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It's All Science

Sep 19, 2015 | From the kitchen of Rose

20131024-potato-gratin-hasselback-thanksgiving- - 23.jpg

J. Kenji López-Alt, managing culinary director of the widely successful blog Serious Eats, has just published the cookbook of cookbooks. With its enormous scope (938 pages) and innovative techniques based on massive years of testing and scientific evidence, and excellent step-by-step photos taken by himself, he has opened my eyes to new and better ways of cooking without the need of high tech specialty equipment. This is an extraordinary and invaluable cookbook. The first recipe I made was the Hasselback potatoes pictured above. It is now my top favorite potato dish.

I first discovered Kenji on the internet when I was questioning the use of baking soda to make chicken wings more crispy. My husband found that the baking soda gave it a metallic taste and so did Kenji who recommended baking powder. Yes! I hungered to know more and then discovered that Kenji was about to publish an entire book of information along this line. Be still my heart--I realized I had discovered a true kindred spirit.

For those who are put to sleep by scientific explanations, you can ignore the clear and exquisitely detailed explanations and go right to the terrific life-changing recipes. But my bet is that curiosity will get the better of you and you'll want to know the reasoning behind why for example steaming and shocking with cold water makes hard cooked eggs easy to peel, or how it's possible, with the use of hot water, a beer cooler, and an accurate thermometer, to make tough cuts of meat meltingly tender and tender cuts still more flavorful and luscious, or why using part processed cheese in baked macaroni makes the creamiest pasta cloaking sauce.

For those who think that science is a dry and somewhat grim subject, you will stand corrected as you enjoy the cleverness, humor, and passion with which Kenji writes, not to mention his delight in discoveries that make the most of every ingredient's potential.

When I was growing up, my mother's most severe condemnation of certain people was that they "just don't care." Kenji is one who cares, and he shares--not just his excellent recipes but so much of the fascinating underpinnings of his thought processes. Not only does he possess the brilliance of invention, he also has the rare talent of fine-tuned communication. You will "get it" and without having to read a single sentence more than once.

I trusted Kenji from the outset because of what he wrote about science in the introduction, which demonstrates his humility, devotion to integrity, and approach of the true scientist:

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.

He goes on to write what I consider to be the most appealing, poetic, and clear explanation of "science."

Science is not an end in and of itself, but a path. It's a method to help you discover the underlying order of the world around you and to use those discoveries to help you predict how things will behave in the future. The scientific method is based on making observations, keeping track of those observations, coming up with hypotheses to explain those observations, and then performing tests designed to disprove those hypotheses. If, despite your hardest, most sincere efforts, you can't manage to disprove the hypotheses, then you can say with a pretty good deal of certainty that your hypotheses are true.

This perfectly defines my approach to my work and way of life. A light bulb went off in my head when reading this. I remembered the fateful day 50 years ago when I passed the open door to the food lab at University of Vermont to see a student taking the temperature of a sugar syrup with a long glass laboratory thermometer. I didn't understand at the time why this image so grabbed me but now I think it must have been my inborn appreciation for quantification and exactitude that ultimately led me on the long and joyful path to where I am now.

Not that I agree with everything I have read so far (and I am reading this book from cover to cover). But Kenji invites us to challenge his theories and I'm sure Kenji will delight in reading this: Theoretically it's true that baking soda will cause pancakes to brown more and that it reacts with buttermilk to neutralize the acidity, but I discovered in my own experimentation that buttermilk does not need to be neutralized with baking soda and it actually offers a more interesting flavor with the use of baking powder. Also the pancakes brown beautifully if cooked on high heat.

I look forward to the day when I can meet Kenji in person and bless him for his masterful contribution to our profession and to people's every day enjoyment of food.

Food Lab.jpg

The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science

Note: For those of who are as taken with Kenji's techniques which use a beer cooler for sous vide cooking, like me you will want to spring for his alternative and more controlled recommendation of a water circulator/heater--the Anova. When I first discovered sous vide cooking several years ago, the devices were more appropriate for restaurant use but they have now become much more affordable.I've just gotten mine and will be posting the results of my using it in the near future.
Anova Culinary Precision Cooker (Black)


Comments

thank you Sharon! i just love what you wrote and it explains perfectly why i fell in love with Kenji at first read!

REPLY

Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi
Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi
09/25/2015 12:13 AM

I adore Kenji Lopez-Alt's recipes and his culinary curiosity. I have been an avid follower of his food lab column in serious eats for several years. He has the same kind of playfully serious approach to the details that make or break a dish that Rose has. The fact that Rose wrote her master's thesis on the gelatinization properties of bleached versus unbleached flour is something I glory in. It is the tipping point where science/cooking nerdery spills over into excellence and artistry! (It is true, isn't it, Rose?) Kenji adopts the same kind of competent, careful attitude towards rethinking ingredients and techniques in his cooking.

REPLY

Rose Levy Beranbaum
Rose Levy Beranbaum
09/19/2015 11:41 PM

Chris Kimball gave so many of us the perfect platform for experimentation and discovery.

REPLY

Kenji was one of my favorite Cooks' Illustrated chefs; he's associated with some of their most innovative cooking techniques, so Serious Eats is like having daily doses of CI.

I've had his book on my Amazon WishList for a while....it's available on the 21st. I'm quite looking forward to it.

I agree with your comment on the baking soda....his view reflects CI's opinion, and it struck me as unlikely to be true when I first read it.

REPLY

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