Cook’s Illustrated associate editor Andrew Janjigian has stood over Bunsen burners and stovetop burners. With experience as both a restaurant cook and a chemist, Andrew is one of the mad scientists behind Cook’s Illustrated’s foolproof recipes. This multitalented test cook can sometimes be found exercising his knowledge of bread baking or slicing up a Philly Cheesesteak, but he’s always craving a great slice of pizza. We sat down with Andrew to learn about his approach to recipe development.
We’ve heard you have a background in science. Does that contribute to your cooking, baking, and testing?
Absolutely. I spent five years as an organic chemist in biotech. During that time I got the scientific method down cold. Science is all about failure. Ninety-nine percent of the time an experiment does not work, but it, nevertheless, yields important information. I learned that failure is useful. Failure is success in a backwards way. I kind of joke that Cook’s Illustrated is the only job I could do because of my weird resumé. It’s the perfect job, but it’s also the only job.
Have you ever had a disaster in the kitchen?
Whenever I’m testing a recipe, there’s a phase when everything seems like a disaster. We take five recipes from the literature and just make them as written. The goal is to come up with five recipes that run the spectrum of possible ways of doing a particular dish. Most of the time they’re pretty terrible. We have a running joke around here that each five-recipe test is worse than the one before, but you still get a sense of what you hope for a recipe or what others might want. I’ve come to trust the process.
Have you ever had to test something you’d rather not eat?
No, I like just about anything, but there are at least a few things that I don’t really eat anymore since I did the testing. When you’re eating it day in and day out, you get so sick of it. You never want to see another version of it again. I haven’t eaten a quiche since I did my Deep-Dish Quiche a couple of years ago. I wasn’t a huge fan of quiche beforehand, and I actually liked the recipe, but I don’t eat it anymore.
I’ve had great success with your popular recipe for Thin-Crust Pizza. Can you tell me a little bit about what went into developing it?
I did a lot of development here. I probably made 500 pizzas in order to get that recipe where it’s at. But it also represents a lifetime of recipe development. Pizza is the first thing I ever learned how to cook. It’s the thing that got me interested in cooking when I was a kid. I was making and tweaking my recipe all my life, so when I got assigned that, I could pour anything I have ever done with pizza making and bread baking into it. I did a lot of work, but it was almost intuitive.
That wasn’t one of the things you got sick of eating, was it?
Not at all. I still use my own version of that recipe regularly. Every other week or so.
So, you’ve built your own wood-fired oven? That’s pretty awesome.
It’s great, though I don’t use it as much as I’d like, since it takes about 2 hours to come to temperature. We built it with the help of friends and neighbors over the course of six weekends. You make cob by mixing clay, sand, and water on a big tarp, stomping it with your bare feet until it gets the right consistency. The strangest moment in the process came when some foot fetishists favorited all of my cob-related Flickr photos. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.
“Meet the Kitchen” is a weekly series where we learn a bit more about the folks who work at America’s Test Kitchen. See the archived interviews here.