Why I Won’t Be Renewing My Subscription to Cooks Illustrated

0063859By Ezra Klein

Stop it. Seriously. Enough with the letters. I don’t want another “FINAL CHANCE” or “LAST OFFER.” You send one every week. I let my subscription lapse half a year ago. I’ve moved on and it’s time, Cook’s Illustrated, that you did too.

Look, I don’t want this to be weird. I don’t want to have to change my address or start divvying up our friends. I know you wouldn’t want it to end like that. So let’s just be honest. Some couples grow together. Some grow apart. We grew apart. I changed. And as I changed, you stopped giving me what I needed.

An example? Fine. But you’re not going to like it. Remember back in May, you tried to tell me how to make a quick tomato sauce? No, it’s not that the recipe wasn’t good. It was, you know, fine. But it felt like you weren’t trying anymore. A whole article about tomato sauce with all sorts of twists and turns and you finally let me know that the secret was adding a bit of onion before cooking the sauce? Onion? You mean like everyone already does whenever they try to make tomato sauce?

That was, frankly, insulting. There’s nothing wrong with onion. I like onion. You know that. But onion isn’t a tomato sauce secret. That’s like saying the “secret” to good sex is a partner. Or genitals.

When we first got together, the whole coy thing you did was cute. I liked hearing you tell me about all the things you tried before something actually worked. But the act got old. It stopped being cute. I wanted you to just get to the goddamn point already. Worse, I developed a sneaking suspicion that you might, well, be lying to me. That you were sexing up your stories to make them more interesting. You couldn’t honestly have only thought to add onion at the last minute. That’s insane. But you’d never admit it. It began to seem like you didn’t really trust me. Didn’t trust that if you were just yourself, I’d still be interested.

And so here we are. What? Am I seeing someone else? Ugh. Let’s just not do this. It’s not about that.

You’re not going to like it.

Fine. It’s true. I’ve been hanging out with Bon Appetit. But it’s not serious.

Oh Jesus, don’t look like that. I’m not saying we don’t have a chance. Your buttermik pancakes really look pretty good. They made me miss you a bit. And I appreciated your efforts to get all that oil out of my Spanish tortillas. I know you worry about my health.

Maybe we just need some time apart to remember what we like about each other. But that means, you know, some time apart. So stop writing. It’s bad for both of us.


44 responses to “Why I Won’t Be Renewing My Subscription to Cooks Illustrated

  1. Yes. I enjoy the magazine but the barrage of junk mail and spam email is infuriating. I understand that their business model depends on it but it really turns me off. I also thought the same thing about the tomato sauce recipe.

  2. This is great! I’ve been having the same awkward relationship with Food and Wine. My subscription is not up for another five months but they’re already sending me “would you like to renew” cards. It’s all moving a little fast…

  3. Completely feel like Cooks Illustrated is stalking me and can’t figure out why. I’ve had magazines in much more dire straits (Portfolio, for god sakes) let me lapse with a 10th of the teeth-gnashing madness I get from CI. Madness!

  4. The secret to avoiding the the mail and spam is to buy the subscription via Amazon. I get nothing but the magazine (and the covers advertising buying a zillion different compilations of the same recipes).

    However I’ll probably abandon the magazine itself soon and just pay for access to the website.

  5. truculentandunreliable

    Yes. This is pretty much what I said when we decided not to renew our subscription. The “experiments” they do before settling on the best recipe seem like such a load of crap.

    I also hate the tips from readers at the beginning of the mag that are always not “tips” but, you know, common knowledge and/or incredibly wasteful. (Heat lemons in the microwave to get more juice! Chop up chicken on a disposable cutting board to cut down on waste!) If I needed to know that stuff, I would just watch Rachel Ray, thank you very much.

  6. truculentandunreliable

    Obviously, I meant “cleanup,” not waste. I hate it when I ruin a good diatribe.

  7. I don’t particularly want to subscribe to a magazine right now, as I don’t have time to read them, but I love getting mail! Maybe I’ll subscribe to CI and then cancel. Do you think that would work?

  8. Years ago, I got the feeling their authors were older and educated about food. Now, I sense their authors are younger, and are still learning things … things like cooking with onions. Basic things like how to cook rice. (They didn’t know what a shrimp deveiner was?) And, ouch, I’ve seen more recipes using canned and prepared foods instead of, well, cooking them. You’re right, they’ve changed.

  9. Jane Glaubman

    Well, OK, I’m sure I’d feel the same if I had ever been tempted to subscribe to CI – I kind of hate that crap. But I think the rap about the onion is unfair. There are 2 pieces of info cleverly concealed in the article:
    1) tuttorosso & muir glen are processed at lower temps, and what that means
    2) the thing about the fructose and the grating, although I will continue to avoid grating if possible.

    I would never pay for this, but I’ve seen plenty of worse food writing.

    And btw, you can make good tomato sauces without onions, especially when they’re in season.

    So own your stuff, dude! Yeah, OK, he has some issues. But this is about *you*.

  10. Hell, I started getting bills from both Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, and I never have had nor requested a subscription for either. My dad bought me a cooking-related gift from a website that may be a partner of CI, so I figure that’s where they got my address. But honestly, BILLS? WTF. CI doesn’t make it easy to stop those things, either. I had to root around and find a customer support e-mail (but I’m not a customer lolz) and tell them to cut that shit out.

    And to make things worse, they started sending me e-mails to two different e-mail addresses, neither of which my dad uses to e-mail me. I have no idea where they got those. This does nothing to dispel my notion that Christopher Kimball seems like a stalker cum douchebag.

  11. I ditched the magazine in favor of just an online sub. a few years ago. I don’t miss it. Mostly I use the website as a replacement for Joy of Cooking, ie “what’s a good basic place to start if I’m cooking X?”

  12. The environmental impact and money spent on advertising disturbs me. There’s a local Toronto magazine that sent me subscription renewal notices for years. I still get free copies of a local fashion magazine because I subscribed once. It comes encased in plastic with a subscription form. I enjoy the free magazine but don’t particularly want to subscribe.

  13. I’m having one of those conversations with Bon Appetit, except in my case the gripe isn’t so much about the recipes as all the frakking ads that are taking over the magazine. I don’t want to be faced even once with eight straight pages of ads, let alone multiple times in one issue.

    As for CI, I usually skip the writing and go straight to the recipes.

  14. You seriously put onions in your sauce?? Stop!! OMG, I can hear the Italian mothers I grew up around on Staten Island cringing from all the way over here in Manhattan. Onions sweeten the sauce. You do not want to sweeten the sauce. No onion, no carrot, no sugar. None of that stuff. Just tomatoes, water, and garlic. Some seasoning. I’m sorry, I know this is not really what your post was about, but whenever I hear people talking about onions in tomato sauce it sets something off in me.

    Now that’s a reason not to subscribe to Cook’s Illustrated anymore. Onions in the sauce? Seriously?

  15. Amen brother. Amen.
    I was getting presents from them too; a big cookbook right to my address as if I ordered it, saying pay me 29.95. And we weren’t sexting anymore or anything.

  16. Thanks for my first good laugh of the day!

  17. Sorry about the typo in the close tag. How embarrassing! I don’t suppose there’s any way to fix it or delete the comment?

  18. I fell out of love with CI magazine because I was tired of getting recipes doled out to me six at a time interspersed with thousands of words of narrative.

    Buy the “Best Recipe” compendium for old time’s sake. It’s a great reference work and more convenient than searching through your CI back issues for a pad thai recipe or turkey trussing tips.

  19. My subscription is about to lapse, so I’m getting the usual pleas to renew ‘before it’s too late.’ The last letter said that because I’ve been such a loyal subscriber, I could renew at the special reserved-just-for-you rate of $24.95. The thing is, the regular rate is $19.95. Sorry, CI, I’m done.

  20. Cook’s is bad, but I don’t think they’re nearly as bad as Smithsonian. There is an outfit that will pester you for years after your subscription has lapsed.

  21. Tomato sauce should only have garlic, not onion. If they had a recipe with onion as the secret ingredient, that is actually innovative, if it’s any good, which it probably isn’t, since you shouldn’t have onion in tomato sauce. (Ketchup recipes have onion, not tomato sauce.)

  22. I think Cook’s is a nice way station on an amateur cook’s journey. The hokey narratives of trial and error may be helpful for the kitchen-shy, and occasionally they come up with a dynamite tip, like adding a shot of lemon juice to spaghetti with garlic and olive oil.

    At a certain point though the budding cook will tire of yet another batch of perfectly dull turkey/meatloaf/lemon bar recipes, and will drop the sub, despite the hectoring. There’s much more interesting stuff out there.

    fwiw – Hazan puts onion in nearly every tomato sauce.

  23. That was a great rant. I have the same relationship with Cook’s Illustrated.

    With fresh tomatoes, I’d avoid onions. But with canned tomatoes, you can certainly use onions, and it’s definitely done all over Italy.

  24. Just watch America’s Test Kitchen on PBS.

  25. As an extremely nerdy cook who relates to cooking as a Mr. Wizard-style journey of scientific exploration, I enjoy reading CI’s accounts because they effectively narrow down the number of “experiments” I might want to perform in the kitchen. i.e. “What about [random crazy idea]? – Oh, they already tried that and it was a disaster”. But I can definitely see how the style would grate on people less nerdy than myself.

    My pet peeve about CI (aside from the spam) is the smug introduction letter from Christopher Kimball in every issue. He comes across with a peculiar blend of self-satisfaction and preciousness that just drives me up the wall.

  26. Feh. Cook’s Illustrated always seemed to me a guy-oriented magazine–for guys who don’t know how to cook and want things quantifiably arranged in articles that seem always to fall under the rubric “the best. ” No wonder you outgrew it.

    Cooking is not a series of deductive steps that lead to shortcuts like “best” or “how to” or “secret.” Cooking is about technique, and balancing flavors, and challenging oneself to alchemize disparate ingredients into a surprising new whole. It’s about experimentation and creativity. Gourmet magazine has been dumbed down over the years, too–but nothing like Cook’s Illustrated.

  27. There seems to be a prohibition on onions in a tomato sauce among some Italian-Americans. One of my dearest friends, long since departed, who was a 2nd-generation American, told me that his 1st-generation American mother, who had Italian parents, scoffed at the idea of onions in a tomato sauce, and considered it simply incorrect to include them (so he felt the same way). Actual Italian practice, however, is far different. Few sources in English offer more authentic insight into how Italian cuisine works than the books of Marcella Hazan, who wrote in “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” of the “battuto” , which she says “is at the base of virtually every pasta sauce, risotto or soup”: “At one time, the nearly invariable components of a battuto were lard, parsely, and onion, all chopped very fine. Garlic, celery, or carrot might be included, depending on the dish. The principal change that contemporary usage has brought is the substitution of olive oil or butter for lard….”

    If you consult Italian tomato sauce recipes provided by authorities like Marcella, Lidia Bastianich, and Mario Batali, you’ll find almost invariably that they include onion. Why this came to be avoided and disparaged in the Italo-American kitchen I have no idea, but that seems to be the case.

    On Cook’s Illustrated: I let my subscription to that annoying magazine lapse at least five years ago, and they are still hounding me.

  28. Onion is best. Garlic is the no-no.

  29. Please write something we can all forward to AARP and AAA. They’ve been sending emails that tell me “There’s still time to renew my subscription/ membership.” When I check, the renewal date is November. Annoying even to people old enough to be a member of AARP.

  30. I guess I’m the odd man out. I like Cook’s Illustrated, mostly for their record. Among the recipes of theirs I have tried, an overwhelming majority have been excellent. Sure, they are employing tips that I don’t know yet…but that’s why I subscribe. I don’t yet want to dig through my grandmother’s old cookbooks for hidden gems among out of style recipes and what not. And that is just comparing Cook’s Illustrated to good cookbooks. Try comparing them to another cooking magazine. they are clear, they have no ads, they have sufficient content and some interesting recipes.

    Sure, we can grab some low hanging fruit and kvetch about tomato sauce. But for every one of those I can mention gratins or desserts or risottos which came out much better in their pages than pages of cookbooks I own.

    Maybe you guys will have to revoke my foodie badge. :)

  31. I’d like to add a rant about one of their cookbooks, “The Best Recipe.” The cake chapter starts with an exhortation about how cake baking requires “precision and careful attention to detail.” And then they provide all flour measurements in volume only! Even if you follow their vague measuring instructions exactly, you won’t be getting the same amount that they had in their test kitchen (which, I’m sure have plenty of kitchen scales around). In my book, recipes for baked goods that don’t specify the flour weight are hard to take seriously.

    Ranting aside, some of my favorite recipes have come from the magazine (molasses cookies, bagels, pizza dough). But I still gave up the subscription a long time ago.

  32. @Marc

    I have noticed that as well (though I do little baking). In their defense they seem to argue that “careful” measurement of dry ingredients will be sufficient. They also spend some time illustrating specific volume measurement techniques (though most are variants on “scrape the top of the dry measure off”). I haven’t baked enough of their recipes to come to a good conclusion about this position.

  33. This reminds me of the last time I bought Golf Digest. Tiger Woods was on the cover and it promised to disclose Tiger’s secret to distance off of the tee. It turned out that when Tiger wants to hit the ball further he swings harder. Thanks for that. The last issue of Golf Digest I ever bought.

  34. I like Cook’s Illustrated because their recipes are much more reliable, in my experience, than other cookbooks I’ve tried. They work really hard to debug recipes, and even account for variations in regional ingredients. The directions are really clear and well done, as well. Sure, it’s pedantic, but if you’re unfamiliar with a technique, the clarity really helps. Sure, there is lots of preciousness, and a heavy emphasis on meat cookery, but all things considered, I’ve subscribed for years and I’ll probably subscribe for years more.

  35. I have the online subscription – I’m still equipping my kitchen, so I really like the reviews. Still consider myself a newbie cook, although am starting to realize that is no longer the case. I consider them to be “Sunday” cooking for when I have some time and want guaranteed results. For most of our cooking we stick to Bittman.

    I will say, however, that the America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbooks are fantastic. Cook from it all the time and never a bum outcome. I particularly appreciate the “stop here” points in the recipes. We are just two, so I often cook to there, put away half, and thus get two “fresh-cooked” meals in a lot less time. Better than ordinary leftovers. Their baking book is great with all sorts of stuff – how to make a full-on wedding cake, rustic breads, french macarons.

    I guess what I like about CI/ATK is that it is a safe playground for a recovering picky eater to try new things and figure out where to go deeper into a cuisine.

    But the volume of emails is crazy. And why gmail lets you make rules where you can send stuff straight to archive.

  36. I’m done with Cooks Illustrated because you have to pay for their web archives separately. That’s insane.

    I’m sorry, but if I have a vague memory about a Cook’s Illustrated piece that had a great trick for tomato sauce, I am not walking over to my stack of back issues of Cooks Illustrated and freaking reading every single one of them in the hope I’ll find it (dang it, where’s October ’03? Was it in that one?).

    I’m going to search Cooks Illustrated’s archives. And if you don’t open your archives, I’ll google “Cooks Illustrated tomato sauce quick trick” and I’ll read your great trick on someone’s blog. Or I’ll read someone else’s great tomato sauce trick.
    Or I’ll find a bunch of people arguing about it on a message board. Or, I’ll find someone telling me what Marcella said.

    Because, see, I’m not going to do 3 hours of research for my quick tomato sauce. And I’m going to bitterly resent you for trying to make me do so, Cooks Illustrated.

  37. The most infuriating thing about Cook’s Illustrated is that some of the recipes are actually fantastic. Made the carrot cake for my son’s first B-day and it may have been the best carrot cake I’d ever eaten.

    But the magazine is absolutely UNREADABLE! The reason they keep hounding you for subscriptions is probably because so many people get sick of their “oh, this recipe never works and was utterly atrocious until we figured out how to make it” schtick, and cancel.

    Coming next month: Boiling water is an arduous and even dangerous task, and the results are usually disappointing. Could we find a better way to quickly achieve a nice, rolling boil?

  38. Jane Black wrote a facinating piece on Cooks for Boston Mag awhile back.

    Cooks is a eunuch of a magazine.

  39. This really made me laugh. I do hate that you have to pay for an online subscription in order to get their recipes. Although I get the print subscription, sometimes I like to email a link to a recipe to friends. I agree that some of the recipes are simplistic (adding onions to tomato sauce is certainly no big secret) but I do find that almost always, they ALL turn out really good. Everything that we’ve made from CI has been a big hit with friends and family. Frankly, I subscribe for the recipes, not the articles.

  40. Personally, I hate CI. Right now I have a disaster in my oven since I followed their short bread cookie recipe. I find their recipes are hit and miss. Sometimes I have great results (lemon meringue pie was excellent) and sometimes not (The lemon tart a blacken mess of a disaster).
    Lest you think I couldn’t cook my way out of a paper bag, I’m a professional pastry chef. I have and use professional equipment.

    I just give up on them because I don’t find CI consistent. I’m turning more and more to Fine Cooking. I’ve blown off most cooking mags. I collect cookbooks and research techniques.

    Well, there’s my two cents. Now I got to dump that stuff in the trash. There goes 1 cup of butter. What a waste. I’m so pissed.

  41. This is a nice board full of thoughtful comments. The real problem, or what irks most, is the self satisfied “Best ever” nonsense on recipes which are at best adequate.

    For, example, there has always been controversy over the use of lime in Guacamole. Good Mexican cooks never use it, Tex-Mex cooks do. Dianna Kennedy and many great Mexican cooks think it is completely wrong, as will anyone who truly understands the taste of Avocado. It originated as an expedient method to avoid oxidization and to sex up poor quality fruit. Even Rick Bayless and Alice Waters fall victim to this, so it’s a very hard habit to break.
    Cook’s Illustrated decided that citrus was absolutely necessary, so I decided that they were completely unnecessary.

    Oh yes, there was also the great cooking ‘Tip” about how to cut a broad loaf of country style bread with a too short bread-knife: Turn the loaf on its edge and cut across the narrow direction. Yes, and after you breath out…don’t forget to breath in again.

    I think if the bar was to go any lower we’d have to dig a trench and bury it.

  42. Gordon Cowan

    I will not be renewing my subscription because even though I tried to pay my invoice online through your webcite I could see nowhere to give the information needed to complete the transaction.

    Gordon Cowan


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