Happy Valentine’s Day!
I love cooking. LOVE LOVE LOVE cooking. A good cookbook or cooking magazine will drag me down a rabbit hole of researching, searching out ingredients, testing recipes, and
begging inviting folks to come over and be test subjects for enjoy my newest dish. Cookbooks have been research materials for novels, as well. It’s much easier to describe a food if you’ve made it yourself!
So instead of talking about romance today, I’m offering you … a cooking magazine review.
I used to have a shelf of over twenty cookbooks. I might be underestimating that figure. *ahem* For various reasons–-the need to slim down clutter, moving about, an unfortunate stint in a mildew-laden environment–-my cooking shelf is now primarily cooking magazines. Specifically, Cook’s Illustrated. I absolutely fell in love with this magazine years ago, and it never fails to teach me something new and interesting.
For a really interesting background on Christopher Kimball, who launched, sold, bought back and relaunched the magazine, check out this article.
Flanked by consistently great front and back cover art, the inside showcases a clean, easy to read format, lots of great sketched illustrations and photos, and valuable side-matter. There are Quick Tips, which features mail-in tips from readers; I’m continually surprised by some of the ideas folks come up with, and I’ve adopted several myself. For example, in the latest edition on my desk (March/April 2017), there’s this tip:
Storing Dry Goods: Paper bags of flour and sugar are prone to tears and holes, so Ward Wood of Bardstown, Ky., transfers his dry goods from their original packaging into gallon-size ziploc bags, which he then labels. The plastic is sturdier than paper and more compact than a hard storage container. Plus, the bag’s large opening makes it easy to measure without making a mess.
I concur. I’ve begun doing this with sugar, and oh lord is it ever easier to handle!
The focus of Cook’s Illustrated is on two things: explaining the science behind a recipe, and reworking a problematic recipe to create streamlined, consistently yummy results. The title of each article lays out the goal clearly. For example (again, from the March/April 2017 edition):
Better Hash Browns: How do you make a crispy, creamy shredded potato cake that isn’t greasy and is a cinch to flip? It starts with a cake pan.
I loved that particular recipe, by the way. Hash browns are one of my quiet favorites, and one of the ways I judge if a restaurant is worth a breakfast visit. I’ll be trying this version as soon as I have the time.
In addition to reader tips and analytical recipe articles, there are also reviews of staples and equipment. “Tasting Premium Extra-Virgin Olive Oil”, “Rating Silicone Spatulas,” and “Equipment Corner”, for example. The Ingredient Notes section talks about many of the items mentioned throughout the recipes of the month: to name only two, “Determining the Age of Eggs” and “Sorting out Rye Flours” were damn useful bits of information for me.
I particularly like the Kitchen Notes section, featuring pro tips generally related to the theme of the issue. “What Is It?” is the star of this part, in my opinion: an odd, usually antique gadget is unearthed, researched, and explained, along with notes on whether it holds up to today’s equivalents. (Sometimes the answer is resoundingly it’s better than modern versions!)
The front cover clearly lists all the major articles within, making it simple to pick out the magazine with the recipe I’m looking for. The Table of Contents offers a cleanly organized list of where to find what; the Index, at the back, offers both text and photo listings of the contents. If you can’t remember the name but do remember the photo that headed the recipe, this is a huge win.
So okay. I love Cook’s Illustrated. I think you got that loud and clear. But wait. Because now there’s Milk Street, created by the same guy who’s behind CI.
I will note that while I’d heard of America’s Test Kitchen before, I’d never been particularly interested. For whatever reason, it just didn’t catch my attention. Looking over their web site and at their books today, I still don’t feel compelled to check them out. I don’t know why. Perhaps I’m simply (and unfairly) equating any cookbook with “America” anything in the title with boring and bland food. Maybe it’s that the current feature image of two blond white ladies in aprons is prompting only an epic shrug from me. Given the current political chaos, picking out two white women to represent “America’s Test Kitchen” seems dreadfully tone deaf to me.
I also find it particularly ironic that I have such an indifferent reaction to ATK, considering that it is literally the home of Cook’s Illustrated. And yes, Christopher Kimball is a rich white guy.
Without knowing any of that lawsuit stuff beforehand, I finally sat down with my promo copy of Milk Street and was enchanted.
Milk Street is like Cook’s Illustrated 2.0: still no ads, still featuring great photos, a starkly simple layout, but with a drastically narrower focus. The recipe articles are streamlined, without all the detail that can occasionally feel tedious in CI. Instead of a single recipe taking up two or three pages, here there are sometimes multiple recipes on a single page. There’s a lot more text, and it feels like a smaller font; it’s definitely a busier visual overall, with less white space than CI.
Equipment reviews have been ditched, as have the Kitchen Notes, tips from readers, and a great deal of the side matter featured in CI. Instead, Milk Street has a small book review section that covers both fiction and non fiction: the reviews are short but solidly written. In the initial issue, Kimball covers “The Food & Wine of France” (Edward Behr), “Sweetbitter” (Stephanie Danler), and “Land of Fish and Rice” (Fuschia Dunlop). I’ve added those books to my TBR list, of course. 🙂
Kimball is, unapologetically, using Milk Street to position himself as an ethnic cuisine bridge-builder between the world and Americans who don’t already have harissa and pickled mustard seeds in their repertoire. It’s not a bad position to take, and I think he does it reasonably well.
Perhaps surprisingly, however, I’m not going to subscribe to Milk Street. For one thing, money is tight: if I pick up this one, I’d have to ditch Cook’s Illustrated. For another, given the uproar and lawsuits, I’d rather hold off until the fuss settles out. I suspect that either the content and layout of Milk Street will change significantly to satisfy the complaints, or the magazine will quietly go under as a way of ending the lawsuits.
I’m definitely hanging on to the promo issue. It’s damn good. Better than Cook’s Illustrated, in many ways. I’d recommend asking for the sample copy, for as long as that option is open. (If you’re interested, Cook’s Illustrated also offers a free sample copy, so you can try them both and see which you like for yourself!)
But for now, in an either/or situation, I’ll stick with Cook’s Illustrated for the reader’s tips, equipment tests, and thorough explanations of how each recipe went from original challenge to final result.