We Get Letters v.32: Cook’s Illustrated and Taste

Sweta writes in with a question about Cook’s Illustrated:

Kate,

I have been reading your blog for a long time and really fo enjoy all the information i get from it.

I was wondering about what you thought of Cook’s illustrated/America’s Test Kitchen… Just curious, I have mixed feelings about them. I somehow dont buy their scientific take on cooking, maybe i’m just cynical. when i really everything they write it always gives me the feeling like its dumb science, either they water down everything for it to be appealing to the public which annoys me. but i know so many people who eat it up. I keep wondering if I am missing something.

Would love to know what u think of them and what do u think of their recipes… the few I’ve tried havent convinced me of their expertise.

Thanks
Sweta

Thanks for the kind words Sweta. As you were probably able to surmise, I do have an opinion on Cook’s Illustrated.

For our friends who do not live in the United States, Cook’s Illustrated is a bimonthly American cooking magazine that works on the premise of extensive recipe testing and gives very thorough write ups of said recipes. I can recall reading a brownie recipe that went on for three pages. The recipe itself was only a column, but the preamble to the recipe went into intricate detail on how they tried different recipes using different ingredients and techniques, all with the intent of developing and publishing the ultimate recipe for making brownies. It’s an approach that has worked very well for them, and they were able to parlay their success into a second magazine called Cook’s Country.

As for my own opinion, I have to start by explaining my point of view on food magazines – I’m typically not a big fan, although I do enjoy several of them from time to time.

However, I used to be a big fan of the food magazines, and I used to have regular subscriptions to several of them , including Gourmet, Food & Wine, Saveur, as well as Cook’s Illustrated. Eventually, I let all of the subscriptions lapse. Some I let lapse when I realized they were writing less about food and more about status and lifestyle. Others simply stopped holding my interest.

Why did I let Cook’s Illustrated lapse? I outgrew it.

I outgrew Cook’s Illustrated for two reasons. Firstly, their choices of recipes were (and presumably still are) focused on foods that their audience would reasonably be already familiar. This isn’t a slight against their magazine, and indeed makes good market sense. It’s easier to sell a magazine that has good recipes for apple pie, meatloaf and mashed potatoes than one that focuses on malfatti, choucroute garnie, or even mole poblano. My own food preferences, while having a healthy respect for mainstream foods, often reaches beyond them. I realized that more often than not, I was looking beyond Cook’s Illustrated for my recipes.

Secondly, when I did attempt their recipes, I found that I was altering them to fit my own taste. Sometimes it would be something as innocuous as adding additional chocolate chips, or adding more spices to the dish. Other times, I would think that the recipe was deficient in one way or another in regard to cooking times or the resulting texture of the dish. Once this occurred for the third or fourth time, I realized that a magazine cannot scientifically justify taste. There is no ultimate brownie recipe, or one perfect way to cook a steak. Why? Because taste is subjective, and what works for one person will not always work for someone else.

So once I found myself altering their recipes to fit my own tastes, I found a flaw in the magazine’s implied tenet. What I once thought was a great magazine had turned into merely a pretty good one. It was then that I realized that I had out grown their magazine.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad magazine. I think if a person is just starting out in the kitchen, or reacquainting themselves with cooking, Cook’s Illustrated is a great place to start. They have many helpful hints, decent product reviews, and most of all, show a dedication and respect towards food that I often find missing in most magazines that fall under the Condé Nast Publications masthead. But that same respect that they work so hard to instill in their readers ended up being the same respect that moved me beyond their demographic. And I’m very curious to hear if anyone has had the same experience that I had.

For the record, the magazines that I currently find myself migrating to at the newsstands include The Art of Eating, Gastronomica, and Saveur. I read these, not because I’m looking for recipes. Rather, I’m looking for context, and these provide that aspect better than most others.

Thanks for the question Sweta, and if you, or anyone else has a question that they would like to ask, feel free to e-mail me at Kate AT accidentalhedonist DOT com.


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