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Back Of The House: The Life of a Cook's Illustrated Test Cook
There are two major camps of cooking theory. To some, cooking is an art form, dependent upon intuition and sensation. To others it's an equation —just as magical, but also methodical. So what happens when you combine the two?
On the surface, Daniel Souza's job as Senior Editor of Cook's Illustrated seems to fit squarely into the latter camp. The magazine is known for its precise approach to food —rating ingredients, breaking down cuisines, and testing recipes variable by variable. "Our kitchen is like a lab environment," Souza says of CI's Boston-area headquarters. "It's 2,500 sq. feet and there are 35 full-time test cooks. We don't have the precise tools of a lab, but it's much more controlled than a home kitchen. We start off using the same equipment — the same pots side by side, the same spatulas, and keep all the products the same. It's very helpful in the challenge of isolating variables." From there, Souza taps into his writing background to translate those equations into something a home cook can understand and replicate in the conditions of an average kitchen.
Souza first discovered his love of cooking while teaching English in Hungary, where he spent weekends cooking at a traditional restaurant in a town of 1,500. "For a wedding on the weekend, the father of the bride would drop off half a steer, and we'd break it down into goulash and other hearty country meals. That's where the food bug bit me," he says. Though he loved food, he convinced himself it was a pipe dream, and used his degree in rhetoric and communications to get a job in copywriting. He quickly realized that he was longing for the kitchen, so he quit and began working in restaurants, and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
While cooking in a professional kitchen offered much in the way of creativity, Souza missed writing. His application process at CI involved cooking recipes before a panel of judges and writing a muffin recipe in their house style. "It's problem solving," he says. "It's about using modernist techniques in the test kitchen, and then figuring out what's realistic for someone cooking for their family on a Tuesday."
As Senior Editor, Souza oversees a lot of recipe testing. The process goes something like this: the test kitchen gathers five different recipes for a dish (let's say garlic mashed potatoes). Some may be fluffy; some chunky. Some may have the tang of buttermilk or sour cream; while others are more mellow in flavor. Some have dozens of ingredients, while others call for just a handful. After making them a few times, the kitchen crew decides what they like most about each, and cobble together a working recipe. (And yes, arguments do erupt.)
From there, each variable is isolated and tested. Potato types are tested with a range of different cooking methods, amounts and preparations of garlic are tweaked, and any other moving parts are examined. "It's a lot of testing because we try to isolate each variable," Souza says. "The fun thing is you just get to figure out what you really like, out of something you already like."
The lab environment doesn't stifle Souza's creativity —on the contrary, he finds his home cooking has become freer now that he can apply some techniques from the test kitchen. "It's no longer what my chef tells me, but what I know is true," he says. So what are his top tricks for home chefs?
Pay attention to visual cues, not times: A recipe may say browning onions takes ten minutes, but don't assume at ten minutes it's done. "What the recipe says doesn't matter as much as if those onions look brown."
Let your oil smoke: "Letting your oil come to where you just see some smoke makes a huge difference in how fast you sear something, and avoiding that grey band that can show up in meat. It might make your kitchen smokier, but the end result is worth it!"
Bloom spices in oil: "The important flavor compounds in most spices, and many herbs, are largely fat-soluble. Heating them in oil before adding water heightens their flavor (and the flavor of the oil) dramatically."
Measure using weight: You've heard this one, but it's important, especially when baking. "We ran a test with 18 test cooks, asking them to measure one cup of flour using the same standardized measuring cup, and found that the weight of their 'cups' varied by as much as 13 percent."
Think outside the baking soda box: "We use baking soda for more than just muffins and cakes. A pinch in a pot of polenta (starting with 1 1/2 cups dry polenta) cuts the cooking time in half. You get comparable time savings with dried beans as well. Baking soda causes pectin strands to break down, which weakens cell walls and speeds cooking."
Use the right tools: Souza has a slew of suggestions on great equipment for the home kitchen, from the Baking Steel by Stoughton Steel Company ("It has really upped my pizza game," he says, and Kenji agrees) to the Kuhn Rikon Original Swiss Peeler ("no other peeler comes close"). He also recommends a bench scraper to scrape up chopped ingredients instead of a knife, as the scraping will take a toll on your knife blade.
Souza also knows where to spend money and where to save. The Victorinox 3 1/4-inch Paring Knife runs about $5, and it "excels at paring apples and ginger, mincing garlic, and so many other small knife tasks," he says. That lets you save up for the Thermapen, which usually runs about $90, but Souza (and Kenji) says is worth every penny. "It gives near-instant temperature readout, has a nice long probe to keep your hand away from the grill or oven, and it lasts for years."
Be a savvy recipe reader: The influx of crowd-sourced recipe websites certainly means more options, but those recipes may not have been tested under great conditions. "If you're using something from a massive recipe archive, remember to take it with a grain of salt, and use it as a jumping off point." (I hope that pun was intended.)
But what about that intuition that makes cooking feel so special? What about your Italian grandma, who never needed a recipe or scientifically-tested tips for lasagna so good it made you weep? Souza believes that's still important, but the way we're cooking is changing. "Years ago, your average housewife or cook knew maybe 50 dishes, but they knew how to make them well. Now, with access to so many cookbooks and cuisines, people don't want to cook the same 50 dishes. People want to make curry tonight, ceviche tomorrow night, and something else the next." In other words: lasagna may be in Nona's blood, but few people have an expert aptitude for every cuisine.
That's where a good recipe comes in: "You may need the recipe to get started on things. It's a guide but it's also a teaching tool," he says. It can also confirm something you've known works all along —like salting your boiling water or resting your meat —and explain just how that works. A good recipe isn't just an equation —it shows you how to connect with your food. "When we write up the recipes, we're telling them from a human perspective," he says. "It's pretty empowering to feel like you can show someone how to be a better cook."