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Apr 2, 2005 10:06 PM

cooks illustrated

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I just read, for the first time, a Cook's Illustrated magazine. I enjoyed the detailed explanations, which may make the difference between a great and sort of okay dish. It also seems to try to use practical ingredients. What do other hounds think of the magazine? Worth subscribing to? Thanks in advance.

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  1. i like cook's illustrated... it is straightforward.. and most dishes usually come out after following the somewhat fussy recipes the first time.... and are usually pretty good. read: you can make this stuff for guests without worry...

    they do repeat recipes and reviews quite a bit.... (did anyone notice the first issue this year? I haven't pulled out my old issues... but seems like a lot of repeats)

    anyway... I like the fact that it doesn't come out that often. that way I don't have to feel guilty about the untried recipes. :)

    I'd give it a try...

    1. I'll tell you two tiny secrets: you can sign on to the cook's website for just a few dollars a month or you can wait until the end of the year and buy their yearly cookbook with is just a bound edition (With a full glossary) of all of the magazines from that year.

      I've had wonderful success with all of my recipes from Cook's and I'm a big fan. I've figured out a lot of problems I've been having by reading, as well (my baked potatoes are now perfect and my brown rice is flawless and foolproof).

      I also enjoy when they take out the snobbery - for instance they did a blind taste test on vanilla and found that in baked goods, people don't notice the difference between imitation and real. Ask anyone that only uses real (me included) and they will swear it isn't true but you can't really argue with blind taste tests.

      I guess I'm saying I'm a fan. I've only had one recipe go poorly and I think that was because of 'dead' baking powder.

      18 Replies
      1. re: KrissyWats

        After reading the other posts it occurs to me that I should make something clear: I don't believe ANYONE is the definitive source on anything in my kitchen except for me. Any recipe is just a guideline, so yes, if you are looking for a fine basic framework that you can incorporate into the rest of your cooking, then cook's is a good place to start. Like everything in life, you take in what people say, process it, and use it based on your own experiences. Question Authority!!! (Even Marcella Hazan!!!! Hahahaha)

        Oh, I also really enjoy cook's tips from other readers - I've found several of them very helpful - and the 'tests' they do on ingredients and cookware.

        1. re: krissywats

          I agree with you.

          I think that if you don't allow their attitude ("every recipe out there is imperfect in one way or another, so we tested them all and came up with this completely perfect one") to annoy you, they actually can be quite useful.

          I wish I was less prone to stylistic annoyance, because it prevents me from using otherwise solid recipes... but... can't... help it... (Same for Rose Levy B. and her "bibles". I'm sure there's useful info in there, she just bugs the hell out of me. I prefer the laid-back, looser approach of people like Mark Bittman or Nigella Lawson.)

          1. re: Sir Gawain

            Yes!! Nigella is my favorite because her attitude is 'let's eat, let's play, let's enjoy the passion in food'. I love that.

            And hey, it's ok - some people have trouble with being told what to do (my husband for example) but that can be good! Such people forge their own way in the world.

            1. re: Sir Gawain

              Yeah but lots of people say Nigella's recipes don't turn out for them or are often just eh, I personally have never tried a Nigella recipe so I don't know but I have made a ton of Rose B's recipes and almost all of them are fab. I don't think Cooks or Rose think their stuff is perfect, I think they are saying: "We are anal retentive. This is our style. We are not giving you anything that to US is just eh.

              1. re: Cook

                And that's what I dig about Cook's. They give you all the information you could ever possibly need about why a dish may have certain faults. And then you can take their tips to fix parts that bother you and leave their tips about parts you never cared about. I guess I like Cook's because it goes in-depth enough on each recipe to really help your technique, even if you never make it.

                Plus, I love their product tests. Finding out that the cheapest balsamic is the best? That the $20 pan is very nearly as good as the $120 pan? Priceless.

                1. re: Qwertyy

                  I don't trust their blind test (esp. taste) panels at all.

                  Valrhona chocolate tastes worse than Hershey's?
                  Artificial vanilla extract tastes same as real vanilla?

                  Only in a Cook's Illustrated world...

                  1. re: Sir Gawain

                    If you read further on the vanilla test you'd see that the imitation could only pass on BAKED goods. And I can believe that.

                    It's like the expensive wine glass thing - those who swear by it will never change their tune but when serious wine snobs were given wine in both the expensive glasses and the cheap - they could not tell the difference. The problem is that you have no idea how much our perceptions are changed just by our own ideas that they WILL be changed. Really, it's fairly basic psychology. Self-fulfilling prophecies in our everyday life are quite common: we believe with all of our hearts taht only the most expensive chocolate is the best because that's how we've been socialized so, it is. ::::shrug:::: not that I'm gonna change anyone's mind on this matter.

                    1. re: krissywats

                      I would argue in general that the taste tests in Cooks Illustrated aren't very good - I feel like the tasters have very mainstream American palates, and you can definitely argue with blind tests based on who is included in the panel. A panel of five-year-olds wouldn't mean much to me, nor of adults who eat like five-year-olds.

                      That said, the Vahlrona question is interesting. When I was in culinary school, the chefs did a chocolate testing (just among the chefs, not the students). Exactly half the chefs placed Vahlrona at the top of the list, the other half placed it at the bottom. It has a very distinctive taste you either love or hate. I adore it, but I understand the fruitiness I like doesn't work for everyone, and it doesn't work in all recipes either.

                      (Note: they didn't include Hershey's, the other competitors were Callebaut and other high-end chocolates. Hershey's is vile. People like it because they are used to it. If you get used to better chocolate, you can't go back. I believe that taste is a function of knowledge and understanding. Anyone who prefers Hershey's to Vahlrona doesn't know chocolate in any meaningful way.)

                      1. re: curiousbaker

                        I'd be interested in what you think about Scharffen Berger?

                        1. re: Junie D

                          You know, I've tried it straight and thought it quite good, but I've never baked with it because it's the most expensive choice around here, other than Valrhona. Personally, I like El Rey as an affordable option for when I'm making something with a fruit component or just straight chocolate, and Callebaut, which I find softer and rounder, if I'm doing something with "candy" flavors, like caramel or nuts.

                          1. re: curiousbaker

                            Thanks! I had never heard of El Rey and will look for it.

                          2. re: Junie D

                            I use ScharffenBerger for homemade icecream.

                            1. re: WCchopper

                              Yes! I did that a couple of months ago and it was great! I'm not a big SB fan but I loved it in the ice cream (raspberry/chocolate chunk, as I recall).

                          3. re: curiousbaker
                            culinary nerd

                            I agree that any "serious cook" who prefers Hershey's--a waxy, insipid-flavored chocolate--to Valhrona, Callebaut or Scharfen-Berger is a person who doesn't know much about chocolate and whose taste I do not trust in the least.

                            My theory about why they liked the CVS artificial vanilla in baked goods is that a lot of Americans have become used to eating processed foods which are pumped full of artificial flavors, and so have forgotten what natural flavors taste like. Yes, real vanilla has a more subtle flavor, and so in order to get that super vanilla punch you are used to getting in vanilla wafers, you have to use more. But in addition to the "vanilla" flavor, it has other scent and flavor components--components which are apparently valueless to the CI tasters.

                            Well, they may be valueless to them, but not to me. I read the magazine faithfully, even if the tone bugged the crap out of me, and I found most of the ethnic recipes to be grieviously inadequate, for years, but no more. After the vanilla taste test, which I replicated for my friends--and we could all taste the difference, I just gave up on CI and decided that the magazine was just too aggravating to be worth it for me.

                            The folks at CI do good enough work and they have come up with some really good recipes, but well, I have had my fill of the magazine, and that is that. No hard feelings--I just don't trust people whose tastes are that different from my own to tell me what the "best" recipe of any given genre is.

                            1. re: culinary nerd

                              At the risk of beating a dead horse....

                              Let me start by saying I think this discussion for me is less about CI than it is about an attitude towards cooking. I'm not saying anyone else's attitude is bad just different from mine.

                              Full disclosure: I did not switch from using real vanilla after reading CI's taste test. Why? Because I don't prefer it. I don't eat Hershey's, why? Because I don't like it. ANYTHING I read about food, I process. Someone may have more knowledge then me but they don't have more authority. Make sense? This is why CI's tone never phased me. I'd never even thought of it as 'we are the best' until reading this thread.

                              (How do you know who they use for their testers? Do they say that? I hadn't noticed that in the articles).

                              I still believe there is a bit of snobbery that goes on with what is the 'best' - we ALL have self-fulfilling prophecies inside that we are never aware of because they are so deeply embedded with emotions attached to such a thing. I don't have a problem with anyone saying they 'prefer' something. I have a problem when people insist that it is the best, second to none, whatever anyone else likes is inferior. Isn't that doing exactly what a lot of people are claiming CI does?

                              (I'm not specificaly speaking to YOU, Culinary Nerd, on these issues, just in general)

                              I do think your point about chemicals is interesting. About five years ago we started making the change to all organic and less processed. We are pretty much NO processed foods now. Most processed foods taste like chemicals to me now and I can't eat them. Sigh...I do miss Oreos, occasionally.

                              1. re: krissywats
                                Culinary Nerd

                                Krissy, no worries--I am not offended at all in what you are saying--it is a difference of perception. I read their "best" as meaning "the best ever for everyone everywhere" and you read it as, "the best -for us-."

                                Which of us is more factually correct in this instance? Eh, who gives a rat's patoot, really--we may both be correct, or not, or half-correct.

                                What matters is we both express our opinions well, and civilly on an issue and do not feel offended when we disagree.

                                It is all a matter of taste, and taste is an individual thing, whether we are talking of physical or philosophical taste.

                                Now, as for your last comment about processed foods--I have had a similar experience. I eat no fast foods, and minimal processed foods, and have been eating this way for years now. At this point in my life, I have lost the ability to easily stomach fast food. If I eat a McDonald's hamburger, it returns, violently. It is not pleasant. Also, like you, I have noticed that most processed foods taste off--and they are almost always hideously salty or overly sweet to my palate and thus are not at all pleasant to eat.

                                I used to love Oreos, too--but the last two times I tried to eat them, I got very, very sick. So, I don't even crave them anymore.

                                Glad to know that I am not the only one who has experienced this sort of thing. (I did an informal survey in another online community--one much smaller than this one, and found that a lot of folks, once they weaned themselves off of fast foods or processed foods, have the same issue with becoming sick if they eat them again.)

                                1. re: Culinary Nerd

                                  Oh yes! That is good to know.

                                  I only eat organic beef at home (or out if possible, but that's rare). Chicken, I only eat organic at home, and eat whatever is available when I go out. I won't touch veal and pork I go both ways. That said, I don't eat fastfood - as I mentioned.

                                  For a friend's birthday I made an exception at a Houston's in NYC (he used to work there and loves the place). I had beef. To me the difference between organic meats and non-organic is that the beef seems to be fattier and almost tastes 'creamy' but not in a good way - in a cheap way. I got SO sick later.

                                  That's the last time I did that.

                                  With Oreos and other processed foods I can literally taste the chemicals. I used to LOVe twizzlers and now I can't stomach thing because they taste like eating pure red food coloring to me.

                                  Although I did find an organic company that makes a DARN good sandwich cookie. Dangerous....

                                  The joke around our house is that we're going to end up living in Upstate NY with our own garden, milking our own cows, making our own cheese, etc. I won't even buy mayonnaise any more....sigh....this might make me an organic snob.

                                  1. re: Krissywats
                                    culinary nerd

                                    I grew up with grandparents who were farmers, so I grew up eating free-range beef and pork and chicken, and fish we caught out of our pond, so I have always been pretty picky with food. The only meat and poultry I buy is organically farmed, usually local. Same with the eggs, and with most of my fruits and vegetables. Not all, but most.

                                    So, yeah, I don't like the taste of most commercially produced factory farm meats. They taste--off. The texture and flavor of pork is really off in the meat you get in the grocery store, and I won't even touch grocery store chicken if I can help it. The texture is just cottony and bad, and there is a distinct lack of flavor.

                                    So, yeah, I am a food snob, too. ;-) Oh, well. C'est la vie.

            2. I registered for free online access to America's Test Kitchen (the TV version of CI--see link) and received a trial issue of CI. The print copy was informative and filled w/ useful info that could generalize to my overall cooking. A mag that you truly read and refer back to. Like that they don't accept advertising and that they do all the experimenting and refining so I don't have to. Because of rigorous testing, their recipes are very solid and trustworthy.

              That said, I cancelled after my trial issue b/c while the content is clearly good, some of the topics just didn't interest me and the overall writing and recipes just didn't inspire me in the same way as other food pubs. Plus w/ online access to ATK, I still have access to many CI recipes and info while preventing imminent magazine clutter. Some people like hard copies that they can physically keep though, and if you do, then I def. think this is a mag worthy of your financial support. Or you could buy their cookbook w/ compiled recipes.


              1 Reply
              1. re: Carb Lover

                Yes - I bought the 2003 and 2004 compiled editions for my wife, each came in a nice bound book.

                My mother was looking through it and I got the sense she would like her own copy. So I know what to get her for MOther's Day :)

              2. I am a newbie and I like cooksillustrated, but they are one weapon in my arsenal. I use many other sources/magazines to help me. Here are two reasons why:

                1. They are a great guide but they didn't invent cooking and therefore some of those definitive, "know it all" results made me really nervous. While there is some underlying science in how ingredients interract with each other, and it is important to understand it, cooking, unlike baking, is all trial-and-error in MY kitchen so it doesn't matter what CI says. Its a great guide though.

                2 I felt free when I came to the conclusion in (1) above because if you get stuck on the holy grail according to cooksillustrated it may stunt your growth and never lead you to - CREATIVITY. This mag is repetitive and sometimes run the risk of going back on their own "conslusions" after a few years without even indicating that they have changed their minds for whatever reason. Really annoying!

                So I recommend them with reservations.

                1. I think it depends on your cooking style. CI is all about classic, homey American dishes ("we've tried hundreds of recipes for meat loaf, and this is THE ONE!"), nothing too fancy or unusual. They do have some useful "cooking science" info.

                  That said, many other cookbooks can tell you the same and more. I was all into CI at the beginning, but their "definitive recipe" religion has reallly turned me off. Because who is to say that there is one perfect way to make brownies? People have different tastes, and I don't really care that their "test group" (who I suspect of having pretty identical ideas about everything) decided they liked their brownies "dense, not cakelike". I like my brownies cakelike, but too bad, coz that ain't the way according to the gospel of CI. (BTW I made up this example, but you get the drift.)

                  (And I cannot abide Christopher Kimball and his bow tie... but that's just me.)

                  So. I guess I am more of a CI hater. I find their writing style kind of pompous and, in the end, the recipes too limited (and limiting). But it is true that whatever I've tried to cook based on their recipes was good.

                  If you really want to uderstand the science of cooking, get a copy of "On Food And Cooking" by Harold McGee. It's a fascinating book.

                  P.S. It's not by coincidence that one of the CI's cookbooks is titled "The Cook's Bible". I guess all the other "bible" titles were snatched up by Rose Levy Beranbaum, another cookbook author who found "The Way" to bake everything...

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Sir Gawain
                    amazing grace

                    "It's not by coincidence that one of the CI's cookbooks is titled "The Cook's Bible". I guess all the other "bible" titles were snatched up by Rose Levy Beranbaum"

                    Come to the light brother or your baked goods will never be as good as ours. I know that's harsh but it says so in THE BIBLE.