I don’t like any food adjectives that are superlative. I hate them all.
June 28, 2015 9:59 AM   Subscribe

An interview with “America’s Test Kitchen” founder Christopher Kimball on how cooking is like woodworking, the business model behind “Cooks Illustrated,” and the awesome powers of baking soda and gelatin.
posted by Chrysostom (73 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't usually like cooking with non-Cook's Illustrated recipes because the writers are just so lazy about including all the steps in the process. It's worst with random recipes on the internets, but it's often a problem with real cookbooks that people are selling for money, too.

If you have to adapt a recipe because you can’t get an ingredient, or once you get very good at a recipe you want to change it a little, fine, but we seem to be embarrassed to make a recipe the way someone else told us to make it because that doesn’t fit into our view of ourselves.

Doing whatever Cook's Illustrated tells me to do fits into my view of myself just fine. I like knowing that the recipe will come out pretty much as advertised if I follow it properly, and knowing that there aren't mysterious steps that are left out of it somehow because it's written by someone who cooks more creatively for people who cook more creatively. Hell with that. I just wanna eat, and eat something good. I don't enjoy cooking enough to waste ingredients and time on failed experiments.

tl;dr: I am Christopher Kimball's target audience.
posted by asperity at 10:14 AM on June 28, 2015 [22 favorites]


" 'Basil-flecked' ” just makes me want to kill somebody."

I was prepared to dislike him but I can't dislike anyone who says that.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:19 AM on June 28, 2015 [15 favorites]


" 'Basil-flecked'

Please tell me that some where out there this an entire Béla Fleck and the Fleckstone inspired cookbook that integrates banjo puns into all of their recipe titles?!! This is all I want.
posted by Fizz at 10:24 AM on June 28, 2015 [10 favorites]


I love Chris Kimball and his crew and the entire Cook's Illustrated empire, but I can't help but feel he views pretty much his entire audience with great disdain, and this interview definitely didn't do much to convince me otherwise.
posted by obfuscation at 10:24 AM on June 28, 2015 [12 favorites]


I thought that substitution answer was hella judgemental and ahistorical to boot, but that's Chris Kimball for you.
posted by muddgirl at 10:25 AM on June 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


I accidentally had lunch with him a few years ago (sitting next to each other at a picnic table at Fancy Food Show) and in person he is just as he seems in this article: right on the edge of haughty, although of course utterly polite and professional...

And I'm definitely going to use this line with a lot of my client authors: "I don’t like adjectives that do not carry information, that carry only sensibility."
posted by twsf at 10:32 AM on June 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


I respect Kimball so highly! I have referred to Cook's Illustrated's book Best Recipe as 'The Bible' for over a decade now.

I'm an accomplished home cook, and I learned on Cook's Illustrated. I am comfortable and savvy enough to bend recipes freely, but I very, very rarely alter anything about a Cook's Illustrated recipe. Their emphasis on the unalterable science of cooking did more to teach me how to cook than any other source.

Kimball's distain for "cooking as lifestyle" makes him seem like an elitist, patronizing prick. And I don't mind. There's a million other food oriented books, periodicals, TV shows, and websites that have their point of view, and he has his.
posted by missmary6 at 10:36 AM on June 28, 2015 [13 favorites]


I thought that substitution answer was hella judgemental

I might feel the same way if not for the fact that not long after he says "occasionally I put together my own jam band. I play lead guitar and practice that a fair amount". If he's indicting anyone there, he's including himself in his indictment.
posted by asterix at 10:43 AM on June 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don’t like any food adjectives that are superlative.

This is pretty rich coming from a guy who published both "The Best Recipe" and "The New Best Recipe".
posted by jacquilynne at 10:51 AM on June 28, 2015 [14 favorites]


Except he makes a distinction between an art (like music) and a craft (like cooking). He implies that home cooks do not generally have the skill and knowledge to play around with the recipes of talented and hard-working chefs, any more than I would have the knowledge to experiment with a set of cabinet blueprints. My thought is, how does one learn to be a more versatile cook or knitter or cabinet maker without experimenting?

I don't see why he cares whether or not a cook sticks rigidly to his recipes, or why. I get the sense that he reads too many internet comments and worries that his work is being judged solely by the reviews of those kinds of commenters who say, "This recipe sucked! I followed it exactly except I substituted milk for sour cream and baking powder for yeast!" It's pretty clear by the success of America's Test Kitchen that most of his audience is savvier than all that.
posted by muddgirl at 10:54 AM on June 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


Doing whatever Cook's Illustrated tells me to do fits into my view of myself just fine. I like knowing that the recipe will come out pretty much as advertised if I follow it properly, and knowing that there aren't mysterious steps that are left out of it somehow because it's written by someone who cooks more creatively for people who cook more creatively. Hell with that. I just wanna eat, and eat something good.

Yeah, Cook's Illustrated is my go-to for this reason as well, although I bake much more than I cook. I like that I can go there and get a really good, basic, straightforward version of whatever I want. I love that I don't have to look through a billion different versions of something to figure out what I want to do, I can just be like "I want to make a pumpkin pie" and BAM there is a great pumpkin pie recipe. The website is a great resource for me because it saves me the time and effort and stress of sorting through a billion different versions of the same basic recipe.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:09 AM on June 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


America's Test Kitchen kicked Lynne Rossetto Kasper off the local NPR affiliate, so I hate it with the heat of a thousand convection ovens. The problem is that I somewhere, fundamentally, believe that he's providing a more useful service, in the same way that Ryanair really can be the cost-effective airline option, or that the rigorous precision of the scientific better is "more correct" than the improvised swanning around I do in the kitchen.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:09 AM on June 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


When I was a teenager, I once followed a recipe for ravioli. I'd rolled the pasta all out by hand, carefully scooped the fillings in, then cut and scored the raviolis, and then I got to the recipe for the sauce. It had ketchup in it. And I was supposed to make this sauce, smother the raviolis, and bake it all together.

I figured, "I'm a dumb kid. This is a fancy, illustrated cookbook obviously created by someone who knows what they're doing," so I did it.

It was disgusting. That sauce had ketchup in it. It tasted like ketchup. And I couldn't scrape enough off of my lovingly hand crafted ravioli to even eat it myself.

Maybe someone actually liked that horrible ketchup sauce. My dad bravely ate it, but he grew up during the depression, so he ate lots of things. I didn't grow up during the depression, and it made me gag. So yeah, when I see something in a recipe that looks stupid or bad, I don't do it. I trust my judgment sometimes. I have to.

The only things I'll slavishly follow a recipe for are things I don't actually like myself and don't feel qualified to judge. I don't have much of a sweet tooth, so I tend to follow recipes for desserts (including his recipe for chocolate chip cookies).

Other people modify recipes for other reasons, like fussy eaters, allergies, availability, etc. Maybe even sometimes because they just want to feel creative like he says.

Christopher Kimball doesn't seem to get any real joy from cooking, and that is fine. What is not fine is that he projects, and he's incredibly judgmental of people who don't think the way he does.

It is OK to think that your way of doing things is superior. That is often the reason people choose to do things a certain way. It is OK to value the things you value. What isn't OK is to believe that you are actually a superior person to people who don't share your values.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:22 AM on June 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


I grew up with horrifyingly incompetent plus kosher plus "health food" home cooking. Like, eggwhite-only latkes burned in a non-oiled non-stick pan, with no salt or sour cream, but whole-apple apple sauce complete with shreds of peel and seeds.

Then I went to camps, boarding school and college with meal service. As a young adult I had no useful culinary methods, much less intuitions. I literally could not make a cup of coffee.

What made me the cook I am now?
Joy of Cooking (1960s edition)
Cooks's Magazine - Cook's Illustrated
On Food And Cooking (the science of food, I re-read the updated edition constantly)
The Cake Bible (Beranbaum's method/science explanations even more than the recipes)
The Book of Jewish Food (1996, no food pictures, edition)

I follow every new recipe *exactly*, including using multiple industrial electronic thermometers. I think it takes me about 10-20 iterations until I even try to recall the recipe from memory before I start.

Food's fantastic at my house.
posted by Dreidl at 11:32 AM on June 28, 2015 [25 favorites]


Swanning about with things you don't understand is science*. Swanning about with things you do understand is just engineering.

*Provided you're trying to understand them
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:33 AM on June 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


Today’s a happy day, readers. Today I’m marrying the assistant girl, which marks the beginning of spring. Every fall I shed my old assistant-wife, and every spring I marry the new one. It’s an old Vermont custom – as old as sinking your mother into a vat of fresh-churned butter and storing her in the jam-cellar for freshness – and it makes for a good harvest.

-A Letter from Chris Kimball
posted by leotrotsky at 11:36 AM on June 28, 2015 [21 favorites]


I don't see why he cares whether or not a cook sticks rigidly to his recipes, or why.

He feels, strongly, that there is One Right Way to do things. It is his curse and his glory; those test cooks go through hell and back to find their one right way, scourging themselves over their errors and displaying them all for you to read and avoid, and the results are consistent and as described and pretty much always Good. Excellence they attain more rarely, but they are never poor.

My thought is, how does one learn to be a more versatile cook or knitter or cabinet maker without experimenting?

Kimble thinks versatility is a false god. Why do you want to be versatile? Why know how to do a hundred things poorly instead of a dozen well? There's some merit to that, I think --- when food writers go off on their great Rataouille-style reminiscences of Grandma's beloved [blank], they're generally referring to a dish that was one of a handful of recipes that Grandma made once a month for 40 years for holidays and birthdays and etc., etc. I don't think my turkey is ever good to be as good as my grandma's because I'm always going to be pulled away by some Ooooh, Shiny! bullshit I read in the Times food section and one year I'll be dry-brining it and one year I'll high-heat roast and the next year I'll stuff it with herbs, etc. Wax on, wax off, padawan. It's repeating one thing, one technique, until you can do it in your sleep that makes for true greatness. That's the biggest different between chefs and home cooks, just the insane amount of practice.

Of course, I've spent that entire preceding paragraph preaching a faith which I do not practice. I love fucking around in the kitchen and trying new things. I'm willing to eat (or more rarely but more shamefully, throw away) some fuck ups on the chance of coming up with something new and great, and that happens often enough to keep me happy. (Ask me about my fennel salad!) But I do think it takes a certain amount of experience for even that to be profitable --- you have to know enough about the science, have enough experience of flavors and how different techniques affect them, to understand why something came out terrible or awesome. Like you said, a lot of people substitute blindly, without understand how doing so will affect the recipe. You can't really learn from that, it's cooking as cargo cult, just repeating the rites and hoping to produce the effect.
posted by maggiepolitt at 11:45 AM on June 28, 2015 [17 favorites]


can't help but feel he views pretty much his entire audience with great disdain

That may be simply a reaction to the bow-tie; distrusting men who wear bow-ties is not unreasonable as a heuristic. They may be opinion columnists, for example.
posted by thelonius at 11:54 AM on June 28, 2015 [23 favorites]


That may be simply a reaction to the bow-tie; distrusting men who wear bow-ties is not unreasonable as a heuristic. They may be opinion columnists, for example.

*golf clap*
posted by leotrotsky at 11:59 AM on June 28, 2015


Kimble thinks versatility is a false god. Why do you want to be versatile? Why know how to do a hundred things poorly instead of a dozen well?

To me, versatility doesn't mean "doing 100 things poorly", it means "being able to recover a recipe (or a piece of knitwear, or a cabinet) from one of any of a hundred things that can go wrong." I don't have a test kitchen. I don't always have all the ingredients on hand. My water is different than Kimball's water and my flour is different than Kimball's flour. But as Kimball himself says, cooking is about getting the food on the table. How can I do that if I'm following a recipe every single time? Even the perfect recipe?

Believe me, I say this as a recovering recipe-aholic. I would turn to a recipe to tell me exactly how much salt is required "to taste," if I could.
posted by muddgirl at 11:59 AM on June 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm a big fan of the Cook's Illustrated franchise: they always give you the meta-recipe, explaining what the elements are that make the recipe work. I find the recipes a little fussy and labor intensive; sometimes I'll make the Cook's Illustrated recipe for "X", mostly I'll just read the recipe narrative and use it to modify someone else's recipe or just make something up on the fly. Except for baking, on that, I'll pretty much always follow Cook's.

Cook's Illustrated on the blue in 2012 , the video linked is pretty funny (mocking the complexity and preciseness of the recipes).

Also, if you want some a/b testing of technique without the bow tie or subscription, I can highly recommend the website Serious Eats.
posted by kovacs at 11:59 AM on June 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


He feels, strongly, that there is One Right Way to do things.

I think that's the heart of it. He provides a service in testing products and recipes. That is his job, and people happily purchase the fruits of his labors. Where he goes overboard is that he is a prescriptivist about it. He has no control over what people do with the information they glean from his work, and he shouldn't. It would be unfair to judge his work based on someone else's creative interpretation of it, but it's perfectly reasonable for someone to pick and choose what advice they take and what they don't. Everyone has their own needs and tastes and priorities, and he is not the arbiter of which of those are acceptable and which aren't.

Cooking is a massive open source project, and it should all be subject to something like a creative commons license. You build your recipes on others' work, and you should, in turn, graciously accept that others will do the same with yours. His work is just a series of forks of existing recipes, so if someone wants to fork his recipes to make their own adjustments, they're not doing anything he hasn't done himself.

He can shake his tiny fist all he likes, but I think it just makes him look like a petulant child.
posted by ernielundquist at 12:10 PM on June 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


Wow, tough crowd. I enjoyed the interview.
posted by wittgenstein at 12:15 PM on June 28, 2015 [11 favorites]


Michael Pollan’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” is pretty much a twelve-word summary of what to eat.

um

not sure I can trust this guy around numbers now
posted by desjardins at 12:23 PM on June 28, 2015 [20 favorites]


There are a lot of really great things about the Cook's Illustrated empire, and I have used their recipes to very good effect, but Kimball is pretty annoying. First of all, improvisation was a basic survival skill for my hundred-years-ago ancestors, or at least for the ones I know anything about. They were poor immigrants trying to keep kosher in a Southern American city with very few Jews: they couldn't just replicate inherited recipes, because they were functioning in a fundamentally different context, and if they hadn't been able to improvise they would have starved. And sometimes you want to make a substitution because you don't like a particular ingredient or the recipe calls for a vegetable that is out of season or you want to use what you have in your pantry or you saw something delicious-looking in the farmer's market and want to try it out in a recipe that you already know you like. And that's fine! It's my dinner, and I don't feel the need to ask permission to make it the way I want. I actually think that one important cooking skill is knowing when you can make substitutions and when you probably shouldn't, and a good scientifically-minded cookbook author can explain that to you in terms that Kimball might be able to appreciate.

So anyway, he always comes across as obnoxious and smug, but that doesn't prevent me from appreciating his recipes, instructions and reviews.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:24 PM on June 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


Kimball's philosophy on cooking is a bit odd in America, I think, because nowadays the American philosophy of cooking is rooted in creativity and inventiveness. That differs from a lot of other cuisines, which focus on technical perfection. French cuisine is still very focused on the technical aspects and doing things "right" rather than coming up with new dishes and flavors.

It reminds me a bit of Jiro Dreams of Sushi. His food is among the best in the world, but the meal that he serves hasn't changed at all since he started his restaurant. I don't think that's really a bad thing.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:35 PM on June 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't have a test kitchen. I don't always have all the ingredients on hand. My water is different than Kimball's water and my flour is different than Kimball's flour.

That's exactly his point! He even says exactly that in the interview! Right at the beginning!
posted by asterix at 12:40 PM on June 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


I don't see why he cares whether or not a cook sticks rigidly to his recipes, or why.

I've heard him say in some NPR interview that he's constantly bombarded in person and emails and every other medium by people saying, "your recipe didn't work!" So he ends up going down the list of, "Did you marinate the chicken for between 6 and 8 hours?" "Yes!" "Did you use self-rising flour?" "No!" "Well, that's why that's what the recipe said to use."

I also remember that the very next caller was saying, "I tried your half-inch of water egg-boiling method and it didn't work!" So he went down the list and the guy used eggs straight from the fridge or lived in Denver or something.

See, he doesn't hear from the accomplished cooks who already understand the science and know how to modify his recipes. As regimented as the guy is, I can understand how that could become a major peeve.
posted by cmoj at 12:54 PM on June 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


That's exactly his point! He even says exactly that in the interview! Right at the beginning!

...and yet he doesn't seem to think this will affect the outcome of his recipes, or that I would want to learn how to adjust them on the fly so they come out edible? It's nonsensical.

....or lived in Denver or something.

Wouldn't people who lived in Denver need to learn how to adjust CI's "Best Recipes"? Or do they not need to eat soft-boiled eggs?
posted by muddgirl at 1:01 PM on June 28, 2015


He feels, strongly, that there is One Right Way to do things.

The proscriptivism and the fussiness is why I virtually never use his recipes. I vastly prefer the approach of writers like Bittman, who are much better at describing the core critical path through a recipe and indicating where variances can help or hurt. The food I like the most tends to have roots in poor people's cooking, which means that it is resilient to changes and can be reconfigured easily. (Cassoulet is a great example -- it can be ridiculously complex and wonderful, and yet a perfectly passable version can be tossed in the oven in a few minutes using canned beans and whatever cheap meat is handy.)

That said, if I did more cooking for groups or guests, where a screw up is a much bigger deal, I would be much more inclined to use the Cooks Illustrated recipes. That's a situation where I will take guaranteed results every time, even if that means living with a fairly whitebread dish.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:03 PM on June 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


...Or, less facetiously, what if I need to make something with gluten-free ingredients? What if I'm cooking for someone on on a FODMAP diet? Kimball's argument seems to be that I need to run out and find the Best FODMAP Diet Cookbook instead of learning how to adjust what I already know do a different set of ingredients.
posted by muddgirl at 1:06 PM on June 28, 2015


The proscriptivism and the fussiness is why I virtually never use his recipes.

The rhetoric of the text draws its own audience. If you follow these instructions "exactly", we guarantee you something delicious. The very idea of this is perfect for consumption and consumers.
posted by polymodus at 1:06 PM on June 28, 2015


To me, versatility doesn't mean "doing 100 things poorly", it means "being able to recover a recipe (or a piece of knitwear, or a cabinet) from one of any of a hundred things that can go wrong." I don't have a test kitchen. I don't always have all the ingredients on hand. My water is different than Kimball's water and my flour is different than Kimball's flour. But as Kimball himself says, cooking is about getting the food on the table. How can I do that if I'm following a recipe every single time? Even the perfect recipe?

Well, just to be clear, I was speaking of Kimball's cooking philosophy, not my own. But to unpack a little, I think there's two levels really, when it comes to this stuff --- being able to cook well, and being able to have this dish come out well. The first is about technique, about having a broad base of knowledge such that you can imagine a final dish, what you want it to taste like, chew like, and then think out how to get there. The second is about following the recipe.

I feel like it's like driving --- if you're learning to drive, or trying to get someplace you're totally unfamiliar with, then you need to follow the directions to the letter, or you'll get lost. If a new store opens up in your hometown, you can probably come up with a dozen different ways to get there from your house, depending on traffic and so forth. Because you have that solid base of knowledge to start from --- which are the major roads, how they connect. There's more than one way to acquire that knowledge --- you can do by just going off an exploring, getting lost a lot, eventually figuring out how things link up. Or you can carefully print out your directions and take along a map book, and as you take more trips, you will also build up that knowledge. I think Kimball doesn't see a point to ever getting lost if you don't have to. Other people remember the way much better when they break the path themselves, even if they hack their way to a bunch of dead ends doing it.
posted by maggiepolitt at 1:11 PM on June 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


Or, less facetiously, what if I need to make something with gluten-free ingredients?

Then learn to do so, but don't blame his recipe if and when you fail by not following the recipe.
posted by cmoj at 1:12 PM on June 28, 2015 [1 favorite]



Or, less facetiously, what if I need to make something with gluten-free ingredients?


Amusingly, they came out with a GF cookbook recently and I've heard him and Brigit Lancaster say it was the hardest thing they've ever done precisely because GF ingredients behave so differently that you can't simply substitute, say, a GF flour mix for regular flour in a recipe and hope to have it come out the same way. Everything else --- liquid amounts, oven temp, rise time, leavening amounts --- must also be adjusted.
posted by maggiepolitt at 1:18 PM on June 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


John Thorne is our greatest living food writer, but he's not rich. I'm pretty sure Chris Kimball is rich. And he's just a pretty good food writer. I guess that's just the way the world works most of the time.
posted by valkane at 1:44 PM on June 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


Then learn to do so, but don't blame his recipe if and when you fail by not following the recipe.

This comes back to my original point - Kimball seems like the kind of person who reads the comments on his own recipes and gets fussy about it.

I think Kimball doesn't see a point to ever getting lost if you don't have to. Other people remember the way much better when they break the path themselves, even if they hack their way to a bunch of dead ends doing it.

Not only does Kimball not see the point, he looks down on anyone who looks at Google's "fastest route" suggestion and decides to try a slightly alternate route that is a bit longer but looks like it has fewer left turns as overly-individualist.
posted by muddgirl at 2:00 PM on June 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Take classical musicians: they’re perfectly happy to play Beethoven’s 5th the way it’s written.

I don't think he totally knows what it's like to play Beethoven. You get more freedom than you might think. Sheet music leaves out a lot of information. Yeah, the notes and the dynamics are there, but there's a lot more elements the musicians have control over. Beethoven is played a certain way because this is how you're expected to play Beethoven, not because that's everything on the page. What makes a soloist great to hear is that they can work with the notes on the page and within the stylistic traditions to express something really interesting and engaging. If it were about just playing what's written, it would be totally boring.

The whole idea of testing out a recipe and getting at the best version of it seems antithetical to this, and he seems to resent the fact that people might want even a hint of variety. Personally, I'd rather mess up a quiche than make the exact same thing, perfectly, every time. These recipes are great for understanding what's going on while you're cooking, but I always looked at that as a way to understand and experiment more, not as a way to stay in my place. God forbid the little people want to express themselves in the kitchen.
posted by teponaztli at 2:02 PM on June 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Prior to this thread, I had never heard of Christopher Kimball, and Cook's Illustrated was a name without a referent for me.

But now I think I can see how Kimball has conquered a virtual empire for himself with what is essentially a non-electronic analog computer -- a computer that takes the recipes of dishes familiar to most Americans, and which they aspire to cook well, and breaks those recipes down into independent or semi-independent variables which correspond as well as may be with the variables Americans confront in their own kitchens and at their markets.

Then, this analog computer produces the dish in question over and over again as it runs each independent variable through a range of values, finding the very best outcome, according to a metric of optimal taste, in the section of multi-dimensional space defined by the outcome plus the ranges of independent variables.

What makes this procedure so unexpectedly successful, in my opinion, is a property of optima that sit over the interior parts of the ranges of independent variables rather than appearing at the extreme values of the ranges of those variables: the property that, at that optimum the outcome is at its least sensitive to a small change in any of the independent variables.

Which means that in this case, you have constructed a recipe which is as resilient as it can possibly be in the face of minor variations in ingredients and the unavoidable vicissitudes of preparation and cooking.

Which would explain why Kimball inveighs against substitutions and insists that cooks follow very specific instructions as exactly as possible -- he is trying to get people as close as possible to the experimentally determined ideal values of the independent variables so that the recipe will be as reliably good as possibly can be.
posted by jamjam at 2:09 PM on June 28, 2015 [17 favorites]


We’ll spend twelve or fifteen thousand dollars on creating a recipe.

Holy moly. I know the magazine articles always start with "we tried sixty-seven published recipes and tested the results with lab equipment," but it never occurred to me what that meant.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 2:28 PM on June 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


Kimball's argument seems to be that I need to run out and find the Best FODMAP Diet Cookbook instead of learning how to adjust what I already know do a different set of ingredients.

I take it to be more "90% of the time, you want to do it this way and you'll get a good result". For the most part they're targeting people who are trying to get food on the table in a short amount of time during the week. And Cook's Illustrated recipes are *always*, IME, very good at explaining how they arrived at their ultimate conclusion, and why they made various decisions; they're excellent sources of information for when you do want or need to learn how to adjust. (Their "Cooking School" cookbook is even better: for a bunch of techniques and recipes it's got a trouble-shooting guide.)
posted by asterix at 2:44 PM on June 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


Thanks to jamjam, I now realize at Christopher Kimball is a Neal Stephenson character.
posted by BrashTech at 2:45 PM on June 28, 2015 [12 favorites]


Kimball and ATK do a great job of identifying all the variables that have to be controlled and how they need to be controlled to achieve a certain result. If you follow the recipe, you will get the result. The issue I have is that I don't often agree with him about what the result should be.
posted by slkinsey at 3:18 PM on June 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


I can't help but wonder what would happen if you put him in the same room with Alton Brown to do a theory and practice book about cooking.

or, you know, you read about cannibalism in the news, but hey, omlette and eggs.
posted by mephron at 3:42 PM on June 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


Which would explain why Kimball inveighs against substitutions and insists that cooks follow very specific instructions as exactly as possible -- he is trying to get people as close as possible to the experimentally determined ideal values of the independent variables so that the recipe will be as reliably good as possibly can be.

Yes, that is largely what he does.

What is he being exact about, though, exactly? What variables does he choose to measure, for what qualities, and how does he weight his results?

There is obviously a lot of work that goes into testing and evaluating their recipes and equipment, but none of that trumps individual cooks' experiences and preferences. Ultimately, his results are based on subjective measures, and competent home cooks are capable of taking them under advisement without slavishly following his directions to the letter.

What he does is very much useful, but it's hardly objective.
posted by ernielundquist at 3:42 PM on June 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


I got the big Cook's Illustrated cookbook for Christmas. Between that and trying recipes out before, I've probably made about a half-dozen recipes from CI. A few several times. And every single one of them is fine, but none are amazing or even surprisingly great (with one exception I'll get to in a sec).

I think it was in a previous CI/ATK mefi thread where someone pointed out that the end result of most of these recipes is something designed to appeal to middle-of-the-road American tastes. So nothing that anyone at your family holiday dinner will think is "too much." And I think that's accurate. Like, I made one of their beef stews, and it was very savory (between the anchovies and the tomato paste) and rich, but still kinda bland.

I have learned some good techniques from the book. For instance, I've made their gingery chicken and bok choy stir fry a few times and the technique they use to stir fry chicken (it's a bit like velveting, but without the egg) is so good, and pretty much gives me stir fry that has the texture and mouthfeel of take-out Chinese dishes. Which is great, because that was something that had eluded me for years. BUT the sauce that goes with the stir fry is really meh - both bland and overly salty at the same time.

If anyone has some really good sauces for chicken/veggie stir fry ...
posted by lunasol at 4:56 PM on June 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


I guess what I was trying to say is that it's all very well and good to test your recipes, but taste is not objective, and as the home cook, you're only guaranteed to like the results if you cook it exactly the same way AND have the same palate and tastes as the testers.
posted by lunasol at 4:57 PM on June 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Above anything I love just how much discussion and debate we can have on "the right philosophy of how to teach cooking". Cooking is very personal to a lot of people and no one likes to be told they're doing it wrong. It's one of the most basic things we do to survive. I think where a lot of people take issue with Kimball and his approach is because it's framed as "We did all the research and came up with the perfect version of this dish". But most people aren't looking for the perfect version. Just a good enough version. So they're going to substitute.

I learned to cook from the ATK big red 3-ring Family Cookbook which is full of substitutions and what to do if you don't have an ingredient or need to save time. But their recipes are usually carefully laid out and explain why they're adding something, so you get a sense for the major steps vs. the "this way is the best if you have access to a fully loaded kitchen with every ingredient" steps.
posted by downtohisturtles at 5:36 PM on June 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't people who lived in Denver need to learn how to adjust CI's "Best Recipes"?

Yes, this is a problem. I'd very much like it if they'd do a comprehensive article on all problems that might be encountered when cooking at high altitude, not just for baking (they've got a decent one for that in a back issue of Cook's Country.)

Or do they not need to eat soft-boiled eggs?

This is not a problem. Bleah.
posted by asperity at 5:36 PM on June 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is the funniest fucking thing I've ever read about ATK:
"The show with the best supporting characters is America's Test Kitchen. ATK is a wonderfully informative, helpful cooking and food science show, but it's also a simmering Edward Albee play if you like subtext. Host Chris Kimball is the star, certainly, but the "supporting" "characters" of Bridget Lancaster and Julia Collin-Davison are what make the show shine. Here is the trick: Imagine that in every segment, Kimball and either Lancaster or Collin-Davison have just gotten divorced, but are putting on a Waspy happy face for some reason. Now all of their exchanges are extra-charged with passive aggression and resentment. "Here's an easy job even you could do," the women say to Chris, and everyone just laughs and laughs. Bridget or Julia will make a point of mentioning one of Chris's dislikes, and he'll reject that kindness with a petty correction. "I do so like that spice; I like it in a rub!" he spits. Perhaps they never really knew each other in the first place. This make-at-home General Tso's chicken is surprisingly easy, but cooking it robs one of them of the chance to gain a brief respite by driving to get the takeout. You can see the intimacy-laced resentment radiating off of everyone. Then they each take a taste of the food and oooh and aaaah over it, even though their hearts are closed. Later, Chris will go to the tasting lab, and the caught-in-the-middle Jack will act as if everything is okay. This is my favorite drama."
I enjoy the show SO MUCH MORE now that I imagine it her way.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:52 PM on June 28, 2015 [27 favorites]


Above anything I love just how much discussion and debate we can have on "the right philosophy of how to teach cooking".

Like music. Teach basics and theory and how to play Mary Had A Little Lamb. Some will want to move into jazz, some will have the nous to become big players, some will stick only to the notes on the page.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:08 PM on June 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm a good enough cook to go "by ear" with no recipe, or just using one as a vague reference most of the time, but now that my kids are responsible for cooking a night each week, the big red ATK binder is a fucking godsend.
posted by padraigin at 6:32 PM on June 28, 2015


America's Test Kitchen kicked Lynne Rossetto Kasper off the local NPR affiliate...
This actually may have nothing to do with America's Test Kitchen and may have everything to do with the fact that The Splendid Table is actually an APM show, not an NPR show.
posted by yellowcandy at 6:33 PM on June 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


My takeaway from the article is that I need to leaf through an issue of Cooks Illustrated next time I'm in the Whole Foods checkout line.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:34 PM on June 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Chris Kimball definitely seems a bit uptight. However, I don't think it's really too much to ask (food allergies aside) that you make the recipe as instructed a time or two before you go off and experiment. That way you have a decent understanding of what is essential and what is not.

I can totally understand how Kimball would be annoyed if you don't follow the recipe and then complain to him that it didn't work as advertised.

Thankfully, most ATK and CI recipes are at least passably good to begin with even if you do prefer bolder flavor (some are awesome as is, IMO), so it's decently easy to take the technique and just tweak the spices a bit in a way that doesn't change the core of the dish but gives a better outcome for people whose taste is not consonant with the original recipe.
posted by wierdo at 7:35 PM on June 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think it was in a previous CI/ATK mefi thread where someone pointed out that the end result of most of these recipes is something designed to appeal to middle-of-the-road American tastes.

And as we all learned from Malcolm Gladwell, there's no such thing as a single set of middle-of-the-road American tastes. Only sets of middle-of-the-road American tastes.

I wonder how many spaghetti sauce recipes ATK has published?
posted by jacquilynne at 9:21 PM on June 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Chris Kimball doesn't seem like the most down-to-earth, affable person, and I'm okay with that. I don't watch/read ATK for its warm, fuzzy approach. I follow them for their empirical, informative approach to cooking.

I have a great appreciation for the time and effort it takes to recipe-test and tweak a thousand times to get the 'best' result. I've cooked enough ATK recipes to trust their general approach enough to follow their recipes to the letter, and then tweak if need be. Their palate may not match mine perfectly, but it'll generally be perfect, or get me darn close enough to be quite satisfied with the result, and add/change small things to get it suited to myself or my audience.

And I, too, feel a fierce distaste towards people who are given a set of instructions, deviate from them, and then complain when the result is unsatisfactory.
posted by rachaelfaith at 6:08 AM on June 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


Chris Kimball doesn't seem like the most down-to-earth, affable person, and I'm okay with that

Which is weird; I was happy to watch the shows (with my own subtext kind of like Eyebrows McGee suggested-- mine involved Bridget being his dom) but then my wife got me a subscription to the magazine and I have to say the guy in his letters is not the bow-tied snob he sometimes comes across as. The letters can be incredibly saccharine (agave nectar, I assume) but there's a lot of humanity and honesty there.

I think those in-thread taking him to task for the One Right Way to a recipe are misunderstanding that as an attack on them. If you're at MetaFilter writing about your cooking approach and the wealth of reading/ research you've done, you're just fine. He has to deal with a general populous like . . . have you ever looked at the comments on a recipe at a big-brand name cooking site? They've used substitutes for 40% of the items, think baking powder and soda are probably interchangeable, don't understand the difference between volume and weight and are TOTALLY PISSED the recipe was crap.
posted by yerfatma at 6:55 AM on June 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


If, as the legends say, the emotions one has while cooking go into the food, then I look forward to Kimball's novel "Like Disdain for Chocolate", almost certainly outlined within an inch of its life.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:05 AM on June 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


FWIW, I've seen Kimball praise many cookbooks so I don't think he cares how people cook from other people's recipes. For yet another MeFi analogy, he's annoyed when people complain about his recipes when they don't RTFA.

I love reading ATK/CI recipes even if I never plan on making the dish because there's always some tidbit I can apply in other dishes I make, even if I don't know it yet. (For instance, this is how I learned not to crowd the pan when you sauté.) That said, I think actually cooking with Kimball sounds like a joyless experience.

have you ever looked at the comments on a recipe at a big-brand name cooking site?

I didn't see this posted yet: All the comments on every food blog.
posted by Room 641-A at 8:55 AM on June 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


I didn't see this posted yet: All the comments on every food blog.

That is perfect.
posted by rachaelfaith at 9:04 AM on June 29, 2015


I used to watch ATK just to watch the barely-concealed contempt his staff seemed to have of Kimball. The last 2 seasons haven't quite been the same, though. Their relationships look to me to have thawed, and the palpable contempt of vegetables is gone. I vividly remember Bridget Lancaster suggesting to a vegetarian questioner that they use proscuitto as a substitute for bacon in a recipe. That doesn't happen anymore.
posted by Ambient Echo at 9:22 AM on June 29, 2015


And OMG Eyebrows McGee, that is just perfect. OMG.
posted by Ambient Echo at 9:27 AM on June 29, 2015


Eyebrows:

ATK is a wonderfully informative, helpful cooking and food science show, but it's also a simmering Edward Albee play if you like subtext.

You have GOT to see Posh Nosh. (Short episodes. About 10 minutes each.)
posted by kristi at 12:19 PM on June 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


I always thought, watching the show, that Bridget sort of barely tolerated him, but that Julia was as likely as not to pin his hand to the cutting board with a well-sharpened chef's knife as soon as he got just too far out of line. Finally.

I used to subscribe to the paper magazine, and I now have an online subscription I faithfully renew every year, but I am always entirely irritated by it. Like this? Subscribe to these other three things! Buy a book! Buy another book! It's like the Columbia House of recipes. And then there are the emails. Dear Home Cook, they all start. Ugh. I really enjoy how thorough their process is, and how reproducible the recipes are, even as I always skip over his letters and the "save 56%" combined subscription offers.

But in one of those unrelated-but-related situations in life, my teenage niece here recently announced that she wants to learn C++ (in order to score a particular internship). She's learned a bit of basic programming over the years, but nothing particularly serious or difficult. She also likes to cook and bake, but she is notoriously bad at following instructions. She volunteered to bake a cake recently, and despite being told to follow a particular recipe, she decided just to scale up a recipe she'd used for cupcakes. Predictably, she ended up with two pancake-thin layers of cake. So she insisted that she be allowed to do it again, and promised this time she'd follow the recipe. Except where the recipe called for most of the wet ingredients to be blended with the dry, and then, in the next step, the addition of boiling water, she dumped the boiling water in with the eggs. And thus partly cooked them before they could bind with the flour. And she got two more pancakes. And indeed, just last night she made cupcakes for her younger sister to take with her to camp, closely following the recipe, except how she managed to omit the flour (which she only realized after she'd put two dozen runny, flat cups of batter in the oven).

I guess what I'm saying here is that if you can reliably follow a Cooks Illustrated recipe, maybe you could learn C++ and get a physics internship.
posted by fedward at 3:00 PM on June 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm intrigued by his comment about baking soda and gelatin.

How else can you use gelatin to good effect (other than in jellies and with meat as Kimball suggests)?

What other cooking uses are there for baking soda, outside of breads and baking?
posted by storybored at 6:07 PM on June 29, 2015


The comments on Chris Kimball are killing me. A couple weeks ago, I got an invite to a focus group at ATK to talk about how people engage with all of the ATK properties. While people had a lot of different comments about which shows they watched and which magazines they subscribed to and how they used the recipes, every. single. person. hated the letters from Chris.

Personally, my comment was that I use a recipe from Cook's Illustrated if I want the platonic ideal of whatever the recipe was. But when I'm trying to actually, you know, feed myself in a timely fashion that does not involve purchasing sixteen different chile peppers, I hit up Bittman and it works just fine.

(But real talk, y'all, you are doing yourselves a SERIOUS disservice if you do not make the Cook's Illustrated Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies and Chewy Brownies. The cookie recipe in particular is the most eldritch damn recipe I have ever used and involves stirring for 30 seconds and resting for 3 minutes three times but not four times and I swear to god the writer was about fifteen seconds away from specifying that you needed to use a birch spoon carved under a waxing crescent moon in midsummer but my GOD they are delicious.)
posted by athenasbanquet at 7:54 PM on June 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I love the letters from Chris. They're deranged in a particular way you seldom see in a mass market publication.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:56 PM on June 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Yes yes yes, I must second (and third and fourth) the recommendation from kristi to watch Posh Nosh - hilarious and brilliant send up of foodie TV.
posted by twsf at 10:22 PM on June 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


How else can you use gelatin to good effect

I thought he was talking about thickening sauces.

What other cooking uses are there for baking soda

It has come up recently in ATK stuff as a way to get better browning on meat in some instances.
posted by yerfatma at 6:50 AM on June 30, 2015


How else can you use gelatin to good effect (other than in jellies and with meat as Kimball suggests)?

What other cooking uses are there for baking soda, outside of breads and baking?


Gelatin filtration of stocks and other liquids. (E.g I once made a pineapple caramel by pan roasting pineapple with butter, making a stock in the pan, then straining and gel filtering. Three days later that became the liquid phase of the caramel.)

Baking soda is useful for fast-caramelizing onions.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:31 AM on June 30, 2015


Baking soda was used in making sweet potato fries. Their version boils the fries before frying, and baking soda is added to the water for that.
Gelatin I remember being used to replace the mouthfeel of slow cooking meat, which makes sense.
Re: Letters From Vermont - Mallory Ortberg 1 and Mallory Ortberg 2
posted by Ambient Echo at 8:42 AM on June 30, 2015


On looking at those links, there are at least 4 "Letters from Vermont" on The Toast. :)
posted by Ambient Echo at 8:44 AM on June 30, 2015


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