Review: The Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2009

Every weekend, I review a cookbook in an attempt to lend some guidance in a field that has become overrun. These days everyone is writing cookbooks and it is incredibly upsetting to buy a dud and have it sit on your shelf for years – staring at you, mocking your poor judgment.

I was first introduced to America’s Test Kitchen on TV. I saw the show awhile ago and was intrigued by the idea because it seems like such a simple concept and yet I had never seen anything like it. When I saw that they were coming out with, “The Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2009“, I had a feeling it was going to be a keeper.

What is the test kitchen? The idea behind the test kitchen is so simple. Take some of the best chefs around, give them the food and tools they need, and let them try recipes until they are perfected. The problem with recipes these days are that there are hundreds of different versions and the average at-home chef has no idea which one will actually produce good results.

They weed through all of this mess and you end up with the best of the best. It’s a simple concept that is perfectly executed.

Who runs this kitchen?

There is not one single chef that makes every single recipe. In fact, in this one book there are probably around 15 different chefs that present their recipes. The founder is a very well spoken gentlemen named Christopher Kimball. Even he says in the introduction though that it would be impossible for one person to compile something like this.

I sort of get this image of Christopher peering over a vast sea of burners and pots – pointing and gesturing to an army of chefs. “Try it with more butter.” “Use the broiler, man!” “Blanche don’t bake!” It’s like some crazy never-ending Iron Chef episode. Of course, I’m sure it is nothing like that, but whatever it is, it produces good stuff.

What’s in a recipe?

There are not as many recipes in this book as you would think when you pick it up. That’s because most of the recipes span more than one of the book’s large pages. Each recipe is prefaced by a fairly thorough summary by the chef explaining a bit about the history of the dish and what different variations were tried. Ultimately, the most successful recipe is given.

The layout of each recipe is great. If you are interested in all of the failed techniques and background (like me) you can easily read that stuff. If you actually have a life, they make it easy to distinguish the actual recipe and you can skip right to it. After all, the purpose is that they do all the hard work so you can only succeed.

French Onion Soup

Each recipe in this book is great, but I thought I would use one of my favorites as an example. They take something that has a lot of lore behind it and can be prepared in many different (usually incorrect) ways. If you get it right, it is delicious. If you get it wrong, it is watery onions with soggy bread.

I wanted to use this as an example also because it shows the chef’s dedication. This means not only presenting you, the reader, with a delicious recipe, but also presenting a practical recipe. In this case, the chef was presented with the perfect recipe for the soup by, gasp, a Frenchman. The problem was that it was fairly complicated. The chef set out to not only test the recipe she was given, but also try other alternatives to ensure it really was the best, and also simplify the process to make it realistic for the average home chef.

While I haven’t made the recipe myself, it looks great and I have full confidence that it is awesome. That said, I do intend to try it in the next few weeks because French onion soup is something I love and have never been able to master. So look out for it!

They are good chefs. And thorough.

This is sort of a vague reference, but maybe you got it. The point is that these guys and gals cooking these dishes are seriously thorough and it gives me confidence when I use one of the recipes. I’ll be posting the first dish that I made from this book later this week, for Chicken Saltimbocca. Now normally, a dish like this would have me slightly quivering with fear. But the fact that they chef in charge of this dish tried different versions on 150 different cutlets gave me a huge amount of confidence.

150 different varieties just for one recipe. That is the kind of thoroughness I’m talking about here. As you’ll see later this week, my chicken saltimbocca came out perfect.

Test Kitchen Resources

There is a side benefit of cooking hundreds of versions of a recipe. You can use those trials to test hundreds of different cooking methods, tools, and ingredients. The last 40 pages of the book are these findings and I found them to be incredibly helpful. There are awesome tips on stews, roasting meat, prepping fish, and stocking a baking pantry just to name a few.

The equipment reviews are awesome. Want to know the best kind of garlic press? Well, they will tell you that it is this one. They will also recommend this mandoline, this pepper mill, and this liquid dish detergent just to name a few.

After reading through this book, I’m really excited to try more of the recipes. The explanations and background behind the recipes not only make those recipes seem simple, but you also start to get a glimpse into the minds of really good chefs and guess what – that makes you better in the kitchen.

10 comments on “Review: The Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2009

  1. i love the show and their mag, cook's illustrated. but my only problem is that i hate to follow recipes. so when i deviate from their *perfected* recipe, i feel extra guilty. chris kimball would totally hate me.

  2. Hi Nick,

    I am a first time visitor, keen interest in fast cooking. Very impressive and informative article/blog.

    I wasn't aware of what Test Kitchen were before I read your article, can't wait to see the outcome of the French Soup.

    AM.

  3. Alright, I will be waiting for French onion soup. I have been thinking about making this myself lately but have not decided on a recipe yet. :)

  4. I'm a big fan of their cooking show. Love the way they experiment with ingredients & techniques, especially identifying the reason for their choices for the final ingredient. Thanks for reviewing their cookbook for us. ;o}

  5. I have around the 2006 version of this cookbook and I love it! Whenever I am cooking something new I always check to see if it is there to get tips and hints on how to make it better. I do love to how it explains some science behind the baking so you know what ingredients not to exchange/cut out to get the flavor you want.

    The technique hints are really great too because sometimes cooking shows skip the parts on how to do something or that isn't mentioned in the recipe!

  6. If this is the same Christopher Kimball I'm familiar with, then this is probably very much like the Cook's Illustrated "Best Recipe" collection I bought several years ago and just LOVE. Everything I try out of there is perfect, and I learn a lot about cooking science ala Alton Brown along the way. This is definitely going on my Amazon wish list.

    And LOVE the nachos on the next post .. gotta try those, too!

  7. I have used their French Onion soup recipe since I luckily got it in the mail one month (Thanks Mom for the best birthday present subscription ever!). It is absolutely amazing.

Leave a Comment