Cook's Illustrated magazine founder Christopher Kimball likes to recount an anecdote about one reader who wrote in to complain about a recipe for chicken breasts, only to finally disclose a substitution of shrimp for the chicken.
“So of course the recipe didn't work!” Kimball chuckles.
As the driving force behind the magazine's characteristic preciseness, Kimball would gladly expound at length upon the reasons why that shrimp substitution failed. From 1980, when it showed up on the racks in its original form as Cook's Magazine, and later in 1993 when it relaunched as Cook's Illustrated, this test kitchen empire has churned out precise yet approachable recipes, the kind that readers dub 'foolproof.'
Remember those high school science classes where you learned about the scientific method? These recipes are kind of like that―detailed and specific, but clear, and accessible enough that you could replicate your work if you choose. Cook's politely suggests using a ruler to measure the exact width of your steak frites, or counting seconds on a stopwatch until your bread for French toast is perfectly soaked. And then there are those secret ingredients (whoever thought of adding vodka to pie crust?) that would have never crossed your mind, but which Cook's discovers through testing and re-testing.
Cook's operates out of a onetime yoga studio in Brookline, now converted into kitchen and storage space, photo studios, and administrative offices. Emily Logan, Retail Sales and Marketing Manager for America's Test Kitchen, showed off the facilities to a small crowd of bloggers, journalists, and eager fans last week at a launch event for the new Cook’s Illustrated cookbook―a collection of 2,000 favorite recipes from the magazine's past 20 years.
“The library is the starting place for recipe development, and at 4,000 cookbooks, it's rumored to be the largest privately-owned cookbook library in North America.” Logan gestured with a wave to the pans, dishes, and folded linens in a dark corner opposite the bookshelves. “As the company grows, we're outgrowing our space a little,” she said, with a smile.
Past the prep room, the dish room, and the walk-in refrigerator is the test kitchen itself, a marvel of cherry wood and gleaming steel, a kitchen the size of a large apartment. This is where an army of full-time test cooks runs through each recipe an average of 65 times over the course of about six weeks, perfecting measurements and instructions to get the recipe up to Cook's exacting standards.
This kitchen will see 2,400 pounds of flour dusting its countertops and 240 pounds of garlic sizzling in its pans over the course of a year. And, after the cooking has finished, it takes 60 gallons of dish soap each year to clean it all up.
Every May, the test kitchen closes for about 2 weeks to film 26 episodes of America's Test Kitchen, the magazine's television incarnation. Those are long, busy days of cooking, smiling for the camera, and cooking some more. And what if the roast turns out burnt, or the puff pastry explodes? During filming, staff is working in real time in the prep kitchen next door, making “twins” of each dish just in case something doesn't turn out quite right.
In the prop room around the corner from the test kitchen are hundreds and hundreds of serving dishes, sorted by color, stacked nearly to the ceiling. There's also a full-size “take-home refrigerator,” stuffed full of the extra food produced daily in the test kitchen. Emailed invitations to help empty the fridge frequently circulate among the staff.
So what's in the take-home refrigerator now?
“Ham stock,” said Logan, with a grimace. “It's completely full of ham stock.”
Later, between bites of Spanish tortilla with chorizo, scallions, and garlic mayonnaise, Christopher Kimball appeared, wearing his ubiquitous bow tie― yellow plaid for this occasion―to explain what Cook's Illustrated is all about.
“I think there are bad ways of doing a recipe, and I think that's our job: to figure out all the bad ways and eliminate them,” said Kimball. “In this world of the web, someone needs to curate some of this information.”
And curate they shall. In addition to the new 20th anniversary cookbook, Cook’s recently launched a cooking school and a new website, called The Feed, which offers free recipes from the test kitchen. Several additional cookbooks are already slated for publication within the next few years, and, lest we forget, the magazine publishes six issues per year. It's clear that Brookline's kitchen never stops cooking.
Editor's Note: This is a special edition of Bites Nearby. The column will return next week with a restaurant review.