Cook's Illustrated: subscription, books, library?
I posted this over at Food Media and News, but perhaps I should have posted it here since you talk about cookbooks here. I checked out of the library 14 issues of CI just to see what it was like (since it's mentioned a lot here at Chowhound). I really like it and think I could learn a lot from it. But I have several questions:
First, can I trust them? I mean, they make it sound like I should toss all my old recipes and go with theirs because they've found the absolute best way to make EVERYTHING.
If I can trust them, then I can't figure out if it's best to have a print subscription, an online one (I didn't know there was a difference till recently), buy the year-end compendiums, or just buy the one main CI Cookbook. OR I could just keep checking them out from the library and copying the recipes/tips I like best. But at this point, I like just about everything--except for the more complicated, sophisticated dishes.
I love CI, but I don't use it so much for recipes (especially not ethnic/non-American recipes, which tend to be way under-spiced). Rather, I turn to CI as a reference for tips, techniques and product reviews. I have an online subscription, which I like much more than the paper magazine or any of the books, for this very reason - you always have access to their most up-to-date product recommendations.
I agree that they make it sound as though their recipes are the ne plus ultra of every single thing they make, but there is no need to dump recipes you already love to make theirs. However, the techniques they develop are often applicable to many other versions of whatever recipe they're attached to, and by adopting some of their tricks you can elevate a recipe you already use.
I'm a CI junky and feel like I can totally trust them. Almost every recipe that I've made from them where I actually follow their recipe and don't sub out ingredients or shortcut steps has worked. I use it to "teach myself" how to make something, and then later alter or do things to make them easier. I've been using them for 10 years now and still don't feel like I've outgrown them - I still dabble in other cookbooks from the library, but there's no other source that consistently gets it right every time.
I had a subscription to their online service one year, but found that I didn't use it as much as their cookbooks. I think it's a personal thing - I like the physical act of flipping. A lot of their cookbooks do overlap in recipes, but I still personally like having them just to peruse. If you're not into the complicated recipes, I recommend their 30 minute meals book, plus their main one, and you should be good to go.
If you have an online subscription, as soon as you stop paying, your access ends. I would be disinclined to select that option unless you are very mobile, don't have storage space, or money is not a concern for you.
I would also go for a techniques book. If you really like their stuff, get a mega volume, but they recycle a LOT of their stuff. I own their Science of Good Cooking; although not a lot in it was new, I enjoyed reading it (I received a review copy of it and their pressure cooker book, not sure I would have paid for either), and I bought the healthy cooking book, for "tested" ways to increase the healthiness quotient of certain foods, although I haven't actually used it (yet?). Amusingly, a lot of the photos in it are also used in the regular family cookbook, so who knows what we're really looking at? I check out some of their magazines from the library but rarely am inclined to cook anything from it. I feel like it's not really what I want to cook, but sometimes their techniques are worth knowing about. Their recipes are somewhat fiddly for my lifestyle and are not always in my taste so they are nowhere near being a one source wonder for me.
They are not a great source for food that is not typically "American" (e.g. meatloaf, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes), although they occasionally venture into French/Italian food and more recently have tackled typical takeout Indian and Chinese dishes, although Christopher Kimball clearly doesn't approve (per the NYT mag article). Their dessert recipes are all very traditional, nothing exotic or modern or different -- apple pie, yellow cake, chocolate chip cookies, that sort of thing. I have occasionally found their techniques interesting, but do not use their recipes. They also favor VERY strong flavors, especially in chocolate, that do not match my own preferences. They once went to Vienna to the home of some torte (where it had been invented) and rejected it as being tasteless and whatever. Ha. Very humble. They really remind me of an informercial where the most normal activity is shown as being impossibly challenging....until they intervene with their magic recipe! So I try to not take them too seriously.
I agree with that last assessment: as though no one ever made a particular dish correctly until they came along.
I never fall for infomercials, but I guess I fall for them because I don't know any better. ;-)
It's actually their recipes like orange chicken and poulet au pot that I'm interested in: things that I always thought were too complicated to try but are made to look possible for me.
I also love the tips and cookware suggestions--ALTHOUGH when recently at a kitchen store the clerk showed me a pepper mill rated the best by CI: when I tried it on the smallest grind, it put out all kinds of big chunks. The clerk acted like it was wonderful, but I'm sticking with my Unicorn key top pepper mill.
I like both CI and ATK because they are solid recipes. If you follow it, you'll have a successful recipe.
For me, I'm not an intuitive cook. I'm a novice in the kitchen so I don't know how to build a recipe and have it taste good. They do. Through the use of their books and recipes I've been able to learn how food goes together and understand that x, y, and z will give me a specific taste.
I don't think I'll ever be creating my own recipes and I'm OK with that. But I can read a recipe now and taste it in my mind. I can also sense things that are missing at this point.
I have a subscription to the website which I like because it's a complete resource. I have some books, my favorite is the Cooking for Two series from ATK.
I think the end of year compendium books are nice (for the magazines) because it's one book and not a bunch of magazines.
They like to take your money, that's certain, but I never feel like I'm being cheated with what I GET from them. A lot of the books are repeats and collections, but you can avoid that.
For example, if you've got the "Best Recipe" books (there are two) that's a lot of their major recipes. If you get a chicken book, it'll be all the chicken recipes from all their books. All the speciality techniques are going to be gathered from all their books as well, so you'll get repeats.
But, libraries are a GREAT resource. I end up checking them out, reading through them, and checking to see how much content is already in my library. I also tend to make lists as I review them from the library of all the recipes I'd try in it. If it's just a few, then I won't get the book but I'll borrow them.
I find that some of their complicated recipes seem TOO complicated, but often, after I've made it, I see WHY it is and realize that it's what helps to make it "the best."
For example, they go to a lot of effort with their slow cooker recipes and it's not dump & cook method. It takes WORK to make those recipes and it's annoying but OMG the food tastes so much better when you do all the work! It elevates slow cooker to a level you won't get if you just dump things into the cooker and walk away.
Bottom line, if given a choice of books to make recipes from, I'll choose CI over everyone else for the firs attempt.
Check eBay for good deals on past issues of the magazines and annual hardbound collections of the year's issues. Same for Cook's Country, their other "line". You can set up a saved search so you'll receive an e-mail any time these items are listed. Let's face it, there's no compelling reason to get these recipes hot off the presses.
Lots of good opinions about this already, but here is mine.
I do get their magazine. I enjoy reading it when I have spare time or on an airplane. I pass my issues along to friends who also like to read it by the time the next issue comes along. I am space limited, so in order to still use the recipes from the magazine I also have an online account. This gives me quick access to the recipes that I have read and wanted to try, references, product review when I want some new kitchenware.
I also have a couple of their books (because I'm a cookbook junkie). The most recent "The Cooks Illustrated Cookbook" is the one I use the most. I use this when I want to flip though while planning a meal or dinner party for ideas. I like the flipping through thing, too.
The recipes I use of theirs most, like others have said, is the Americana recipes. The potato salad is one of my favorite potato salads ever. Even though I can make it without a recipe I still like to follow this one.
They are quirky and they have a lot of people that don't like them...my father being one of them. But, I trust their recipes and I like their quirkiness! Judge for yourself.
No, you can't trust them for everything. And I'm a big fan. I would say I like 90% of their recipes, but every so once in a while, I run into a real dog. Maybe it's just personal taste. Plus, they only do dishes that many others have done before them. So i you want something new and different, you're not going to get it from them. Some of their "ethnic" dishes are fine; others, less so. Plus they've very East Coast biased.
While I have a few old copies of the magazine, and regularly watch new TV episodes, I mostly use their books from the library.
I don't think I've every 'tossed out' an old recipe in favor of one of theirs, but I have gotten ideas from them. More often than not, their improvements consist of one or two steps.
For example in a banana bread, they drain the banana puree to concentrate the flavor. With this, and fruit pies they suggest boiling down the drained liquid to further concentrate flavor. Their recipes are more likely to toast the nuts.
I really learn a lot watching the CI / ATK shows and I used to have a subscription to the magazines, but now use the library or Barnes and Nobles with a pad and pencil. When I see a good recipe, I copy. I know it's stealing, but they charge for everything, anytime you want a closer look, money is asked for. That yanked my chain one too many times. I do get a recipe book for holiday gift once in a while. Nice gift idea.
For the first 2 years I was cooking, I had a full membership to America's Test Kitchen Web site. I did not subscribe to the paper magazine or to that other show of theirs. I did want access to all of ATK's recipes. I diligently copied any I thought I might want in the future to my hard drive. I copied most of their articles to Word and my hard drive. I read most of their tutorials and equipment reviews. After 2 years I didn't renew my membership. I still record all their new shows on Saturday afternoon and review them.
Two of the best cookbooks you can buy are The Cook's Bible Cookbook By Christopher Kimball and The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook.
One of the criticisms of ATK is they keep changing their recipes so you will keep buying their books. The other criticism is they will nickle and dime you to death and send you emails about their cookbooks for years.
I still recommend ATK for the student cook. They are great.