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Christopher Kimball: "He may be the sole person associated with food journalism to remark, 'There’s something about pleasure I find annoying.'"
October 14, 2012 9:11 AM   Subscribe

"Cooking isn't creative, and it isn't easy." A NYT Magazine piece on Christopher Kimball, Cook's Illustrated, and his franchise (America's Test Kitchen, Cook's Country, et al.). "At the core of C.I.’s M.O. are two intrepid observations Kimball has made about the innermost psychology of home cooks. Namely that they 1) are haunted by a fear of humiliation, and 2) will not follow a recipe to the letter, believing that slavishly following directions is an implicit admission that you cannot cook... What the magazine essentially offers its readers is a bargain: if they agree to follow the recipes as written, their cooking will succeed and they will be recognized by family and friends as competent or even expert in the kitchen... The bargain further holds that the peppercorn-crusted filet of beef or butterscotch-cream pie will turn out not only in C.I.’s professional kitchen, with its All-Clad pans and DCS ranges, but also on a lowly electric four-top, using a dull knife and a $20 nonstick skillet."

On the recipes:
I was at the meeting for the unveiling of the Perfect Soft-Boiled Egg. It’s one of those recipes that isolate the weird, wayward essence of the Cook’s Illustrated project, a seemingly boner-proof preparation that, when fixed with Kimball’s unsparing eye, reveals itself to be fundamentally broken. And therein lies the narrative arc of the C.I. recipe — invariably it begins with the insuperable flaw, that through toil and experimentation is resolved in a sudden, improbable revelation that, in-house, is known as the aha moment. By far the most commonly occurring aha moments involve baking soda and gelatin. Others include browning butter for Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies and presoaking no-boil noodles to make Spinach Lasagna. C.I.’s Classic Spaghetti and Meatballs for a Crowd, which calls for roasting the meatballs on a wire rack and adding gelatin, can be said to have not one but two aha moments. (An authentic aha moment has to be unexpected and original — a recipe can’t be fixed by something as banal as shortening the cooking time or cutting the flour by a third.) [...]

If you’re wondering what could be especially difficult about boiling an egg, you should have heard her. The Flaw — the unappetizing probability of either a chalky yolk or a runny white — occurs because the yolk gets cooked before the white, and the desired temperature window turns out to be harrowingly small, so the ideal preparation must set the white while leaving the yolk custardy, and not do it too rapidly. Oh, and tossing a fridge-temperature egg into boiling water will cause the air inside to expand and sometimes crack it, and apparently no two cooks can agree on exactly what simmering means, and third, the number of eggs must be compensated for by adjusting the amount of boiling water to keep cooking time constant. Geary recited further facts imperiling the P.S.B.E., and after a while the difficulty of boiling an egg at home with anything like success sounded to be on the order of a bone-marrow transplant. This appeared to please everyone, particularly Kimball, and the meeting moved on to Dressing Up Meatloaf.
On Kimball's editorials:
...[A]s a prose stylist, Kimball trades “cookbook pastoral” for “thresher gothic.” He writes about the locals with such misty reverence that you’d think he were Gauguin in Tahiti and that his odes to haying, sugaring and a New England past “when hard work, thrift and self-reliance were the coin of the realm” were larded with Proustian longing. Yet passages of bottomless ickiness come spring-loaded with genuinely unsettling episodes about the dangers of modern convenience and, of all things, death’s inevitability. For every mention of turkey fatigue or homemade soda bread, Kimball conjures enough mountain-road auto wrecks, equine tramplings and corn-chopper dismemberments to max out a police blotter. (In one editorial, a neighbor discovers a mass grave in some woods near Kimball’s home.) Much of the rest is just weird. Kimball considers dog-powered washing machines, describes a cave where locals take children for some kind of homegrown Meso-American initiation rite and rewards the patient reader with epigrammatic gems like, “If you had walked across this country a hundred years ago, you probably wouldn’t have eaten the same biscuit twice” and “When it comes to eating out, I have grown quite fond of church suppers” and “squirrel is mild and lean.”
On knowing his audience:
What few quibble with is Kimball’s grasp of the magazine business. “I think he’s a genius,” says Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet. “He gives his readers exactly what they want while managing to repurpose every recipe six or seven times.” Privately, some editors at C.I. complain that Kimball’s business model sometimes works too well. SurveyMonkey, the software that keeps them in touch with readers, informs every aspect of the editorial process — when a test cook wondered whether most readers had access to shallots, SurveyMonkey told them they did. One consequence of a participatory approach to content is the readers’ tendency to pass on their contradictions. “When we survey, everyone tells us they want healthy, low-fat recipes, but then no one wants to make them,” an editor says. “They want dinner to take 20 minutes, but they want it to taste like it took all day.” It turns out that readers tend to return to the familiar — to date, Kimball’s magazines have published eight iterations of meatloaf — and, until recently, snubbed ethnic cooking. “Getting international recipes into the magazine was like pulling teeth,” an editor tells me. When they do make it into print, the recipes survey better after they’ve been decoded into familiar language: Thai-Style Stir-Fried Noodles With Chicken and Broccolini will get a more enthusiastic response than Pad See Ew. The readers’ prejudices dovetail neatly with Kimball’s.
previously: I'm making Cook's Illustrated's recipe for beef stew
posted by flex (196 comments total) 100 users marked this as a favorite

 
observations Kimball has made about the innermost psychology of home cooks. Namely that they 1) are haunted by a fear of humiliation

No wonder I never got into Cooks Illustrated.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:17 AM on October 14, 2012 [10 favorites]


the way I cook is definitely creative and usually, but not always, easy. Needless to say I don't have a 100% success record. However, my dinner invitations are rarely declined.
posted by txmon at 9:19 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Cooks Illustrated is one of the best recipe resources I've found.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:21 AM on October 14, 2012 [13 favorites]


One of my local PBS stations runs ATK on one of their digital sub-channels. I generally like the show for its "nice and simple" approach to recipes. But, I always come away thinking that Kimball is not a likeable person to work for. Dunno if that's accurate or not, but it's the way he comes across. There's something unhumorous about the guy. He did prefer my peanut butter, though, so he gets props for that.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:22 AM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


I thought the Cooks Illustrated bargain was "give us 6 hours of your undivided attention, and we'll help you make toast in 40 complicated steps."

I love their recipes, but slavish follow them I do not.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:22 AM on October 14, 2012 [10 favorites]


I subscribed for a year but after being told to brine meat before cooking at least thrice an issue I un-sub'd.
posted by docgonzo at 9:24 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Cooking *can* be creative and easy. Not all recipes can be easy, but enough of 'em are. I subscribed one year to CI, and while it made interesting reading, I've never wanted kitchen perfection enough to follow one of their labyrinthine recipes--I'm happy to leave that to the pros when I go out and settle for tasty-but-not-perfect cooking at home.
posted by smirkette at 9:26 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


The secret to good cooking is not slavishly following the recipe. The secret to good cooking is knowing when to slavishly follow the recipe.
posted by DU at 9:28 AM on October 14, 2012 [61 favorites]


If you have no technique, you probably need to follow the recipe.
posted by borges at 9:30 AM on October 14, 2012


ATK recipes aren't complicated. They're all very straightforward and quite basic on a lot of levels. Sometimes they go off on a peculiar tangent, but it's always done with an eye toward obtaining desired results.

There's more than a few tips I've learned from ATK which have revolutionized my cooking. The foremost is that you don't cook meat until done. You cook it until it's short of done, and then let it rest on a plate covered with foil for 5-10 minutes while it finishes cooking of its own heat. This single thing alone has caused many delicious meals to happen where before I'd have overcooked meat of any sort and any cut.

I think this cookbook should be in every kitchen, much more so than the very similar in appearance Betty Crocker cookbook. The copy I have is well-used, despite only being a few years old.
posted by hippybear at 9:32 AM on October 14, 2012 [13 favorites]


I am in fact haunted by fears of humiliation.

I'm also nervous when I cook.
posted by Egg Shen at 9:35 AM on October 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


Some of us don't want to be creative. Some of us just want to have dinner.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:46 AM on October 14, 2012 [9 favorites]


I know that their recipes actually work, if followed. Oddly enough, that's quite rare.
posted by Area Man at 9:47 AM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


If you have no technique, you probably need to follow the recipe.

Technique is critical to success and is rarely found within the recipe.

If you have no technique, you're probably best off charting your own culinary path.

I love following recipes. I get to continually try new things with high confidence of success and plan the week ahead efficiently, buying just what I need. I'm no chef, but am quite happy in my role as 'food technician'.
posted by mazola at 9:48 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Obligatory.
posted by digitalprimate at 9:52 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you have no technique, you probably need to follow the recipe.

Technique is critical to success and is rarely found within the recipe.


This is what sets ATK/CI recipes apart from most recipes. They describe technique as part of the recipe. This is why the recipes work.
posted by hippybear at 9:52 AM on October 14, 2012 [22 favorites]


1) are haunted by a fear of humiliation, and 2) will not follow a recipe to the letter, believing that slavishly following directions is an implicit admission that you cannot cook... What the magazine essentially offers its readers is a bargain: if they agree to follow the recipes as written, their cooking will succeed and they will be recognized by family and friends as competent or even expert in the kitchen.

I love Cook's Illustrated. I am definitely haunted by fears of humiliation and desire to appear as a talented cook to my social circle, although I have no psychic difficulty with following recipes to the letter.

We have a standing joke around our house parodying the typical Cook's Illustrated article opener, and it goes something like this: "The ideal peanut butter sandwich should have crunchy, nutty peanut butter and a robust bread casing, all coming together for a rich, satisfying taste experience. But too often, peanut butter sandwiches are mushy and gummy-tasting. Can we save this classic American sandwich?" It's almost a gnostic worldview, right, where to CI everyone is constantly producing terrible, disappointing food and only careful, meticulous adherence to detailed and well-researched recipes can produce anything edible at all. If you read CI, you would think that 99% of home-cooked meals are gross, inedible messes. I find this particularly amusing because I grew up with parents who cooked absolutely standard mid-late 20th century white people food - meatloaf, roast chicken, sauteed vegetables, clam chowder, baked potatoes, chocolate cake, maybe a little garlic broccoli or white bean soup in their later and more adventurous years - and frankly none of it was fancy or followed any CI-type advice, but almost all of it was genuinely good. We ate carefully and pretty well, and our family was very strapped for cash until I was well into my teens.

But I still love Cook's Illustrated! Anyone who eats cheese and likes lasagna will find that their incredibly labor-intensive white-sauce spinach lasagna is well worth the effort. And people routinely implore me to make the raspberry streusel bars from one of last winter's issues.
posted by Frowner at 9:53 AM on October 14, 2012 [36 favorites]


Their White Spinach recipe is, within my relationship with my SO, code for I'm going to ask you to do something potentially uncomfortable tonight.
posted by digitalprimate at 9:56 AM on October 14, 2012 [33 favorites]


Their volume entitled, "Garnishing and Presenting Legumes" is a classic.
posted by Jode at 9:57 AM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think Hippybear has got it. Other recipe writers assume you know technique, CI includes it in the recipe. I remember learning about a roux while following a turkey gravy recipe.
posted by Area Man at 9:59 AM on October 14, 2012


I think home cooks are afraid not so much of humiliation but of turning out a poor dish. Cooking isn't hard but it can require a lot of precision, oil not hot enough means greasy food, oil too hot means burned food, pots boil over, you don't have any allspice after all, there are only two eggs in the carton and you need three. These are all a bunch of small things that can quickly be overcome. In a perfect world, you would do your mise-en-place and have everything just so and all prepped, but in real life people are trying get dinner done quickly after work before guests show up or while dealing with hungry kids. The phone rings, the baby cries, you have to go blow your nose and now the onions are burned.

I do like CI, their pizza dough made with cake flour is made in my house once a week. I've never forgiven them for not using Baker's German Chocolate for German chocolate cake. Chocolate cake with coconut pecan frosting does not a German chocolate cake make.
posted by shoesietart at 10:02 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


My favorite recipes are from ATK and Cook's Country. I record both programs and watch them regularly. My only complaints are 1) their website is a wretched hive of overpriced pay-wall badness, and 2) Christopher Kimball acts like such a tool on television.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:03 AM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty sure the secret to cooking is getting other people to do it for you.
posted by Rangeboy at 10:03 AM on October 14, 2012 [11 favorites]


I think the kitchen evolution for a lot of us went ?? --> Alton Brown --> CI.

It's good to know the fundamentals.

Agree that Kimball's demeanor is off-putting. So is his company's aggressive marketing. Especially grating is that some recipes are not available to regular site subscribers; an additional subscription, over and above the standard fee, is required.

Creepy.
posted by notyou at 10:04 AM on October 14, 2012 [11 favorites]


Sometimes it seems like they want everything to be approximately the same number of steps. This is problematic when making, as Bulgaroktonos points out, toast. It is awesome when making a fruit tart. As someone who is okay but not great at cooking, I find them really helpful and I appreciate the effort they put in to figure out what is and isn't worth doing. It means that when I chill something for at least half an hour I know they've tried chilling it for twenty minutes or whatever to see how it works out. I don't feel like they're wasting my time with unnecessary aspects of preparing the food.

Also, that fruit tart is REALLY GOOD and helped me convince my mother that I am now at least kind of a real grown-up.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:04 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


I like Cook's Illustrated, and America's Test Kitchen for the most part. I don't care for Christopher Kimball, and I don't like their online subscription model where you get a subscription, then if you search for recipes, often times they're behind yet another paywall. I cancelled after that. I don't mind paying for content, but there is a limit to what I will tolerate.

The nice thing about them is they explain the testing they went through to get the results they get. I like knowing why things work, which is why I like Alton Brown. I'm not one to just blindly follow directions.

I've been cooking for over 30 years, mainly because I like good food, and can't afford, or don't want to eat out a lot. When it comes to following a recipe, I know what things work for me in my kitchen, so I make changes as I see fit. Generally if I'm making something for the first time, I'll follow a recipe fairly close. It's a good way to learn to cook. Follow a recipe the first time, then make changes and see what happens. I think part of being a good cook is being able to tell which recipes will probably work for you just by reading them.

As far as being creative, you have to be in order to run a frugal kitchen, and not be throwing things away. I hate throwing away food. You always end up with odds and ends, and being able to make a meal out of just what's in the pantry/fridge is definitely creative cooking. No recipes, just take what you have, and make something good. I always tell my wife to remember that dish, because we'll never have it again.
posted by Eekacat at 10:11 AM on October 14, 2012 [11 favorites]


I'm not haunted by fear of humiliation at all. I'm haunted by a fear of shitty cookbooks that cover for their own inadequacies and poor review processes by shifting the blame to me, as a novice cook, for not knowing just how awful their recipes are when followed.

My wife is a much better cook than me, so she's able to somewhat intuitively skirt the issues in a flawed recipe (where "flawed" means "do what it says and the dish comes out wrong") and thinks my "slavish" adherence to written instructions is cute but also a little annoying. She is, however, more annoyed when the baby carrots come out awful.

Some friends of mine recommended the "America's Test Kitchen" cookbook a few years ago, assured me that I would be happy with most of the recipes if I merely followed them closely, and I have, indeed, been much more happy with them than other cookbooks I have used.

Sometimes the recipes are a little fussy, but for helping someone who does not know how to cook very well learn why things work the way they do, and the ways in which seemingly simple standards can be vastly improved with a dollop of science, that cookbook has been a revelation. Other cookbook authors should be grateful it's out there: People who are not cooking because they super-duper want to cook but are instead cooking because this meal needs to come out right so their family can eat something that tastes good, and for whom dinner cannot be an iterative process to merely decent, are getting an education that will arm them to deal with inferior cookbooks and in turn not show up on Amazon just cussing and defaming left and right.
posted by mph at 10:18 AM on October 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


Cook's is the go-to reference for a lot of the dishes I've cooked over the years, and ATK is a show I've enjoyed watching for Bridget and Julia, who are fun to watch without being precious or mannered (*cough* Giada *cough*).

That said, Kimball himself seems hyper-creepy. And I hate the marketing for Cook's Country, both in tone and persistence. And, as notyou mentioned, I think it really sucks that subscribers can't get access to the recipes online.

And, on the topic of selling readers the same things multiple times, it seems that Cook's is scraping the barrel's bottom. I saw it today at the supermarket, and I'd swear I'd seen several of the cover items in previous years. How often can you sell "Forget the last three! This is the ultimate, ultimate baked ziti recipe, honest!"
posted by the sobsister at 10:19 AM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's true that I rarely follow recipes in general, chiefly because they're often a mess: imprecise, or skipping steps that I know will improve the results, or with too many or not enough flavorful ingredients. I use most cookbooks and cooking blogs as idea generators, not instructional manuals.

And by and large, the same is true for me of Cooks Illustrated: it's an idea generator for me. I enjoy reading the dissection of the recipes and the analysis of the ingredients and their likely interactions in the ongoing formulation of a new recipe. It's the same reason i enjoy watching Alton Brown: not so much for the finished product as for the discussion of the ingredient or technique.

A few years ago, I did use CI's finicky instructions for making pumpkin pie. The concoctions themselves aren't the problem, though it does call for canned pumpkin (more predictable in texture, flavor, and moisture than home-prepped squash was their reasoning, as I recall) simmered with the spices until it thickens enough to PLOP up in gobbets from the pan, and having a geyser of hot pumpkin sear your forearm isn't the greatest delight.

No, the finicky aspect was the timing: roll the pastry, shape, chill, then parbake and pull from the over to cool --- but not too much! Meanwhile, heat the pumpkin, then add the cream and simmer more, then cool enough to whip in tempered eggs, then hope that you've cooled everything just enough but not too much so you can pour the filling into the shells at just the right moment! The crust must be hot enough to cook the custard from the bottom while the oven cooks the custard from the top! But not so hot that it overcooks the custard! EXACT RIGHT MOMENT!

The recipe is a touch hysterical on the timing aspect, and because the magazine is so science-y, I believed this hysteria the same way I used to trust my anxious chem lab teacher, who was convinced we would all LOSE YOUR EYES IF YOU'RE NOT MORE CAREFUL, YOU LOUSY KIDS.

The entire time I made this batch of pies, I muttered to myself "These had better be the best fuckin' pumpkin pies EVER." It wasn't hard, but it was a messy, multiple-step hassle, and I wasn't sure it was going to be worth the trouble.

And then the good news and the bad news: these are the best fuckin' pumpkin pies EVER. Creamy, full of deep pumpkin flavor, with a flaky, buttery crust and a complex hint of autumn spices. They're just fabulous. At the first bite, I realized "OH HELL. Now I'll have to make these at every holiday." They're that good.

The actual good news: now I've made them a few times and realize that the timing isn't nearly as finicky and crucial as CI makes it sound. In fact, now I make the crust and filling, put 'em together, freeze them unbaked a week before the holidays, and bake them from their solidly frozen state. They are perhaps a tiny bit less ethereally glorious, but that might be my imagination; I'm not sure they lose anything in the freezer. They're rich, fresh-tasting, crispy of crust and creamy of custard, and --- because I've had a week to forget the spattering gobbets of hot pumpkin scalding my wrist --- they seem easy in the bustle of Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Thanks, CI, for being so overwrought and detail-focused. It makes me look easy-going by comparison.
posted by Elsa at 10:19 AM on October 14, 2012 [39 favorites]


I'm pretty sure the secret to cooking is getting other people to do it for you.
posted by Rangeboy at 1:03 PM on October 14 [+] [!]


Eponysterical... and also the principle by which I personally try to live my life.
posted by GrammarMoses at 10:20 AM on October 14, 2012


ATK and Cook's sound like something that could save even me from cooking failures. (Yes, I am afraid of them. If I'm going to put in the hassle of cooking, I need edible food at the end.) But the guy sounds like Steve Jobs in terms of people liking the project but not wanting to work with him. See also: Jiro in Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
posted by immlass at 10:23 AM on October 14, 2012


I want to like CI, and the idea of a fleet of skilled professionals in a gleaming test kitchen laboriously creating every possible recipe variation until they find the. perfect. method. fills me with joy.

But we don't eat a lot of meat or eat dessert regularly, and their recipes are mostly meat, side dishes, and dessert. Plus, as noted, they shy away from "ethnic" foods which also make up a solid chunk of my cooking.

I guess if they applied their methods to more things that I actually cook, I'd be more interested.
posted by BrashTech at 10:23 AM on October 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


It's true that I rarely follow recipes in general, chiefly because they're often a mess: imprecise, or skipping steps that I know will improve the results, or with too many or not enough flavorful ingredients. I use most cookbooks and cooking blogs as idea generators, not instructional manuals.
I was just about to come and say this. I've seen recipes (both online and in fancy hardback cookery books) that were a complete mess - skipping steps that only become obvious by omission, advising truly bizarre quantities of ingredients or cooking times, and suggesting combinations of ingredients that no sane person would ever eat.

I usually treat my first time cooking something as a practice run, with the assumption that it will turn into a hilarious mess even if I follow the recipe to the letter. Usually by the second or third time, I've got a pretty good idea if I should follow every step exactly or if it's safe to improvise a little.
posted by anaximander at 10:23 AM on October 14, 2012


This is why I don't work in a professional kitchen- the things that you have to do to turn out high-quality dishes, consistently, and with serious time constrains, are entirely inimical to the sort of cooking I do for pleasure (and that's not even counting places where corners are being cut in the areas of technique, quality of ingredients, freshness, or hygiene).

I would also never want to end up hating something that I currently love. Most of the professional cooks that I know almost never cook at home.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:24 AM on October 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


A few years ago I subscribed for a year but ended up not liking it very much. Way too fussy for me, and also too much what I guess you'd call middle American. I'm just not interested in fussy recipes for things I mostly don't eat -- too much emphasis on soft and sweet things, like parodies of what my grandparents liked in their later years.

But I'm not afraid of kitchen humiliation, and I'm not afraid to fuck things up repeatedly. On weekdays I cook simple things that can be easily finished between getting home from work and dinner time, and on the weekends I can experiment. I'm not surprised that Bittman's time there wasn't a success -- his books have a totally different approach, with much more emphasis on figuring out the basic variations and making do with the time, ingredients, and equipment that you might happen to have.
posted by Forktine at 10:25 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


My usual approach to recipes is to search-out three or so versions of a dish. Then, I read them thoroughly, evaluating the ingredient list, preparation, and any quirky instructions there may be. Then, I frankenstein them together, using the bit I like in one, adding them to another, and adjusting the preparation into something I can accomplish in my tiny kitchen. So far, so good!
posted by Thorzdad at 10:27 AM on October 14, 2012 [27 favorites]


Okay, now having actually RTFA, I'll give Kimball this: He's spot on when he says, “Cooking is about putting food on the table night after night, and there isn’t anything glamorous about it.” Although I'd contrast that with Irma Rombauer's instance that the Joy of Cooking is in providing a physical manifestation of the cook's love for their family and guests through the presentation of a delicious, nutritious meal.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:29 AM on October 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


My usual approach to recipes is to search-out three or so versions of a dish. Then, I read them thoroughly, evaluating the ingredient list, preparation, and any quirky instructions there may be. Then, I frankenstein them together, using the bit I like in one, adding them to another, and adjusting the preparation into something I can accomplish in my tiny kitchen.

Honestly, I do this too. But I invariably incorporate technique and tricks I've learned from ATK and CI, because they just fukin work.
posted by hippybear at 10:33 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've seen recipes (both online and in fancy hardback cookery books) that were a complete mess - skipping steps that only become obvious by omission, advising truly bizarre quantities of ingredients or cooking times, and suggesting combinations of ingredients that no sane person would ever eat.

This. I'm no master chef, but it's really striking how many recipes I see are actively bad. It's not a question of taste (I don't like cheese logs, so I'm not going to make them, period) but rather instructions that simply won't work.

A couple of years ago I was at someone's house and spent some time flipping through a book about cooking from first principles, rather than recipes. I wish I could remember the author's name (I think it was a woman, but I won't even swear to that) because it resonated with me far more than this guy's approach does.
posted by Forktine at 10:33 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


That said, I do think Kimball is spot-on when he talks about people's inability, more like "unwillingness," to follow recipes. I can't count the times I've been to Food Network's site or Epicurious.com, and the majority of the comments say, "Fabulous recipe! My whole family loved it! I didn't have cream, so I substituted yogurt; I didn't have dill, so I used parsley; I didn't have bacon, so I used burnt shoelaces; I didn't have oil, so I used lubricant. My fussy husband asked for thirds!!"
posted by the sobsister at 10:35 AM on October 14, 2012 [42 favorites]


Julia Child's The Way To Cook is about cooking based on cooking concepts rather than recipes. It contains recipes, but if you don't read the chapters and know what the principles are she's basing the recipes on, you'll never succeed.

(The Way To Cook is probably the OTHER cookbook I think should be in every kitchen.)
posted by hippybear at 10:37 AM on October 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


Thanks for posting this. I was about to roll my eyes at yet more Cooks Illustrated media exposure, but this article actually explains what has led me to cancel my subscription. I started reading the magazine in 1998, and back then it was an in-depth study of american home cooking with an almost academic house style. Fast forward to today, when the whole CI/ATK empire revolves around a puppy mill of aspiring young food writers turning out nearly identical, highly reductionist recipes. This, plus the phobia of ethnic food has really left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Even their reader tips have followed the race to the bottom: "Jeff Tuckerman of Shreveport likes to use paper towels to clean up in the kitchen!"
posted by werkzeuger at 10:39 AM on October 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


I enjoy CI because it is consistent and does amazing things such as, the vodka pie crust solution, BUT it drives me crazy how you see material re-tread and repackaged. Heck, it reminds me of the near impossibility of collecting Thomas the Tank Engine episodes in the US as opposed to the UK where you are given seasons and not subsets.

Technique, technique and that is why Alton Brown and Chris Kimball rank highly. More than a few cookbooks are not good on the consistency and I have questions on the testing.
posted by jadepearl at 10:40 AM on October 14, 2012


I subscribed to CI for about three or four years. At about that time, I started to feel that almost every recipe was a retread of something I'd seen in a previous issue. Also, I ordered one of their books; the book was pretty good, but it turns out that when you order a book from them they silently declare you to have "subscribed" to a whole series of books, which you then have to lug to the post office and mail back with a hard-to-find-on-their-impossible-website form saying "despite the fact that I bought one book from you I do not wish to buy a new book every month." That was sufficiently irritating that I canceled my subscription, and to be honest, I don't miss it. I learned some useful techniques from CI but I can't say it really changed my cooking -- to be fair, this might be because a lot of the value-added in CI seems to be "cook this big piece of meat right instead of wrong" and I don't cook that much meat.

The only technique I can think of that I learned from CI is roasting broccoli with sugar; that does work.
posted by escabeche at 10:43 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, I came to doubt after a while that all the experiments they write about actually happened.
posted by escabeche at 10:46 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


But we don't eat a lot of meat or eat dessert regularly, and their recipes are mostly meat, side dishes, and dessert.

Us, too. After subscribing for ~20 years (since I was an actual schoolgirl! Okay, high-schoolgirl), I let my CI subscription lapse years ago. In response to their persistent follow-up letters, mailings, and wooings (like, two letters a week), I wrote back to give them some feedback. My husband is a long-time vegetarian and I prefer to eat meat rarely, so I can't use most of their recipes. The dinners are usually meat, the vegetable dishes often rely on meat ingredients like stock* or pancetta or bacon, and even the desserts often use gelatin. I also praised the vegetarian cookbooks of CI contributor Jack Bishop, and remarked that if more recipes like those were included, I would consider re-subscribing someday.

I never heard back...

...unless you count the magazine's sudden reappearance in my mailbox. I called the 800-number to report the error and was told not to worry about it, it was almost certainly a promotion. A few months later, they sent me a bill and a notice that I was automatically resubscribed. Ha! I sent the bill back, unpaid, with a letter:

A) explaining I had not resubscribed, and that they had sent me the magazine either in error or as part of a promotion;
B) restating why I had initially let my subscription lapse;
C) remarking that I was extremely unlikely ever to re-subscribe after this attempt to bill me for unordered goods.

I never heard back about that, either. Having had some trouble with the subscriptions dept. over the decades (changing address, getting payments acknowledged and recorded, and so on), I assumed that was pure accident. But since then, I've heard people (some on MeFi) complain about CI sending out unrequested volumes of cookbooks and later billing for them. I don't know if that's symptomatic of a poorly ordered office or if it's more sinister. I know it makes me reluctant to do business with them, either way.

*While it's sometimes possible to substitute vegetable broth, if they're using stock to give body or silky collagen-rich texture to a dish, broth won't do the same thing.
posted by Elsa at 10:46 AM on October 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


It's 2012. It's good to include recipes for mesir wat and Goan fish curry alongside the meatloaf etc. What is anyone afraid of?
posted by 1adam12 at 10:48 AM on October 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


Where I agree with Kimball is that he doesn't promote cooking as a fad or a hobby. He's very Julia Child in that respect. He assumes that families need to put food on the table night after night after night after night after night after night after night after night after night after night after night after night after night. It isn't "special" and it isn't something to be photographed. It's dinner.

And I figure that if I can agree with him on that, despite the facts that I do treat cooking as a hobby and I do photograph food, then there's gotta be something to it.

If you're a fan of Kimball, by the way, consider checking out The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook. It isn't CI or ATK, it's just Kimball and the prose style is a bit different. I've tried a few recipes from it that bombed, but it has some real gems. The doughnut recipe is very old-school and one of my favorites. I've made it several Christmases.
posted by cribcage at 10:50 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm a pretty nuts and bolts guy, especially in the kitchen. I certainly don't consider myself a chef or anything more than a enthusiastic amateur in the kitchen. I own exactly two books on cooking: McGee and Rombauer. But I do have a stack of old CI's that I pick up at library sales stowed away in a corner of my kitchen for inspiration. Most of my cooking is variations on things I learned at my grandmother's elbow, with various expansions and changes. However if I am going to try something absolutely new for the first time, my default google search is: *recipe name* cooks illustrated. It generally offers me a good breakdown of what to do, how and why.

The one exception to this is Indian cooking wherein I learn from Manjula who I found here on the blue.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 10:50 AM on October 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


Behind the completely unjustified snobbery and condescension of Kimball's attitude toward home cooks,
Namely that they 1) are haunted by a fear of humiliation, and 2) will not follow a recipe to the letter, believing that slavishly following directions is an implicit admission that you cannot cook... What the magazine essentially offers its readers is a bargain: if they agree to follow the recipes as written, their cooking will succeed and they will be recognized by family and friends as competent or even expert in the kitchen...
lurks merely yet another male who wants to tell mainly women exactly what to do in the intimate settings of their private lives, and seeks to slake his unquenchable envy of these women by arrogating to himself the creativity and passion with which they do it, turning them essentially into copies of himself and thereby virtually becoming them, and replacing them.

And he betrays this attitude very clearly in his obsession with rote technique. He does not attempt to impart an understanding of food and cooking-- he needs to believe his readers and watchers do not have the capacity to grasp food and cooking and do something interesting on their own--he must tell you exactly what to do at every step and turn you into an impostor in your own home.
posted by jamjam at 10:54 AM on October 14, 2012 [20 favorites]


Having had some trouble with the subscriptions dept. over the decades...

Interesting. My wife tried to buy one of their expensive boxed annual magazine sets several years ago as a birthday gift for me, and their customer service basically refused to sell it to her, even though it was advertised in the magazine. It was very weird.

I have the Yellow Farmhouse book, and the Cooks Bible by Kimball. The style is different, and to me more readable. Much of both books are useless though because they have detailed tests of kitchen appliances and products that are no longer even made.
posted by werkzeuger at 10:55 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I love almost everything about CI. Except the taste of the recipes. Every one I have tried tasted wrong. Like how when you were a kid and went to a friend's house for dinner and it just tasted "off". Like they are purposefully trying to make the recipes MORE like "home cookin'" and less like something someone would actually pay for in a restaurant.

(I must admit that I haven't tried any of the deserts or baking recipes, and those look like they might be closer to right.)

Plus, Kimball's faux-folksy, overcast-with-a-chance-of-rain editorials in the beginning of each issue make me want to turn all the lights off and sleep all day.
posted by gjc at 10:59 AM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


"It's a truism that eating in the United States has changed more in the last 25 years than in the preceding 50."

I suppose it's possible this is a truism but can it be remotely true? 25 years ago it was 1987. I remember 1987 pretty well. There were differences in what people ate (though less drastic than the differences in the coffee people drink.) But 1937?? I don't think most Americans in 1937 had ever eaten Chinese food, or a burrito, maybe not even pasta. If anything, I think the change in the way Americans cook has slowed down. (The change in the way we eat, of course, also includes the fact that people eat much more packaged and restaurant food now, but I don't think that's what the NYT is referring to.)
posted by escabeche at 11:00 AM on October 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


Interesting, jamjam. I read that in exactly the opposite way. When he said "Were they the world’s best burgers — no, probably not. But if you get food on the table and it works, we’ve done our jobs," I see that as him telling home cooks not to get stressed out, to not compare themselves to others.

he needs to believe his readers and watchers do not have the capacity to grasp food and cooking and do something interesting on their own

Again, I've never felt that way from reading their recipes. I appreciate that they explain the science behind their methods and show their mistakes.

I last made a Cooks Illustrated recipe two hours ago -- their brownies, which really are the best I've ever had.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:01 AM on October 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


Now that I think about it, their recipes remind me of eating at Cracker Barrel. I mean, I actually kind of like stopping at Cracker Barrel on long road trips, but it's not really food that speaks to me or needs to be a significant part of my life.
posted by Forktine at 11:02 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I love almost everything about CI. Except the taste of the recipes.

Behind their faux-scientific empirical veneer there is a decidedly white, regional taste bias.
posted by werkzeuger at 11:03 AM on October 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course teaches you technique with the recipes, and still manages to keep them simple and fast. Reliable doesn't have to mean complicated, and she explains why stuff works so you know what bits are essential and what are a choice.

Best cook I've ever lived with had two rules: "No eye gouging, and Don't Dis Delia."

Cooking for Engineers also has well organised recipes
posted by jb at 11:05 AM on October 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


behind ...Kimball's attitude...lurks merely yet another male who wants to tell mainly women exactly what to do in the intimate settings of their private lives

Isn't this true of anyone who has a cooking or how-to show/magazine/etc? Doesn't seem male so much as "professional expert"y, a category that includes Martha Stewart and plenty of other women. These are people whose job it is to give advice and to convince or remind the audience that they need advice.

But I agree with the corpse in the library that their recipes do seem to include a lot of the science and rationale for the steps they include.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:08 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


And if you are looking for technique, read and watch Jacques Pepin.
posted by gjc at 11:10 AM on October 14, 2012 [13 favorites]


it really depresses me to see a professional using nonstick cookware. i mean isn't it kind of a basic thing you need to learn, to be able to brown/crust something in a stainless pan? to be able to keep your temp within the range that you're not burning and also using the right fat to keep the sticking from happening?

my food always tastes dull if I use nonstick. cast iron or stainless for me, only. plus, how are you supposed to make a proper, real sauce if you're not including the tasty browned stuff that actually sticks to the pan?
posted by ninjew at 11:14 AM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


For a dose of science-y cookery with a little more range, I really like Kenji Lopez-Alt's The Food Lab at Serious Eats. He looks at all kinds of recipes and cuisines. Recently, he's posted recipes for lasagne, Peruvian chicken, pho, and Cornish game hen, which is too meat-heavy for me, but he also posts experiments a month-long experience going vegan. I followed that with great interest, watching him shift from frustration and hunger to embracing the limitations and letting them spur him to make gorgeous dishes that could satisfy vegans and non-vegans.
posted by Elsa at 11:14 AM on October 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


And if you are looking for technique, read and watch Jacques Pepin.

What?!? Not yet another man telling women what to do in the intimate parts of their lives! Heaven forfend!
posted by hippybear at 11:14 AM on October 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


And if you are looking for technique, read and watch Jacques Pepin.

Watch the shows he did with Julia Child.

The way to make a good dish is to make it 50 times.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:23 AM on October 14, 2012


@Less, I believe Kenji used to work for CI.
posted by old_growler at 11:23 AM on October 14, 2012


if they agree to follow the recipes as written, their cooking will succeed and they will be recognized by family and friends as competent or even expert in the kitchen

So very, very many cultural underlayers in those phrases. The dark side is that if you don't "follow the rules", it's implied that you get what you deserve. Questions about who the rulemakers are and why are not part of the discussion.
posted by gimonca at 11:28 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I believe Kenji used to work for CI.

I think so; I thought I'd read that in his bio, but I couldn't find that info on a quick Sunday-morning search.

But because he doesn't work at CI anymore, he can take that SCIENCE! approach and play around with it in a looser, more expansive environment, which is a lot more useful for me (and, judging from remarks above, for others) and (for me) a lot more fun to read.
posted by Elsa at 11:29 AM on October 14, 2012


I like Cook's Illustrated a lot, but if all I knew about it was the description in this article I would be pretty wary of it too.
posted by dfan at 11:30 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


The top article on their home page today is Potato Gnocchi. The recipe and "article" conveys a routine for producing what they think is the best gnocchi. It is completely divorced of cultural and conceptual information about this dish. That sends me the messages that a) they assume their audience already knows why "gnocchi" is a good food to make, and b) the audience should depend on them as the source for making gnocchi.

This kind of technical isolation* really rubs me the wrong way. You are not doing cooking if someone tames the journey for you.

*(I am all for technicality: the Modernist Cuisine books are a gold mine.)
posted by polymodus at 11:32 AM on October 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


I suppose it's possible this is a truism but can it be remotely true? 25 years ago it was 1987. I remember 1987 pretty well. There were differences in what people ate (though less drastic than the differences in the coffee people drink.) But 1937?? I don't think most Americans in 1937 had ever eaten Chinese food, or a burrito, maybe not even pasta. If anything, I think the change in the way Americans cook has slowed down. (The change in the way we eat, of course, also includes the fact that people eat much more packaged and restaurant food now, but I don't think that's what the NYT is referring to.)


Oh, I dunno, I remember 1987, too, and where I lived, Chinese food was considered exotic fare for eating out and going was A Big Deal and asking if I'd eaten something like Afghani was like asking if I'd eaten Martian or Venutian.

Whereas now, within a few miles of my house for lunch, I can do the requisite sushi, Mexican, and Chinese, but I can also do Persian, Indian, Greek, Thai, South American, Filipino, Vietnamese. We can buy spices from a little Indian grocery and there's a great Middle Eastern grocery not too far away (oh the baklava!). Some of that is being fortunate and living in a foodie town but some of that is the sheer normalization of "ethnic" food into American cuisine. My supermarket has a sushi guy on staff and you can pick up pad thai or dim sum or naan or hummus like you could pick up a big slab of beef and some potatoes.

That's not to say it's like that everywhere. I've been places where the best Mexican you can get is Taco Bell and "Hawaiian Chicken" is a reheated chicken breast with a slice of Swiss and a can of pineapples dumped over it. (And lord, I hated living there).
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:33 AM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


That CI details their exhaustive iterations of a recipe with a clearly expressed goal is by far its most valuable feature. And then there's this... (self-link):

Christopher Kimball: The Day I Killed A Man

posted by thebordella at 11:35 AM on October 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


I am part of the 25% who failed to renew after the first year. The recipes work, but I got put off by the whole "best" claim, which to me just smacks of arrogance (and I see he did go to Columbia ;). The concept of "best" in cooking is about as valid as "best" in music. It fails to account for individual preference. What is the best way to cook steak, rare or well done? I like mine cold in the center and slightly burnt on the outside. To many this is gross, to me perfection. To claim that one is "better" objectively is mere arrogance. I do enjoy the sort of Alton Brown style breaking down of the aspects to a recipe and how they affect taste and performance. You can use these to be creative. To hear Kimball say that cooking is not creative is disappointing. Cooking is an especially creative activity. Perhaps it is Kimball who isn't creative.
posted by caddis at 11:38 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, ttthhhhbbbfffffbfbfbfbf to Cook's Illustrated.

Listen - okay, maybe if you follow their exact instructions, you will have what is to their minds the Platonian Ideal of a dish. However --

a) Maybe I don't like what they think is the Platonian Ideal, and

b) Even if I screw up one or two steps, it is not going to render the dish completely inedible.

Seriously. I tried making warm spinach salad their way once - which expressly called for cider vinegar for the acid, and called for my whisking the vinegar into the bacon drippings to make a dressing. This was different from what I usually did (dump bacon and dripping on the spinach together and then drizzle some vinegar on after and then tossing like crazy). And you know what? Both ways tasted perfectly fine. The only difference is that they poo-poo'ed the idea of the vinegar and the bacon dripping not being perfectly blended, so that you got a little variance in the amount of vinegar flavor in each bite. But - that's what I liked about doing it my way.

And the way they carried on about not doing it their way makes you think that if you don't you're going to end up with a totally ruined meal and a tarnished social reputation that will make the neighbors gossip that your spinach salad wasn't blended enough, and who knows what else that meant - maybe you had crabgrass and dirty toilets and maybe the neighbors would also think your butt smelled funny and you had ringworm so for god's sake blend your spinach salad dressing, but honestly nobody cares, so if they wanna know where the fear of humiliation is coming from I got definite ideas.

An even better cooking approach than analyzing the structure of recipes to within an inch of their life is -

1) Buy the best ingredients you can.
2) Choose recipes that do as little with those ingredients as possible, because if they're good they already taste good enough and you just need to get out of their way.
3) If the finished product tastes good, then that's all that matters. If you just want to not be hungry any more, then even if something only tastes "meh" then it is still edible and will still serve its purpose.
4) At the end of the day, don't forget - we're talking about something that is going to be poo within twelve hours anyway, so it makes no sense to drive yourself crazy.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:43 AM on October 14, 2012 [22 favorites]


I have the America's Test Kitchen baking book. Since I subscribe to the theory that cooking is art and baking is science, I'm very happy with it. When it comes to everyday cooking I subscribe to the More with Less cookbook philosophy of cook what you have and do it inexpensively-which means I cook by principle, not by recipe for most things. Most of the time all I want to do is make sure we have something to eat at mealtimes.


(If I needed to cook for outside people more than I actually do, I'd probably find the regular recipes helpful. But as long as I can throw together chili or soup or cook a roast for company, no real need.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:44 AM on October 14, 2012


I love that CI's whole schtick is about iterative process improvement, yet their website looks decidedly like a 0.1.1.1 version that was cobbled together in 1997 and has never changed.
posted by benzenedream at 11:44 AM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm looking at some sample pages, and another major problem is that they don't have any citations. People desire authenticity and relatedness. Especially when it comes to cooking and eating; people cook to escape consumerism. They don't want to be told what to do or what's best for them: perhaps the whole approach of this magazine undermines its stated goals.
posted by polymodus at 11:46 AM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not a great cook (currently having issues about frying breaded pork chops without making them greasy or burnt, arrgh), but I collect recipes from a couple of places, including Martha Stewart and the occasional CI I pick up off the newstand. Right now, I've been making several recipes from the CI Meals for Two magazine. I've been getting irritated at myself for the fact that leftovers seem to get pushed to the back of the fridge and forgotten about until they grow lovely coats of mold, instead of getting thriftily reheated and eaten like you're supposed to, so cooking recipes designed to produce a smaller amount of food seemed logical. So far, they've been very successful.

My process has been to follow the recipe pretty closely the first time or three I make it, and then afterwards start to make it my own, whether "my own" means substitutions or simply not having to have the recipe out in front of me because I have a sense of how things are supposed to be proceeding.

I think Kimball's weird, offputting persona is part of the reason I enjoy watching the ATK show, actually. He's so gloriously awkward.
posted by PussKillian at 11:53 AM on October 14, 2012


I've benefited from a couple of technique tricks I've learned from CI; how to roast a tough cut of beef and the vodka pie dough trick, for example. But that's literally the only reason I read the magazine; the rest of it I can take or leave. I don't even read Kimball's editorial at the beginning. I come from a rural area with a lot of the same characters and characteristics as he describes in those stories, and he comes across as a city boy with country boy pretensions. He wouldn't be laughed out of my hometown, but he would very quickly get the "friendly face for out-of-towners" treatment.
posted by LN at 12:04 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Okay, maybe I'm shallow or simplistic, and I'll cop to that. It's fair. But my God, some of this discussion is tiresome even to read; I can't imagine actually thinking these things. It's a "major problem" for a recipe to lack citations? I own three Bluebooks and two editions of Chicago Manual of Style and even I think that's silly. Every brownie recipe is lazy or incomplete unless it begins by reviewing the cultural history of brownies and then explaining to the reader why brownies are worth baking? Sheesh.

I enjoy a good, over-the-top cookbook as much as anybody. I've been dying to get a look inside Modernist Cuisine since reading that it includes an entire chapter on water. That's plain neat. But when a book or magazine explicitly tells me it's going to treat cooking as an everyday, borderline-mundane task and show me how to do it successfully, that's a valuable goal too.
posted by cribcage at 12:09 PM on October 14, 2012 [9 favorites]


I think Kimball's weird, offputting persona is part of the reason I enjoy watching the ATK show, actually. He's so gloriously awkward.


The fact that he continues to insert himself in the program, contrasted with the business acumen he has shown in growing his little empire, speaks volumes about his personality.
posted by werkzeuger at 12:09 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wonder if one's reaction to CI is about how one feels situated in the US food landscape.

As a white middle-American person, I feel comfortable with many of the recipes that appear in CI - they read like the kinds of things my family would have cooked if they were being fancy. But because I'm white and middle American, these recipes don't make me feel that my food traditions are excluded or invisible; I feel comfortable having other cookbooks or going other places for recipes, and I think I feel like the "other" food that I cook is an addition or some kind of proof of cultural taste. (Note: in my day to day life, I mostly eat roast or sauteed vegetables and various kinds of tofu.) So I guess there is some privilege in my relationship to the magazine.

It is pretty arrogant to call something "America's" this or that and not include very many non-white/middle-American dishes. It would be easy - given a little polling and interviewing - to figure out what other family-style and at-home-celebratory dishes are also "American" among people who are not WASPs and start writing about those, and it would be easy to hire some cooks with experience in such kind of thing to write for the magazine.

Now, I am vegetarian and mostly vegan, and I don't have the trouble that some people do with CI - in every issue, there's always a couple of dishes that are veganizable, and many of those have been huge successes amongst my friends. But again that's a cooking landscape thing - as a vegan, I am always having to read cookbooks for techniques and then get creative with ingredients, so CI doesn't feel any different from, say, Joy of Cooking or Adele Davis's Let's Cook It Right! or Julia Child.
posted by Frowner at 12:11 PM on October 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


Okay, now having actually RTFA, I'll give Kimball this: He's spot on when he says, “Cooking is about putting food on the table night after night, and there isn’t anything glamorous about it.”

But so here's the thing -- that's what Kimball wants to be thought of as doing, but it's certainly not what he's actually doing. If what he cared about was getting decent food on the table night after night, he would call his book "America's Good Enough Recipe," not "America's Best Recipe." Maximizing and satisficing are fundamentally incompatible goals. It's bothersome for Kimball to affect a just-folks, no-snobs-allowed pose, when his recipes -- I know, because I've read them and cooked them -- make a big deal about how many failure points there are along the way, how many not-quite-best versions of the recipe you might be making if you weren't one of the in-the-know folks reading CI. That is snobbery.

If you want a cookbook that really takes seriously the point of view that cooking is an unglamorous activity, dedicated to getting reasonably good dinners on the table night after night that your whole family will eat, and not an avenue for self-expression -- perhaps even an impediment to your self-expression which you want to get out of the way as quick as you can! -- then there is only one choice: the I Hate To Cook Book, by the great Peg Bracken.
posted by escabeche at 12:27 PM on October 14, 2012 [11 favorites]


Okay, maybe I'm shallow or simplistic, and I'll cop to that. It's fair. But my God, some of this discussion is tiresome even to read; I can't imagine actually thinking these things. It's a "major problem"

Sorry, I don't speak for everyone. But it is a major problem for me as a fairly passionate cook. Every other resource I use makes explicit how they relate to the whole body of knowledge of cooking. Even their "test kitchen" stands on others' shoulders, and for them to hide that in the name of simplicity, I find transparent.
posted by polymodus at 12:30 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Even C.I.'s "test kitchen" stands on others' shoulders, and for them to hide that in the name of simplicity, I find transparent.

This is something that has been progressively eliminated from the CI house style. The "article" that comes before the recipe used to include both history of the dish, regional variations and mention of other cookbook's approaches. That's getting stripped out more and more. If anything, the references are internal, i.e. "our meatloaf last year was pretty good, but I knew that with portobellos and a slow cooker I could do better!"
posted by werkzeuger at 12:35 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Christopher Kimball and Cook's Illustrated are amazing -- neither of them should exist, they simply do not belong in the 21st century. By contemporary standards, they do everything wrong: he's too awkward, peevish and skinny for television; the magazine covers use still life oil paintings of all things; the approach totally violates the hegemonic food relativism of "if it feels good, it is good." Somehow it succeeds against the odds.

I have never been to New England, but in my mind, it's an austere paradise where it's fall all year round and everyone is severe, grumpy and awkward like Christopher Kimball.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:37 PM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


I watch, and enjoy, the TV program, and have never seen the magazine. I also cook and eat mostly "ethnic" food and eat at amazing restaurants whenever time and budget allows.

A lot of the techniques used on the show are really useful, the extensive use of panades, for one, and even if I'd never make their recipes, the technique adds to my overall cooking knowledge.

That being said, I'm not their target audience. I'm interested in cooking, friends are interested in cooking, my parents too, but my extended family? Couldn't give a shit. Cooking is utilitarian, most can barely capably put together a bowl of packaged macaroni and cheese. If these people do take an interest in cooking, having everything laid out for them is great! If I'm visiting and they insist on making dinner, goddamn would I prefer a slightly mushy brined chicken breast over some dry boneless skinless thing that was tossed in an oven with maybe some salt, if I'm lucky. These are people who should not be improvising. They have zero knowledge of cooking technique and don't care. They might figure out what a roux does on their own, they might not, but now they can make a competent bechamel and that's one less jar of packaged alfredo sauce sold.

Every competent rendition of something that this show and magazine teaches someone to create is one less meal bought from the steamtray at the supermarket deli counter and I'm all for that.

Yeah, so the word best is misused, but I'm willing to bet their recipe for meatloaf or spaghetti and meatballs blows the doors off of anything my dad grew up with, when "Italian" food was ethnic and my grandparents recipes for everything was "place in oven, get hot". So "best" maybe isn't the best tasting, or most authentic or whatever, but best could very well be the sum total of "tastes good, easy to prepare, uses ingredients you can get in the middle of Nebraska, really not that much of a chore".
posted by mikesch at 12:43 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


they simply do not belong in the 21st century. By contemporary standards, they do everything wrong: he's too awkward, peevish and skinny for television

Perhaps you meant to say they don't belong in the 20th century. Awkward, peevish, and skinny is perfect for the Internet!
posted by escabeche at 12:45 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Cook's Illustrated has a recipe for chewy rich brownies. The insuperable flaw is that brownies made from scratch have good flavor but are cakey, and brownies from a mix have the desired chewy texture but taste like cheap chocolate. So they have this elaborate recipe with three different kids of high-test chocolate, powdered espresso, and a funky aluminum sling to get the brownies out of the pan.

I slavishly follow the recipe to the letter, which includes allowing the brownies to cool for a certain period of time in the pan, and then take them out to continue cooling. I got to that step, then had to leave the house.

I come home to find our 110-pound dog transformed into a manic tennis ball. Hi HI HI!!! Bounce bounce bounce. He had counter-surfed half the batch of brownies and was hopped up like a toddler on triple-shot espresso.

An emergency trip to the vet ensued. They wanted to know exactly what he had eaten, and when I rattled off the ingredients, they asked hopefully "so, uh, are there any of those brownies left?"

So now I think of that recipe as the most expensive brownie recipe ever.
posted by ambrosia at 12:48 PM on October 14, 2012 [29 favorites]


We have a standing joke around our house parodying the typical Cook's Illustrated article opener, and it goes something like this: "The ideal peanut butter sandwich should have crunchy, nutty peanut butter and a robust bread casing, all coming together for a rich, satisfying taste experience. But too often, peanut butter sandwiches are mushy and gummy-tasting. Can we save this classic American sandwich?" It's almost a gnostic worldview, right, where to CI everyone is constantly producing terrible, disappointing food and only careful, meticulous adherence to detailed and well-researched recipes can produce anything edible at all. If you read CI, you would think that 99% of home-cooked meals are gross, inedible messes.

And now I want to see a mashup of this and a typical ATK episode, because the middle-America haplessness of the former and the fastidious exasperation of Kimball and his crew go together like ham and cheese (but only some kinds of ham and cheese, under precisely defined conditions).
posted by maudlin at 12:59 PM on October 14, 2012


MetaFilter: something that is going to be poo within twelve hours anyway
posted by Mister Moofoo at 1:07 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've recently swung in Ruhlman's direction philosophically in regards to my approach to cooking. Mainly: that we make it too hard. That we are afraid of it. And CI is a perfect example of the industry that preys on this fear.

But for three years I've had an online subscription to Cook's Illustrated because, three years ago, I needed it. I needed really specific instructions. I was afraid to fail, and I wasn't ready to give up those details.

I'll still stick to the three CI cookbooks in my repertoire; their Cooking for Two book has good suggestions on how to get by when your household is small, though I'd say it's the least of my collection. Their slow cooker book really is pretty good, with lots of technique that yields flavorful food, even if it's not all "set it and forget it", and honestly; I am still not terribly comfortable slow cooking. Their "Best Recipes" book is great around Christmas, because again, I don't bake sweets often, and I kind of still need recipes to make sure my cookies and pies don't take a turn for the crappy. And to someone who mentioned the pumpkin pie recipe above: agreed. I strongly dislike pumpkin pie, but have to bake it for family members, and must admit that I kinda-sorta like the CI version. (Their maple pecan pie is also pretty tasty.) Also note that that Serious Eats link includes the CI vodka-crust pie, which is really quite ingenious (alcohol bakes off, resulting in a flakier crust; pure magic).

But last night I spent three hours roasting a leg of lamb and dirtying up way too many dishes, following one of their ridiculously overwrought recipes. The resulting roast was good, but nothing amazing; Alton Brown's version, with dijon and mint and garlic, all rolled up in the center of the lamb, is much, much better. I think this was the gentle nudge I needed to finally let go.
posted by offalark at 1:13 PM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


I tried out CI on my iPad through their electronical iPad version. I have grown to loathe iPad magazine apps in general, and theirs is built on the same crappy Adobe platform that Vanity Fair and others are.

So basically four issues have gone unread because:

a. All the complaints above
b. the format sucks

After hearing about people's subscription problems I relaunched the app to make sure I hadn't subscribed to a lifetime e-subscription for life...and lo! I cannot find a "manage your account" button anywhere. I think, maybe, that the four issues were a one time in-app purchase...but now I'm not sure.

I'm afraid that in the future they will try to send electronic magazines to a long-dead iPad and try to bill a long closed credit card.
posted by device55 at 1:28 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh man, I grew up with a terrible case of "it doesn't count if you follow the recipe."

I like to think I'm at least a competent improvisational cook now. If you hand me a few arbitrary lumps of protein and starch, and the pantry's well stocked, I can turn out something edible. But when I was younger I was really, horrifically terrible at it. So terrible my housemates actually once staged an intervention and ordered me to stop cooking them things. So terrible my girlfriend very nearly moved out over it. I eventually did marry her, but there are still individual specific meals which she can describe in gut-wrenching detail ten years later — and lemme tell you, she still resents those meals more than she resents the time I broke up with her on her birthday. They were just that bad.

The pinnacle of my cooking career might have been the time I brought cookies to a potluck in which melted green Jolly Ranchers were a crucial ingredient. (I can still vividly remember the texture, which was somehow both too limp and too rigid, and clung to your teeth in a way reminiscent of industrial processed cheese.) They started out as chocolate chip cookies, but halfway through mixing the ingredients I got bored and a sort of frantic desperation set in, and I started grabbing things at random out of the cupboards. And one of those things was a bowl of hard candy. And I remembered (with great pride!) that I'd recently learned how candies could be re-melted on the stovetop. And....

Basically, it's incredible that I wasn't diagnosed with ADHD until I was nearly 30, is what I'm saying.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:28 PM on October 14, 2012 [23 favorites]


I've been reading this and I went and found a couple of recipes online. And I think I know the problem people are having (at least it's the problem I'm having).

I have a couple of recipes that I more or less "perfected" on my own that I think are amazing. There is a lot of stuff that I make that is pretty good or good enough. But my sesame noodles, my crepes/pancakes and my mac and cheese are recipes that I have endlessly tinkered with and are generally what gets made for friends (I don't do dinner parties, so I can't speak to that).

And then I am told I am doing it wrong, that what I am making is slimy, bland and horrible (sesame noodles). The mac and cheese, I expect disagreement on, everyone does that differently. But the sesame noodles, well, that was a slap in the face.

There are plenty of good tips and ideas in the CI material. However, the tone and arrogance found in their writing is very off putting. I am happy to read something along the lines of "our favorite way to do this is...", but reading the ways that they discourage variation in the kitchen by proclaiming that any attempt to improve or personalize the recipe will cause your friends to desert you and your pet to die, well, that gets on my nerves. Taste is subjective and I wish they would realize that.

Offlark's link really struck home for me. I was terrified of even trying to hard boil and egg for ages. I thought I'd end up with the sulfurous mess that you see in salad bars. Now, I'm just annoyed with myself.
posted by Hactar at 1:31 PM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Maybe it's because I subscribed when I was a grad student who happily settled for canned, frozen, and randomly stir-fried meals, but I never took seriously CI's attitude that you had to have everything *just so*. I always assumed that I could leave out half the spices and substitute onions for shallots and things would work out somehow. And they did. The recipe I ended up with, once I had sliced out all the ingredients that were too expensive, and all the techniques that were too time-consuming, was America's Pretty Damn Good Actually recipe. And that made it so much easier to ignore the apocalyptic howlings of what would happen if you deviated from their recipe.
posted by Jeanne at 1:45 PM on October 14, 2012 [7 favorites]



I've never subscribed but occasionally pick up the magazine at the shop if there is something it I want to learn. I've found it great for learning techniques and types of recipes that I don't know much about.

I'm apparently (according to others) a good cook and do like to try and learn new things. I am and I'm not a recipe follower.

If it's a new dish or uses ingredients and flavours I'm not familiar with and used too then I find a recipe and follower it to the letter. If it's good then I'll use the recipe until it's technique and flavors are in my head. After that's done I adjust and play with ingredients.

I did that when I started to make hummus. I followed many recipes. Now when I make hummus I don't even bother to measure. It all just gets put in the mixer and I'll adjust here and there until I get the perfect taste.

I used several cookbooks when I want to learn more about Indian cooking. Now I have my dishes I make adjusted to my taste. My latest exploring has been in Morrocan and Ethopian cooking and flavors. I need recipes for that until I'm comfortable.

My husband is my main guinea pig and he loves it. I'll say so what do you feel like tonight? He'll say mm maybe something with pork or pasta and I'm off in my kitchen. If I'm tired we'll get the basic pork chop with apples, veggies and starch. If I'm inspired we get something else depending on whats in the cupboard and kitchen.

Most of the time we get something yummy on the table and just laugh at the failures. I've come up with some pretty funny dishes. The hardest thing I find is if I get something made that is really good is repeating it again.

I would not be able to cook like I do now without recipe following and mags like CI though.
posted by Jalliah at 1:57 PM on October 14, 2012


I like Cook's. I use a lot of their recipes and tips.

I don't really care about their philosophy or whether their writing is patronizing me, or whatever. I've had good results from a lot of the recipes, most of which I end up tweaking quite a bit, and I've bought several pieces of equipment they've recommended and felt pretty good about the purchases.

If they disappeared tomorrow I'd just get recipes from somewhere else.
posted by gurple at 1:58 PM on October 14, 2012


Their Baking Illustrated book is fantastic.

You need to be precise to bake well and ATK's attention to detail and scrupulously complete recipes work well for me every time.
posted by oddman at 2:14 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


CI's meatloaf recipe is the best goddamn meatloaf I've ever eaten in my life. I almost never make it, because it takes too long and makes too many dirty dishes; I do a cheater version with dehydrated minced onions and garlic granules instead, which has the added advantage of not needing as many breadcrumbs because the dry alliums soak up liquid instead of adding it. My version is almost as good and a hell of a lot easier, and since I am in fact trying to put dinner on the table night after night after night after night after night, easier is a big factor.
posted by KathrynT at 2:16 PM on October 14, 2012


ambrosia: the perfect, not-at-all cakey brownie recipe can be found in older versions of the Fanny Farmer cookbook. The secret is no rising agent and not much egg.

also, they can be mixed up in one pot in about 15 minutes, less with practice.

Here's the recipe (doubled, bc who doesn't want more brownies), with my extra chocolatey variation noted.

1/2c melted butter (125g)

6 Tbsp cocoa
OR extra chocolate: 4 tbsp cocoa, 4 oz unsweetened baking chocolate

2 cups sugar

2 eggs unbeaten

1c flour (100-125g)

1tsp vanilla

optional nuts


Steps:
1. melt butter and cocoa/cocoa & chocolate in a saucepan
2. mix in sugar
3. mix in eggs
4. mix in flour
5. mix in vanilla, nuts, any other flavour (a spot of rum is nice)
6. spread in a square pan, about 9 inch by 9 inch
7. bake at 300F for 30-35 minutes or when firm to the touch

if you let them cool, they will cut with neater edges. but I don't know anyone who can let them cool without cutting at least some.
posted by jb at 2:20 PM on October 14, 2012 [49 favorites]


offalark, that Serious Eats link for a Cooks Illustrated pumpkin pie looks delicious, but it's not the one I'm talking about; both the ingredients and (not surprisingly, since it's SE's text) the tone are different. Golly, it sounds good, too.

The recipe I used is from The (New) Best Recipe. The ingredients are pretty standard, but the process seemed unnecessarily complicated and overplanned --- though I certainly sympathize with the common writer's view that instructional writing should err on the side of giving too much information, not too little. As I said, because the instructions are so very structured and defined, once I understood the process and the reasons behind it, I could alter my steps accordingly and make the process simpler and more suited to my schedule.

(Also, the crust I prefer is a butter-and-shortening crust from that volume, not the well-known vodka crust, simply because I know plenty of people who avoid all alcohol, even when cooked. I'm not going to argue with my friends about the science of "cooking out the alcohol"; they prefer to avoid a particular ingredient, so I avoid it. Anyhow, the traditional no-vodka crust is so delicious and such a pleasure to work with that I love to make it.)

This just reinforces the remarks here that CI retreads their recipes every year or season. And of course they do! Every Thanksgiving, many subscribers want to see a recipe for turkey and pumpkin pie. Every autumn, we want the new recipe for chili or slow-cooked stew. Every Christmas, we want to see gingerbread or decorated sugar cookies. Every Chanukah, we want to see latkes. We demand seasonal repetition with some variation, and they give us seasonal repetition with some variation.

I posit that it's not the repetition of the dishes themselves that grates on us, because all cooking magazines do that to some extent. I suspect what really grates on most of us is our understanding that, despite each recipe's title of The Best and the tacit promise that it will be definitive, the magazine is going to supplant it next season with another supposed Best, often with little or no discussion of why or even whether this is an improvement over last year's CI Best.

But I'm not sure how CI could strike a balance between their editorial voice that's determined to define The Best and the market's demands for seasonal repetition. Subcategories work for some dishes, for a while: The Best crispy chocolate cookies, The Best chewy chocolate chip cookies, The Best soft chocolate chip cookies. But there are only so many ways to subcategorize, for example, roasted turkey and gravy. And they've been doing this for decades.
posted by Elsa at 2:26 PM on October 14, 2012


This is funny to me. I have cooked in a few (not high-end) restaurants and I will always see cooking as creative with room for continual experimentation and improvement.

The reason I have historically not enjoyed baking is that the same doesn't seem to hold. In order to produce something remotely palatable, I have to follow the instructions to the letter.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 2:28 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


I had a subscription to Cooks Illustrated several years ago, and let it lapse because their selection of dishes is a lot more folksy/Americana/meat-and-potatoes than my tastes, and because of how much obnoxious resubscription nagging comes along with any magazine.

Recently, I started receiving email newsletters trying to coax me into giving it another shot. What is the best way to lead a wayward sheep back in to the fold - send out a well-received recipe? A popular article? No, apparently what I should miss most about CI are the Kimball editorials about how Vermont-y Vermont is.

Vermont. Vermont Vermont, Vermont? Vermooooooont!
posted by Vulgar Euphemism at 2:28 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I disagree that baking needs to be followed exactly. Once you have baked enough of a certain type of recipe you can wing it by sticking within ratios that work. There isn't necessarily one correct ratio, but adding more or less fat say does have profound effects, or more or less sugar etc. Changing the ratios can be part of the creativity. There is less room to play around than in other cooking, but still room to play.
posted by caddis at 2:33 PM on October 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


... because the instructions are so very structured and defined, once I understood the process and the reasons behind it, I could alter my steps accordingly and make the process simpler and more suited to my schedule.

This is exactly what I do for the CI recipes that have gone into my general rotation. You can sit down with the magazine and a 3x5 card and translate their multiple-bowl pedantry into something pretty streamlined. It's also an opportunity to double/half recipes and convert from volumetric to weight measures.
posted by werkzeuger at 2:40 PM on October 14, 2012


That linked Ruhlman article is dead on:
...the notion that cooking is hard and that it takes a long time and we’re just too stupid to cook is wrong. And I want people to recognize the truth from the bill of goods they’re being sold.

I like his chicken recipe:

Turn your oven on high (450 if you have ventilation, 425 if not). Coat a 3- or 4-pound chicken with coarse kosher salt so that you have an appealing crust of salt (a tablespoon or so). Put the chicken in a pan, stick a lemon or some onion or any fruit or vegetable you have on hand into the cavity. Put the chicken in the oven. Go away for an hour. Watch some TV, play with the kids, read, have a cocktail, have sex. When an hour has passed, take the chicken out of the oven and put it on the stove top or on a trivet for 15 more minutes. Finito.
posted by werkzeuger at 2:47 PM on October 14, 2012 [11 favorites]


Second Offalark's comments--I picked up Tom Colicchio's book Think Like a Chef a few years ago and it was a revelation. Knowing a few basic techniques and how to mix and match them according to one's needs and tastes has proven far more useful than mechanically following a recipe.
posted by Cash4Lead at 2:52 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Here's that pumpkin pie recipe I was mooning over and moaning about. (Though the pastry recipe I use from the book mixes butter and shortening, which makes it beautifully silky and easy to handle.)

Oh, it's good. So good that in the almost-a-year since I last made it, I forgot exactly how tedious the process is. I forgot that in my teeny tiny kitchen, after I've made, shaped, and chilled the crusts and while I'm parbaking them, and also while I'm heating canned pumpkin to the sputtering point, I have to haul out my food processor, process the eggs, then pour hot pumpkin into the eggs while running the processor and not letting the pie crusts overbake.

And rereading it away from the kitchen, where I have to balance the heavy cookbook across a cutting board over the sink, and away from the hectic holiday season, I can see that some of the hysteria I've been imputing to it probably came from me, not it (or, more precisely, from the intersection between my personal approach to cooking and the precise, detailed tone of the recipe). Of course, it's not CI's fault that my kitchen is tiny, nor that my family is so large I have to make double-batches of pumpkin pie, nor that I unconsciously interpret a direct, explicitly instructive tone as chiding.

But this recipe is a perfect example of what they do right and also of why they're a bit ridiculous. It's not at all necessary to do these steps all at once, as experience has taught me, but they don't mention the concessions to convenience, only the importance of performing the tasks as dictated.

I can make the crust a day or two in advance (and they do advise that, bless their hearts). What they don't mention: I can even shape it and freeze it in advance. I can prebake the shells ahead of time, then pour the hot filling into room-temperature shells with no discernable loss in texture or flavor and only a minute or two extra cooking time. I can freeze the now-chilled, well-wrapped unbaked pie for a week or a month and bake it from frozen. It takes much longer to bake, but the pie tastes almost exactly as good.

The made-ahead baked-from-frozen pie might even be exactly as good; my family can't tell the difference and my husband thinks any diminishing of texture might be my imagination. And it's a damn sight better than no pie at all, or even than bustling around a kitchen dirtying a bunch of dishes and the food processor the night before Thanksgiving or Christmas, when I've presumably already been cooking and brining and baking.

But the book never mentions any of these patience-saving measures, even though pumpkin pie is traditionally served as part of a big stressful holiday feast, when any cook might be relieved to know that they can choose: to trade off a negligible ding in the recipe's perfection for a great savings of trouble and kitchen space on a holiday eve. The recipe is presented as existing in a vacuum, not as part of a continuum of dishes and meals and plans.
posted by Elsa at 2:57 PM on October 14, 2012 [15 favorites]


Oh for sure -- that's why I said "I", caddis. My ability to vary cooking recipes probably stems from having adequate experience and knowledge to do so, and I definitely lack the same when it comes to baking. Course, I never get that experience by creating flops, getting frustrated, and quitting baking so for the time being, I can't allow myself the same flexibility. The recipe says #X, I use #X.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 2:58 PM on October 14, 2012


Ruhlman even has an app called Ratio, which is based on his cookbook. and once you start using it you can store you own recipes in it to keep track of your efforts.

I like giving new recipes from anywhere a chance. but, I think to really enjoy cooking yourself, for me it helped when I got to a point where I trusted myself to wing it and be able to add/subtract/modify on the fly according to how the dish was progressing. I would say now that I have a core set of things I can make by feel/memory. once I make a new thing for the first time and it goes well, the next time it won't be 100% the same but that's because I get into messing around and yes, being creative.

Although - and yes I fully admit that the inspiration came from seeing Julie & Julia - i made *the* beef bourginion and followed the recipe to the letter. and it was amazing. so it's not like "oh I'm better than using a recipe", I just know when to trust myself and question whether or not I'm going to like it with x amount of salt or rosemary or whatever.

but the single most important rule I've ever followed in the kitchen? mise en place.
posted by ninjew at 3:06 PM on October 14, 2012


Am I the only one who likes Cook's Illustrated for the drawings?
posted by Wordwoman at 3:11 PM on October 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


> It's almost a gnostic worldview, right, where to CI everyone is constantly producing terrible, disappointing food and only careful, meticulous adherence to detailed and well-researched recipes can produce anything edible at all. If you read CI, you would think that 99% of home-cooked meals are gross, inedible messes.

I think it's a Calvinist worldview. I'm surprised the profile didn't draw this out further, but maybe CI is so saturated with folksy Puritanism that the comparison is too easy.

The home cook is born enslaved to sin, tainted by those cooks before him who dared to disobey God's recipes and bring creativity to the kitchen. The home cook is prideful and totally depraved. He is weak and will not follow the recipe. His soufflé fell when Adam tasted of the tree of knowledge.

The home cook lives in trembling fear of God, for it is only His arbitrary will and pleasure that might save his meal from condemnation. Yet the fates of all dinners have been preordained from eternity, and the elect among dinners will be saved by God's mercy, while most are doomed to endless punishment and humiliation.

All dinners are predestined, but diligent work and frugality are signs of grace. The home cook does not save his dinner by testing hundreds of soft-boiling methods or buying supermarket spaghetti, but elect dinners are saved unto these good works.

Follow the recipe, for all dinners are in the hands of an angry God. Even now, He holds your Thai-Style Stir-Fried Noodles With Chicken and Broccolini over the pit of hell, abhors it, and is dreadfully provoked!
posted by ecmendenhall at 3:30 PM on October 14, 2012 [29 favorites]


The very best of their cookbooks is The Best 30-Minute Recipe. Because they take their scientific approach to producing the best-tasting recipe and then they do another pass to figure out what shortcuts or substitutions you can make to get it done in 30 minutes and still taste good.
posted by straight at 3:40 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Cooks Illustrated recipes are maddening, but they sure do make delicious food. One thing I learned when cooking their spinach pie recipe is cook the spinach in small batches until perfect and then put in cold water to stop the cooking. So labor intensive, but that tray of spinach pie was the best I'd ever had.

I used to follow them religiously at first, but as someone said upthread, it is really only important to know WHEN to follow the recipe. You can skip a lot of the wtf steps and the recipes still come out great.
posted by Roger Dodger at 3:46 PM on October 14, 2012


Am I the only one who likes Cook's Illustrated for the drawings?

Not at all. The drawings, along with the lack of advertising, make it a very classy looking magazine.
posted by werkzeuger at 3:50 PM on October 14, 2012


There are a lot of these magazines at my house and the recipes turn out if you are a rule-follower. The problem comes about when a graph like this appears: "Our tasters didn't care for the authentic rai masala. Using a mixture of peppercorns, Kool-Aid crystals and Spam, we created a tarka that was more vibrant with a deep porky flavor."
posted by jet_silver at 4:00 PM on October 14, 2012 [11 favorites]


Best thing I ever learned from CI:toast the bread slightly before making french toast.
posted by docpops at 5:14 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have never been to New England, but in my mind, it's an austere paradise where it's fall all year round and everyone is severe, grumpy and awkward like Christopher Kimball.

I grew up in New Hampshire. It's exactly like that, except that during the nine months that it's not fall, it's winter.
posted by Daily Alice at 5:25 PM on October 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


Ah-ha! I cannot and do not cook 'free-style' so I think I can't cook. But I can follow to a T recipes in Fine Cooking magazine and other places and have fancy dinner parties where people think I'm an expert. However, I only do it a few times a year because it is exhausting.
posted by bquarters at 5:37 PM on October 14, 2012


Have jb's brownie recipe in the oven right now. Will report back.
posted by spinturtle at 5:44 PM on October 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


The very best of their cookbooks is The Best 30-Minute Recipe. Because they take their scientific approach to producing the best-tasting recipe and then they do another pass to figure out what shortcuts or substitutions you can make to get it done in 30 minutes and still taste good.

Yes, and also because the recipes actually take 30 minutes. We probably use this cookbook the most in my house right now because it's so darn useful, especially during the week when we're tired and stressed and hungry. It helps keep us away from convenience foods and takeout and focused on "real" food, it has enough Asian and Indian style recipes to keep things interesting, and though not every dish in it is a winner, it's reliable.

I've also learned quite a bit about technique and tools from both that and the ATK Family Cookbook (also good for basics), making me a more confident cook in general. I'm thus now more apt to stretch out and try more complicated recipes as well as improvise a little. So for all I might roll my eyes at Kimball sometimes, it's thanks to CI that I'm no longer surviving on the likes of canned soup, pasta dishes with pre-made sauce from a jar, and overcooked chicken. And I can make a mean fruit tart!
posted by percolatrix at 5:56 PM on October 14, 2012


Inspired by spinturtle, I also have jb's recipe in the oven. Will likewise report results (look, we can be scientific- multiple trials!)
posted by Hactar at 6:36 PM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Something's not quite right - delicious chocolatey smell, but waay too greasy. As in, touch the surface lightly with your finger and it comes away like you dipped it in oil. Perhaps the recipe started out doubling (the butter), but then reverted to single scale for the other ingredients?
posted by spinturtle at 6:38 PM on October 14, 2012


How often can you sell "Forget the last three! This is the ultimate, ultimate baked ziti recipe, honest!"

I can't recall if I've ever told this story here before, and it's only tangentially relevant, but it connects on several tangents, so here I go:

Years ago I worked as a camera/sound assistant on the first season of The Next Food Network Star. It is for this reason that I hate baked ziti and love Rachel Ray. You see, baked ziti is the go-to food on productions, and we had one meal per 16-hour day, and I swear I think that every one of them was baked damn ziti.

Now, this could have been okay, and it's not like there was any preferential treatment going on - Marc Summers ate with the crew and ate the same baked ziti the rest of us ate (and is a super sweet person, just so's everyone knows) but here's the thing: we were shooting most of the show in the Food Network test kitchens. Which were still very active test kitchens around us. Which meant that all around us all day long were professional cooks making delicious meals that they would then immediately throw away, again right next to us, while our stomachs ached, and then we'd get a half hour with another baked ziti. It was maddening.

Then, on one of the last nights of the two-week shoot, as camera and sound were finishing up our cable-wrangling (we were always first in and last out), Rachel Ray had just finished shooting her show for the night. While many Food Network personalities were involved with our shoot, I'm pretty certain she was not one of them. Nonetheless, she came into the now-darkened test kitchens with her creation from the last episode of the night (I think it was salmon rolls or something - I don't specifically remember) and just proclaimed, "Y'all must be so hungry! Do you want these?"

I swear I think I almost cried. And whatever they were, I can tell you they were delicious. And bless her for being the only cook during that shoot who bothered to try to feed their food to anyone, much less the lowly crew members, and she didn't even know us.

So I like her. And baked ziti can go straight to hell.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:05 PM on October 14, 2012 [28 favorites]


As long as we are talking brownies, then we have to discuss Joe Pastry and his recipe for French Brownies (actually Dorie Greenspan's recipe which he posted on his most excellent baking blog). Use high quality chocolate as the flavor really comes through here. Expanded instructions here. These are from a whole span of brownie posts which are worth reading.
posted by caddis at 7:11 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I grew up eating brownies from the Fannie Farmer recipe and I have two versions of the cookbook a few feet from my left elbow. The recipe above seems to have doubled some ingredients and not others. Here's the ingredients from the FF I'm holding open while typing:

2 oz unsweetened chocolate
1/4 c butter or marg
1 c sugar
2 eggs, unbeaten
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 c pastry or all-purpose flour
1/2 c walnut meats, cut in pieces
1 tsp vanilla

The Joy of Cooking brownie recipe is pretty much the same, but basically doubled:

1/2 c butter
4 oz chocolate
4 eggs
1/2 tsp salt
2 c sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 c all purpose flour
1 c pecan meats

It says something that my copies of these cookbooks, handed down to me after many decades of heavy use, fall open directly to the brownie pages.
posted by Forktine at 7:49 PM on October 14, 2012 [18 favorites]


“I hate the idea that cooking should be a celebration or a party,” Kimball told me over a bowl of chicken-and-vegetable soup at his regular lunch haunt, a Brookline, Mass., pub called Matt Murphy’s. “Cooking is about putting food on the table night after night, and there isn’t anything glamorous about it.”

He seems fun.
posted by EatTheWeak at 7:51 PM on October 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think the dichotomy here is between those who cook for pleasure, and those who cook as a chore. I guess my very, very limited experience in kitchens puts me on the side of "cooking is a chore where you try to get the recipe right because that's what people expect" rather than on the side of "I love cooking because it's a creative endeavor and I love the process and hey, if the meal sucks we'll order takeout!" Sort of like house painting versus art painting. Being the best at either probably takes the same amount of dedication and skill, but they are different things.

And bless her for being the only cook during that shoot who bothered to try to feed their food to anyone, much less the lowly crew members, and she didn't even know us.

I always got that impression from her. Seems genuine.
posted by gjc at 7:56 PM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Thanks, Forktine. Will attempt again tomorrow.
posted by spinturtle at 8:10 PM on October 14, 2012


What I like about CI recipes: Sure, CI has its sense of what the "best" corn muffins are, and they'll be a bit snotty about how other recipes go "wrong", but they're very good about telling you exactly what happened to make them go "wrong" in a particular direction -- so if you realize you'd actually prefer denser corn muffins, you have instructions for how to achieve that, and who cares that it's not what they want?
posted by Casuistry at 8:12 PM on October 14, 2012


And the trick to the Joy of Cooking Brownies Cockaigne is to *under*bake them.
posted by jrochest at 8:37 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I viewed Mr. Kimball from a different perspective after an editorial of his (about four years ago, IIRC) in which he gave a bit of biographical info- he's evidently an ardent Deadhead, and he cooked in Wavy Gravy's communal kitchen. Interesting guy.
posted by drhydro at 8:43 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


This article is an excellent profile, really well written and vividly detailed, and has given me the final level of comfort I needed to totally disavow CI.

I read it for years beginning when it was newish, picking it up now and then. I admired the noncommercial/ad-free aspect of it, and the fact that it espoused a serious and informed approach to food. Finally my SO got me a subscription as a gift. Kept it going for a few years, but eventually tired of the utter sameness of style, the dull and blunted range of the recipe types, and the gradual dumbing-down of the approach (others have mentioned the loss of the cultural-history component, really the most interesting part).

I'm a serious cook and food person, who both learned from my family and also was the odd duck watching The Galloping Gourmet at age 7 and Julia and "the Froog" throughout high school. I think about food altogether too much; I'm an activist about food, I study it from all angles. I consume food books, radio, magazines, and other media at a rapacious pace and have for a long time, well before there was a Food Network to channel it. So I was eager for something like CI when I first encountered it. It seemed at the time to be the sine qua non of the serious home cook, a nerdy and obsessive Bible for the true food devotee.

But over time I started to feel that the emperor wasn't really all that well attired. As I read more (and more deeply) and learned more and became more conversant, I've also become a lot more discriminating, and CI was one resource I was surprised to find myself happy to drop - with the same oversatedness you feel when you've really had enough Easter candy now that only the rabbit's feet are left - and I haven't missed it for a minute.

The quest for perfection gets tiring. I just can't understand adopting an editorial philosophy in which every dish first has to come in for a thorough drubbing in sneering prose. Frowner's "ideal peanut butter sandwich" comment is spot on. I can only read that structure - the ever-retold food Resurrection story, beginning with what I now know is called "The Flaw" ("too often," "sadly disappointing," "lackluster," "soggy," "flavorless," "tough," "unappealing," "rubbery," etc) about 120 times without tiring of it completely. No matter how good the recipe to follow, this is terrible, terrible food writing. Unforgivably bad food writing.

And then the recipes. I've made many, to the letter. A few have turned out to be really top-notch, wonderfully consistent recipes that I've actually gone to again. Others were....fine. Many more I just never tried (uninspiring, or just something I'd eat at a restaurant anyway, not at home). The successes amount to just about the same ratio I've had with every other recipe source, from Joy of Cooking to Alice Waters to Better Homes and Gardens - some keepers, 80% dross. Despite all the effort and aim to be the standard of reference, CI doesn't actually produce a better batting average than other recipe collections.

The issues started to stack up over the years, and I found that though I lined them up on the shelf where the earthy tones of their covers made a pleasing autumnal design on my cookbook shelf, I was simply....not returning to them. They gathered a lot of dust, except for the few dogeared and flour-gummed pages in several years' worth of issues. The promise of the magazine is "breakthrough formula" or "perfect technique," and really, you just can't deliver on that all of the time. Not all the recipes are really breakthroughs. They are just serviceable, and could be made to equal success in other ways. And not all the techniques are really that important to the outcome of the dish. Some are, but not a majority.

I tolerate a lot more rusticity in my food than Kimball seems to, and I'm very comfortable with risking dish failure, and very happy to be creative. As someone above mentioned, you can't be a frugal cook (or in fact a local/seasonal one) without being creative; you've got to adapt generic techniques to a changing array of ingredients and make it work. I do think he's right when he credits their success to playing on food anxieties that a lot of people have. Not only fear of humiliation (to which I'm thankfully immune), but really the obsession with having to Know the Right Things about food, something that has become a painful reality since, I suppose, the dawn of the Food Network and the entree of food topics into the realm of intellectual discussion. The Good Life, now, includes knowing a something about food. Our expectations for food knowledge have gone through the roof; what was once the province of the professional cook or full-time, full-provision homemaker is now cocktail party conversation. People who in the 50s would have been yapping about psychoanalysis or Communism or whatever the topics du jour were then now gain social capital by elucidating the differences between Italian and American beef breakdowns and charcuterie traditions or the relative degrees Brix between traditional and hybrid varieties of sweet corn. I'd credit this trend in food with CI's success, really, not some desire to cook perfectly. It's not really fear of humilation that your dish won't turn out (because I'd wager that only a minority of subscribers actually even cook anything from the magazines more than once or twice a year, for special occasions, if that) so much as fear of humiliation at not being in the know when it comes to professional-level food techniques and quality assessments. CI doesn't help you cook supper for the family, night in, night out, but it does help you adopt a food-know-it-all stance, encouraging a certain air of superiority.

the phobia of ethnic food

Yeah, visibly missing. It's Good Housekeeping with a few ideas from going out to "nice" places, but stolidly WASPy food. This bit in the story explained it for me: "no story idea gets into the running unless it surveys well." The magazine's caught in a tight cycle of surveying a narrow, rabid audience, catering to them, and surveying them again. It's a pretty small loop.

Kimball's always been an unpleasant figure to me, in his fussy posturing. The radio show made it worse (and I dislike his appearances on The Splendid Table, too). He just seems like a singularly rigid and unpleasant individual, and I always wondered about the folksy Vermont mantle he pulls over himself in the editorials - the article's description calls this "power and wealth expressed through anachronism," and I think that the more I picked up on that, the less I was willing to contribute to his empire. Learning about the WASPy Westchester breeding puts it all into place. In almost all ways, he's basically the anti-Ruth Reichl. I agree that his approach to food includes "paring away everything lighthearted, stylish or pertaining to the idea of the zeitgeist." Why would I adopt the philosophy of someone who says “I hate the idea that cooking should be a celebration or a party,” or "There’s something about pleasure I find annoying"?

And I agree with others that he is distinctly not about putting food on the table night after night. The type of detail-obsessed, prescriptive cooking he teaches is not consistent with that. The telling bit about the burger cookout at the end "“We don’t make the ultimate anything. Were they the world’s best burgers — no, probably not. But if you get food on the table and it works, we’ve done our jobs" says everything I might have said myself. They've put together a consistent recipe that meets a certain set of criteria that cluster safely around the middle ground. If you start out as not a great cook or a good recipe follower, this stuff may improve your food. But if you start out as a capable cook, or one with individual flair or vision or creativity - the CI way is not only going to drive you mad, it's not actually going to please your palate, or your friends', any more than the things that you, at your best, can turn out of your kitchen.
posted by Miko at 8:44 PM on October 14, 2012 [12 favorites]


I viewed Mr. Kimball from a different perspective after an editorial of his (about four years ago, IIRC) in which he gave a bit of biographical info- he's evidently an ardent Deadhead, and he cooked in Wavy Gravy's communal kitchen. Interesting guy.

[citation needed]
posted by device55 at 8:46 PM on October 14, 2012


So I like her. And baked ziti can go straight to hell.

People vary I guess. She shot an episode of $40 a Day at a restaurant where I worked, and she was brusque, all-business, and didn't crack a smile unless it was on camera.

Maybe it was just a bad $40 day.
posted by Miko at 8:47 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


[citation needed]

RTFA for the Deadhead part.
posted by Miko at 8:51 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Every recipe I have made from the ATK Family Cookbook has turned out good. That goes for only about half the recipes I've tried from Mark Bittman. Sure, the recipes are pretty boring... it reminds me of the stuff housewives made on 50s TV shows. I'd rather eat spicy flavors from all over the world. But all the recipes work. Nothing is more disappointing than spending an evening making a meal and discovering that it's turned into gelatinous goop because the author glossed over a step.
posted by miyabo at 9:01 PM on October 14, 2012


I'm a big fan of Ruhlman (his Charcuterie book is ridiculously well-used, stained, and otherwise worn, and I've only had it for two or three years), and Ratio was pretty damn interesting. I have dozens of cookbooks, to the point that it's time to chuck the ones I found at Costco and figure out which other ones I want to keep.

The thing is, the only time I follow a recipe to the letter is the first time. After that, I might glance at the book while cooking, but I'm mostly doing my own thing at that point. One of my favorite recipes is actually the discussion of stew at the beginning of the section in the Joy of Cooking. I thought, hey, this is how it's done, and while I follow the blueprint (flour meat, sear, remove, onions and seasoning, return meat, add strongly flavored liquid, simmer, then add stock, finally vegetables), I haven't actually used a stew recipe in years.

I randomly managed to pick up a Cooks Illustrated focused on BBQ and grilling, and I loved it, and use it more than most of the books I've got. It's inordinately fussy, but the tips are all sound.

As for roast chicken, I'm a fan of Thomas Keller's. Get a smaller bird, make a nice salad to go with it, and mayhap a dipping sauce, and lots of napkins.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:04 PM on October 14, 2012


Having had some trouble with the subscriptions dept. over the decades...

CI's subscription department is staffed by evil monkeys: we decided let our subscription lapse, they sent the usual flurry of renewal notices that we ignored. Then some months later, we got a letter from a third party bill collector, CI had sent our "bill" to collections! Never mind that we had neither requested a subscription renewal nor received any magazines beyond what we paid for. I'm of the mind that I don't care how good their recipes are, I don't need to have cooking explained to me quite that badly.
posted by jamaro at 9:08 PM on October 14, 2012


Baked mine for about 50 minutes, they needed it. Let cool for about 15 afterward. Pretty good, a touch greasy, could have used salt. I am not sure if the number of eggs should have been increased.

On the whole, easy and the roommates like them too.
posted by Hactar at 9:09 PM on October 14, 2012



[citation needed]

RTFA for the Deadhead part.


Not to mention getting stoned with pygmies in Africa.
posted by the bricabrac man at 9:12 PM on October 14, 2012


Back in the spring I signed up on the America's Test Kitchen website, so I could view some details of their recipes. They offered a free issue of Cook's Illustrated, and I figured why not. Well, after the issue arrived, it was followed by emails and letters that were not "so, do you want to subscribe now?" they were instead "INVOICE" and "BALANCE DUE" as if I'd subscribed. Which I hadn't.

They have, of course, guaranteed I will never give them a single cent.

Regarding recipes vs. technique: certainly following a recipe is the first step to any knowledge of cooking, and I will totally grant that CI's recipes will probably give you great results most of the time. But if all you have is specific recipes to follow, then what happens on the night when you need dinner, but you haven't been able to get to the grocery store in a few days, and all you have around are some random things that don't add up to any of the specific recipes you know? At some point you need to be able to make the leap beyond the specific recipes and into "hey wait, if I take that pasta, and some of that over there, and this other thing..." and voila, you have a really nice meal, that maybe you'll never repeat in your life, but will be all the more tasty because you came up with it out of your own head. It doesn't even have to be about "creativity," or any sort of notion that you're some sort of "culinary artist," it's just that you had the knowledge to take some bare materials and make a nice meal.

I don't think Cook's Illustrated teaches that. They teach recipes very well, and they teach the science behind cooking well. For me, the place I learned it was Julia Child... with her style of writing "Master Recipes" with variations, one night I was looking over her recipes for chicken breasts in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and it dawned on me "hey, I bet I could use this other sauce that she describes in this other section" - so I did, and it worked, and a whole new world broke open.
posted by dnash at 9:28 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


One of the reasons I am considering subscribing to CI is for the equipment reviews - it's hard to find reviews from people who aren't actually marketing the products, and who have actually used them. And don't get me started on Amazon's top-rated reviews. Do people here find the CI reviews worthwhile?
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:40 PM on October 14, 2012


Equipment reviews are the main reason I maintain a subscription to the web version of CI.
posted by notyou at 10:06 PM on October 14, 2012


Sorry: the Fanny Farmer recipe posted by Forktine is the correct one, though there is a "Harvard brownie" variation that only calls for one egg.

The version I copied out was actually from my computer, and it's the Harvard variation -- only one egg for the single recipe, which is supposed to be chewier. But as well, I had unconciously included a familial variation: My mother apparently substituted cocoa for the original unsweetened chocolate due to costs (and wrote it in her copy, which I then copied). Having more money and no kids, I put back in the chocolate and kept most of the cocoa for my extra chocolatey version. I now have my grandmother's Fanny Farmer - her brownie page doesn't have either the variation or the splatters.

the greasiness is a feature, not a bug :)

but I do apologise: I did miss the salt when copying (either from book to computer a few years ago, or from computer to phone when posting). FF has 1/8 tsp, so 1/4 for the doubled recipe.
posted by jb at 11:23 PM on October 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


I attended a talk by Jack Bishop (taste test guy on ATK) a while back. He described the work that goes into one of Cook's Illustrated recipes. There's a reason you don't have to do everything exactly as they say. Also, he did mention they will be focusing more on foreign food and DIY. Homemade Velveeta cheese was their most popular blog post at the time of the talk.

The process goes like this: Research is done (reading, cooking, tasting) to make a basic recipe, then it is perfected in 15-20 iterations. They have a few external recipe testers that they trust to meet their standards (read: will cook to the letter) that try it before it's sent to home cooks. If enough home cooks say they'd make it again, then the recipe is abused. The survey sent along with the recipe includes "Did you make the recipe exactly as written?" "Because *no one* ever follows the recipe." They make sure the recipe can survive using a teaspoon instead a a tablespoon, no salt, skim milk instead of whole, etc. If you follow it exactly, you will get the best results. If you don't, they've done legwork to make sure it's hard to screw up.

I still love Cook's though. Coconut cake, porcini mushroom pasta, brownies, pie crust... They taught me how to cook with painstaking instructions and a promise that each recipe would work. There's some gems in the descriptions but you do have to wade through near-Nassim Nicholas Taleb levels of self assuredness.

I couldn't cook one of my aunt's recipes two years ago.

Pam's cookies

2c butter
2c brown sugar
2c white sugar
4 eggs
2t vanilla
4c flour
5c old fashion rolled oats put in a food processor to powder
2t salt
2t baking powered
2t soda
1c chocolate chips or more
3c chopped nuts (optional)

375F for 11 minutes

Form dough in to golf-ball size balls and put 2" apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Makes a bunch!

Cook's taught me that the butter needs to be soft, to do that ahead of time, that the butter and sugar need to be creamed, how to do that with a stand mixer, to add the eggs after creaming, add the dry ingredients all at one, still in the chips and nuts last, rotate the pans halfway through baking, and that parchment paper is awesome. If you don't have someone to hold you hand, Cook's is great. And after that, they've still got reliable recipes.

If you think Cook's is complicated, you should read what happens when it escalates: The French Culinary Institute does french fries. You have to try their simple agar clarification even if you have no real use for it. It's like magic.
posted by easyasy3k at 1:01 AM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Behind the completely unjustified snobbery and condescension of Kimball's attitude toward home cooks...lurks merely yet another male who wants to tell mainly women exactly what to do in the intimate settings of their private lives

I learned everything I ever needed to know about cooking from a late 1970s perfume commercial:

bring home the bacon,
fry it up in a pan.
posted by drlith at 3:47 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am a big fan of Cook's Illustrated but agree with many of the criticisms voiced in this thread; some of my thoughts are in this comment, in which I bust Mr. Kimball for passing an urban legend off as one of his folksy "Letter from Vermont" stories. I find it interesting that the article refers to Kimball as a "home cook"; what kind of home cook studies with Julia Child's friend and has the support staff and equipment of not only a big-time TV show but an entire magazine at his disposal?

I love the way the magazine looks and its absence of advertising (which must partly explain their apparent need to squeeze every last cent out of subscribers. I'm not sure what to think of Kimball's bow-tie and blue-jeans look. Its like he is the bastard love child of Louis Farrakhan and Bob Weir.
posted by TedW at 4:25 AM on October 15, 2012


Get a smaller bird, make a nice salad to go with it, and mayhap a dipping sauce, and lots of napkins.

I have a feeling that in 5 years this will be impossible advice to follow. I bought a chicken to roast the other day; the smallest bird I could find was pushing five pounds, and I actually had to pay more per pound to get the smaller bird.

It was madness.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:43 AM on October 15, 2012


And the trick to the Joy of Cooking Brownies Cockaigne is to *under*bake them.

I like that they begin that recipe by basically saying that any temperature from 300F up to something like 425 will work fine, as long as you don't overcook them. There's a lot of real-world flexibility in the Joy of Cooking recipes (at least the old, falling apart version I have; I haven't looked at a new one) that isn't there in the CI recipes, and seems much more useful to me if you want to be cooking Eisenhower-era style food.

Do people here find the CI reviews worthwhile?

I didn't, honestly, but I think if you like the recipes you will like the reviews. It's the same fussy style and condescending tone, just applied to implements.
posted by Forktine at 5:45 AM on October 15, 2012


seems much more useful to me if you want to be cooking Eisenhower-era style food

If you have an older version of Joy Of Cooking, you've got recipes which come from well before Eisenhower. The older falling-apart version we have (we also have a newer edition) is basically a full-on prairie housewife manual, telling you how to do everything from butchering the animal to using nearly every part of it in some kind of recipe. They took a lot of those now less used recipes out in newer editions, but man, that old copy makes for some pretty intense reading at times.
posted by hippybear at 5:53 AM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


The version I have was printed in 1967 and has a copyright date of 1964, so it was almost certainly written during Eisenhower's presidency (1953-1961), probably mostly recycling older material (yes, including the section on the skinning and cooking of varmints).

But less pendantically, calling it Eisenhower-era is just my informal and inaccurate shorthand for the food and interior decorating tastes of my grandparents' generation. You know, Cracker Barrel food, big time white bread stuff. I grew up with it, though filtered through the tastes of my parents' generation (eg tofu, brown rice, the discovery of soy sauce). At this point it is not really what I eat for most of my meals, but it's definitely part of my heritage and culture, which gets at the point someone made above about the privilege inherent in asserting that this style of food is definitionally "American."

American cooking has long been broader than the narrow tastes of my grandparents, and that narrowness is a lot of what turned me off of CI when I was a subscriber.
posted by Forktine at 6:07 AM on October 15, 2012


I don't know where I heard this, but I've hear that brownies should be done in a slow oven (eg 300F) - that's what makes them chewy.
posted by jb at 6:22 AM on October 15, 2012


the smallest bird I could find was pushing five pounds

The birds here at Costco are huge. On the other hand, there are a good number of places selling whole chickens that come in around two or three pounds total around here. They're usually from Brazil, which typing that just now, has made me wonder just how horribly unsustainable they might be.

Damn it. So tasty though...
posted by Ghidorah at 6:25 AM on October 15, 2012


Behind the completely unjustified snobbery and condescension of Kimball's attitude toward home cooks...lurks merely yet another male who wants to tell mainly women exactly what to do in the intimate settings of their private lives

There's something about this that strikes me as interesting and yet unpersuasive, but I can't quite put my finger on it. I think a lot of this stuff operates at the unconscious level - I can't prove anything about Kimball's thought process, but I believe most of the stuff about male 'expertise' trumping female practice is cultural rather than consciously ideologized.

It does bug me the Kimball is the only figure at the magazine whose personality is allowed to emerge. I'd be really into it if some of the other test cooks could have, like, a little folksy picture of themselves on their recipes and to develop a slightly more individual writing style. I actually enjoy having a personality associated with the magazine, even though I'm skeptical of the whole rugged-individualism-in-Vermont-stands-for-AMERICA routine, and I'd enjoy it more if there were more personalities (working within the house style).

I bet someone could write (has written?) a really good book about nation-building and food in the US. There's sort of a national project with Cook's Illustrated that I had hitherto ignored, mostly because as a white middle-American my "Americanness" has never been in question*. "America's" test kitchen - which America? It sure isn't California or Arizona or Texas or Louisiana, although it might be Minnesota (probably not Illinois) and it's vaguely framed as East Coast. But only a certain kind of East Coast - it's not New York's test kitchen, or New Jersey's. It privileges rural and small town life without interrogating the ways that rural and small town life are entangled with city life and without noting that rural and small town ways - especially in majority-white places - are not always safe for people of color and queer folks. When I read Kimball's essays, I often reflect that his helpful neighbors probably wouldn't help me.

There's also this explicit rejection of certain kinds of food culture - sometimes understandably, as it doesn't make sense to say "the best mozzarella in the US is produced by Joe's Tiny Organic Farm of Portland, Oregon. Tough luck, suckers!" But there's also a lot of scoffing at certain health and environmental concerns.

And yeah, there is this huge whiteness in the magazine - for several reasons. Kimball's personality, the fetishization of Vermont, the middle-America-ness of many of the dishes, the rejection of any kind of 'foreign' name in most of the recipes - but more than that. The East Coast isn't white - it's just written that way. And the way that the writers, recipes and tips are stripped of meaningful personality means that they default, in the context of the magazine, to a flat whiteness. One way to counteract this would be to let writers become known more as individuals (I assume that they don't just hire white people - if they do, they could fix that.) Another would be to [renew?] the focus on the history and cultural situation of these dishes, and to consciously choose and write about some classics of, say, African-American southern cooking. Also, when writing about the East Coast and Vermont, it's simply got to be possible to write the presence of people of color.

I mean, no one magazine can be perfect, but I'd rather see a utopian national project ("'American' means everyone here! America's Test Kitchen does not deny the history and impact of colonialism and slavery! America's Test Kitchen stands against white supremacy!"...or maybe they could just imply that.)


*I tend to think of myself as unAmerican, a la Sarah Schulman's framing in her novels - someone whose difference from and criticisms of US norms is utterly, utterly determined by those norms - for better or for worse, I'm a US type, not a third culture person or an international person or European-in-my-heart. I'm stuck here, midwestern as all get out, and in many respects a very white white person. (I mean, except that I don't believe in reverse-racism and do see this country as white supremacist.)
posted by Frowner at 6:37 AM on October 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


And yeah, there is this huge whiteness in the magazine

I get that this is true to a certain extent, but I'm not sure it's as true as people here are making it out to be. Glancing at recent issues of Cooks' Illustrated, I see recipes for latkes, saag paneer, chicken fajitas, stir fried noodles, an avocado salad that include jicama, jerk chicken, tabbouleh, something called chinese chicken lettuce wraps, naan, and tacos al pastor. Sure that's not a world beating collection of global cuisine, but they're hardly rural American staples.

There is a certain fondness for the cuisine of mid-20th century American white people, but there's plenty of other stuff there, too.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:57 AM on October 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


There's something about this that strikes me as interesting and yet unpersuasive, but I can't quite put my finger on it. I think a lot of this stuff operates at the unconscious level - I can't prove anything about Kimball's thought process, but I believe most of the stuff about male 'expertise' trumping female practice is cultural rather than consciously ideologized.

For the latter part, I think it comes from the time when women were not in the workplace nearly as much as men, resulting in a culture where most public experts in most things ended up being men. Millions of women were experts in their own homes, and a few dozen men were cooking experts known to the world. Thus creating a sort of cultural mirage of male expertise that is seen as truth only to the very ignorant folks in our culture.

But I think that why the argument falls flat is because the tone of the magazine, and especially the television program, is that Kimball plays the idiot being schooled by cooking experts who happen to be mostly women. There is a lot of him saying "I would have thought to do it this way" and the experts saying "no, you have to do it THIS way, and here is why."

It comes across to me as an enterprise designed to help people who want help. They seem to be saying "you came to us because you weren't getting the results you wanted, and we figured out why."
posted by gjc at 7:05 AM on October 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think the whiteness of Cook's Illustrated isn't necessarily "we never admit any furrin cuisine to these pages"; it's more how recipes are figured. Like, CI often "tones down" recipes to make them accessible - which is fine! please don't make me eat very hot things! Half the recommended sriracha only please! - but that is often described as if it is making the dishes "normal" instead of "less spicy". It's like, the imaginary/ideal reader is figured as both "average American" and "middle-American-white".

I think this has far more to do with unconscious assumptions than "CI is a font of evil racism!" and honestly, if they're really moving toward genuinely imagining the "American" reader as not-default-white/middle-American, that's awesome. I recognize that requires some thought and work to get right, too...god knows, I'm still thinking and working on the Matter of Being A White Middle American Yet Not Wanting To Be A Racist Jackass and will probably need to work at it til the day I die.

On another note, I happened across this just now:

I learned that you have to order your family's wild rice a year in advance so that the man with the canoe can factor you into that season's harvest. I learned that the wild rice that is sold in expensive packaging in supermarkets across the United States is nothing but the rebranding of settler colonialism. In fact, hummus is to Palestine as wild rice is to Native America. As Israel continues to claim the Palestinian kitchen as its own, so does the United States with Native America: consuming corn, wild rice, quinoa, cranberry, cornbread and turkey with the confidence of a national cuisine.

It is from an essay by a woman of Native and Arab descent. It's called What Is Settler Colonialism?, so I mean this is not a neutral article. But it raises another interesting point - given this country's roots in genocide and tragedy, how to talk about food? Like, how exactly do you write Native people as readers of CI? "Wild rice, which is harvested by Native people as a traditional thing and which is both a huge cultural matter and marginalized as part of the ongoing violence against Native people, can be made into a delicious soup!" I mean, I don't know. All I know is that if you're going to talk about "American" food, there's some pretty heavy-duty stuff that has to be acknowledged at least a little bit, even if you don't make it the focus of the matter.
posted by Frowner at 7:10 AM on October 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yeah, Richard Kimball is as white as white can be, and this can be offputting to people who expect white people to pretend to be something they aren't to be popular on television. The magazine, however, in recent years has been fairly diverse.

It does assume an American kitchen with appliances and utensils bought at a local department store, and ingredients available at a medium-sized supermarket, so that can limit authenticity... but it helps cooks working with new cuisine with those limitations.

More to the point, I reject the entire premise that the recipes are to be followed to the letter. They teach technique and problem solving in the kitchen - the recipes wind up being overcomplex, or they give new recipes for popular dishes they just gave a recipe for a few months ago, because they are including instruction on a new method, or detailing a new problem cooks sometimes encounter in preparing something similar.

If you follow the recipes to the letter, yes, you will be rewarded with success... but you will be rewarded with a new arsenal of skills even if you don't. The "aha!" moment mentioned in the article is pretty much the whole reason to read the mag and to watch the show. They don't just show you how to make something, they show you how to make it wrong, first, and explain how it went wrong, and the whole series of incremental fixes and dead-ends they went through in discovering the technique that worked for them the best.

This is pretty much the complete and polar opposite of learning by rote.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:26 AM on October 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Now cookin' ain't easy, but it's necessary…"
posted by entropicamericana at 7:30 AM on October 15, 2012


Equipment reviews are the main reason I maintain a subscription to the web version of CI.

I kind of appreciated the product comparisons and was going to mention that as one of the few positives. I changed the kind of butter I used based on that, and have enjoyed my $16 Oxo French knives secure in the knowledge that they didn't beat the Wusthofs in testing. But I do disagree with some of the food product rankings based on taste, and certainly any time a panel tastes anything and pronounces one 'best,' there are going to be disagreements.

Cook's taught me that the butter needs to be soft, to do that ahead of time, that the butter and sugar need to be creamed... If you don't have someone to hold you hand, Cook's is great. And after that, they've still got reliable recipes.

So I guess if you do know all of that, then you're left with the recipes themselves, and since they're not necessarily performing better overall than other food magazines or cookbooks, the mystique begins to evaporate.

I bet someone could write (has written?) a really good book about nation-building and food in the US

Oh, this is absolutely a field of study. And it goes far back in American history. 19th century reformers lit on food as a means to Americanize immigrants. The home economics movement they created had the explicit agenda of transitioning people from Old Country/ethnic foodways to American industrial foodways and ingredient availability. It also sought to emphasize gender norms even as employment away from home continued to increase for women. In fact, Fannie Farmer herself, with her Boston Cooking School, and like minded but lesser-known people like Maria Parloa, worked with groups like Boston's Industrial Aid Society for the Prevention of Pauperism to teach cooking classes to immigrants. In some cases these organizations became antecedents of today's municipal adult education programs. Much Cooperative Extension programming has had the same aim: to define a legitimized, 'science-based' and socially appropriate (white, middle-class) American cuisine, and teach its methods to people whose home food was not up to snuff.

Glancing at recent issues of Cooks' Illustrated, I see recipes for latkes, saag paneer, chicken fajitas, stir fried noodles, an avocado salad that include jicama, jerk chicken, tabbouleh, something called chinese chicken lettuce wraps, naan, and tacos al pastor. Sure that's not a world beating collection of global cuisine, but they're hardly rural American staples.

I kind of think that in the day of the themed chain restuarant and the proliferation of new, branded food-trend grocery items, they are. These are the superhero success stories of ethnic cuisine, and when you can get tacos al pastor at the Chilango's Mexican Grill chain in Jackson, WY and Boise, ID, Jerk Chicken Pizza at California Pizza Kitchen, and Chinese chicken lettuce wraps at P.F. Chang's, I'd say they've landed pretty squarely in the mainstream, and already been pretty Americanized by the time we encounter them.

It comes across to me as an enterprise designed to help people who want help. They seem to be saying "you came to us because you weren't getting the results you wanted, and we figured out why."

I think this is a fair assessment.
posted by Miko at 7:51 AM on October 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Richard Kimball

Are you implying there's something about his name we don't know?

you will be rewarded with success... but you will be rewarded with a new arsenal of skills even if you don't

Except if those skills aren't new to you, which is part of understanding how they've defined their target market.

For skills training, I'd still trade the years I spent working part-time in owner-operated restaurants for every product ever published by CI/ATK.
posted by Miko at 7:54 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I kind of think that in the day of the themed chain restuarant and the proliferation of new, branded food-trend grocery items, they are. These are the superhero success stories of ethnic cuisine, and when you can get tacos al pastor at the Chilango's Mexican Grill chain in Jackson, WY and Boise, ID, Jerk Chicken Pizza at California Pizza Kitchen, and Chinese chicken lettuce wraps at P.F. Chang's, I'd say they've landed pretty squarely in the mainstream, and already been pretty Americanized by the time we encounter them.

I grew up in rural/small town America, in the not too distant past, and I think you're wrong on this. Sure, some of the random "ethnic" items I listed are known, but things like jicama, tabbouleh, and Indian food of any sort are curiosities at best outside large urban areas and their suburbs, in my experience. Hell, I live in a big city, I guarantee half the people in my office have never heard of tabbouleh. I know because they'd be the same half who hadn't heard of hummus until I brought some to work. I think acceptance of "ethnic" foods is a lot less widespread than you'd think if you eat like a typical urban middle class white person.

There is, of course, an ever expanding circle of what's considered standard cuisine in white America, with things like pizza being standard white people food everywhere in America in 2012, but not sixty years ago. Based on what I see in their magazines, and what I know people who cook and eat, I think Cooks' Illustrated is part expanding that circle, rather than restraining it.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:17 AM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Glancing at recent issues of Cooks' Illustrated, I see recipes for latkes, saag paneer, chicken fajitas, stir fried noodles, an avocado salad that include jicama, jerk chicken, tabbouleh, something called chinese chicken lettuce wraps, naan, and tacos al pastor. Sure that's not a world beating collection of global cuisine, but they're hardly rural American staples.
Indeed. Their ethnic recipes are generally viewed through a lens of midwestern whiteness, but they totally exist.
posted by dfan at 8:35 AM on October 15, 2012


I grew up in rural/small town America, in the not too distant past, and I think you're wrong on this

Well, I've lived all over, including bumfuck rural towns in central Massachusetts, and within reach of plenty similar spots in Maine and NH, and am in close touch with relatives in Alabama and rural Wisconsin (they are big experimental foodies and just love slapping recipes for "ethnic" treats on Pinterest, by the way) and have spent time eating both home food and restaurant food in all those places - so I do kind of know what I'm talking about.

I agree that you don't find these in the coffee shops and family restaurants and pizza places in every small town. However, when you go to the suburbs, where the malls and strip malls are, or to the cities, these are the kinds of places you seek out to eat. The stuff you can't get at home. The stuff with a profile - that you've seen on TV ads and in your Sunday circular and on the Food Network. Things you want to try.

things like jicama, tabbouleh, and Indian food of any sort are curiosities at best outside large urban areas and their suburbs, in my experience

I would ask you if maybe there's a gender component to that. Because if you read any women's magazines, health/diet magazines, or cooking magazines - even really basic, mainstream magazines like Cooking Light or Redbook or LHJ, these are foods you've encountered - especially tabbouleh, a wonderfully low-cal, low-fat, whole-grain salad that a lot of people eat, and is now in grocery stores, next to hummus and Greek yogurt, which also used to be exotic. Jicama is familiar because it very often appears as an ingredient in a healthy fruit slaw, but other than that it hasn't really integrated into American cuisine that much. But I have to say, if it's in Sunset, it's kind of mainstream.

Indian food I will pretty much give you; it's taken a lot longer to penetrate outside non-urban areas - but it's starting to creep into the mainstream very solidly, as well. You can find Patak's sauces in pretty much any major grocery chain anywhere in America now.

Cooks' Illustrated is part expanding that circle, rather than restraining it.

I can see this argument, as CI is asserting the Americanness and acceptability of these foods just by including them. But that also takes place in a tokenistic way, against the backdrop of the more traditional country-style and middlebrow/"fancy" restaurant standbys, which create the context for these things to appear in a safe and measured manner.

You're right that CI is part of the engine making formerly ethnically-associated things seem more familiar. My point is that by the time they appear in the magazine, they're no longer exotic. people are already eating them. They're eating them in restaurants, where they've already been through a marketing and vetting process and have proven their palatability to a general American middle-class audience, and then going home and wondering how to make stuff like that. The dishes chosen have been adapted already to feature American-style "clean" cuts of meat - boneless chicken breast, maybe chicken legs or thighs if we're really living on the edge -

The recipe selection is really very restaurant-inspired (shrimp tempura, beef fajitas, "steakhouse style supper," Kung Pao shrimp -this is no culture's home food) and this kind of feature, to me, only underscores that. CI is receiving signals from food trends, grocers, and major chains that these dishes have passed muster with a mainstream audience, and instructing us in re-creating them.
posted by Miko at 8:55 AM on October 15, 2012


notyou: Especially grating is that some recipes are not available to regular site subscribers; an additional subscription, over and above the standard fee, is required. Creepy.

Well, cannibalism is still technically illegal. I'm sure careful screening is very important for access to the special stuff.
posted by gilrain at 9:02 AM on October 15, 2012


How Cook's Illustrated Thrives While Others are Dying

We are not covering the latest greatest trends, we don’t do travel, we don’t have features on the hippest chefs in Los Angeles. It’s about the techniques, equipment and ingredients that go into good home cooking

Sort of underscores my point that "ethnic" foods are already quite mainstream if they've made it through the CI selection process.
posted by Miko at 9:14 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


everyone is severe, grumpy and awkward like Christopher Kimball

I resemble that remark and I didn't even grow up in New England! Then again, neither did Kimball...

I don't really gravitate toward Cook's any more, not sure why. Maybe it's the lack of ethnic recipes, and I do quite well with those without super detailed instructions. I'm just an OK cook, not a really good one, and am more likely than not to want to follow a recipe than to improvise, although I'm a decent enough cook (now) to spot howlers in the instructions before I begin.

I've used enough poorly-tested/untested recipes as a beginning cook to appreciate Cook's OCD when it comes to precision. Who the hell wants to pay for a cookbook only to be the (unpaid) tester? That's happened to me more than once.

Like anything, though, you get better with practice and you start trusting your own intuition. I think that even "slavish" followers of Cook's would start going this route after a while.
posted by Currer Belfry at 9:14 AM on October 15, 2012


Except if those skills aren't new to you, which is part of understanding how they've defined their target market.

For skills training, I'd still trade the years I spent working part-time in owner-operated restaurants for every product ever published by CI/ATK.


I stopped going to BikeForums.net when I realized there was a 8-10 month rotation - new people would come in with old questions, and the new batch of people hadn't heard of these questions or their answers. The new users would shake out into their various schools of thought, and adopt opinions they believed were novell.

The place, frankly, wasn't of much use to me, once my skills were at the point where I could swap out a headset on my bike with home-brew equipment.

If you have pro kitchen experience someplace that does fine cuisine (as opposed to a greasy spoon or "ethnic" restaurant that buys their menu items frozen from Sysco), you are going to learn exactly nothing from a mass-market magazine or TV show. The medium isn't meant for you. It's meant for people who have neither the time nor the ability to work in a restaurant kitchen for a competent chef, but would like to learn to cook something nice for their friends and family. I don't really see this as a failing with the CI/ATK model.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:25 AM on October 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty sure you can't do more than a handful of their recipes without a dutch oven. Just sayin.
posted by ethansr at 9:36 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


So I never really figured out: what is a dutch oven? Because for years, I refereed to a really big pot as a "dutch oven", but then I realized that I was thinking of a stock pot (aka thing large enough to boil chilli for 15 people). What is a dutch oven and what do you use it for?
posted by jb at 9:43 AM on October 15, 2012


Well, a "dutch oven" is also "a thing large enough to boil chili." The two aren't hugely different at first glance.

Typically, a dutch oven will be thicker-walled and squatter - wider than it is tall. The really good ones are made of cast iron. The idea is that you should be able to stick a Dutch Oven into your oven lid and all, so you can simmer things even more slowly than your stove would be able to do it. (Think like, "what the pot part of a Crock Pot would be.") A stock pot tends to be thinner-walled and taller than it is wide, becuase that's just on your stove to make soup stock from. Well, yeah, you could do other things in it, but stock is the stock pot's best use.

--

The whole discussion of CI and "ethnic cuisine" is reminding me of this exchange from that Simpsons episode where Marge's friends want to invest in something and someone's trying to sell them on a pita food truck franchise -
Helen: Hmm, Pita. Well, I don't know about food from the Middle East. Isn't that whole area a little iffy?

Hostess: [laughs] Hey, I'm no geographer. You and I -- why don't we call it pocket bread, huh?

Maude: [reading the ingredients list] Umm, what's tahini?

Hostess: Flavor sauce.

Edna: And falafel?

Hostess: Crunch patties.

Helen: So, we'd be selling foreign...

Hostess: Specialty foods. Here, try a Ben Franklin.

Helen: [takes a bite] Mmm, that is good. What's in it?

Chef: [poking his head out of a window, looking of Indian origin] Tabbouleh and rezmi-kabob.

Hostess: [trying to cover-up] Uh, th-that's our chef... Christopher.

Chef: [mutters, and closes the window, cursing in Hindi]
Yes, there are those who will seek out new and different food, but there are also those who don't like to expand too far outside a comfort zone and sometimes have to be coaxed into it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:03 AM on October 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't really see this as a failing with the CI/ATK model.

It's not a failing; it's obviously wildly successful. But it's why people who really get into food and cooking develop a love/hate/tolerate relationship with it, and often move on. Just as with the bike forum.
posted by Miko at 10:40 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


CI is a magazine for Hufflepuffs and Metafilter is a site for Ravenclaws.
posted by Diablevert at 10:47 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I bet someone could write (has written?) a really good book about nation-building and food in the US.

David Rosengarten has a cookbook titled It's All American Food which might interest you.

It's emphatically a cookbook, not a history text, but he does an impressive job of tracing immigrant cuisine as it developed throughout the 20th century in the US, through recipes for iconic stuff like Chow Mein or Spaghetti Sauce.
posted by werkzeuger at 11:02 AM on October 15, 2012


> CI is a magazine for Hufflepuffs and Metafilter is a site for Ravenclaws.

CI is a magazine for Fattypuffs and Metafilter is a site for Thinifers.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:27 AM on October 15, 2012


I've watched the show(s) on a few occasions, but it just doesn't interest me as much as other PBS cooking shows from the past did (Frugal Gourmet, Julia Child's shows, etc). Honestly, I like the 2 CBC shows much better, Best Recipes Ever (with Kary Osmond) and In the Kitchen with Stefano Faita.
posted by SpannerX at 11:35 AM on October 15, 2012


Two things bother me about ATK:

1. the white-bread "no-ethnic-food" thing mentioned in the article. There was one episode which really crystallized this for me: one of the recipe walkthroughs called for a small amount of chili powder, to which Kimball remarked "not too much; I don't like spicy food". OH GOD, I thought, THAT'S WHY I DON'T LIKE YOU.

2. the goddamn paternalism. The cooks are almost all women -- the only male cook I remember was Kenji's brief uncomfortable stint on-camera. But all the authority figures -- Kimball, the tasting lab, the equipment lab -- all men. It's subtle until you see it, and then it's not subtle at all: the women serve, the men judge.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:24 PM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


We had a deal, Kyle: "It's subtle until you see it, and then it's not subtle at all: the women serve, the men judge"

WHY DID YOU POINT THIS OUT THEN? I CAN'T UNSEE IT NOW DAMMIT

First I lose Good Eats, now I lose ATK.
posted by I am the Walrus at 2:44 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


2. the goddamn paternalism. The cooks are almost all women -- the only male cook I remember was Kenji's brief uncomfortable stint on-camera. But all the authority figures -- Kimball, the tasting lab, the equipment lab -- all men. It's subtle until you see it, and then it's not subtle at all: the women serve, the men judge.

But it could be argued that when it comes to the cooking, it's the women who are the authority figures. They're shown teaching him how to improve his bad techniques.
posted by dnash at 2:49 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


So I never really figured out: what is a dutch oven?

Typically, a dutch oven will be thicker-walled and squatter - wider than it is tall. The really good ones are made of cast iron. The idea is that you should be able to stick a Dutch Oven into your oven lid and all, so you can simmer things even more slowly than your stove would be able to do it. (Think like, "what the pot part of a Crock Pot would be.")

This is basically it. The lid on a dutch oven will fit more snugly than a crock pot lid.

There are two types of dutch ovens, the type which are basically thick-walled lidded cast-iron (sometimes enameled, usually not), and the type made for cooking with coals, which also have feet on the bottom and a lid which has a rim around the outside top or is a bit concave on top. These are used by creating a hot bed of coals to put the oven on top of, and then scooping coals onto the lid, so the heat is more uniform and it's more of a baking process than a simmering one.

I've had some amazing cobblers made in the middle of nowhere using dutch ovens. They're great. I use our kitchen one all the time, and not just because ATK suggests it.
posted by hippybear at 5:18 PM on October 15, 2012


Of course, as many juvenile males know, "Dutch Oven" also refers to farting in bed and forcing your bedpartner's head under the covers so they must endure the stink.

Try to avoid thinking of that version when Kimball refers to the pot.
posted by subbes at 6:37 PM on October 15, 2012


So I never really figured out: what is a dutch oven?

The wikipedia page for "dutch oven" is pretty good and has photos.

I have several, in varying sizes, because there's nothing better and with less effort (and is there anything better than amazing food cooking itself while you lounge on the couch and sip wine?) than throwing stuff in a dutch oven (aka french oven if you buy the pretty le Cruset ones) and putting that in the oven.

The CI version of the recipe would have 38 steps and two new implements, but in the lazy man's world the dutch/french oven provides the ultimate one-pot cooking with amazing concentrated flavors. And did I mention low effort?
posted by Forktine at 7:09 PM on October 15, 2012


To expand, the real advantage of a dutch oven is that it allows you to start cooking on the stovetop (eg browning meat, sauteing onions, etc) and then when you have all the ingredients added you can either keep it on the stovetop or move it into the oven. It's like a casserole dish plus a stew pot plus a frying pan, all in one, and with the bonus of pretty colors with the enameled ones.
posted by Forktine at 7:15 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Heh, well, apropos of Cook's Illustrated and dutch ovens - the dutch oven I own is actually the one that Cook's Illustrated specifically recommended; my mother bought it for me in the US, at Target, when making no-knead bread was A Hot New Thing (remember?). Here is a link I just Googled discussing the influence the CI review had on sales of that particular brand of dutch oven. My mother had a hard time finding a couple of them for us (she wanted one too) - it was sold out in many stores. Sadly, the couple times I tried to make that bread in it, it didn't turn out very exciting. I've made some good chili in it, though.

My enduring takeaway from CI is their penne alla vodka recipe. It is so delicious. I ask my mom to make it for me every time she visits; it's kind of our thing, and the only reason I have vodka in my freezer.
posted by flex at 7:39 PM on October 15, 2012


Oh man. If I buy a subscription will they explain why the hell there's vodka in it? I have yet to read an explanation that didn't sound like total pseudoscientific bullshit — on the order of "if you salt your beans a second too soon they will turn into little tiny rocks and you will die."
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:43 PM on October 15, 2012


Nope, or at least their Complete Book of Pasta and Noodles doesn't explain it.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:48 PM on October 15, 2012


I read the equipment reviews looking at which qualities the reviewers felt important, and then if I need the gizmo, I can usually find a name-brand model at Marshall's or T.J. Max or the Job Lot that has most of those qualities for pennies on the dollar of the recommended model.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:02 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I find it just totally unreasonably irritating. "Make sure and add some vodka! And then make sure you cook all the alcohol off!" How on earth is that not penne alla water-the-expensive-way?
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:02 PM on October 15, 2012


Lotsa vodka sauce debate on Chowhound forums, a good place to hang out if you like that sort of thing (and if you really like that sort of thing, egullet, but it's not for the weak of heart). Looks like the most viable theory is that vodka (or wine, or beer, or whatever other alcohol you want to cook with) is there to release alcohol-soluble compounds in the other ingredients. If that's true, then I can understand using vodka instead of wine so you wouldn't get the acidity and other flavors in the wine.

The NYT takes this line, too:
Q. Since vodka is tasteless and most of its alcohol evaporates in cooking, what do you gain by adding vodka to a tomato sauce for pasta?

A. The alcohol in the vodka enhances the flavor of the tomatoes. Some flavors are alcohol-soluble, meaning that they will be released only by the addition of alcohol. Vodka can help bring out these flavors without contributing another flavor, as wine or brandy would.

So a tomato sauce made with a touch of vodka can be slightly more intense than one made without. This is a particular boon if you are using less than perfectly ripe, late-summer tomatoes, which may need that flavor boost.
I love the flavor of vodka sauce. Lightly tangy tomatoes, mellow cream. Whatever makes the magic, it works.
posted by Miko at 8:53 PM on October 15, 2012


Booze: The New Food Group, in the WSJ:
Many flavor molecules that aren't soluble in water are soluble in alcohol; when alcohol is added to a dish, these molecules in the ingredients dissolve and release their flavors.

...Solubility is even more important with fats, which don't dissolve in water. Deglazing the bottom of the pan with vodka helped the fatty bits stuck to the pan dissolve and flavor the gravy...

...The second reaction occurs when alcohols and acids meet and create "fruity esters," compounds with a sweet, fruitlike flavor, according to Kevin Wu, a project engineer at Foster-Miller, a food-product development company in Waltham, Mass. Dishes such as vodka-tomato sauce, barbecue sauce and the apple-cranberry relish Ms. Clair made benefit from these fragrant esters.
Harold McGee apparently also agrees with this.
posted by Miko at 9:07 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


At least one penne vodka recipe I read (actually, more than one, so yes, at least one) said that you don't put the vodka in the sauce... you mix the drained, still hot pasta with the vodka and then add the sauce and toss.
posted by hippybear at 9:16 PM on October 15, 2012


So the tomato flavors dissolve in the alcohol.

And then the alcohol cooks off, and the tomato flavors are... deposited back in the tomato sauce where they started out?

That last bit is the part I don't understand. And this is probably me sucking at chemistry, and I'm probably not actually justified in getting all ranty about it....
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:34 PM on October 15, 2012


the alcohol cooks off,

It really doesn't. A pretty good percentage of alcohol added to a dish remains in the dish. That's kind of a myth, the 'cooking off.'
posted by Miko at 9:53 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Forktine, thanks for the brownie recipe correction. Currently in the oven.

By the way, thanks for posting this, flex. This is the best Chris Kimball/CI story I've read.
posted by purpleclover at 7:35 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


jb: "ambrosia: the perfect, not-at-all cakey brownie recipe can be found in older versions of the Fanny Farmer cookbook. The secret is no rising agent and not much egg.
...
2 cups sugar

2 eggs unbeaten

1c flour (100-125g)...
"

There's more sugar in this recipe than flour. So part of the reason it tastes less cakey is because basically you're making brownie candies.

This recipe looks great and aside from eggs I have all the ingredients so I'm definitely looking into making this over the weekend.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:45 AM on October 19, 2012


Deathalicious: yeah, it's really sugar, butter and chocolate/cocoa held together with a minimum of flour and eggs (only one egg for the single recipe in the Harvard Brownie variation). The texture should be more like a truffle than like a cake: there is no rising agent, you melt the butter, don't beat the eggs -- thus no excess air to make them cakey. I also always use unsweetened baking chocolate and sometimes I cut down on the sugar (to 1.5 cups instead of 2 cups) to make them less sweet (I like bitter chocolate).

But please note that my version misses out the salt (1/4 tsp) and that I have a weird cocoa substitution. Forktine's version is what was orginally published in the Fanny Farmer cookbook - though I'll note that it's 2 eggs for regular, 1 egg for Harvard Brownies (extra chewy). My extra chocolately version is just the Harvard Brownie with 2 tablespoons of cocoa added to the chocolate; my mom's cheap version is the Harvard Brownie with 3tbsp cocoa instead of chocolate (and used cheap margarine instead of butter - I restored the butter, but didn't realize the cocoa wasn't original).

I also have a variation for when I'm short on eggs, but that's at home (I think I used vegetable oil and water - not as good, but works if you need to veganize the recipe or you need brownies right this minute).

The irony is that when I was a child, cakey brownies were always store-bought, chewy ones were homemade, so when I was a kid I obviously loved the cakey iced bought brownies so much more than what I had every day in my lunch. Now that I'm an adult, I much prefer chewy brownies and I find that store-bought ones taste of preservatives or something.
posted by jb at 12:44 PM on October 19, 2012


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