Kenji López-Alt is managing culinary director of Serious Eats, author of the James Beard Award-nominated column The Food Lab, and a columnist for Cooking Light. His first book is “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.” (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Food nerds everywhere love Kenji Lopez-Alt. Though he graduated from MIT with a degree in architecture, he discovered his true life calling when he went to work in a restaurant kitchen.
But Lopez-Alt didn’t want to work just in a restaurant. He was interested in how food cooked, and what might be the best way to boil an egg or grill a steak.
“The main focus in a restaurant is production speed and efficiency,” he told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “If you have some basic questions about science, you don’t have really have the time or the resources to sit down and plan experiments and test them out.”
Lopez-Alt started a food column on the Serious Eats website called “The Food Lab” and has published a book called “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.”
Robin Young caught up with Kenji Lopez-Alt at a pop-up event for the book in Boston, and sat down to talk him about some of his kitchen experiments. He also shared these recipes from his new book:
- Classic diner-style smashed cheeseburgers
- Ultra-gooey stovetop mac ‘n’ cheese
Stovetop mac ‘n’ cheese with ham and peas
Stovetop mac ‘n’ cheese with bacon and pickled jalapeños
Stovetop mac ‘n’ cheese with broccolo and cauliflower
Stovetop mac ‘n’ cheese supreme pizza-style
Stovetop mac ‘n’ cheese with green chile and chicken
- Extra-crunchy Southern fried chicken
Robin Young's photos from the pop-up in Boston
Recipes reprinted from The Food Lab by Kenji Lopez-Alt. Copyright © 2015 by Kenji Lopez-Alt. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
CLASSIC DINER-STYLE SMASHED CHEESEBURGERS
Kenji Lopez-Alt’s classic diner-style smashed cheeseburgers. (Kenji Lopez-Alt)
Note: My toppings of choice are thinly sliced raw onions, pickles, and Fry Sauce (below), but feel free to use whatever you’d like.
Serves 2 to 4
1 pound freshly ground beef (store-bought or home-ground)
4 soft hamburger buns, preferably Martin’s Potato Sandwich Rolls
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small onion, finely sliced (optional)
4 deli-cut slices American cheese
Toppings as desired
- Divide the meat into 4 even portions and form into pucks about 2 inches high and 2½ inches wide. Refrigerate until ready to use.
- Open the buns but do not split the hinges. Brush lightly with the butter, then toast under a hot broiler or in toaster oven until golden brown, about 1 minute. Set aside.
- Using a wadded-up paper towel, rub the inside of a 12-inch heavy-bottomed stainless steel or cast-iron skillet with vegetable oil, then heat over medium-high heat until just beginning to smoke. Season the beef pucks on the top with salt and pepper, then place seasoned side down in the skillet. Using a wide heavy spatula, press down on each one until it is roughly 4 to 4½ inches in diameter and ½ inch thick; it helps to use a second spatula to apply pressure on the first one. Season the tops with salt and pepper. Cook, without moving the burgers, until a golden brown crust develops on the bottom, about 1½ minutes. Use the edge of the spatula to carefully scrape up and flip the patties one at a time, making sure to get all the browned bits. If using onions, add to the tops of the burgers, then cover each with a cheese slice. Continue to cook until the patties are the desired doneness—about 30 seconds longer for medium-rare.
- Top the buns and/or patties as desired, transfer the patties to the buns, close the burgers, and serve.
Go to any burger joint in the Midwest and ask for fry sauce, and you’ll get a little tub of pink, creamy goo to dip your fries in or slather on your burger. At its most basic, it’s a mix of mayo and ketchup. I like to liven mine up with a few spices and some pickle juice.
Makes about ⅔ cup
½ cup mayonnaise, preferably homemade (page 807)
2 tablespoons ketchup
1 tablespoon yellow mustard
1 tablespoon kosher dill pickle juice
1 teaspoon sugar
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk until smooth. The sauce will keep in a covered container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks
ULTRA-GOOEY STOVETOP MAC ’N’ CHEESE
Kenji Lopez-Alt’s ultra-gooey stovetop mac ‘n’ cheese. (Kenji Lopez-Alt)
If desired, top the mac with toasted bread crumbs just before serving.
Notes: Use a good melting cheese or combination thereof, like American, cheddar, Jack, Fontina, young Swiss, Gruyere, Muenster, young provolone, and/or young Gouda, among others (see “Cheese Chart,” pages 717–21). To reheat the pasta, add a few tablespoons of milk to the pan and cook, stirring gently, over medium-low heat until hot.
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound elbow macaroni
One 12-ounce can evaporated milk
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon Frank’s RedHot or other hot sauce
1 teaspoon ground mustard
1 pound extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated (see Note above)
8 ounces American cheese, cut into ½-inch cubes (see Note above)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 4 chunks
- Place the macaroni in a large saucepan and cover it with water by 2 inches. Add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally to keep the pasta from sticking. Cover the pan, remove from the heat, and let stand until the pasta is barely al dente, about 8 minutes.
- Meanwhile, whisk together the evaporated milk, eggs, hot sauce, and mustard in a bowl until homogeneous. Toss the cheeses with the cornstarch in a large bowl until thoroughly combined.
- When the pasta is cooked, drain it and return it to the saucepan. Place over low heat, add the butter, and stir until melted. Add the milk mixture and cheese mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until the cheese is completely melted and the mixture is hot and creamy. Season to taste with salt and more hot sauce. Serve immediately, topping with toasted bread crumbs if desired.
STOVETOP MAC ’N’ CHEESE WITH HAM AND PEAS
Stir in 1 cup cubed sautéed ham and 1 cup thawed frozen peas along with the milk and cheese mixtures in step 3.
STOVETOP MAC ’N’ CHEESE WITH BACON AND PICKLED JALAPEÑOS
Slice 6 strips bacon into ½-inch-wide pieces, place in a large skillet with ½ cup of water, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp. Transfer the bacon and its rendered fat to a small bowl and set aside.
Follow the instructions for Stovetop Mac ’n’ Cheese, reducing the butter to 6 tablespoons and stirring in the bacon, with its rendered fat, and ¼ cup sliced pickled jalapeños along with the milk and cheese mixtures in step 3.
STOVETOP MAC ’N’ CHEESE WITH BROCCOLI AND CAULIFLOWER
Stir in 1 cup blanched broccoli florets and 1 cup blanched cauliflower florets along with the milk andcheese mixtures in step 3.
STOVETOP MAC ’N’ CHEESE SUPREME PIZZA–STYLE
Replace half of the cheddar cheese with mozzarella. Stir in 1 ounce of Parmesan cheese grated, 8 ounces Italian sausage, cooked and crumbled, ¼ cup pepperoni cut into ½-inch chunks, 4 ounces soppressata or salami, cut into ½-inch chunks, 1 cup roughly chopped drained canned tomatoes, ¼ cup sliced pitted black olives, and ¼ cup sliced jarred peperoncini, into the finished mac ’n’ cheese. Top with chopped basil and drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
STOVETOP MAC ’N’ CHEESE WITH GREEN CHILE AND CHICKEN
Replace the cheddar cheese with pepper Jack. Stir in 2 cups shredded cooked chicken (leftover or rotisserie from the supermarket), one 3½-ounce can chopped green chiles (or ½ cup chopped roasted fresh green chiles), and 1 cup salsa verde into the finished mac ’n’ cheese. Sprinkle with chopped fresh cilantro and scallions.
EXTRA-CRUNCHY SOUTHERN FRIED CHICKEN
Kenji Lopez-Alt’s extra-crunchy Southern fried chicken. (Kenji Lopez-Alt)
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons dried oregano
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
One whole chicken, about 4 pounds, cut into 10 pieces (see “How to Break Down a Chicken,” page 363) or 3½ pounds bone-in, skin-on breasts, legs, drumsticks, and/or wings
1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
4 cups vegetable shortening or peanut oil
- Combine the paprika, black pepper, garlic powder, oregano, and cayenne in a small bowl and mix thoroughly with a fork.
- Whisk the buttermilk, egg, 1 tablespoon salt, and 2 tablespoons of the spice mixture in a large bowl. Add the chicken pieces and toss and turn to coat. Transfer the contents of the bowl to a gallon-sized zipper-lock freezer bag and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, and up to overnight, flipping the bag occasionally to redistribute the contents and coat the chicken evenly.
- Whisk together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, 2 teaspoons salt, and the remaining spice mixture in a large bowl. Add 3 tablespoons of the marinade from the zipper-lock bag and work it into the flour with your fingertips. Remove one piece of chicken from the bag, allowing excess buttermilk to drip off, drop the chicken into the flour mixture, and toss to coat. Continue adding chicken pieces to the flour mixture one at a time until they are all in the bowl. Toss the chicken until every piece is thoroughly coated, pressing with your hands to get the flour to adhere in a thick layer.
- Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350°F. Heat the shortening or oil to 425°F in a 12-inch straight-sided cast-iron chicken fryer or a large wok over medium-high heat. Adjust the heat as necessary to maintain the temperature, being careful not to let the fat get any hotter.
- 5. One piece at a time, transfer the coated chicken to a fine-mesh strainer and shake to remove excess flour. Transfer to a wire rack set on a rimmed baking sheet. Once all the chicken pieces are coated, place skin side down in the pan. The temperature should drop to 300°F; adjust the heat to maintain the temperature at 300°F for the duration of the cooking. Fry the chicken until it’s a deep golden brown on the first side, about 6 minutes; do not move the chicken or start checking for doneness until it has fried for at least 3 minutes, or you may knock off the coating. Carefully flip the chicken pieces with tongs and cook until the second side is golden brown, about 4 minutes longer.
- Transfer the chicken to a clean wire rack set on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the oven. Cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast registers 150°F and the legs register 165°F, 5 to 10 minutes; remove the chicken pieces to a second rack or a paper-towel-lined plate as they reach their final temperature. Season with salt and serve—or, for extra-crunchy fried chicken, go to step 7.
- Place the plate of cooked chicken in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, and up to overnight. When ready to serve, reheat the oil to 400°F. Add the chicken pieces and cook, flipping them once halfway through cooking, until completely crisp, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack set on a rimmed baking sheet to drain, then serve immediately