From the desk of Christopher Kimball
Dear Home Cook,
Some things in life never change. One of them is Vermont stories about giving directions to flatlanders. One of my favorites is about the New Yorker who stopped at a local farm to inquire as to the way to East Barnard. The farmer gave him elaborate and detailed directions. The city slicker followed them carefully, and about a half-hour later he found himself back at the farm he had just left. A bit upset, he got out of his car and walked over to the farmer in order to give him a piece of his mind.
“Darn it!” he shouted, “I asked the way to East Barnard. I followed your directions exactly, and here I am, right back where I started.”
“That’s good,” said the farmer. “That’s good. I wanted to find out first if you were capable of following directions. Now I can tell you how to get to East Barnard.”
All of us at Cook’s Illustrated feel much like an old Vermont story—we don’t change much, but we don’t feel as if we should. Each and every day we go into the test kitchen and do the same thing we did last year, and the year before that. In fact, we have been doing exactly the same thing for 20 years now—trying to figure out how a recipe works and how to make it work better using a careful testing protocol influenced by the science of good cooking.
Now, however, after 20 years, we have finally decided to publish the first Cook’s Illustrated cookbook. Yes, we have published lots of books over the years, but this is the first time we have taken the 2,000 best recipes from Cook’s Illustrated and put them all in one place. It’s our very best work in one large volume—our favorite recipes and yours, indexed and presented for foolproof, one-stop cooking. This volume includes our greatest hits, from Foolproof Pie Dough (we add vodka for an easy-to-roll-out but flaky crust), to our best recipes based on brining and salting meats like Brined Thanksgiving Turkey (which launched a nationwide trend in 1993), Pan-Seared Thick-Cut Steaks (we warm salted steaks in a low oven to promote enzymatic activity before finishing them in a sauté pan), and Slow-Roasted Beef (we salt a roast a day in advance and then use low oven temperature to promote a tender, juicy result), to other classics like Poached Salmon Fillets (we steam the fish in a very shallow poaching liquid instead of simmering it in water, which robs it of flavor), Almost Hands-Free Risotto (we eliminated almost all of the stirring), Hard-Cooked Eggs (this simple method turns out perfect hard-cooked eggs every time), and the Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies (we brown the butter for better flavor). To get all of these recipes, plus nearly 2,000 more, order The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook today. You will receive a 30% discount off the $40 cover price and be among the very first to own this book.
Let’s turn the clock back to the spring of 1980, when I launched Cook’s Magazine, the predecessor to Cook’s Illustrated. My cooking teachers were unable to answer basic questions about why they scalded milk before making a béchamel, why they recommended whisking egg whites in a copper bowl (hey, this was a very long time ago!), or when to use baking soda instead of baking powder. I also noticed that many of the recipes being offered (Coulibiac of Salmon comes to mind) were hopelessly outdated. And the other food magazines of the era, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Cuisine, and Bon Appétit, were celebrating the dining, not the cooking. On top of that, I had nobody to turn to for advice when I wanted to purchase a mixer, an oven thermometer, or a can of chicken stock. Who was going to give me straight answers?
I finally realized that I was going to have to answer my own questions by starting a cooking magazine. In The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook, you will get the benefit of decades of testing and tasting. Here are three of my favorite discoveries: Instead of buying expensive balsamic vinegar, we gently simmer 1/3 cup of cheap balsamic with a tablespoon each of sugar and port to half of its original volume, and voilà, now you have the good stuff at a fraction of the price. Brining beans softens their skins (the sodium ions replace some of the harder calcium and magnesium ions in the skin) but leaves the inside of the beans firm, not mushy. Grated apple makes a terrific, all-natural thickener when you’re baking a fruit pie. And when I look back over the last 20 years, I also remember Skillet Apple Pie, a quick solution to a problematic dish; our Almost No-Knead Bread, which is baked in a covered Dutch oven for a crackling crust; and Easier French Fries, which we start in cold, not hot oil, and are cooked only once, not twice. All of these tips and tricks, plus more, are included in The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook. Get this practical, comprehensive resource today for 30% off the cover price.
Many of you know that I grew up in Vermont, although I am a flatlander by birth. I worked summers on a small mountain farm, learned to milk cows and pitch hay, shoveled my share of manure (both in the barn and in writing), and learned to cook under the watchful eye of Marie Briggs, the town baker who lived in a small, yellow farmhouse next to the town line. These experiences have given me the gift of independent thought, a trait crucial to the ongoing mission of Cook’s Illustrated. This reminds me, of course, of a story about the old-timer from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom who sat down one night to fill out his taxes. Now, like any thrifty farmer, he hardly found this a pleasant task, and staring him in the face at the head of a box in the top right-hand corner of the printed form were the words in bold type: DO NOT WRITE HERE.
Before going any further, the old gentleman took a firm grip on his pen and wrote in the box, in equally bold letters, I WRITE WHERE I GODDAMN PLEASE.
I guess that pretty much sums up how we go about recipe testing. If you tell us to scald the milk before making a béchamel, we’ll try it cold, right out of the refrigerator. (It works just fine.) Or if you tell us to use natural cocoa, we’ll test Dutch process. It’s not just that we are contrary (we are), it’s that we have spent too much time listening to culinary experts pontificate on the rules and regulations of cooking only to find that they hadn’t fully tested their propositions; they were simply passing on conventional wisdom.
Let me leave you with a last thought. We often talk about the “best” way of making a recipe, and many people argue that there is no such thing. Fair enough. But there are lots of wrong ways to cook a recipe, and we consider it our job to ferret out those mistakes before you do. Some cuts of beef are better in stews than others. Some pie pastry recipes are harder to roll out than others. Some cake pans are better designed than others. There is a lot to know about cooking, more than anyone can learn in a lifetime, and for the last 20 years, we have been eager to share our discoveries with you, our friends and readers. And now, finally, all of our discoveries are in one volume, a cookbook that you can turn to anytime you have a question about American home cooking. You can agree with us or not, but the odds are we have tested it and have an opinion. All of the recipes included in The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook are foolproof. Order our newest cookbook today for $28 (30% savings off the cover price of $40).
Now, you may not like change. You may prefer to follow your grandmother’s recipes or, perhaps, those from a dog-eared community cookbook published in the 1930s. You would be much like the Vermonter who was asked by the city visitor, “I imagine you’ve seen a lot of great changes in your lifetime.”
“Yes,” replied the old-timer, “sure have. And I’ve been against every damn one of ’em!”
So, please take our findings with an independent spirit; use what you like, and ignore what you don’t. You will find, however, that these pages are filled with two decades of first-hand testing, with the spirit of adventure and discovery, and with a heartfelt interest in making your cooking experience as foolproof and rewarding as possible. Recipes that you can count on, the first time and every time, is, indeed, a bold promise, but we stand by our work and we are all ears. If you have a better suggestion or a new technique, send it in. We’ll test it and let you know the results.
Founder and Editor