Jessica Gross | Longreads | June 2015 | 18 minutes (4,479 words)
In 1980, 29-year-old Christopher Kimball enrolled in a cooking class and was so frustrated by his instructors’ inability to answer his questions that he started his own cooking magazine. Cook’s Magazine, since reborn as Cook’s Illustrated, presents a small number of recipes refined through extraordinarily rigorous testing by the cooks in Kimball’s 2,500-square-foot kitchen lab. The bimonthly magazine—which features only black-and-white illustrations—eschews a focus on “lifestyle” in favor of treating cooking as a discipline and a craft. Over the years, Cook’s Illustrated has garnered a large and loyal readership—and spawned an empire, including a second magazine, Cook’s Country; many cookbooks; and two television shows. “America’s Test Kitchen,” the most popular cooking show on public television, is currently in its 15th season. We spoke by phone about what it takes to write a crystal-clear recipe, the Cook’s Illustrated business model, and Kimball’s not-quite success getting his own kids in the kitchen.
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I want to get into the nitty-gritty of writing recipes that are really easy for people to follow. In thinking about our conversation, I remembered that in middle school, I had to do a project called “Write It Do It.” You were given a structure and had to write out, step by step, how to put it together. Your partner got these instructions and then had to try to construct a replica, which you’d then compare with the original.
That’s great—I should do that with my test cooks.
Well, we did horribly—my partner and I came in second to last or something—which drove home how difficult it is to describe in words how to physically construct something specific. So, when you’re writing a recipe, how do you make crystal clear what the cook is supposed to be doing?
Yeah, that’s the essence of it—and it’s made even more difficult because every home cook’s kitchen is different. The cookware is different, the stovetop is different, the oven is different and they almost never use the right ingredients, or they substitute ingredients and leave ingredients out. So the variables beyond your control are substantial. In your case, if you have a set of Legos on a desk, you know exactly what the components are. In our case, they don’t have all the Legos. They substituted some other puzzle game for half the Legos and they aren’t going to actually build a whole building; they’ll leave out parts of it. And they won’t read your directions entirely. They’ll read parts of it but not fully. So it’s more like, “Write It, Kinda Do It.”
What that means is that all the specifics of what you do in your test kitchen aren’t necessarily replicable. For example, cooking times are useless. If you’re using an electric stovetop versus gas, or an All-Clad saucepan versus some crummy piece of Revere Ware, the times will be totally different. That’s why we give broad estimates, like four to eight minutes, or twenty to thirty minutes, and on top of that we always give visual clues: changes in color, changes in aroma, changes in texture. You have to give people redundant clues at every point about how to know when to go on to the next step. That’s probably one of the most important things you need to sort out.
The next thing you have to do is figure out which things will destroy the recipe. So if someone used all-purpose flour instead of cake flour, or natural process cocoa versus Dutch process, or a sirloin roast instead of a top round roast or vice versa—if one of those things is really going to make the recipe not work, you need to say that explicitly: “Only make this recipe with sirloin steak tips, and by the way, most sirloin steak tips are really not the right cut at the supermarket, and here’s what it’s supposed to look like.” So we go through a process of trying to blow up the recipe to figure out the most lethal mistake you can make.
And I think the last thing is—to get more to your point—just the clarity of writing, which means trying not to use too many adjectives: less is more. Be very clear and not overly descriptive. Include just as much information as you need.
Despite what you just said, do you have a favorite food adjective?
I don’t like any food adjectives that are superlative. I hate them all. Once in a while I find myself using “delicious” or something and I just get mad at myself. “Basil-flecked” just makes me want to kill somebody. I think the only adjectives that are useful are if you’re going to say a sugar syrup has to turn a particular color, you might define what that color is very clearly. But I don’t like adjectives that do not carry information, that carry only sensibility. I don’t find that useful. We’re not there to sell the recipe, we’re there to describe how to make it, and that’s a very different thing.
You mentioned that many people like to make substitutions when they’re cooking. What do you attribute that to?
I think it’s because people have so few creative outlets in life. If you go back a hundred years, when people lived in more isolated communities, they’d would sit around in Appalachia, say, and sing—or if they couldn’t sing, they’d pick up an instrument. People were freer to do a wide variety of things. People weren’t so vertically positioned. Now, if you’re not a musician, you can’t play music. So I think cooking is the last frontier where people think they can demonstrate some level of creativity, substituting ingredients, leaving ingredients out, changing the recipe, all of those things are put under the banner of being creative. And yet most of the time when you do that it doesn’t work out very well. And if you think about it, if you go back a hundred years, there was no great value put on creativity in the kitchen. You would make the recipe that your mother made or your uncle made, and you would make it the same way, and there was a great love of and comfort in repeating the recipe.
In this new America that’s so focused on the individual, people seem to think the individual has to create their own version of a recipe. And I think that’s just nonsense. If you have to adapt a recipe because you can’t get an ingredient, or once you get very good at a recipe you want to change it a little, fine, but we seem to be embarrassed to make a recipe the way someone else told us to make it because that doesn’t fit into our view of ourselves.
Take classical musicians: they’re perfectly happy to play Beethoven’s 5th the way it’s written. They’re not out there trying to improvise Beethoven. But if you get to rock and roll, which is more modern, everyone wants to stand up and do a jam band and play their own stuff. That’s the difference. The classical music is like the classical recipe—you play what’s on the sheet music, you cook what’s in the cookbook—and now everyone wants to be Jerry Garcia.
That’s incredibly interesting to me, that there are so few creative outlets because people are expected to only do the pursuits that they’re really good at now. But it seems to me a separate thing that it’s considered embarrassing to follow a recipe to the letter. What is that about?
Well, it’s as though cooking is a form of—and I hate this term—self-actualization, right? That’s what it is. If you are the creator and if you’ve just following somebody else’s recipe, you feel like you’re not really expressing yourself sufficiently, I guess.
Why has cooking come to take on this role as opposed to any other art?
Because what other way do people do art? Very few people play music, very few people do art, sculpture, painting. Very few people write poetry; people don’t keep journals like they used to.
You go back not too long ago, but after dinner—even in the south end of Boston, where I lived for years, the old houses had places for small pianos, uprights. There was a music room. And after dinner, people would play music. Someone in the family could sing, and someone else could play piano. You would perform. And there were kitchen dances in Vermont. People would bring a fiddle and something and play. There were lots of opportunities for the arts, crude though they may have been. But how can you do something creative today, really? The kitchen is the last place you can be really creative in the house, I think. Maybe gardening a little bit, but mostly cooking.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me the philosophy you’ve advanced through Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen” works against this creativity bent: there is a right, even perfect, way to make each dish. Doesn’t that, in a way, stifle the creative urge even further? What outlet are people supposed to use then?
It depends if you think cooking is an art or a craft. I think of cooking as akin to woodworking. There is a right way to use certain woodworking tools. You have to understand the grain of the wood, the tools, and joinery if you’re going to be in construction or make shoes or whatever it is.
Baking bread is a craft, it’s not an art. There are rules and things to know. Yeast behaves certain ways under certain conditions. You can’t make it up. They’re facts. So I would say cooking is a craft and so you have to learn the craft. It’s not a question of doing what you want to do. When you cook meat to different internal temperatures, the meat fibers contract along the diameter and the length and squeeze out liquid, and you end up with drier, tougher meat. You can’t get around that. You can mitigate it, but you can’t get around it. So to be a good cook, there’s a body of information that you need to have. At some point, with enough experience, you can start connecting the dots and yes, many chefs are very creative. But that’s their job, and they spend twelve hours a day doing it, seven days a week, for years. I am not against people playing around with recipes, but they should get to the point where they really understand the recipe first.
Going back to non-cooking creative outlets: do you practice other arts in your own time?
Oh, yeah, everybody who does something for a living wants to do something else. I know a lot of musicians who want to be cooks, and I want to be a musician, so occasionally I put together my own jam band. I play lead guitar and practice that a fair amount; I’m a Deadhead from way back. And I love photography and do that, too. But with photography and music, as with cooking, there’s a lot to know. You’re not going to get good at music if you ignore music theory and what scales are, what chords are. All the great rock and roll musicians practice their scales. It’s the same thing.
Speaking of photography, can you take me back to the inception of Cook’s Illustrated and how you decided that illustrations rather than photographs would accompany the recipes?
Well, the original Cook’s started in 1980, and we did have photographs then. It’s a long story, but I restarted the magazine in 1993 and I reconfigured it. I decided that I didn’t want to be all things to all people, and that I was interested in cooking more than food and eating. That is, I wasn’t interested in the lifestyle around it. We wanted to focus on the kitchen and on developing recipes, and we thought that in many cases an illustration could actually convey information more clearly than a photograph.
The second thing was that color photography, which we do not use in Cook’s except on the inside back cover, is detrimental to the expression of information. I always felt that it was not a magazine—it feels more like a monograph or something. Black and white tells you right at the beginning this is a serious magazine about cooking, not a lifestyle magazine. We’re not trying to sell you on something; we are there to explain something.
I’d like to talk about the publishing model of the magazine, which has no advertising and relies only on subscription costs. At this point, when there seems to be a rising catastrophe in the publishing world, your model seems especially prescient. But at the time that you decided not to have advertisers, this wasn’t happening yet. So can you walk me through that decision, and how you came to feel so strongly that editorial and marketing should be entirely separate?
Well, there are two parts to the decision. The first part is, when I planned the second relaunch of Cook’s, I was sick and tired of doing a magazine that really wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wasn’t interested in anything other than the kitchen. So I decided, look, I’m not getting any younger. I just want to do the magazine I want to do, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but at least I tried. So I was starting with what I would want to read, and created a publication that was very focused on a certain approach.
The first iteration of the magazine had had advertising, which completely changed the nature of the experience for me: it wasn’t solely the editor or the test cook talking to the reader, but also the advertiser. It completely ruined my experience. So from an editorial point of view, before you get into conflict of interest, it made it look different, feel different. It wasn’t a personal bond between the people creating the magazine and the people reading it—it completely destroyed that relationship.
Secondly, we’re a little bit like Consumer Reports. We do a lot of reviews, and there is no way I can have KitchenAid advertising in the magazine if I’m telling people to buy or not to buy KitchenAid. If you look at the other food magazines that do testings, they sort of talk about the features you should look at, but they don’t ever actually go out and say, “Look, we tested ten brands, and these three brands are a complete waste of money.” They can’t say that because they’d never get the advertiser back.
And the last thing is, someone said to me many years ago that it’s not how many recipes, it’s which recipes. And I believe that. It’s not a question of volume. We publish twelve or thirteen recipes every two months in Cook’s. I didn’t want a two hundred-page magazine with advertising, I wanted a thirty-two-page magazine that’s very focused. We’ll spend twelve or fifteen thousand dollars on creating a recipe. We’ll invest a lot of time and effort, and the advertising just blows the thing up. We’re Tiffany’s. We’re not 45th Street. We’ve done a lot of work to present just the recipes you want in just the way you want them, and the advertising is not consummate with that.
For all these magazines now flailing, trying to maintain their advertiser relationships, do you think this subscription-focused business model is a workable one? Or is it only useful for a very utilitarian type of publication like Cook’s?
First of all, print advertising obviously went into the toilet because of digital advertising. Digital advertising can be tracked for efficacy, whereas you can’t really track the success of a page of advertising in a magazine. But I do think that with certain kinds of advertising, like in fashion and bridal magazines, there is a case to be made that the experience of seeing a print ad is much more powerful than a half-second ad on a website. So I think we’ll get some balance—people will start to value magazine advertising again, especially in certain categories, as a really important part of what they do. But it will never be the way it was.
In terms of whether this advertising-free model works, I think it only works if you have editorial content that people can’t get somewhere else. The stuff in weekly news magazines or paparazzi magazines, you don’t need to get in a magazine. But in our case, given our test kitchen investment, our proposition isn’t just recipes, it’s a very particular set of recipes which are unique given the time and effort we put into them. Not everybody would agree, but our fans would say that they can’t get this somewhere else. If you make a cake and it comes out perfectly, and you have always had trouble with cakes, then you’re a believer, you know? With a political piece, say, that’s a harder case to make.
A New York Times Magazine profile of you from a few years ago reported that, in your test kitchen, “By far the most commonly occurring aha moments involve baking soda and gelatin.” Why are baking soda and gelatin so potent?
Baking soda has a lot of chemical properties, being alkaline, that go beyond its use in cakes and cookies. It’s a very powerful ingredient that can be used lots of different ways. And gelatin, it’s the same thing. Without cooking a particularly fatty piece of meat, you can thicken up a sauce, a gravy, with a little gelatin and get the same result. Umami ingredients—like tomato paste, or certain kinds of mushrooms like dry porcinis, or anchovies—will add a meaty flavor without meat. There are a bunch of tricks that you develop over time. But I think gelatin and baking soda certainly are in the top four or five.
What else is in the top four or five?
Certainly brining or salting. You can take a top round, which is a horrible cut of meat—it’s tough, it doesn’t have much fat, it kind of has a weird, livery taste—and salt it and let it sit for an hour or two at room temperature or overnight. Then, you slow roast it, and that’ll vastly improve the texture and the flavor. Slow roasting is very, very helpful for lots of cuts of meat. It develops flavor and things break down nicely, and cooks evenly.
I was told once that if you cook with olive oil on high heat, it breaks down into free radicals, which are really bad for you, and yet that’s exactly what’s advised in many recipes. Thoughts on this quandary?
The day I start worrying about olive oil breaking down into free radicals I think I’m just gonna hang it up. [Laughs] There are a lot of other things to worry about in your food supply than free radicals from olive oil. Italians have been cooking with olive oil for a long time, and I don’t think they’ve been dying off in unusually large numbers, so I’m not going worry about that.
What I would say is that if you heat an expensive olive oil, you’re going to lose a lot of volatiles, which is where the flavor is, so you’re going to waste your money. So the only thing I wouldn’t do is use a thirty-five dollar bottle of Columela and heat it up, because you’re not even going to be able to taste it.
It seems to me the dominant message of your recipes is that taste is the most important thing. But you don’t totally discount health either. Can you talk a little bit about that balance?
Well, this is pretty much a scam, if you think about it. What’s happened is we’ve reduced cooking or food to numbers—calories, grams of fat, cholesterol. It’s been used primarily as a method of selling people stuff, whether it’s anti-cholesterol drugs or low-fat foods in the supermarket. The exception would be looking at the ingredient label of an item in the supermarket, which is helpful. But at home, what do you need numbers for? If you want healthy, you know what to make. It’s not hard. You know perfectly well exactly what to make if you want to be healthy. If you make a chocolate mousse you know what’s in it because you just cooked it. Is it going to have calories? Yeah, it’s going have calories, but don’t be an idiot, don’t eat a whole bowl of it, don’t eat it every day. I think the adults who need supervision and nutrients and calorie counting and everything else, when it’s the food they’re cooking at home—unless you have a serious health issue of some kind, you don’t need me to tell you to have salad or don’t eat too much red meat or eat grains or vegetables. I think that whole calorie-counting, cholesterol-counting phenomenon is mostly a marketing gimmick.
The thing that’s missing so much of the time is the pleasure. Cooking should be a pleasure most of the time, and eating should be a pleasure, too. Why would you want to talk about eating in the context of whether it’s healthy for you or not? Julia Child didn’t sit around counting calories. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t worry about your health, but it’s not hard to figure it out. Michael Pollan’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” is pretty much a twelve-word summary of what to eat. That’s all you need.
Plus, the more you’re enjoying what you’re eating, the less compelled you are to just shove it down your throat.
That’s a good point and it’s very true. One reason the rich don’t get fat is because they’re eating very expensive, well prepared food at very expensive restaurants. You don’t need a large volume of well prepared food to be satisfied, because really well prepared food is very satisfying in small quantities. But badly prepared food, like fast food, just isn’t that satisfying, so you eat more of it. So the better the food is prepared, the less you need, because you feel satisfied after a few bites, not twenty.
Do you cook at home?
Yes, a lot.
What do you eat?
I’ve actually fallen in love with Yotam Ottolenghi’s stuff—Plenty, Plenty More, Jerusalem. I met him a couple years ago, and he is a really smart guy. He has really changed how I cook. The Middle East and the Mediterranean has a completely different approach to cooking than Europe. Northern Europe is about melding ingredients through heat to create complexity in a sort of uniform way, like a French sauce. The Mediterranean and the Middle East is about keeping your ingredients distinct and contrasting. So you would have sweet and salty and sour together. You might have persimmon seeds and you might have some crunchy celery and you might have lentils and some very strong cheese and caramelized onions. You have very strong ingredients that, even when the dish is finished, maintain their character. You’re not melding things together, which means by and large the recipes are a little simpler to put together and they’re more ingredient-based. Northern Europe only had thirteen spices. I think Turkey had eighty-eight. The flavors are bigger, which it gives you more variety, more tools to play with. The palette is bigger. And now that you can get the ingredients, which you couldn’t get twenty years ago, it just opens up the possibilities. So that’s where I’ve been doing a lot more of my cooking lately.
When you’re working on “America’s Test Kitchen,” are you ever not in the mood for the particular food you have to eat on the show at that time?
No. I really enjoy the food on the show, and you can tell. I mean, if I’m on my ninth tasting and I have to do fish sauce or lots of pasta or brownies—the sweet things actually are the worst—the combination of those things does get a little overwhelming. But usually we do six recipes a day and that’s fine. I don’t eat lunch and I don’t eat dinner those days, I just eat that food. So that’s fine, and I’m always looking forward to it.
How did you go about teaching your own kids to cook when they were growing up?
Well, you’re assuming I did that effectively. I mean, I was cooking all the time, and we would get them involved. There were things they wanted to cook—chocolate, marshmallows, dough of any kind—and we’d get them to help out. My second oldest daughter, Ashley, bakes pies for a living, sells them at farmer’s markets in Vermont. She is really a good cook. I would say my oldest daughter doesn’t cook much, my son doesn’t cook at all and my youngest daughter has some interest. So I wouldn’t say I was overly successful in that, but at least they grew up in a house where there was a lot of cooking going on.
I remember years ago, I made an old fashioned chocolate cake for one of my kids’ birthday parties. There were about ten kids there, and two or three didn’t know what it was. They had never had a homemade cake, ever. And they didn’t like it, because it wasn’t a box cake or Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake. They took a taste and put their fork down.
So where do you think the culture of cooking will evolve from here?
Well, food has obviously become entertainment at a very high level, and my guess is that the next generation is actually going to start cooking a lot more. And that’s what I’m particularly interested in. “Hell’s Kitchen” is great, because some percentage of the people who watch that show end up wanting to cook.
And if even a very small fraction do, that’s more people than would otherwise.
Yes. Two or three percent would be just fine.
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Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.