20 Years of Cook’s Illustrated

It’s the time of the semester in my Modern Europe class when I talk about Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. That’s mostly to shed light on Victorian expectations for an upper-middle-class woman like Mrs Beeton, but also because it’s an excuse to read a cookbook. When last I blogged about that 1861 classic, I prefaced the post:

I haven’t yet reached the point in the blogging life where I feel comfortable enough in my own narcissism to assume that anyone wants to read about my love of cooking or my desire to grow up and be Christopher Kimball, but until that day arrives…

September 20, 2013 = “that day.”

2007 issue of Cook's IllustratedJust for the sake of this self-indulgent post, I’m going to assume that anyone who reads this blog would naturally share my appreciation for what one of my fellow Christophers has been doing for years now, first with the magazine Cook’s Illustrated (which turned 20 this year — not counting an earlier incarnation in the 1980s) and then with the public TV program America’s Test Kitchen and its many spinoff cookbooks. To my mind Kimball et al. are the chief inheritors of Julia Child’s commitment to bring cuisine — and the culinary science and technical skills it requires — into the American kitchen. (Even though Kimball himself looks like the Platonic ideal of a Yankee patrician and is still a bit stiff on TV, he’s got a strong populist streak. For example, his disdain for pretentious, imported foods whose cost is not commensurate with their quality is a recurring theme in the show’s taste-testing segments.)

Or to put it more simply: only my mother has taught me more about cooking.

I own at least five cookbooks in the Cook’s/Test Kitchen line, but unfortunately, my subscription to Cook’s Illustrated itself has been intermittent at best — which is a shame, since each recipe is prefaced by 1-3 pages of history (how did 19th century Italian immigrants make Bolognese sauce, you ask?), science (did you know that French onion soup needs a dose of acid — balsamic vinegar is the Cook’s preference? A more basic pH will turn the soup blue!), and culinary instruction (with helpful illustrations). And the commitment to testing recipes in the kitchen (often dozens of time, tweaking variables until the chefs are satisfied) pays off: in something like 15-20 years of cooking out of Cook’s and the Test Kitchen books, the only failures I’ve experienced are in the realm of baking yeast breads. (For better or worse, I bake like my mother and probably a line of Nelsons before her, which means that I measure flour and knead dough differently than Kimball and his staff recommend. Quick breads are a different story — their banana bread is fantastic, even in the lower-fat version.) And while the recipes themselves are often American-European — or, increasingly, Asian — standards, they often have surprising ingredients: soy sauce in risotto? mushrooms in sloppy Joes? They work. (Both add depth of flavor — with the latter recipe, the mushrooms let you get away with using ground turkey instead of beef.)

One Kimball truism is that every cook should start by mastering a rather small rotation of dishes, and then experiment: “Most folks should start with just 25 or so recipes until they can make them from memory and make them well. Then expand from there.” So while I’ve made hundreds of Cook’s/ATK recipes over the years, I thought I’d restrain myself and just share five that I make regularly — in hopes that fellow fans will weigh in with their own favorites in the Comments section!

Bread Stuffing with Bacon, Apples, Sage, and Caramelized Onions

New Best Recipe cookbookThe New Best Recipe, p. 369

This is, hands down, my favorite Cook’s Illustrated recipe, though I only make it once a year: at Thanksgiving. (I think my making it eight years ago resolved any doubts that the Hanson family might have harbored about my marrying into it.) Apple and sage are wonderful autumnal ingredients, but the star of the show is the unbeatable combination of bacon and onions. Since you’re only doing it once a year, and then for a meal that’s already exploding normal conventions about caloric intake, don’t skimp on those two elements. Fry up the full pound of bacon recommended, then reserve three tablespoons of the rendered fat, and caramelize all 7 cups of thinly sliced onions. It’ll take twenty minutes on medium-high, with another five minutes on medium, and five more after you add the Granny Smiths. The turkey can blacken or stay frozen; the pie can be mushy… but if all you have on the table is this stuffing, it will be the best Thanksgiving meal anyone’s experienced.

Mexican Rice

The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, p. 178 (page numbers from the first edition)

Sticking with the carb-friendly theme but otherwise heading in a different direction… This is the Test Kitchen recipe that I make more often than any other, once a week when I’m rolling and the family’s not sick of ground turkey tacos. And my son would eat “orange rice” far more often than that if we’d let him. (His sister’s grown to like it, but only if I reserve some rice when it comes out of the oven — this is pilaf-style Mexican rice — before adding the half-cup of chopped cilantro that wilts while the rice cools.)

There are a few neat tricks in this recipe — e.g., you don’t use tomato sauce or juice, but add a puree tomatoes and onions (to 16 oz.) with an equal amount of chicken broth (for a total of 2 parts liquid to 1 part rice). But I think the two earliest steps are the keys: (1) rinse away a layer of starch from the rice (wire-mesh strainer) and let it drain thoroughly so that you aren’t adding water to the mix when you (2) toast the rice in vegetable oil for ten minutes. Toasting ingredients is a classic Test Kitchen trick, from grains like quinoa to the spices in chilis and curries to the garlic and pine nuts or almonds in pesto. It adds 5-10 minutes to recipes, but the investment of time pays off in flavor.

Pot Roast with Root Vegetables

The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, p. 408

It’s started to get chilly here in Minnesota, so I was thoroughly unsurprised the other day when my wife started asking if it’s “pot roast season.” While we also make a lot of Test Kitchen soups in fall and winter (the butternut squash soup in this cookbook is simple and delicious), their pot roast is an even better way to cook on a Sunday afternoon. Three keys here:

  1. We’re generally low-sodium eaters, but don’t be afraid to season your beef — and don’t neglect to brown it at high heat for the full ten minutes. As with onions, caramelizing is indispensable to flavor (and appearance, in this case). And be sure to dry off the roast before adding it to the pan: as with the rice above, excess water is the enemy of the high heat that is so central to many Test Kitchen successes.
  2. This is a carnivore’s delight, but make sure you don’t skimp on vegetables: first the chopped onion, carrot, and celery that start the base (with a bit of sugar caramelized at the end when you add garlic); then the carrots and red potatoes that cook in the liquid and make this a one-pot meal. (Though I still can’t stand parsnips and replace that pound with more of the other root veggies.)
  3. Most importantly, do not think that they mean anything less than the called-for “4 hours and 15 minutes of simmering time.” I know: that seems too long, and 300 degrees seems too cool. But trust the advice from the editors: “Four hours may seem like a ridiculous amount of time to cook a piece of meat, but we discovered that pot roast was actually better in every way when ‘overcooked.’ After cooking the pot roast for such a long time, nearly all the fat and connective tissue had dissolved, giving each bite a soft-silky texture and rich succulent flavor.”

I tend to use the boneless chuck-eye roast the recipe recommends, but the preceding two pages provide “Roasts 101: An Illustrated Buying Guide,” with ratings by cost and flavor. Chuck-eye has only two of four $’s for cost and three of four stars for flavor to chuck-eye. But while the taste testers found it “…very tender and juicy,” they also criticized this particular roast “for being overly fatty.” (Top round roast is the preferred alternative; it’s cheaper but actually got the same flavor rating — “This affordable roast has good flavor, texture, and juiciness” — and it’s what you’re most likely to find in a supermarket anyway. Remember that populist streak…)

Speaking of “overly fatty”… Much as I love Cook’s Illustrated and the original Family Cookbook (if you can afford only one cookbook, I’d still recommend that one), they’re not ideal for low-fat diets. Besides the pound of bacon disguised as stuffing, my Thanksgiving table includes a Cook’s Illustrated apple pie whose double crust includes a whopping twenty tablespoons of fat: eight of shortening, and twelve (!) of butter.

Fortunately, the green Healthy version of the Family Cookbook is pretty good in its own right. It does decrease the fat and salt wherever possible, but more, it emphasizes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and balanced eating. (And it has a kids’ section that’s pretty good: in addition to the turkey sloppy Joes mentioned above, we often make the chicken fingers — sometimes reverting to the full egg bath rather than just whites — and Test Kitchen version of spaghettios, with chicken-pesto mini-meatballs.) So I’ll close with two Healthy favorites:

Baja Grilled Fish Tacos

The America's Test Kitchen Healthy Family CookbookThe America’s Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook, pp. 372-73

We grill constantly in the summer, so I invested in the Test Kitchen grilling cookbook this past year (from the Cook’s Country show). But three of my favorite such recipes appeared first in the Healthy Family Cookbook: a chicken kebab that uses a garlic-rosemary buttermilk marinade; a roasted portobello mushroom burger with goat cheese; and then our favorite, the fish tacos.

You can do like my wife and omit the cilantro-lime mayo, but make sure not to skip the deceptively simple cole slaw (cabbage, scallions, cilantro, olive oil, cider vinegar, salt. Fin.) or question the grilling instructions:

Some foods… are particularly prone to sticking—fish and tofu for example—and can benefit from a cooking grate that’s been superheated. To do this, we use an inverted aluminum roasting pan as a cover for the cooking grate while it preheats. This allows the grate to reach nearly 900 degrees, incinerating any nasty gunk left from previous grilling, and leaving a superhot and superclean grate.

I cover the grate with heavy-duty aluminum foil instead, but in any event, I’ve made this at least a dozen times now and never had the fish (I save money and use tilapia instead of mahi-mahi) stick.

Stir-Fried Tofu and Bok Choy with Ginger Sauce

The America’s Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook, p. 339 (using ginger sauce recipe from p. 341; the sesame sauce is also good, though not as sticky-sweet as you often get in restaurants)

If I have one criticism of the earlier magazine and cookbooks, it’s that they’re so thoroughly dominated by American dishes of French, Italian, German, and English origin. But that started to change with the Family Cookbook and is even better in the Healthy version, which not only includes Latin American dishes (ah, quinoa… plus a nice Cuban chicken dish with brown rice) but an entire chapter of stir fry and curry recipes.

There’s a ton of combinations of proteins, vegetables, and sauces that you can try out. (This chapter singlehandedly convinced me that it’s possible to make a decent-tasting dish with tofu — get firm or extra-firm, drain for twenty minutes on paper towels, and toss in corn starch before cooking.) But there are a few basic principles at the heart of almost every recipe here:

  1. Once again, don’t be afraid of high heat.
  2. But that only works if you invest in prep time. Before you even turn on the gas, you should have all of your vegetables cut (and for heaven’s sakes, buy good knives and a sharpener!) and your sauce ready to go, because…
  3. You need to follow timing directions. Most vegetables will take no more than 1-4 minutes, but you need to be aware of the variations and paying attention to timing unless you want an unappealing mix of squishy-soft and rock-hard veggies.

Bon appetit!


3 thoughts on “20 Years of Cook’s Illustrated

  1. A fun blog, Chris! I, too have some favorites, but the current #1 is the Spicy Corn and Black Bean version of the Stuffed Bell Peppers (p 137 in the red Family cookbook)! They take some time to make, but are the very best stuffed peppers ever! I used an ear of fresh corn since it was in season, otherwise followed the recipe.

    I do have one criticism: recipes from the magazine don’t seem to make it into the cookbooks. Their carrot cake recipe in the January & February 1998 issue was by far the best ever, yet it doesn’t seem to show up in the books. I don’t have every book they’ve released so can’t swear to this, but I hold on to some of the old magazines just for this reason.

  2. Chris, I’m so glad that “that day” finally arrived, because I loved reading your thoughts on CK! Some of your favorite recipes we love too – I just don’t have the Light cookbook so haven’t tried the last 2. Elaine, I was so curious about the carrot cake you mentioned – and oddly it isn’t even on http://www.cooksillustrated.com underneath the recipes in the Jan/Feb 1998 issue! I’ve noticed that they do this sometimes when they have a newer version of the recipe – the old one gets pulled from the website. I will make a note to see if they have this at our biggest library next time I’m there – I really want to try the recipe now 🙂 I have two great carrot cake recipes already (family one, and King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking), which barely beat out the ATK Family Cookbook recipe in our minds, but now I want to check this one out. I can see from http://www.eatyourbooks.com that it has sour cream, which the Family Cookbook Carrot Cake recipe doesn’t have. Thanks for the tip!!!!!!

    1. Hi Sonya,
      I didn’t think anyone read my comments! How fun! If you cannot find the recipe I’ll be happy to copy it out for you. I have occasionally tried newer carrot cake recipes made by the Test Kitchen, but none measure up in my opinion. It’s the recipe I always use when I need to bring a cake for a pot luck or a party. It always gets rave reviews!

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