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In the Test Kitchen with Christopher Kimball

"Here in America's Test Kitchen, we are stubborn, baking the same recipe over and over until it comes out 'right,' or at least to our satisfaction. That might mean baking more than 100 yellow layer cakes over the course of two months or making pan after pan of brownies until the notion of chocolate, butter, and sugar is enough to make us green around the gills. There is no substitute for intimacy with process." Christopher Kimball, from the preface to Baking Illustrated

Christopher Kimball Stuffed with 350 recipes and 500 illustrations, Baking Illustrated brings you inside the 5000-square-foot kitchen of Cook's Illustrated magazine, where tenacious chefs have exhaustively examined every ingredient, technique, and piece of equipment that could make or break your baking success. From biscuits, brownies, and cakes to pizza, focaccia, and savory tarts, here is the last word on baking from the most trusted name in cooking.

Kimball, the founder of Cook's Illustrated (originally Cook's), author of a weekly newspaper column called "The Kitchen Detective" (and a great, all-purpose cookbook by the same name), and host of the popular public television program America's Test Kitchen, has built a career on one simple, undeniable principle: you never know until you test it. And that's where he comes in, doing all the grunt work, finding the best recipe so you don't have to.

"Cooking is not subjective," he explains. "There is a science to it. There is a right way and a wrong way. There are certain things we know that are very clear."

"Most cookbooks tell you what to do," the author continues. "That's a terrible way to teach anything. What you want to do is explain it and show it and together pursue it so readers feel like they've learned along with you."

Dave: A basic principle underlying each of your cookbooks, not just Baking Illustrated and the others from Cook's Illustrated, but also the ones you've published under your own name, is that a person has a much better chance at success if he or she understands the recipe before starting to cook.

There's more to preparation than simply skimming a list of ingredients and tools, in other words. It's about trying to grasp the greater concepts and goals before you set out so you actually know what you're doing.

Christopher Kimball: The problem with most recipes is that they're very unreliable, which could be the fault of the author or could be the fault of the cook, but the fact remains that people often find they're disappointed when they cook at home; therefore, they develop a fear of failing.

Unless you take people through the process and explain to them what you're doing, I know from experience that they will do horrible things to your recipe: they'll substitute ingredients, they'll change techniques, they'll combine recipes... If, however, you say, "We tried this, and here's why it worked. We also tried it this way and here's why it didn't work," if you take them along for the ride as an equal by the time they get to the recipe they're much more likely to make it the way you placed it on the page. They're much more likely to be successful.

There's a huge demand, an appetite, for understanding process in America right now. We have 640,000 paid readers [of Cook's Illustrated], and all of them seem to be really keen on why. And that's a shock to me. I would think that most people wouldn't care, but they do care. And that makes a good cook.

Dave: This desire to get to the bottom of techniques, to test what works and what doesn't, comes from your own introduction to cooking. The people who taught you weren't likely to explain why things were done one way instead of another.

Kimball: They didn't know. They were very good cooks, but they'd been taught to make a soufflé a certain way. I would say, "What happens if you underbeat the whites?" It turns out that if you underbeat the whites in a soufflé, you end up with exactly the same product because when a soufflé is baked the underbeaten whites will rise more than perfectly beaten whites and will make up the difference. But they never tested that.

They never tested, Are there ways to stabilize egg whites using cream of tartar? Well, if you add cream of tartar and acid to the whites, it helps denature and stabilize them, but they just did it the old-fashioned way because that's how they knew how. For people who'd never made a soufflé before that's not so fine; it's likely they're going to run into trouble. Unfortunately, the people teaching didn't really care. If you didn't know how to do it, that was your problem. This is the way. Actually, in anything, there's more than one way.

By the seventies and eighties, it was almost a joke. Everything had been handed down from generation to generation; now, you had a bunch of people who didn't know much about cooking and were trying to figure it out. That's why there's an interest in why these days: because people have never been taught how to cook properly in person. Their parents didn't cook and their grandparents didn't cook. Now you've got to start at the beginning.

In 1900, Fanny Farmer would say, "Make a paste," for pie pastry. Three words: make a paste. Today you'd have to spend five hundred words explaining how to make pie pastry because people don't know how to do it and there's a lot to know. A different kind of teaching is required today. Fifty years ago you wouldn't have to tell people too much because they cooked all the time.

Dave: Every recipe published in Cook's Illustrated or in one of your books has been tested extensively in many different variations in order to determine the absolute best version. What is that testing process like?

Kimball: It's horrific. We find twenty or thirty variations on a recipe, then we choose five or six that represent significantly different approaches. We make them. Ten to fifteen people taste those recipes and fill out a sheet saying what they like and don't like. And most of those recipes aren't very good, by the way, almost without exception.

Dave: How do you decide which direction to take the recipe? Who decides what's good?

Kimball: When we taste the first five or six recipes, a decision has to be made: Do you want a chewy cookie or a crispy cookie? Do you want a super chocolaty hot fudge pudding cake? What do you want? That decision is made by the author of the piece, the test kitchen director, and also, to some extent, by a few people including myself in weekly meetings. We'll sit down and discuss a piece, what the first tests found and where we want to take it.

Here's an example: We were going to do a classic Bolognese lasagna. Classically, you have to make the pasta by hand that's an important part of the process but that was just too much work. We fought about that. Finally, we agreed to do a quick Bolognese lasagna.

It's a group oversight process. If a recipe has to take an important turn, it will be discussed in a group to figure out the best way to go. But there are lots of cases when we could go down either path, and it wouldn't be wrong; it would just be a different way to do it.

Dave: How does testing so many recipes affect your eating habits? How many recipes do you taste in a day?

Kimball: I taste the food that goes into the magazine at some point, but in the last couple years, I've stayed away from tasting for the books. We have too much food coming through, fifteen to seventeen people cooking all the time. I can't taste it all.

I have people who taste sometimes sixty things a day. They have 5000-calorie days, and it shows. I just can't do that anymore. Those people never eat dinner; anybody that works in my test kitchen never eats dinner during the week. They're stuffed. It's kind of revolting, actually, to eat all that food. It's a problem.

The individual cook also has to chip in on other recipes to create a quorum, enough people tasting. We just finished up a casserole book and that was brutal, eating casserole after casserole after casserole. One person just can't eat it all anymore; it's too much. Five years ago I could, but not anymore.

Dave: You mention in Baking Illustrated that if you're looking to save some money when baking, Nestlé is as good as most brands of chocolate. That's just one example of test results that might surprise readers. The pricing and relative value of olive oils is another.

Kimball: We tested gourmet olive oils, expensive ones, against supermarket brands. Da Vinci had won a supermarket taste test, at six or eight bucks a bottle. I then went out and got a bunch of bottles from twenty to eighty dollars.

One $80 bottle didn't do as well as Da Vinci. In fact, Da Vinci came in fourth in the tasting of ten olive oils. Columela, a Spanish olive oil that costs about $28 a liter, was the least expensive of the gourmet oils and it finished number two in the tasting. It's a very good olive oil.

The lesson is that $80 olive oil isn't necessarily better. It's a little bit like wine: You don't know from year to year. The balance of oils could be different, depending on the country of origin and seasonality and other factors. It's hard to tell. Price is almost no indication of quality when it comes to food.

Dave: The Kitchen Detective includes a recipe for Granola Bars with Fruit Filling that you discovered at a bakery in Boston. "When I first tasted one of [them]," you write, "I knew that I had hit pay dirt. The filling was rich with flavor but not jammy, and the granola layers were moist, chewy, and deeply satisfying. The question was how to adapt [Joanne Chang's] recipe for a home cook."

What does that mean in practical terms, to adapt a recipe for the home cook?

Kimball: Joanne Chang was the first one to open a decent bakery in our neighborhood of Boston, the South End; it's a fabulous place called Flour. I eat her granola bars regularly, but when I found out how she made them I realized that it was a tremendous amount of work. This is not an easy recipe; it takes time.

Our formula always is: Is the investment you're going to make in the recipe, the time and money, worth the outcome? Sometimes it's worth spending two hours on a recipe. If it feeds a lot of people and it's really delicious, it's probably worth it. But at home you always have to say, Is a twenty-minute recipe fine? If I spend two additional hours on it, is it going to be all that much better? It's reductionist. You have to constantly take things out, which means instead of five filling ingredients, you might have three.

Dave: In all the books, I discovered useful bits of information that might seem painfully obvious in retrospect, but for instance in The Best Recipe: Grilling & Barbecue you suggest spreading olive oil on the grill with a crumpled paper towel before cooking fish. I have no idea why oiling the grill had never occurred to me. What are some other examples of simple solutions that people don't consider?

Kimball: Nobody preheats their pan properly. One solution is to take a little vegetable oil and put it in the pan. It'll shimmer first, then it'll start to smoke just a wisp of smoke, and it's ready.

Ninety percent of all problems on top of the stove are caused because people don't preheat their pan properly. They'll get a medium pan and throw the food in, it'll stick, and it'll be a disaster. People are afraid of using high heat when it comes to a real sauté or a stir-fry. You need a lot of heat. Heat browns, among other things, but people are afraid of it.

People won't check to make sure they have all the ingredients, so, for example, the cream cheese will not be at room temperature by the time they go to make the cheesecake everybody makes that mistake which means that when you put it in the standing mixer it doesn't whip properly. It doesn't incorporate enough air and you get a dense cheesecake.

The butter is cold; it's not at sixty-seven degrees for creaming, so then it's hard to cream the butter.

People don't have the key ingredients so they substitute something else. They're supposed to have Dutch process cocoa and they put in natural cocoa, which in some cases can make a big difference. Failure, actually, in devil's food cake. It can be a real problem. Reading through first, making sure you have all the ingredients and that they're at the right temperature... It's all sort of fifth grade stuff, but people don't do it.

People use the wrong size pans. The recipe calls for a ten-inch springform pan; they'll use a nine-inch. They use an eight-inch cake pan instead of a nine-inch. The other problem is that if you have a lousy saucepan, you'll burn the food. If you have a cheap, hardware store pan, you're going to have a problem. If you have a $200 All-Clad saucepan, your chances of success are much higher. You need a really good saucepan and a really good sauté pan. You can have a cheap stockpot. And you need a good knife. Everyone has dull knives at home, so they can't chop. Nobody has sharp knives at home. They buy a knife and never sharpen it. They use the sharpening steel, which doesn't sharpen knives; it tunes up sharp knives, but it doesn't sharpen dull ones. Those are some of the common problems.

Dave: One of the virtues of these books, in that regard, is the detail you offer when you explain process. How many coals should be on the fire, how the coals should be arranged... I was explaining to people in my backyard that I should be able to hold my hand five inches above the coals...

Kimball: For three seconds, yes.

Dave: Such extensive detail speaks to your point about improving the home cook's chance of success. In so many cases, people don't want to get it wrong, but they don't know better and many cookbooks take a lot of the fundamentals for granted.

Kimball: I think the problem with cooking is that you've seen people cook on television, or somewhere, and you have a sense that it's supposed to come natural, that you should be able throw together a meal and it will be good. Well, you can't throw together food and have it be good unless you know what you're doing. It's like playing guitar or piano. You can't just sit down and play music. You've got to know what you're doing. Americans don't like that. They want instant celebrity, instant success.

The fact is that you can be pretty successful without too much instruction, but you really do have to follow directions and understand what you're doing. There is a lot to learn. Cooking is not subjective. Most of cooking is very objective. There is a science to it. There is a right way and a wrong way. There are certain things we know that are very clear.

You can argue about how much cinnamon you like in your apple pie, but you can't argue about how to make the pie crust. You can argue about what kind of vegetables you like in a pot roast, but you can't argue about what happens to meat at different temperatures as it's cooking that's a known factor. If you don't cook pot roast long enough at the right temperature, it will not break down properly and it will be tough.

Once you give in to this notion that there's really something to know and you're willing to learn, then you can become a good cook very quickly. But you have to get over that Oh, Lydia goes in the kitchen and throws some stuff together and it tastes great. Well, Lydia's been doing it for fifty years and she's a great cook. She didn't just figure this out when she was six. She was taught by her mother and her grandmother.

You know that wonderful book about The Joy of Cooking: the title was Stand Facing the Stove. The title refers to a question, which is: What is the first thing you tell someone when they come in the kitchen as a beginning cook? What's the first instruction? Stand Facing the Stove. Talk about basic instruction!

Dave: In The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook, you describe some of your first lessons about food preparation, on a farm in Vermont with a woman named Marie Briggs. She helped instill in you some fundamental ideas about what mattered.

Kimball: First of all, in that farmhouse in Vermont, which still exists today, there was no indoor plumbing; there was a pump in the sink and a wood cook stove, that was all. But cooking was central to the community. It wasn't so much the food that was very good; it was the cooking.

When you walked in that house, from five-thirty in the morning until six at night, Marie was cooking. That was the central activity in the house. There was one little room, which was the living room-parlor-dining room-almost kitchen, and people were cooking all the time. This notion that the process was more important than the food... it brought people together.

As a teacher, Marie would never tell you what to do. She would show you what to do. Her attitude was to respect you: You're smart, you're not stupid, and if you're shown what to do you'll figure it out. And you didn't want to disappoint Marie. She was a tough customer. She worked three hundred sixty-four days a year. You respected her ability to do that, and you wanted to please her.

I got that notion of cooking with someone standing next to you, showing you, not telling you. I think that's the big difference. Most cookbooks tell you what to do. That's a terrible way to teach anything. What you want to do is explain it and show it and together pursue it so readers feel like they've learned along with you. They'll remember that. They won't remember it if you say, "You have to do it this way." If they're like me, they'll say, "No, I don't. I'm going to do it any way I want to."

A few nights before Kimball spoke to a packed house at Powell's, I had a full house of my own twelve friends visited to partake in a meal comprised entirely of recipes from Christopher Kimball's books. The menu included Roasted Pear Salad with Arugula and Goat Cheese; Tomato and Mozzarella Tart; High Roast Asparagus with Fresh Tomato-Basil Sauce; Steamed Potatoes with Chives, Shallots, and Parsley; Coca-Cola Grill-Roasted Chicken; and Grilled Salmon Teriyaki. Incredibly (but maybe we shouldn't have been surprised), the meal went off without a hitch.

Kimball visited Powell's Books for Cooks and Gardeners on April 7, 2004.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Best Recipe Used Hardcover $8.95
  2. The Best Recipe: Grilling & Barbecue Used Hardcover $9.95
  3. The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook Used Hardcover $13.95
  4. The Kitchen Detective: A Culinary... Used Hardcover $8.95
  5. The Cook's Bible: The Best of... Used Hardcover $12.95
  6. Baking Illustrated: The Practical...
    Used Hardcover $15.95
  7. Baking Illustrated: The Practical...
    Used Hardcover $15.95
  8. The Kitchen Detective: A Culinary... Used Hardcover $8.95
  9. The Best Recipe: Grilling & Barbecue Used Hardcover $9.95
  10. The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook Used Hardcover $13.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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