Recommendation: Cook’s Illustrated

On April 26, 2010, in Recommendations, by Rob Levandowski

I first started cooking for myself in high school.  I think the thing that got me started was making homemade peanut butter cookies for a girl I was sweet on.  (She enjoyed them, but not enough to dump her boyfriend and take a good hard look at me.  But I digress.)

In college, I lived in a dorm that was at the outskirts of campus, a 20-minute walk from the nearest dining hall. This was in Rochester, NY; for those not familiar with the area, Rochester is famous for its lake-effect snow.  It usually starts snowing in late October and lets up sometime in April.  This dorm was originally built as graduate housing, so each 2- or 3-bedroom suite included a kitchen and a bathroom.  I very quickly decided to take full advantage of the kitchen, and I almost always cooked my own dinner.

My early companion in learning how to cook was the venerable Joy of Cooking.  I’m not going to link to that book; you can find it easily enough at any bookstore.  Why not?  Because I now know that a lot of the advice in that historic tome is just plain wrong.  I weep for the number of home cooks that have been lead astray by that book.

When I really decided to take my cooking past the “competent at preparing basic food” stage and learn how to truly cook, I was heavily influenced by Alton Brown and Iron Chef.  But there was one discovery that truly helped me take it to the next level.

Cook’s Illustrated.

I’ve said it dozens of times: When I make a Cook’s recipe, I may find that what I make isn’t to my liking, but it will be a really, really good example of this particular dish that isn’t to my liking.

If you’re interested in cooking, I strongly recommend that you start reading the Cook’s Illustrated magazine.  You should think about signing up for the website.  You should buy “The New Best Recipe” and start with that.  You might even look for the companion TV show on PBS, “America’s Test Kitchen.”

Why does Cook’s get my recommendation?  What sets them apart from other cookbooks and cooking magazines?

  • They don’t just cough up a recipe that some chef somewhere claims is a good one.  They set out to make a dish, and then they will try dozens of variations until they find the best way to make it.
  • Each recipe is accompanied by an article explaining how they perfected the recipe.  Sometimes, the best part of the recipe is the journey taken to the final version. A chef can learn a lot from the techniques that failed, and those that worked.
  • The articles also touch on the food science behind the recipes, where appropriate.  Again, this is information you can apply to other recipes on your own.
  • The recipes are very clear about what you need to do, what you need to look for, etc.  Many other cookbooks assume you know what the author means by certain terms; Cook’s explains in clear language, and provides illustrations where appropriate.
  • Recipes often come with brief tutorials on cooking techniques appropriate to the dish.
  • Cook’s also reviews ingredients and cooking tools.  Want to know the best brand of chicken broth, or the best measuring cup?  They run scientific tests, and tell you.  They’re almost always right.
  • They don’t accept advertising.  When they recommend a product, there is no conflict of interest.

My only complaints about Cook’s: They release a lot of cookbooks, and inevitably many of them contain substantially the same recipes, so there’s a point of diminishing returns.  They advertise the cookbooks in the magazines, often at a steep discount, but if you read carefully you can’t buy just one book—your order signs you up for a book-of-the-quarter-club type deal.  And if you sign up for the website and don’t opt out, you will get spammed to death with cookbook offers and other stuff.  Plus, the website costs money, and then they want more money if you want all of their recipes (including the ones in the books, or the ones from their spinoff publication “Cook’s Country”), and it starts to add up.

Even so, “The New Best Recipe” is known as “the Bible” in my kitchen.  It’s cooking gospel.

This is an unsolicited endorsement. I am not employed by, related to, or in any way affiliated with Cook’s Illustrated, and no compensation has been received for this endorsement.

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One Response to Recommendation: Cook’s Illustrated

  1. My recommendation now has to be tempered, because of Cook’s shady marketing practices.

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