Enjoying the Process of Home Cooking
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt joined us for a conversation about how he got into cooking, the connection between your health and the food you eat, and enjoying the cooking process. He is the managing culinary director of Serious Eats, and author of the New York Times best-seller and James Beard Award winning book, “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.” Lopez-Alt is known for using science to improve home cooking.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
EWG: From reading your book “The Food Lab,” science seems to be valued in your family. Was that also true for food and cooking?
LOPEZ-ALT: No, not really. We had dinner every night at the table as a family. And my mom always cooked at home, but my mom doesn’t really enjoy cooking that much. She did it mainly because it was important to the family. I didn’t really get into food or cooking until college. And it was mainly because I just randomly fell into a summer job as a cook. I wanted to take a summer off from doing academic work and so I somewhat randomly ended up with a job as a cook. Thought I’d give it a go and I really enjoyed it. So, that’s how I got into cooking and then I got into food after I got into cooking. I was cooking food and I learned a bit more about what goes into it, and that’s when I started appreciating good food.
EWG: To steal a line from your book, you mention people tend to follow recipes, maybe make a few tweaks, but never challenge the fundamentals. What fundamentals do you think need to be challenged or what thoughts could people be having when they’re in the kitchen?
LOPEZ-ALT: I don’t want to give the impression that people should be challenging everything all of the time, that every single time you go into the kitchen you should be there performing some experiment or pushing some boundary because that might get tiring for people. But I do think people should challenge when they hear from a chef, or when they hear from whoever they’re learning to cook from, that “this is how you do it” and if you ask why and the answer is just “because.” That’s when you should consider that maybe “just because” isn’t a good enough answer and maybe it will turn out the reason we’re doing this has changed or maybe we don’t need to do it this way any more.
EWG: At lot, or maybe all, of the stuff you do at Serious Eats and in “The Food Lab” is geared toward home cooks. When you’re thinking about developing a recipe what kind of thought process do you go through?
LOPEZ-ALT: It depends on the type of recipe. Usually I see it as problem solving. The first step when I’m thinking about a recipe is finding out what people like to cook and pick a recipe based on that. So, it would be the intersection of what people like to cook and what I like to cook. And if I can find something in that little spot, then that’s a recipe that’s worth working on. The next step is doing a lot of research on the background of the recipe, both historically and culturally, and figuring out what this particular dish means to people: why people like to cook it, what they’re expecting when they cook it, what sort of feelings do they want to have when they’re eating it? Those are all going to define what I want the final product to be.
From there, it will be trying to discover what problem I can solve. Sometimes it’s about making it taste the best it possibly can. We’re going to do some extra steps to make sure it tastes really good and better than other versions you’ve had. Sometimes it could be streamlining. This could be a dish people love, but they don’t do it very often because it takes forever and you mess up your whole kitchen. Maybe there’s a way to fix that. Or sometimes it will be there is a notoriously difficult step in a recipe and it takes a lot of practice and dedication and sometimes people don’t always know if it will work, so is there some way we can make it easier through some other method? For me the recipe ends up being like an engineering problem. I know what I want the final result to be. I have a set of parameters of what I think people are willing to do, and what equipment and ingredients they have, so how do a get to that final result with the least work possible.
EWG: Do you think that is a good strategy for a home cook? “Here’s what I want to eat: How do I get to that point?”
LOPEZ-ALT: Yeah, I think that’s generally a good strategy. But, I think you should also consider a lot of times, for me and for other people – especially on weekends or points when you have free time – that one of those parameters might be that you should enjoy the process and you shouldn’t rush it. It shouldn’t just be about efficiency. Sometimes on a Tuesday night I feel like putting in minimal amount of work and try to get the best flavor out of that minimal amount of work. But on a weekend I’m more willing to enjoy the process as well as the finished product.
I think it’s important to realize that when I use words like “parameters” or “engineering problem” that I’m not trying to make it seem like a cold thing and you shouldn’t enjoy the process. I think some people do get those impressions from words like that. The fact that cooking itself can be enjoyable should be something to consider while you’re thinking about what to cook.
EWG: We’re trying to promote healthier eating, which mainly includes more fruits and vegetables. Can you speak about developing flavors in vegetables that might make them more appealing to people who might not be big fans of those foods?
LOPEZ-ALT: There’s a couple of things. One of the reasons people don’t like vegetables, and one of the reasons I didn’t like vegetables much, is because they were exposed to them not cooked very well. Learning how to cook vegetables properly and bring out the flavor will get you to enjoy them more. More important than that in terms of enjoyment for me is the actual act of cooking and being actively involved in the process. Once people feel empowered and feel like they’re actively involved in the process of putting something on their plate they’ll enjoy it a lot more. If you’re trying to feed a kid and you say, “here eat this broccoli, it’s good for you,” that’s not a great way to get a kid to eat broccoli. But if you say, “hey, we’re making this broccoli do you want to come help cook it?” and let them be involved in the process and put work into it then afterward they’re going to want eat it because it’s their creation. It’s true with kids and true with adults. When you create something yourself, you end up automatically liking it a lot more than if the food is forced on you.
The other important element of cooking is that it gets people to think about what they’re eating, which a lot of people don’t do these days. If you’re one of those people who works the type of hours that doesn’t give you a lot of time to cook and you’re eating fast food, or ordering out or going to restaurants all the time – when other people prepare your food for you, you don’t pay attention to exactly what goes into it, and because of that you don’t know exactly what you’re putting into your body. Just the simple act of cooking makes you realize what kinds of ingredients you’re consuming, and reinforces that connection between your health and the food you’re eating. Cooking automatically makes you think about these things more, which in turn helps you make healthier choices.
EWG: Have you found any strategies that are good entries to getting kids working in the kitchen? I’ve found baking can be a good activity with kids because it’s very structured and there aren’t a lot of sharp tools.
LOPEZ-ALT: To be honest, when I first started working with kids I was surprised that even at a relatively young age you can trust them with knives and cutting boards, things that might seem dangerous. I’ve had groups of 20 kids who are working with knives and cutting boards at age 9 with no problem as long as you teach them the proper care and respect for the equipment, and impress on them how these things can be dangerous if you use them wrong. They have no problem under supervision.
Baking is a different pace. It’s a very different style than other types of cooking. You measure everything precisely, you mix things together and set up a reaction before sticking it in the oven and watching it go. It really depends on your own personal preferences. Some people prefer baking, others prefer other types of cooking. I don’t think one is necessarily a better teaching tool.
EWG: You had mentioned that during the week people may have time constraints. Have you come across any good time-saving techniques? For example, you had previously discussed not having to cook pasta in a full pot of water.
LOPEZ-ALT: That’s one technique. When following recipes and when we’re finding recipes on Serious Eats, we try to do a mix of bigger project pieces and pieces based on the dinner table on a Tuesday night. That’s something we think about, and we know that when we’re writing a recipe if we can get the time down to under half an hour that’s a major threshold that makes it much more likely that people are going to cook it. It also makes it much more likely to turn up higher in search results.
So there are plenty of incentives to try to streamline recipes, mainly because there are a lot of people looking for recipes that are streamlined. I don’t think there is one universal “this is the way to cook fast.” Most of the recipes we’re working on, when I’m working on streamlining the recipe, solving that problem is a lot case by case. It’s often ways of trying to maximize flavor using the minimum number of pots and pans. Cooking pasta in less water is one thing. Having flavorful condiments and umami-rich seasonings, and things that will lead to deeper flavor in less time definitely helps. But there aren’t any overarching rules.
EWG: In terms of flavor, given that salt is such a big component of the flavoring we use, I was wondering if you could speak to using it beyond just as a seasoning. How can it affect food?
LOPEZ-ALT: It depends on what you’re cooking. With meat it can really affect the texture. Salt will dissolve meat proteins. That can affect the way meat holds onto moisture with something like brining or curing. Salt will also affect the way muscle fibers contract when you cook them so they will squeeze out less moisture when you cook them.
Salt can also be used as a binder. It helps to dissolve proteins, and that in turn helps to bind things better. With things like sausages or meatballs, depending on how much salt you add, salt will change binding properties. In baking it can control the yeast development and gluten development. Adding or reducing the amount of salt to a pizza dough recipe will change the way the dough rises a little bit. Beyond those things, a lot of it does come down to flavor.
EWG: I’ve been very interested in emulsions since I started reading your book. For example, salad dressings – I had no idea there was that much technique to putting a salad together. But there are other types of emulsions too. Can you discuss a little how they come together?
LOPEZ-ALT: An emulsion is a mixture of two liquids that don’t generally mix very well. In culinary terms, it’s almost always an oil- or fat-based liquid and a water-based liquid. That’s the case in salad dressing, that’s the case in mayonnaise, it’s the case in hollandaise, it’s the case in a pan sauce and for gravy. There are tons of culinary emulsions that are fat and water. The idea is you want to have these two different liquids interspersed with each other homogenously so that individual molecules aren’t clumping together and breaking out the way oil and vinegar separate. There’s a few different ways you can do that. One is to physically disperse those ingredients so finely that they can’t get together again. You see that in homogenized milk. It’s milk that has been pressed through a mesh at a very high pressure so that the fat droplets break up very, very small, and get dispersed among the liquid so finely that they don’t come back together.
Another way to make an emulsion is a chemical emulsion. For mayonnaise, there’s lecithin protein in eggs – it’s a protein that has a hydrophobic end and a hydrophilic end, and it acts as a liaison between fat molecules and water molecules, and helps them coexist without breaking off from each other. You’ll find emulsifiers like that in quite a number of ingredients that are commonly called for in things like mayonnaise and salad dressing – egg yolks, mustard or honey.
Finally, for an emulsion you want to have very robust mechanical stirring. When you’re forming an emulsion in a vinaigrette, for example, you need to breakup the fat and water very, very finely to get it to mix properly. That either means whisking constantly and slowly drizzling in fat, because it’s much easier to break up fat when it’s slowly added than just dumping it in all at once, or making it in a container that you can shake vigorously. For a vinaigrette, shaking will probably do because you’re making it just before you’re going to eat it and before there is enough time for it to break. For something like mayonnaise that you want to stay stable for a long time, that requires a more stable emulsion. That’s where the egg comes in and incorporating oil in a very thin, steady stream.
EWG: I’ve also been impressed with how that can really improve the flavor now that you’re mixing all these ingredients into one thing.
LOPEZ-ALT: Yeah, it helps in a number of ways. One of the big ways it helps with flavor is by changing the texture. You’re combining the fat and the liquid into a single homogenous mixture, and that mixture ends up being a little thicker and more viscous than either one of the two things on their own. So that in turn coats the food and when it hits your tongue it delivers flavor in a very different way than the ingredients separately.
EWG: While we’re on the subject of flavor, the Maillard reaction, which is the browning reaction that happens when protein and sugars in foods are heated – which produces those great flavors in seared or baked foods – is optimal in a certain pH range. I was thinking about it for developing flavor in vegetables. Have you ever looked at altering the pH, using baking soda for example, in a vegetable dish to encourage that reaction?
LOPEZ-ALT: You can use baking soda both to develop flavor and the texture of vegetables. With flavor, for instance there’s a technique from Modernist Cuisine, where you take sweet potatoes in a pressure cooker with a pinch of baking soda, and that induces a reaction for deeper browning and you can turn that into a sweet potato puree that has a lot more depth of flavor than potatoes that have been simply boiled. You can also use it to caramelize onions faster and also breakdown the texture more.
And in a recipe I posted – it’s a recipe for roasted potatoes – you start by boiling them in water that has some baking soda added to it, and that causes the pectin in the cell walls to break down more rapidly. The idea is that you’re breaking down the pectin on the exterior of the potatoes, so when you subsequently drain them and toss them with a fat, the exteriors tend to get beaten up and bruised and you end up with this mashed-potato-like slurry on the outside of the potatoes so when you roast them you have a lot more surface area that can get really crisp. They also brown more efficiently when you roast them because you’ve raised the pH on their surface. So yeah, thinking about how acids can affect both the flavor and texture of vegetables is something I try to do quite frequently.
EWG: Going a little more general, for people who may be a little intimidated in the kitchen or are just starting out, in terms of stocking their kitchen or getting equipment, is there any strategy you would advise for how to get a kitchen in order?
LOPEZ-ALT: I would say whether it’s knives or pots and pans, getting one piece that is nice is better than getting a whole set. Spending money on getting one good pot or pan is more important than trying to get a full set of crappy ones. I think it’s about strategizing, asking yourself how much space you need, what kind of food do you like to cook and going from there. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach.
EWG: I heard you were working on a second cookbook. What’s that going to be about?
LOPEZ-ALT: Yeah – the first book there was actually a lot of material that we ended up cutting because it was getting too long, with the idea that we’d be working on a second volume. The second volume is similar in style and scope to the first one, maybe a little bit shorter. There’ll be a chapter on pizza and baking. There’s going to be a chapter about cooking in a wok, a chapter about cooking in pressure cookers.
The first book was sort of American classics and things that Americans are familiar with. The second book will be a lot more of the things I cook at home. There will be a lot more sort of non-American things, but still things I think an American audience will be familiar with, particularly for a younger crowd that might be more into food from around the world and techniques from around the world. It’s similar in scope, just a different set of recipes and a lot more in tune with what I actually eat at home. Like I don’t eat macaroni and cheese or meatloaf – despite the fact they’re in the book, I don’t eat them that often.
EWG: So, what are the types of things you tend to eat at home?
LOPEZ-ALT: I guess healthier and lighter and easier. More weeknight projects than weekend projects. And also things that aren’t necessarily rooted in American food culture. There’ll be a lot more stuff that is influenced by Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, South American, maybe some other European traditions as well. I don’t try to limit myself regionally when I’m cooking.