onion Carbarona. But the recipes themselves are far more than their simple names convey, offering exceptional — yes, even “genius” — flavor.
“Mastering Sauces: The Home Cook’s Guide to New Techniques for Fresh Flavors,” by Susan Volland (W.W. Norton & Co., 495 pages, $39.95). Sauces scare many of us, even those who have mastered other cooking techniques. Which is why Susan Volland demystifies them, after first pointing out that everything tastes better with a sauce (and it does!).
Whether it’s Thai Coconut Curry Sauce or Thick Mushroom Casserole Cream (yep, a homemade version of concentrated cream of mushroom soup in a can), Coffee-Banana Rum Sauce or Tomato Gravy, she has the formula and method for us in 150 recipes. There are a few color photos, but this is a text-driven book that will keep you busy in the kitchen — and make the diners you are feeding very happy.
“Fried Chicken: Recipes for the Crispy, Crunchy, Comfort-Food Classic,” by Rebecca Lang (Ten Speed Press, 124 pages, $16.99). Who knew there were so many ways to fry chicken? Rebecca Lang provides more than 50 recipes for family-friendly dishes in this slim book with big aspirations. There are only three chapters, but she covers it all in “Skillet Fried,” “Deep Fried” and “Combination Fried.” Recipes range from Bacon-Fried Chicken Smothered in Gravy, to Korean Fried Chicken with Gochujang Sauce, to Real Southern Buttermilk Fried.
“100 Recipes: The Absolute Best Ways to Make the True Essentials,” by the editors of America’s Test Kitchen (354 pages, $40). Being a good cook has a lot to do with practice. But it also means using a good recipe, which is the premise of the latest volume from America’s Test Kitchen, which goes to great lengths to give readers the hows and whys and what-not-to-do on anything they prepare.
This volume focuses on the cook’s essential recipes, and is organized under the themes of “The Absolute Essentials” (scrambled eggs, breaded pork chops, pot roast, and the like), “The Surprising Essentials” (pulled chicken, cheese soufflé, polenta) and “The Global Essentials” (tandoori chicken, schnitzel, Thai beef salad). The recipes each begin with a lesson that includes why the dish works and how to improve it.
Take the example of grilled cheese. How can that possibly be better? Well, the folks at America’s Test Kitchen found that if the usual cheese (American) is replaced with a pairing of sharp cheddar and creamy Brie, the result is just the right gooey middle.
When the cheese is blended with a little wine in a food processor (think fondue), it’s a match made for the kid in many adults. Add a little shallot to the cheese, some mustard to the butter that you spread on the top and, well, you’ve got a melted cheese sandwich you won’t forget.
As the editors note on the last page, “Master twenty recipes in this book and you will have earned the right to call yourself a great cook.”
Let’s get started.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste