Freakonomics: Food + Science = Victory

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Kenji Lopez-Alt from Serious Eats

  • The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science
  • Kenji grew up with science/Mr. Wizard and was “never meant to be in cooking”
  • MIT educated scientist/architect before ever getting interested in food
  • Then became a cook for years across multiple cuisines
    • Started after college by lying about his ability to at least use a knife
    • Hooked from the first moment
    • Worked with Barbara Lynch
  • Traditional methods are often outdated and sometimes flat out wrong
    • Restaurants are not a good place to test these out, shifted to food writing/test kitchens
    • Cooks Illustrated and then Serious Eats
  • Goal to improve/simplify recipes/techniques for home cooks
  • “There is a different between temperature and energy” – Huh
    • For Example: Put your had in 212 degree water and you’ll burn it, put it in a 212 degree oven and it’s slightly warm
    • Applied to cooking: Baking steels can replace a pizza stone that are much more dense and thus can cook a pizza faster at a lower temperatures than a stone
  • Geometry of Food:
    • More surface allows for crispier fried chicken and holds the sauce better
    • Less surface area is important for things like Prime Rib, more surface would allow more moisture to escape/dry out the meat (trussing up a roast keeps it more cylindrical and thus juicier when done)
  • Food Lab focuses on bench science approach to testing
  • Best Breading for General Tso’s Chicken: Include Vodka (helps moisten dough, but won’t develop gluten, it also evaporates more quickly) giving you a very light and crunchy coating
    • Add corn starch, a little wheat flower and then tossed in a dry starch mixture
  • Some tests are well controlled/double blind: E.g. Test of NY Pizza because of the water?
    • Does the higher level of dissolved solid help?
    • Myth Busted: Water makes almost no difference. (What about with bagels????)
  • Eating for Flavor vs. Health:
    • Comfort foods should be eaten in moderation, Kenji’s goals is to make sure they are as good as they can be
    • “If I’m going to eat a hamburger, I want it to be the best damn hamburger I can make”
  • Scrambled eggs tips: Salt while raw and let sit for 15 minutes they will retain moisture much better
  • Pie Crust: Replace some of the water with Vodka, flakier and lighter
  • Burger Tip:
    • Salt the outside of the patty only (not before when grounded)
    • Salting before patty, it makes it much firmer (good for sausage, not burgers)
  • Freakonomics Tricks:
    • Test an boiled egg for doneness by seeing if you can pick it up with chopsticks
    • Cut off both ends of a cucumber and rub them on the ends to remove bitterness (myth?)
    • You DO NOT need to mix salt/baking soda separately before adding to the batter
    • Always soak rice before you cook it


  • Richard Rangham: Cooking is what made us human, by letting us spend less time/energy chewing and more time doing human things
  • Jill Robinson: Food Journalist on cooked vs. raw foods, IDing food myths reality
    • In the past, whole wheat bread was deemed unhealthy by the government because it wasn’t digestible and thus white bread was healthier (her grandmother correctly disagreed)
    • Eating on the Wild Side
      • Humans programmed for food with high carbs, sugar and oil (these were rare and our brains rewarded eating them with happy hormones)
      • Only recently are we thinking about transforming what we eat to optimize health
    • America’s Role/Blame in Bad Food
      • Food cultures of immigrants were lost
      • We then became leaders in industrial agriculture that only prioritized high production and disease resistance (not health)
      • We then bred out all signs of bitterness from food as 25% of people really dislike the taste (even at low amounts) and food manufacturers didn’t want to lose them as customers
        • Removing bitterness removed a lot of the antioxidants
      • Iceberg Lettuce: 50% of Americans have only eaten that lettuce
        • Productive and mild tasting
        • Has fewer nutrients than all other lettuces
        • Not even recommended as rabbit food as it doesn’t have enough nutrients
      • Wild plants have 2-400x greater levels of antioxidants than domesticated versions
      • Antioxidant: Against oxidation which is bad for us
      • Modern fruits/veggies that may not even be food for us…
        • Golden Delicious apples shown to INCREASE triglycerides in men (they actually are very high in sugars and low in antioxidants)
        • Melons, sweet corn, white potatoes, bananas, iceberg lettuce are all very low in nutrients
      • Look for the less sweet, less generic version of whatever you already eat
        • Aim for red leaf lettuce over iceberg
        • Granny Smith/Honey Crisp/Heirloom Over Golden Delicious
        • Red/Blue Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes Over Russet Potatoes
        • The wilder the berry the better (2-10x the nutrients vs. domesticated)
        • Eat Me Now Foods: When plants are harvested they are not dead yet and they are burning up what antioxidants they have left as they breath in oxygen (but not making any more), so the sooner you eat them the more antioxidants are left
          • Aim for same/next day
          • Key to eat NOW: Spinach, Asparagus, broccoli, artichokes, kale, green onions, mushrooms, parsley and cherries (might get 2-5x the antioxidants)
        • Science doesn’t support eating raw over lightly cooked
        • Canned tomatoes are actually better than raw/fresh, have more lycopene when heated (especially tomato paste)
        • Kitchen Tricks:
          • Garlic: After crushing, let sit for 10 minutes before cooking
          • Veggies: Best steamed in the microwave, preserves most nutrients
        • Food is the single biggest input into helping our bodies and minds function, but life is short too…
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