Jump to content
  • Welcome to the eG Forums, a service of the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. The Society is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the culinary arts. These advertising-free forums are provided free of charge through donations from Society members. Anyone may read the forums, but to post you must create a free account.

Afterburner

"Cook's Illustrated"

Recommended Posts

Unbelievablely well said and to the point. Once in a long while I'll make a recipe and I'm disappointed.

There is one recipe for pear fragipane tart that is a keeper.

Usually I can get what I need from CI with a couple of minutes of browsing at the magazine stand. Like, what vegetable peeler is the best bargain.

The recipes have generally struck me as uninspired. Someone upthread suggested that the CI approach is all science and no art, but I think there's more to the problem than that.

It might be that the science part is done unscientifically. There's a lot of testing, but very little goes into designing the experiments to isolate variables and produce quality information. I'm grateful for this, because it would take teams of grad students years to get to the bottom of a single cake recipe if you were really thorough. And the result would feel like a trade journal, not a mag. But CI presumes thoroughness, and tone of authority, both of which seem unearned.

Then take into account the alleged lack of artistry (which I agree with), and the result is a lot of long articles outlining flawed procedures, a vision (and quality standards) that are often poorly articulated, excessively fussy recipes, and workmanlike (but uninspired) results. It feels to me like chefing-by-committee.

I love the general idea of CI. The execution keeps me from buying it.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I detest CI. Every year they send me that compendium cookbook, then send me 6 or 7 bills threatening to refer me to a collection agency, no matter that a) I never ordered the damned things, b) I called and emailed umpteen times to tell them so. This year I even had to call them from France, for crying out loud. They said "well, you ordered it" and when I said "hey, I'm in France and no way did I order it, not to mention that I totally cancelled my subscription over this same crap a couple of years ago" they had the gall to say that someone staying at my house in the US must have ordered it and should send it back.

And their recipes drive me mad. They try one version of a recipe, it's too salty, another's too sweet, another's too heavy, another's got 1/36 of a tsp too much baking powder, and only their special CI recipe is juuuuust riiiight. My ass. If a recipe is from CI I'd never even try it. I hate them that much.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Oh god, I had so much trouble with their subscription cancellations as well. They charged me for six months on a free trial subscription.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm with Chris upthread. I love CI recipes( I've rarely had a failure) and I usually look to the first( check my foodblog, I've cooked a lot from CI). I do HATE their customer service with a passion. I never received the last 3 issues of the magazine and made 100 million phone calls and I FINALLY got this months.

I also got a book I didnt order( sent it back) and then was blocked from ordering anything else until I got a supervisor on the phone and gave her wholly hell.

At my last job, I made dozens of their Blueberry Scones each day and people went beserk for them. Litterally lines out the door the day before Easter to get these scones. They're that good!!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I have never received an unwanted book or had any problem with my subscription to CI. In my experience their customer service has been great. I sometimes leave the US for years at a time, and they cope with that without blinking an eye. Via personal email.

Several of my most in-demand recipes are adaptations from CI. I can pull off these adaptations because, thanks to them, I understand the consequences of, say, too much acid or too little sugar. When they defer to the food science faculty at Cornell it totally cracks me up. But then, I am a scientist too. And I realize that that kind of approach is not for everyone.

As for the smarmy essays at the front.. well, I grew up in an eastern forest, and then moved to the LA sprawl. I have been out here in condo-world for 20 years. I like those essays the same way I like the photos of Kim Shook’s kitchen. They take me back, and remind me of a place a long way away, both in time and space, that I will probably never get back to. But which I loved very much.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm really interested in the very polarized responses to CI. I can definitely understand hating them if you have had bad customer service: I've never interacted with their service department, so without any personal experiences I can't really judge them on that. I do receive the Annual edition every year, as they explained when I ordered it the first time. I have never tried to cancel it, but if they didn't when I asked that would piss me off for sure.

I am really interested in people's differing experiences with the recipes: I have had primarily good luck, especially as compared to the vast majority of my other cookbooks. In addition, their in-depth explanation of how they arrived at the recipe helps me when I go to change it. Their pretension that they are "discovering the one true version" of a recipe doesn't bother me because I feel like every cookbook out there presents itself as though its recipes are perfect: at least CI tells you how they got there. Now, this is with the caveat that I basically never use any of their baked-goods recipes, so they could all be crap :smile: .

I'd be very interested to know which recipes have failed people, in an attempt to understand if my tastes just differ, or if we are simply trying different recipes. For example, I have had very good luck with their Thai Chile Beef (July 2005), their Orange Chicken (May 2005) and their Penne alla Vodka (November 2006). Are these on any of your "I hate that" lists?


Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I don't subscribe, but I watch America's Test Kitchen. I learned one trick about searing filet mignon in a very hot dry cast iron skillet, then popping it into the oven. It really works!

However, while I find the show entertaining for the most part, most all of their recipes are bland!

Two reasons for this methinks:

1) The show is creating recipes for the masses. The masses are what made McDonalds famous and rich. Those with gourmet tastebuds usually don't occur in "masses".

2) Everybody's feelings about "what tastes good" is different, i.e. why some people like steak medium rare and others well done.

doc

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I agree that the recipes are bland & sometimes downright bizarre. Making a "Bolognese" sauce with crumbled Wonder bread so you can do it in 30 minutes? Puh-leeze! Why bother?

However I still watch the show. It's entertaining & some of the equipment analyses are useful.


Edited by ghostrider (log)

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!

- Sydney Smith, English clergyman & essayist, 1771-1845

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I agree that the recipes are bland & sometimes downright bizarre.  Making a "Bolognese" sauce with crumbled Wonder bread so you can do it in 30 minutes?  Puh-leeze!  Why bother?

Because that's what you have time for. If you have more time, you go to the "classic Bolognese" recipe from January 1999, which doesn't contain anything "unorthodox." They have been publishing for over a decade and trying to stay within their audience's food comfort zone (i.e. limited Asian cuisine), so it does seem that they are running short on ideas sometimes. I agree that I wish they would branch out more, but trying to make a tasty pseudo-bolognese in 30 minutes doesn't seem that far-fetched to me.


Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I agree that the recipes are bland & sometimes downright bizarre.  Making a "Bolognese" sauce with crumbled Wonder bread so you can do it in 30 minutes?  Puh-leeze!  Why bother?

Because that's what you have time for. If you have more time, you go to the "classic Bolognese" recipe from January 1999, which doesn't contain anything "unorthodox." They have been publishing for over a decade and trying to stay within their audience's food comfort zone (i.e. limited Asian cuisine), so it does seem that they are running short on ideas sometimes. I agree that I wish they would branch out more, but trying to make a tasty pseudo-bolognese in 30 minutes doesn't seem that far-fetched to me.

I would either have to bake the plain crappy bread-like substance myself or check myself into a sanitorium after I realized what I'd just spent money on were I to actually buy wonder bread to make their sauce.

Either way a more traditional is much more attainable.

Who in their subscriber base has wonder bread (or another similar noxious substance) on hand?

I like CI. I didn't see that recipe, but I often skip right over some of the articles that I have no interest in. You can't fault them for trying to appeal to the demographics of their subscribers but Wonder Bread? Was it a special April 1st issue?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

My husband is fonder of CI than I am as he is interested in the science of things whereas I'm more interested in the recipes and CI doesn't have that many really interesting ones. That said, if I want to make something that I want to be sure will turn out, I will often turn to CI as no recipe has ever failed me. As far as magazines go, I prefer Cuisine at Home. It too, has no advertising but a more interesting range of recipes.

I had a problem once with getting CI's magazine - I think a shipment to Canada went astray and it is next to impossible to find someone to talk to. I was testing their recipes at the time and finally wrote to the person in charge of that - she didn't get back to me either. If it is customer service you are looking for, don't count on getting satisfaction from CI.

We subscribe to both the magazine and their web site as I like to be able to go on-line and print off a recipe rather than looking through their annual books (which we do get and enjoy) and having it on the counter while I cook. We have some of their The Perfect...."cookbooks but no longer get them as we found that most of the recipes are available in the annual books.

With regards to ATK, I can't stand how, at the beginning of each show, they show a dish in it's sorry state, whether purchased or made from some "other" recipe. I find that a trifle arrogant not to mention it makes me feel like they are assuming their audience are idiots.

And Cook's Country magazine? Is there a Paula Deen lurking in their somewhere?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I would either have to bake the plain crappy bread-like substance myself or check myself into a sanitorium after I realized what I'd just spent money on were I to actually buy wonder bread to make their sauce.

Either way a more traditional is much more attainable.

Who in their subscriber base has wonder bread (or another similar noxious substance) on hand? 

I like CI.  I didn't see that recipe, but I often skip right over some of the articles that I have no interest in.  You can't fault them for trying to appeal to the demographics of their subscribers but Wonder Bread?  Was it a special April 1st issue?

I don't recall them ever calling for bread in ANY of their bolognese recipes, much less Wonder Bread. I just double-checked, and no bread is listed in their weeknight bolognese (which uses dried porcini mushrooms to boost the flavor, hardly a noxious substance).

In the recipes that do call for bread, they specify quality white sandwich bread, preferably homemade, but if not like Pepperidge Farm. I cannot find where they have ever called for Wonder Bread or similar squishy stuff.

I can understand the hate for those who have experienced bad customer service. But the vitriol toward Chris' homespun soliloquies (which I find good for a laugh) and toward their quest for "perfection" I don't understand.

My cooking improved immeasurably thanks to CI. I now feel much more confident and while I do branch out to other authors for more sophisticated recipes, I still turn to CI for reference and grounding.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I admit, I find the structure of CIs articles and shows a little tiresome, but it doesn't stop me from subscribing or watching. As others have pointed out, how can every version of a dish suck so bad until CI comes around? I wish for once they'd admit, "We've rarely met a monkey bread we haven't liked, but what if we could develop a gooey, cinnamon-infused Sunday morning treat that tops them all?" That gets my attention more than harping on the awfulness of a recipe.

That said, I like the magazine a lot. I like that they don't accept advertising. I like that they put a recipe through the wringer, testing it dozens and dozens of times, something I'm not able to do as a freelance recipe developer -- what a luxury! Do I I always agree their results are the "best"? Taste is awfully hard to nail down; what they do well is breaking the recipe down into techniques that are usually spot on and something I adapt to my own cooking. From there, I'm free to improvise and develop the roadmap to my "best" taste.

I picked up the special CI that just came out (a fluffy white coconut cake on the cover?) and made the manicotti the other night. I followed the recipe exactly, which is something I rarely do. The idea of using presoaked no-boil lasagna to roll up the pasta was a cool idea. I made the components of the dish ahead of time, put it together on a Sunday afternoon, then baked for dinner on a Monday as the recipe said I could. While the dish turned out fine, it certainly wasn't the most spectacular manicotti I've ever had, and I know I'll never make that particular version again. (My son complained that it made the whole house smell like vomit, thanks to the browned cheese on top -- and I have to admit, he was right!) However, I will use that noodle idea with my mother's recipe for the ricotta filling and my grandmother's meat sauce recipe next time I've a hankering for manicotti.


Diana Burrell, freelance writer/author

The Renegade Writer's Query Letters That Rock (Marion Street Press, Nov. 2006)

DianaCooks.com

My eGullet blog

The Renegade Writer Blog

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm with Chris. I really like CI, and I've had a very high success rate with their recipes. I do quite a bit of entertaining and am always trying recipes from lots of different sources, and CI recipes consistently get the most raves. And contrary to what people are saying here, I do get a better result if I follow the directions exactly (and by exactly, I mean pull out the rulers/ get out the laser thermometer/ use their recommended brands). It maybe be a recipe I've tried a bunch of variations on before, but somehow the CI version pulls it together just so.

One thing that tends to happen is that I get inspired by a recipe in another publication, but when I try it, it's not perfect in technical ways. Like say, the cooking time is off, or the browning is subpar, or the technique is somewhat sloppy, or something like that. But the idea, the twist on flavors, or whatever is good. So I apply that to an existing CI recipe and figure out the techniques that worked for them (time, temp, order of operations), and then the end result is both technically perfect and creative (well, not my creativity, but borrowed from some other source).

I was browsing through my cookbooks from them (I buy The Best Recipe Series - the best solution I found for minimizing the repeats was to stick with one series, so I don't buy the ATK companion series, for example. There are still repeats, but in a way that makes sense, usually a more basic recipe that applies to a different categories/cuisines), and I think they do have flavor variations that are very up-to-date. You can definitely trace the progression from the original The Best Recipe through the more recent books. However, I think they are presented in a way that makes their food seem very uninspired. Basically, the main recipe is almost like the "blank slate" basic version, and the variations just look like a short afterthought. But that's where you see the progression of how they are adapting to changing tastes and trends. And some of those variations are really good! For me, I like that they always walk you through a "blank slate" version, because then I know what they considered necessary, and it makes it much easier to superimpose other flavor variations.

I don't like their attempts at Chinese cooking, but that's because I'm Chinese and it tastes inauthentic to me. My white husband loves it though; it's like the best version of Americanized Chinese. But I like their attempts at other cuisines, because in those cases I do have American taste buds.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I would either have to bake the plain crappy bread-like substance myself or check myself into a sanitorium after I realized what I'd just spent money on were I to actually buy wonder bread to make their sauce.

Either way a more traditional is much more attainable.

Who in their subscriber base has wonder bread (or another similar noxious substance) on hand? 

I like CI.  I didn't see that recipe, but I often skip right over some of the articles that I have no interest in.  You can't fault them for trying to appeal to the demographics of their subscribers but Wonder Bread?  Was it a special April 1st issue?

I don't recall them ever calling for bread in ANY of their bolognese recipes, much less Wonder Bread. I just double-checked, and no bread is listed in their weeknight bolognese (which uses dried porcini mushrooms to boost the flavor, hardly a noxious substance).

In the recipes that do call for bread, they specify quality white sandwich bread, preferably homemade, but if not like Pepperidge Farm. I cannot find where they have ever called for Wonder Bread or similar squishy stuff.

I can understand the hate for those who have experienced bad customer service. But the vitriol toward Chris' homespun soliloquies (which I find good for a laugh) and toward their quest for "perfection" I don't understand.

My cooking improved immeasurably thanks to CI. I now feel much more confident and while I do branch out to other authors for more sophisticated recipes, I still turn to CI for reference and grounding.

I subscribe to their website and I checked their bolognese sauces for bread, too. It's not to be found. Wonder bread was considered a "do not bother" product after their tasting of white sandwich bread.

Also, *I* have a loaf of Wonder bread in my cupboard at this. very. moment. My husband considers a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on squishy white bread with a glass of milk a childhood treat...so lets not assume who has what in their pantry based on what website they subscribe to. :smile:


Edited by petite tête de chou (log)
  • Like 1

Shelley: Would you like some pie?

Gordon: MASSIVE, MASSIVE QUANTITIES AND A GLASS OF WATER, SWEETHEART. MY SOCKS ARE ON FIRE.

Twin Peaks

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

A few years ago I ordered one of their cookbooks. My excuse is I was cooking and drinking a fair amount of wine when the telemarketer called. Remember I ordered ONE book. A copy of every subsequent cookbook was mailed to me. I could not find a human being to speak with to cancel. I even wrote Christopher Kimball; no response. I returned them all, but that did not stop the mailings. The only thing that got those darned books out of my life was Hurricane Katrina. It must have dawned on someone that mailing packages to New Orleans was not a winning proposition. Thank God they did not discover that I moved back to the same address six months latter.

Please, don't tell tem I'm home!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

My objections to CI are about the same as everyone else's, the tone, the silliness of trying ridiculous steps in the interest of being thorough. ("We wanted a crispy skin and it was imediately obvious that boiling was not a satisfactory method.")

My main objections are about the fact Chris comes off like a hypocrite. I've read he has more money than he knows what to do with, lives in a million dollar condo in Boston, and yet hokes it up like Farmer John in his editorials. Also, his claim to "accepting no advertising" may be true in that he won't accept it from anyone else, but each issue is loaded with eight full size pages and who knows how many inserts touting his cookbooks. I mutter to myself every time it comes and I have to rip those suckers out. And he wants me to pay for access to his web site?

In all the years I have subscribed to CI, I think I've only tried one recipe: a yellow cake which was a dismal failure, featuring a yellow rubber layer at the botoom. We have a trust issue.

Thanks to all who have posted their favorites, maybe it will inspire me to try more.


Ruth Dondanville aka "ruthcooks"

“Are you making a statement, or are you making dinner?” Mario Batali

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I don't recall them ever calling for bread in ANY of their bolognese recipes, much less Wonder Bread. I just double-checked, and no bread is listed in their weeknight bolognese (which uses dried porcini mushrooms to boost the flavor, hardly a noxious substance).

In the recipes that do call for bread, they specify quality white sandwich bread, preferably homemade, but if not like Pepperidge Farm. I cannot find where they have ever called for Wonder Bread or similar squishy stuff.

Sorry, the Wonder Bread reference was just me being a bit snide; I assumed that folks would realize that. The recipe in question actually did call for that "quality white sandwich bread." I don't really care if they're talking Pep Farm or Wonder; I still find either one a gross thing to put into a purported Bolognese sauce.

This particular bread-intensive recipe may not have been published but it was definitely televised, within the last 2 weeks here in Jersey. (I've no idea of the actual episode date since they rerun a lot of older ones late at night.)

IMHO a Bolognese sauce should be made properly or not at all. There are plenty of other delicious pasta sauces that can be prepared in 1/2 hour without adding white bread to them.

As noted, I am a fan of the show. This was one of the few episodes where I thought the featured recipe just went totally off track.


Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!

- Sydney Smith, English clergyman & essayist, 1771-1845

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

OK, I ranted about the cookbook issue. I have one rant left in me. Someone gave me an issue of CI titled "Fall Entertaining" or something like that. It had an article entitled " Great Gumbo". It should have been titled " Great Shrimp Soup". It actually said they could not make gumbo with okra or file because they were acquired tastes. Well, if you cannot acquire the taste eat shrimp bisque. It was so dumbed down.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I've experienced both the good and the bad things mentioned in this thread. First, the customer service comments are right on target. Order one book from them, and they just keep on coming. I called, mystified, and had a hard time getting it stopped.

But I didn't start cooking until my late 20s, and NOTHING comes naturally to me in the kitchen. So I enjoy the lengthy explanations and tips that are probably trite to the pros. Their one-skillet pot pie is one of my favorites, and I check the recipe every time to get the dough right.

My first attempt at Bolognese was the original "classic" version from the old Best Recipe, and it's very good. So when I got the new Best Recipe, I was dismayed by the new short version, but I did try it. It's quicker, but it's also more complicated, and nowhere near as good. Sometimes tinkering too much can ruin a thing.


Edited by Hombre (log)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I've experienced both the good and the bad things mentioned in this thread. First, the customer service comments are right on target. Order one book from them, and they just keep on coming. I called, mystified, and had a hard time getting it stopped.

It is a shame so many people seem to be having trouble getting the automated delivery of new volumes stopped. I knew that was they way their books worked when I bought one, so I wasn't surprised that every year I get a new one, but I haven't tried to cancel it. I think anger at their customer service department is completely justified: it's a tactic that book and CD clubs have been using for years. It's one thing to make everything a "subscription," but it's something else entirely to make it nigh-on impossible to cancel.

But, alas, recipes like their Beef Tacos from May 2002 are so good that I find it impossible to consider canceling my magazine subscription! Has anyone else tried these? As jsmeeker mentioned in my foodblog, one of the things they recommend is buying soft corn tortillas and frying them yourself. Total pain in the butt, but also makes the best taco shells I've ever had at home, hands down, no question.


Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I agree with you on the recipes, and I still subscribe, too. But when I want a book, I get it from Amazon or Costco. Their content is great for people who want to learn more about cooking.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

RE: cookbooks keep on coming

It is illegal for them to continue sending merchandise when you have told them to stop.

HERE IS THE POSTAL LAW

You can keep it. Quote that in an email to them and they WILL stop. It worked for me, but it took that extreme before they'd quit. :angry:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

My favorite Cook's Illustrated parody (perhaps because I lovingly crafted it many years ago):

Cook's Illustrated does Pop-Tarts

(Warning: it contains one potentially objectionable four-letter word.)

BTW, I've been a subscriber since the first issue. I echo the negative sentiments regarding the customer service and any/all statements taking Chris Kimball's editorials to task. That said, I have more dependable, usable recipes from CI than from any other source, hands-down. Off the top of my head, their Chicken Tikka Masala, their Pad Thai, and their take on No-Knead Bread all top my list.

--Josh

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×
×
  • Create New...