For anyone who has ever said "Recipes never turn out for me," let me introduce you to my leetle friend. No--let me introduce you to America's Test Kitchen, or what I fondly refer to as "ATK." The producers of the PBS show of the same name, and magazines Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country, plus 70 or so cookbooks, are my go-to source for recipes that work. They are less professorial than Harold McGee, dorkier than Alton Brown, and they have just published a new cookbook, The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook. This behemoth of a cookbook contains over 2,000 recipes--for everything from pad thai to pot roast and spring rolls to croissants.
The reason recipes from America's Test Kitchen work so well should be obvious from their name. They test recipes, test them some more, and then put them through another round of tests. On average, their recipes take six weeks and 65 tests to develop. I don't have exact figures on how much other cookbooks test their recipes, but based on my own experiences, it is a small fraction of this. My ATK cookbooks are shelved alongside Thomas Keller and David Chang, but are the ones with the most stained pages and broken spines. Part of this too is that their recipes are designed for the home cook, not just for coffee-table decoration.
The recipes in The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook. provide a good baseline if you've never cooked a dish before. Want to make a good sangria? They have a good basic recipe to start with. Need a recipe for rice pilaf that works? They have that too. In recipe headnotes, they share insights from their development process called "Why this recipe works." In these short paragraphs they explain things like why they chose Yukon Gold potatoes over other varieties for Potatoes Lyonnaise, how to prepare eggplant so it doesn't make your vegetable lasagna mushy, and why using vodka in their foolproof pie crust recipe ensures the flakiest crust.
Throughout the book are illustrations (get it, Cook's Illustrated) for how to break down a chicken, devein shrimp, or prepare artichoke hearts. You won't find glossy, styled photos of prepared dishes, but the thorough instructions will give you a crystal-clear picture in your mind of what the dish should look like. There are also valuable recipe shortcuts throughout. For the French onion soup, for example, you can either caramelize the onions in the oven for 2 1/2 hours, or use ATK's quicker version which microwaves the sliced onions before caramelizing them in a pan, cutting the cooking time in half.
One of the things America's Test Kitchen does so well on their TV program and in their magazines is test products and ingredients. This information is sorely missed in this cookbook. When you cook their French onion soup, the ingredient list just says "beef broth," which could easily result in your soup tasting sour or vegetal if you buy a lousy brand of broth at the store. That being said, they don't load up their ingredient lists with fussy-ass requirements about preferred brands either. The ingredient lists are pleasantly accessible for the average supermarket shopper. Even dishes like the Chicken Tikka Masala have a simple ingredient list you can probably fulfill at your local Safeway.
Many encyclopedic, reference-style cookbooks are often missing a number of must-have recipes for most American home cooks. The New Basics cookbook is frustratingly lacking at times. Same for The New York Times Cookbook. ATK won't let you down in the same way. In this latest cookbook, there is everything from pancakes to pastries and salad dressings and vegetable side dishes.
If you are a more accomplished cook, you won't find adventurous recipes like macarons or homemade pate in The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook, but you will find a solid-gold poundcake recipe with several variations and a great pork carnitas recipe. You'll also find grill recipes which include instructions for cooking on gas versus charcoal. And sidebars of "Test Kitchen Tips" like how to peel hard-boiled eggs (shock them in cold water), season a cast iron skillet, and chop onions without tears.
Jack Bishop, Managing Editor for America's Test Kitchen, will be in Seattle next week promoting The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook. You can meet him at a book signing event at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park on Wednesday, October 26 at 7 p.m.