Two of the Biggest Cookbooks of the Year: Should You Buy Them?

Franklin BBQ and The Food Lab

I was talking to my brother yesterday (he’s 24), and he said something that struck me: “I don’t like cooking.” Why cook, he said, when you can go out and buy something better for $10? 

Oh brother. If you are a 24-year-old male without an older brother, let me fill in for a moment, as your older, wiser, sibling, with three supremely important words of advice: learn to cook. 

love cooking. It’s the perfect combination of right and left-brainedness (that’s a word, right?). When you cook, you have to follow directions carefully, measure things meticulously, and then throw it all out the window and problem-solve creatively when you run out of a crucial ingredient, or the finished product just doesn’t taste quite right. Maybe it’s the little kid in me, the one who loved building with Legos, and forgetting about the instructions, but I love the act of starting out with someone else’s recipe, and then experimenting with my own ideas. 

Blueberries in lentil dal? Yup, I’ve tried that. Caramelized garlic in a rhubarb pie? Yes, that too. Fish sauce in your bolognese? Yes! Definitely! 

Cooking is mad science, and if you don’t love it already, you need to start learning how.

That’s when Kenji López-Alt’s book, The Food Lab, comes in. It’s a scientific textbook of cooking techniques, a reference manual of thoroughly, obsessively, fascinatingly-researched ways to do almost every type of food preparation you can think of.

Knife selection

Don’t follow? Ok, here’s a random sample of questions López-Alt has tackled in this book:

  • Does searing meat lock in the juices?
  • What’s the best spot in the refrigerator for eggs? Raw meat? Veggies?
  • How do I tell if eggs are fresh? Do green-dyed scrambled eggs taste worse than un-dyed eggs?
  • What’s the right way to slice/dice an onion? How do I do it without crying like a baby?
  • Umami. What is that?
  • How many times should I flip a steak on the grill? 
  • How do I break down a whole chicken?

How to carve a chicken

There’s so much more, but I don’t want to overwhelm you. The point it, this book approaches cooking as a discipline to be learned, with an emphasis on teaching you to understand ingredients, and how they come together in various ways to make … food!

And yes, the book does contain a lot of recipes, although I’m not sure the recipes are really the strongest point. This is really a book that seems to be more about teaching to you how to go off recipe, than just following one word for word. 

Six inexpensive steaks you should know

So are you saying I should buy it? Well, yes and no. If you’re like my brother, and haven’t really gotten into cooking at all yet, then this book is probably overkill for you (although at $27 it’s a pretty great deal). But if you’re past the point of ordering take-out, and you already know how to follow a recipe that you’ve found online, then this book will absolutely help you take the next step. If you love making food, and want to learn how to do more than just follow someone else’s instructions, this book is for you.

ManMade Recommended: The Food Lab, by Kenji López-Alt ($27 on Amazon)

Franklin Barbecue - A Meat Smoking Manifesto

Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto

I picked up a copy of this book last year for a photo shoot (yes, sometimes we buy books just to use them in pictures), and because I had heard so much about the famed flavors of Franklin Barbecue, in Austin, TX

It’s a beautiful book; the photos are stunning and, frankly, mouth-watering. Everything about this book makes me wish Austin was not so, so far away from Minneapolis, MN, where I live. And it’s abundantly clear that Aaron Franklin (the author and proprietor) is a committed, authentic, no-nonsense master of meats. I want to eat his food.

Smoking BBQ photos

But, for my money, the book kind of misses the mark. Maybe I’m just not the right reader. But this thing is really geared toward people who are going to get fully, seriously, practically full-time into meat smoking. That’s not me. As much as I might like to, I’m not going to be welding my own offset smoker from scratch anytime soon (ever?).  So the section on cutting the doors, or the tips on selecting the perfect wood, those just aren’t super useful to me.

Selecting wood for BBQ

There really aren’t a lot of recipes in this book, and I didn’t find a ton of stuff that I felt like I could apply to my regular cooking/grilling routine. That’s not to say there’s nothing of value in the book; far from it … it’s all very well-presented and in depth. It’s just that, unless you plan on taking up serious meat-smoking as a hobby or profession, you’ll likely find the content a little … esoteric.

Coffee table book

Still, as a coffee table book – something to flip through and salivate over – it’s pretty great. And I’m going to keep mine around and in plain view, just to serve as a reminder that I need to get myself down to Austin sometime soon. I need to see about some brisket.

Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifest ($17.75 on Amazon)