How a Recipe Becomes a Cook’s Illustrated Recipe

By Ezra Klein

I’m not the world’s biggest Cook’s Illustrated booster. But this profile of CI’s eccentric founder, Christopher Kimball, is a good read. And the explanation of the Cook’s Illustrated process leaves me somewhat more respectful of the results:

The Cook’s Illustrated recipes follow the most rigorous journey. First, each recipe idea is pre-surveyed to see if readers are even interested in it. Then, based on research in the company’s cookbook library, a test-kitchen cook comes up with several versions of the dish and submits them to a staff taste test. She is then pummeled with questions about why she didn’t try this ingredient or that sauteing method or a different type of sugar. She goes back to the kitchen for more experimentation, and more critiques follow. Only when all hands believe the recipe is the best it can be is it sent to a handful of readers, who make it and report whether they’d make it again. If a recipe — even after all that time and testing, and even after more revisions — doesn’t score well with the readers, it ends up on the kitchen floor. Surviving recipes are published with the story of their journey in the test kitchen. There’s even a science guy on call to conduct more technically challenging experiments and add explanation to the articles so readers can learn why, say, on a molecular level, cream of tartar does what it does (and I have no idea what that is, but it is apparently very important).[…]

What readers and viewers get are recipes that use ingredients available at any major supermarket in America and that yield consistent, predictable, excellent results. Do Kimball’s test cooks create recipes that offer sublime moments of transcendence, an herbal combination or preparation of ingredients so surprising, complex, or unexpected that it elevates a dish to culinary brilliance? Will his magazines introduce you to varieties of cuisines and ingredients that you never imagined in your wildest kitchen fantasies? No and no. But his recipes are nearly bulletproof. And based on his subscription increases — averaging 11 percent annually over the past eight years for Cook’s Illustrated and 38 percent annually since launch for Cook’s Country — this is what his readers want.


2 responses to “How a Recipe Becomes a Cook’s Illustrated Recipe

  1. I’m totally over Cook’s, especially Kimball’s editorial. It sucks, most readers agree it sucks, yet he writes it anyway. “It’s my magazine, I’ll do what I want.” Sure, you can write shitty editorials that no one likes, understands, or can relate to. AWESOME.

  2. Eh, I eventually outgrew “Fun With Dick and Jane”… after I’d mastered learning how to read. Same with Cooks Illustrated. Yeah, after a while the almost grievously fixed-form articles get on your nerves. But only after you’ve totally absorbed the concepts and figure out how to experiment on your own.

    I’m an astonishingly better cook now than I was before picking up CI. This even after I read Joy of Cooking cover to cover the summer before my junior year in college. Their core recipe for East Indian curries — admittedly a real departure from their usual fare — made me a fearless and generally very successful improviser not only for Indian cuisine but various Italian, French, Creole, and southwestern dishes.

    So yeah, I still pull out their big cookbook these days anytime I want to do classic American dishes, but I skip straight to the ingredient lists, skim the setups and finishes, and, using what I’ve already learned, make the adjustments I learned about from… reading CI.

    Anyway, from a previous life in adult education and instructional design I think one of the highest complements you can pay a good instructional process is “it’s limiting I can’t stand to read it anymore.” So if you can outgrow them they’re doing it right. :-)


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