How many people does it take to make the perfect brownie? How long does it take to film a season of America’s Test Kitchen? Join us every week as we explore the Secrets of the Test Kitchen.
All the recipes that come from America’s Test Kitchen go through a 12-step process before they appear in our magazines or on television. The key: Every recipe has to be approved by both our editors and our volunteer home cooks (sign up here), who prepare our recipes in their own kitchens and provide feedback on what worked — and what didn’t.
Based on feedback from home cooks, recipes are remade and re-tested in our kitchen and then sent back out for testing. Often, the changes are minor, but sometimes feedback from the surveys can completely change a recipe.
Rarely recipes don’t make it out of the test kitchen because they don’t live up to the expectations of our home testers — and we mean rarely. Test Kitchen Director Erin McMurrer said that in her 11 years working at the Test Kitchen, there are only 10 Cook’s Illustrated recipes that haven’t met the Test Kitchen’s standards and were either never published or completely overhauled.
What happened? Here’s the scoop on a few.
Chicken Pot Pie
When Test Cook Andrea Geary was originally assigned the Chicken Pot Pie, it was designed to be a no-holds-barred, everything-from-scratch recipe: breaking down a whole chicken, creating your own stock, making your own gravy and baking up your own biscuit crust. The resulting recipe, with richly flavored sauce and tender chicken, was a huge hit among the test cooks.
The finished recipe was sent out to the volunteer home cooks who then tested the recipe themselves. The result? The home cooks loved the final product – but nearly half said they’d never make it again.
The problem? This from-scratch pot pie took too long – at least 3 hours from start to finish. As much as they loved the finished product, home cooks said they couldn’t foresee wanting to use three hours of their day – and multiple pots and pans – to make the recipe again.
So Andrea went back to the drawing board and cut down the total cooking time to one hour, by adding ingredients like mushrooms and tomato paste to increase the umami in the dish. The result: our well-loved Chicken Pot Pie with Savory Crumble Topping (recipe is free until Aug. 16).
When Test Cook Yvonne Ruperti first tried to develop a recipe for Butterscotch Pudding back in 2008, it was a hit with the test cooks. But once it went out to home cooks in the surveys, it didn’t rate well.
The problem? The recipe required a candy thermometer for making your own caramel, and most people did not have one at home. Despite continued attempts to retool it and make it easier, home cooks continually found it too difficult and the recipe was eventually abandoned.
Word about the Butterscotch Pudding recipe leaked from the Test Kitchen and it quickly became the stuff of Test Kitchen legend – fans had heard about this delicious, unpublished recipe and wanted to try it for themselves. This year, Test Cook Dan Souza was able to overhaul the technique to create a version that was easier for home cooks. The final recipe survived the home cook test and will be published in the January/February 2013 issue of Cook’s Illustrated magazine.
In 2007, Test Cook Dave Pazmiño was assigned a monumental task: a consistent, perfect old-fashioned fudge recipe that seemed to come right from a seaside fudge shop. After four months and 150 batches, amounting to 1,000 pounds of fudge, Dave finally arrived at the perfect old-fashioned fudge recipe.
The problem? Once the recipe was sent to home cooks to be tested, two problems quickly emerged: The recipe failed in a humid kitchen or when attempted with a cheap candy thermometer. The recipe wasn’t foolproof enough for the Test Kitchen’s standards.
Dave was back at square one when inspiration struck: leaveners. After running a few experiments with baking soda, he was finally able to create a no-fail fudge that could be produced without a candy thermometer. “My final recipe is utterly reliable and takes just 15 minutes to prepare,” he writes in Cook’s Illustrated. “It was worth the long, long wait in the test kitchen.” The result: The 15-Minute Fudge. You can also find the original, never published Old-Fashioned Fudge online (both recipes are free until Aug. 16).