The Food Lab's Reading List, Day 8: Cook's Illustrated's The New Best Recipe

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

When a friend of mine forwarded me a job listing under the heading "Test Cook" in the summer of 2006, I wasn't aware that I was about to embark upon the most important part of my career. In fact, I wasn't even aware of what the company doing the hiring really was. Cook's Illustrated? I'd seen the thin, starkly designed magazines with the hand-drawn covers in the checkout lane at the supermarket, perhaps, but I'd never leafed through an issue, and certainly had no idea that they had a popular show—America's Test Kitchen—on public television.

This may seem surprising, but considering that nearly all my time since the first episode of ATK (as it's called within the company) aired was occupied either with pulling all-nighters at the architecture studio or working double shifts six to seven days a week at restaurants, watching a public-television cooking show or reading a magazine was not high on my priority list.

Still, I was getting a little stir-crazy (no pun intended) with life in the back of the house. It wasn't so much the lack of free time; it wasn't the physical and mental suffering; it wasn't even the nonexistent social and family life that was bugging me. It was more the culture of oui. The idea that no matter what you were asked to do, no matter how you were told to cook something, the answer was Oui, chef—"Yes, Chef"—and you did it that way, no questions asked. For someone who grew up being taught that everything should be questioned, this approach became increasingly frustrating. It was right about the time I was told by a fellow cook "There are such things as stupid questions" that I realized a change was necessary if I was going to find the answers I sought.

It was pure serendipity that that job listing came when it did. Intrigued by the description, I picked up a few copies of Cook's Illustrated and headed to the bookstore to have a thumb through The New Best Recipe, Cook's Illustrated's flagship book, which contains over a thousand meticulously tested recipes from the magazine and TV show. I ended up sitting on the floor of the Barnes & Noble in Harvard Square for over four hours, engrossed in its pages. Despite the fact that it was out of my meager line cook's budget, I added to my credit card debt and walked home with it that afternoon.

It was unlike any recipe book I'd ever seen. There were recipes, sure, but in between those recipes were absorbing stories filled with scientific experiments (moist air transfers heat more efficiently than dry air in a barbecued brisket!). There were failed attempts at recipes, with detailed notes on what went wrong and why (no, you can't just toss the cheese and milk together with the pasta if you don't want your macaroni and cheese to turn out greasy). There were blind product tastings that upended some deeply held beliefs I'd had (true vanilla extract is not always better than—or even discernible from—its cheaper artificial cousin!).

This was the job I'd been waiting for, and I immediately started on the lengthy application process, which turned out to be a microcosm of the entire Cook's Illustrated ethos. The bulk of the application took the form of a recipe and article, written in the style of Cook's Illustrated. My task was to come up with a recipe for cranberry nut muffins. Simple, right?

Well, hang on. First off, there are the basic problems inherent in every muffin: testing the ratio of flour, fat, water, eggs, and leavening to strike that balance between moist, tender, and hearty. Maximizing efficiency (since nobody wants to dirty multiple bowls before breakfast) while maintaining good results. Testing various oven temperatures and pan placements, et cetera, et cetera. I went through a few dozen batches of muffins in all before I even got around to adding the cranberries and walnuts. That's where the real problems kicked in.

Add your cranberries whole, and they all end up floating to the top of the muffin, leaving you with a delightfully cranberry-filled muffin top and plain muffin underneath. Chop them first, and they end up staining the muffins red and wreaking havoc on the internal pH, which in turn changes how baking powder and baking soda react, leading to over-risen or collapsed muffins. Dried cranberries lack cranberry flavor, while cranberry sauce gives you the same pH problems. (Solution: Use frozen cranberries, and toss them in a bit of flour before adding.)

To address flavor issues, I dived into my copy of On Food and Cooking, which contains a breakdown of all the chemicals that give cranberries their distinct aroma, and cross-referenced them with various other spices and ingredients to see what I could add to complement and boost those flavors. (Solution: A touch of orange juice concentrate and an indiscernible dash of cinnamon make the cranberries taste more like cranberries.)

This kind of research, testing, and detail is just a fraction of what goes into each of the recipes published in Cook's Illustrated and collected in The New Best Recipe. Add to this panels of in-house tasters who offer feedback each step of the way, weekly editorial meetings in which problems with each recipe are discussed by dozens of cooks and editors, a multistep editorial process in which every test and conclusion is called into question, and several more weeks of testing, and you begin to get an idea of the amount of work involved in producing a volume with over 1,000 such recipes.

Once the recipe is written, there's even more testing. Each recipe is sent out to a panel of 2,000 home cooks, a couple hundred of whom end up cooking the recipe and reporting back with notes on the process. The most important part of this survey is the "make again" rate—that is, the number of home cooks who enjoyed the recipe enough to want to make it again, and perhaps put it into their regular rotation. Unless this rate is 80% or higher, the recipe gets reworked or scrapped. In my several years as a test cook and editor at Cook's Illustrated, I had more than one recipe chucked in the recycling bin. A from-scratch cassoulet recipe that was too difficult ("Who has time to confit their own duck or make their own Toulouse sausage?"). An Italian torta di ricotta was too esoteric ("I prefer my Philadelphia cream cheese cake"). And others.

I have no doubt that The New Best Recipe has a higher man-hour count than any other cookbook on the shelf, and that shows in its reliability and breadth.

Yes, there are some problems that may turn people off from the Cook's Illustrated Kool-Aid, or, as I call it, the Cook's Illustrated Sausage. Why sausage? Well, the biggest issue I've had with them over the years is that, despite their hundreds of different writers, editors, and contributors, no matter who develops a recipe or story, it all gets sent through the Cook's Illustrated editorial sausage grinder and comes out the other end tasting like Cook's Illustrated Sausage. Tone and personality are stripped away in favor of uniformity. For some people, this can be comforting. They have a no-nonsense, authoritative voice that is as unchanging from year to year as a McDonald's French fry.

For others, this can be, well, boring. I want my stories to have some personality. I want to get some emotional investment from my writers. I want to know their motivations for cooking and feel their frustrations along the way. I want my reading to be fun, not just informational.

Cook's Illustrated is also myopic in its worldview of food. It's a publication based out of New England and aimed at an audience that does its shopping in large chain supermarkets. The same policy that guarantees an 80% make-again rate for recipes also means that, almost by definition, the recipes are designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. As with the writing, it's hard to find fault in any of the recipes, but it's also hard to find any personality. There are unexpected elements in the process and techniques that are upturned, for sure, but as far as the finished dishes go, this is a book to turn to when you want to be reliably comforted, not challenged or surprised. (I'd strongly recommend against following any of the recipes outside of those from American and Western European traditions.)

That said, if you're tired of pancakes that fall flat, if you're sick of roast chicken that looks lovely on the outside but is dry and stringy inside, if you get paralyzed by choosing between the dozens of banana bread recipes a quick Google search turns up, if you've never made a meatloaf in your life and want to make sure it comes out right the very first time, The New Best Recipe (or any of the other, smaller titles from America's Test Kitchen) is an invaluable resource that you'll turn to again and again.

You can buy The New Best Recipe here.