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Afterburner

"Cook's Illustrated"

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As part of my efforts to edumacate myself, I got a subscription to Cook's Illustrated.

On the whole, I dig the magazine. I like their format, and they offer useful tips.

But...

Is it their standard approach to present every recipe as though they're cooking in a vacuum?

Like, for example: Latest issue has an article on Sourdough Bread. At one point, the article's author pointed out that you want neither overproofed nor underproofed dough. The author then claimed to have "discovered" two methods for checking proofing doneness: (A) when the dough has risen to twice it's size; and (B) poking the dough with a fingertip or knuckle and seeing how fast it springs back.

I mean, literally, she said something to the effect of "...but eventually I figured out a way to tell if the dough was properly proofed." and then followed that with the steps mentioned above.

I, in all my rank and utter cooking newbieness, managed to "figure out" these steps by reading a few cookbooks. The bread sections of The Joy of Cooking and How to Cook Everything both mention these two ways to see if your bread is proofed properly. So did Alton Brown's I'm Just Here For More Food. I'm assuming it's pretty common knowledge for anybody who bakes bread.

So what's with the pretense that it's a brand spankin' new discovery?

(This isn't the only example, just the first one I could think of.)


* AB drinks one of those "Guiness Pub Draught" beers, with the nitrogen cannister in the bottom of the can.

* AB wonders what Budweiser would taste like with one of those...

<AB> . o O (Like shit, still, I should think.)

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Cook's takes an extremely painstaking approach to each and every recipe, and tries not to make assumptions. In fact, they pretty much take nothing for granted.

There are many, many beliefs about cooking that have been passed down from generation to generation, from chef to chef, that just aren't true, but those beliefs persist. For example, many people believe that the reason to sear a steak is to lock in the juices, but in a few paragraphs I've read of interviews with Harold McGee about his new book, he indicates that just isn't the case. I'm no expert on the subject, so I will not weigh in on either side. But if it weren't for those who are willing to explore the physics and chemistry behind various cooking techniques, we wouldn't have anywhere near the information about cooking that we have.

Cook's is simply taking a scientific approach to all of their cooking, and I can't recall ever reading where they've relied on another cookbook author for information, when they can test it and prove it themselves. Some people find this approach to be dry and boring; other's can't get enough of it. There are many cookbook authors who will test a given recipe multiple times before putting it into a cookbook, to make sure it works in a home kitchen, and to make sure the directions are clear. But at Cook's, if they use crackers in a meatloaf, it's because they've tried crackers, bread crumbs, and everything else they can think of, to make sure that crackers are the very best choice, and then they'll test maybe methods of mixing them in, or what happens with varying amounts of crackers. They will probably also have tested the meat and several other ingredients. By the time they're finished with a recipe, they've tried to think of everything, and find the very best method. And they rely on their own testing for that information, not on information from some other cookbook, which may or may not be accurate.

Personally, I love to read their accounts of testing recipes, but I don't know where they get the patience for it. But at least when I try one of their recipes, it's a solid recipe, and the accompanying article gives me information about what I would need to tweak to make it work in my own kitchen.

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In general I like Cook's Illustrated, but there are only so many ways you can put words together to express the same ideas over and over. The writing all seems to follow a mold. They picture themselves in the test kitchen, doing research, finding out how things work, what are they going to say, "I realized the bread was fully proofed when it looked like every bread baking book author said it would."?

It's just their schtick

The thing that really gets me is the reliance on sentences with the word "then" just stuck there. "The difference between regular Philly cream cheese and whipped Philly, then, makes the former ideal for cheesecakes and the latter not so ideal." Or whatever. You know that Chris Kimball or a Kimballclone is all over the copy with a red pencil in one hand and their style book in the other.

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Cook's takes an extremely painstaking approach to each and every recipe, and tries not to make assumptions.  In fact, they pretty much take nothing for granted.

....

I could not have said it nearly so well. Thank you. Yes, sometimes the writing style drives me nuts, and the editorials are just too hokey, but I learn a great deal about why I do what I do and how to do it another way.


Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason.” William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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what are they going to say, "I realized the bread was fully proofed when it looked like every bread baking book author said it would."?

Well, I was thinking something more along the lines of not presenting the situation as though they were the first ones to figure it out, e.g. "It has long been common knowledge in baking that the way to know if your dough is properly proofed is when it has doubled in size, and when indentations placed in the dough don't disappear. We tested this wisdom ourselves in the test kitchen, and...." yadda yadda yadda.

It's not the dry, scientific approach to the recipes that I mind. (In fact, quite the opposite. I dig that format.) And, as mentioned, I really enjoy the magazine as a whole, and am eager to try making the sourdough bread mentioned above. It's just that, occasionally, I'll run across something like the "new discovery" mentioned above and I'll have a dubious.gif moment.


* AB drinks one of those "Guiness Pub Draught" beers, with the nitrogen cannister in the bottom of the can.

* AB wonders what Budweiser would taste like with one of those...

<AB> . o O (Like shit, still, I should think.)

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I subscribe to the mag, because I am a serial subscriber to food magazines in general. I am not crazy about it, however.

Cooking is art as well as science, and I think they put too much emphasis on the latter, to the detriment of the former.

Sort of like trying to reduce sex down to the science involved - I mean, where's the fun in that?

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I find it quite amusing how they feel compelled to trash every recipe out there first before they can bring out their own creation. It often goes something like..."We painstakingly collected 1028 lemon meringue pie recipes, from right off the box of the Kraft CoolWhip container to the latest Jacques Hermee-cousteau collection. Each and every one was found to be wanting. 278 was found to be too lemony. 359 was not lemony enough. Tasters found the filling of most pies to by "gummy" and "unedifying". A whopping 821 recipes had inadequate MtLC (Meringue to Lemony Custard) ratio. 37 were too flabby. 1 was too French. Work, work, work (sigh!). As usual, we have to do everything ourselves..."

I think they take themselves a little bit too seriously. Maybe it's to compensate for the fact that deep down, they know that people made meat loaf and lasagna and every sort of pie perfectly well before their tinkerings. Still, I'm glad they're out there, making hundreds of portions of each recipe, doggedly testing, retesting and re-retesting.

Personally, it's rare that I cook a "Cooks" recipe from start to finish. They are usually too painstaking and I don't think the results are worth it. All those microtests comparing what adding a little of this and taking away a little of that results in recipes with a bajillion steps, many of them unnecessary. The food is good, but very "cookie cutter", if you know what I mean. I second whoever said that they treat cooking too much as science and not enough as art. All those iterative tests to come up with the "best" version agreeable to the maximum percentage of testers polishes the character right off many recipes.

Having said that, I think everytime I sit down and read a "cook's" recipe I pick up interesting information that makes me a better cook. From techniques like brining to the definitive lowdown on whether it is necessary to flour after you butter you pan. Thanks, Mr. Kimball.

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Ive tried a few recipes from CI, and most of them were not terribly impressive. But there is still plenty of stuff like tips and product testing to keep me interested. Sure CI can be pretentious, but that seems to be pretty common in the culinary world. Very rarely do you see someone publish a recipe and say 'Well, its okay, I guess, nothing special.'


"If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced" - Vincent Van Gogh
 

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I like CI and have subscribed for several years. But I don’t cook their recipes very much anymore. They have great ideas on technique, but overall I am bored with most of their recipes. The food is just too plain vanilla... too… yankee.

Their “Best Ever” approach to recipe writing is interesting. While I find that the recipes always yield a good version of the dish, it is not often the most interesting. Some would also question the authenticity, etc… but that’s not my biggest concern with any food or recipe.

There was a time, however, when I used to cook a lot of their stuff and I was always happy with the result. I have a great deal of respect for the effort they put in to make sure they get it right. Even now, although I favor many other recipe sources, if I need to make a dish I’ve never made before and I only have one crack at it, I often reach for their version. Why?

Because, with very rare exception, their recipes work.

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Cook's uses the pschologial premise that there is a better way to do something and I will show you that way. In fact it is a marketing ploy just like the marketing ploy that Rosengarten uses when he tells you that for paying him money, he will tell yout what to purchase by doing the same research you could do for free.

Cook's actually has no idea about beef and pork standards and don't ever consider whether one is using select or prime beef, adulterated pork or natural pork. One of the last issues concerned why the pork wouldn't brown. Probably because they were using adulterated pork. I glance at the issues in our library and am continually amazed by the juvenile nature of the publication.

Glad someone else views this mag as I do. -Dick

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"I think they take themselves a little bit too seriously."

"The food is just too plain vanilla... too… yankee."

This is how I feel too. I subscribed to the magazine for awhile, and I have a couple of the Cook's Illustrated cookbooks - they're good reference-type books. But eventually their approach to recipes really started to bother me. I remember reading an article about some dish - can't remember exactly what it was - that was one of my grandma's signature dishes. The tone of the article was basically "We did all this testing and this is the number-one way to make it." But I think since taste is subjective, that can't be true. For me, macaroni and cheese (for example) doesn't taste "right" unless I make it the way my grandma made it, which is not the way Cook's Illustrated makes it. It's hard for me to articulate but the tone of "this is the ONLY recipe you should EVER use for this" gets on my nerves. I understand that the test cooks made 20,000 batches of macaroni and cheese using 12 different types of cheese, 14 types of breadcrumbs, 8 types of macaroni etc. etc. But that still doesn't mean that the recipe that tasted best to them will taste best to me. Plus, part of the joy of cooking for me is taking an "old favorite" recipe and tinkering with it. The tone of CI seems to discourage tinkering. Maybe I dislike it because I have a general problem with authority (thanks, hippie parents!). :biggrin:

Plus, I do think most of the recipes are way too white-bread for me. We eat some kind of "ethnic" food 90 percent of the time and the recipes in CI just weren't diverse enough. I do think the methodical testing CI does is good but the magazine and recipes just seem kind of joyless, and I cook for fun. Just my $.02.


Edited by designchick88 (log)

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I just stumbled over this thread and want to echo the previous sentiments. Although I've subscribed for several years, I'm considering dropping my subscription. The precious, pretentious tone, and the recipes that are less-than-awe-inspiring, are wearing out my patience. And their new effort sounds abominable - they call it country food, but what they've been hyping sounds like interstate exit chain diner food to me.

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I'm of mixed opinion. I agree with a lot of the negative comments I've read here. But I learn so much from reading the descriptions of what they tried, and what did and didn't work. I don't make many of their recipes, but I always learn something. The mental gymnastics they go through for choosing and ruling out ingredients and cooking techniques, has been extremely informative for me.

I did take issue with a measuring cup review they did in this last issue. They downgraded the Oxo measuring cup, which is one of my favorites. One reason is because they don't see the merit in having measuring lines you can look down and see; I seem to remember a comment about it not taking much effort to bend down and look at the glass measure from the side. I beg to differ. I have problem eyes, and they don't like trying to reconcile the glare off the glass with (often) the glare off the liquid inside and the painted lines. And my back doesn't like bending over to get my head down to counter level. Additionally--and this was the most problematic for me--one of their criteria was how well each one worked for measuring honey. The only thing I would ever measure honey in is that (oh man, what is it called???) self-cleaning thing that consists of an upside-down cylinder with a clear sleeve over it. Same principle as a syringe. A lot of people use it for measuring shortening and peanut butter, and it's a natural for honey. I wouldn't dream of putting honey into a glass measure, unless I were cooking in someone else's kitchen and my preferred gadet wasn't available. I thought they really missed the boat on this one, and by the end of the article, I wondered what planet they've been living on.

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If it helps anyone make their decision about whether or not to continue a subscription, I would like to point out that they now have the three most recent season's content of 'America's Test Kitchen' available for free (with registration) online.

As far as I knew in the past you had to pay for most of this content.

Since I'm not a subscriber, I'm unsure of how their print content corresponds to the TV series though.

click here for 'America's Test Kitchen' site.


...I thought I had an appetite for destruction but all I wanted was a club sandwich.

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As far as I knew in the past you had to pay for most of this [web] content.

Which is one of the main reasons why I didn't start a subscription with them. They want me to buy a subscription and then turn around and pay for online access to their corresponding website?

Think again, Bub.

Just take a look at Epicurious.com for the way it should be done right. The web site supplements both Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines. While it doesn't fully duplicate the magazine content, it does compliment it and the recipe access alone makes it a worthwhile site.

I'll pass on Cooking Illustrated, thank you.


“Peter: Oh my god, Brian, there's a message in my Alphabits. It says, 'Oooooo.'

Brian: Peter, those are Cheerios.”

– From Fox TV’s “Family Guy”

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Which is one of the main reasons why I didn't start a subscription with them.  They want me to buy a subscription and then turn around and pay for online access to their corresponding website? 

HUUUGE issue with me in my decision to not re-sub. I also have the fully bound annual editions from the first year to 2004, with index, so I'm set. I've written before in another thread about how the Editor's letter smacked to me of so much food porn.

One thing about their recipe testing and development is that they will use a miniscule amount of a particular ingredient if they think it helps the recipe. I haven't cooked enough recipes from the magazines and the one cookbook I own from the co. for it to be much of an inconvenience, but I imagine that might be annoying to some.

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I guess I am in the minority here but I like Cooks Illustrated. It appeals to the Popular Mechanics/nerdy side of me as a cook. I also find it to provide a good reference point for many dishes that I can adjust to my own preferences. I understand people's disdain for the "this is the best way bar none" attitude sometimes, but who says you have to agree? Plus I bet any of us would use the same methodology of trying many many different ingredients, processes, etc if we had the time, and I know there are some things they try that pique my interest as things I hadn't thought of. How many of us research things to death before they buy them. Alot I bet. Too much information is not a bad thing, so use the magazine for what it is.... another tool, not a Bible.

I disagree with some of the equipment reviews since many times they sacrifice functionality for price, but do you know of another source that reviews so many everyday kitchen items? (Personally I love the Oxo measuring cups)

I have only read one of Kimball's diatribes and decided to forever skip that portion of the magazine as it didn't appeal to me just as I skip over many sections of other food mags.

Their new magazine (country cooks I think?) should be tossed however. Even my non-foodie wife laughed when she saw a submitted recipe for iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing..I mean come on...this belongs in Taste of Home with all of the other people who collect thimbles and beanie babies and wear Christmas sweaters.


Get your bitch ass back in the kitchen and make me some pie!!!

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I am also of a mixed mind about CI. I have The Best Recipe and The New Best Recipe and have been quite pleased by the recipes. I have accepted that they have a set mind about how each dish should be, and as long as I agree along general lines, I've been happy. I agree most are for standard American fare.

However...I also take great issue with their tone and how they approach the initial recipe testing. They want to give the impression that they have tested every permutation of ingredient/method, but often they miss an obvious one. The best example I remember was the first time they "re-did" poundcake. The author claimed to have tested every method out there, but never mentioned the one where flour and butter are mixed first. This is the method that Rose L Berebaum had chosen for her poundcake recipe in The Cake Bible. The Cake Bible had been in print, I think, at least 2 years by then and reviewed by every food publication. Recently I have learned that this method is not new at all, but appears in the Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook (and I'm sure elsewhere) as the "double-quick" method, which works great, BYW. I'm passionate about food and cooking, but still an amateur. I feel that someone purporting to write a definitive poundcake recipe should have been acquainted with both these standard sources. If I can "catch" these omissions, I feel the self-proclaimed "experts" should too. And, like others have written, if their tone weren't so know-it-all, maybe these kind of mistakes wouldn't even be an issue.

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I also agree with many of the negative comments but still love the magazine overall. I realized early on that their tastings usually involve no more than 20-25 people, and sometimes just don't work for me. I recently noticed that they tend to put thyme into many recipes, they must have many lovers of thyme working on/tasting the recipes. However, a couple of my favorite recipes have come from CI, including their Carbonara (wonderful heart attack on a plate) and biscuits (light, fluffy, and buttery).

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I'm another who let my subscription lapse and haven't picked up another issue since.

There were two events that led to this:

1. I realized most of the time, when they tested recipes or ingredients, the most expensive ones came out on top. Well, duh. But if I'm going to spend $10 on seafood, it's not going to be on canned tuna, I'm going to go to the fresh fish counter and get the catch of the day.

2. In the same vein, when they decided that Beef Stroganoff was best made with filet mignon in a "silky" sauce. I had so many issues with this I don't know where to begin.

Basically, I realized that we were not on the same page culinarily, and it was best if we parted ways.

Marcia.


Don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted...he lived happily ever after. -- Willy Wonka

eGullet foodblog

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I love CI's anal-retentive approach to cooking and baking; it's a lot like mine. I do appreciate having someone else do the experimenting with different ingredients and techniques so that I don't waste my effort, money, and time unnecessarily. I do learn a lot from them, whether or not I use their recipe.

However, there are two things I don't like about CI. First, their cookbooks have proliferated to the extent that they have multiple "best" recipes for, say, brownies, each recipe differing from the others only very slightly. I can't help feeling that they change their old recipes just a little so that they can publish them as new recipes in each new publication.

The second thing I dislike is that sometimes they lose all perspective and prescribe the most excruciatingly painstaking technique for preparing what is, fundamentally, a simple food. For example, one issue of the CI magazine (I think it was the magazine) prescribed a ridiculously convoluted and messy and wasteful and counter-intuitive way to cut and form ice-cream sandwiches. I mean, these are just ice-cream sandwiches. Ice-cream sandwiches should not be this difficult. Get a grip!

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I read CI mainly for their discussions on cooking method rather than the recipes themselves. Even if I don't agree with the end results of their dishes I can often learn something by examing the process by which they got there.

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Rather than start a new thread, I'm tacking on to this one.

Has anyone had problems with CI's on-line subscription?

I signed up for the 14-day free trial, cancelled it on the last day (and got a confirmation of cancellation), then a few hours later got an e-mail saying my credit card had been charged for a full-membership. Sent an e-mail explaining the mix-up, no reply. Just checked my credit card (4 days after the first e-mail was sent), and it was indeed charged so I have another e-mail in, this time demanding a full refund.

I'm not impressed at all. Anyone else have problems, and can give me some advice on how to deal with them? I once heard that their subscriptions (online and paper) are managed by a completely different company, so problems often occur. Any truth to that?

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I enjoy Cook's Illustrated - both magazine and web site - I think because my basic nature is a nerd. I always liked math and science in school, and I actually think computer programming is fun!!

I subscribed to their web site for 1 year and I'm printing everything off that I'm interested in and then will cancel. Hah!

I also enjoy the researched recipes, they get me thinking about how recipes can be modified. For me, who is a hopeless direction-follower who has not got an ounce of artistry or creativity - this helps me see how recipes in cookbooks can be changed without fear of disaster in the kitchen.

I see people don't like their "tone" but to me it is similar to Consumer Reports. You are free to agree or disagree. But at least they get you thinking about the elements of what make up a dish and you can then decide on your own if you like their result or not.

The equipment reviews are a favorite of mine because I am a gadget freak. But no way do I agree with a lot of their recommendations. Their knife reviews alone make me shudder.


*****

"Did you see what Julia Child did to that chicken?" ... Howard Borden on "Bob Newhart"

*****

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I love CI's anal-retentive approach to cooking and baking; it's a lot like mine. I do appreciate having someone else do the experimenting with different ingredients and techniques so that I don't waste my effort, money, and time unnecessarily. I do learn a lot from them, whether or not I use their recipe.

However, there are two things I don't like about CI. First, their cookbooks have proliferated to the extent that they have multiple "best" recipes for, say, brownies, each recipe differing from the others only very slightly. I can't help feeling that they change their old recipes just a little so that they can publish them as new recipes in each new publication.

The second thing I dislike is that sometimes they lose all perspective and prescribe the most excruciatingly painstaking technique for preparing what is, fundamentally, a simple food. For example, one issue of the CI magazine (I think it was the magazine) prescribed a ridiculously convoluted and messy and wasteful and counter-intuitive way to cut and form ice-cream sandwiches. I mean, these are just ice-cream sandwiches. Ice-cream sandwiches should not be this difficult. Get a grip!

Pretty well states my reason for dropping it.

Too much picky, picky for some things that a should be simple.

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