I prefer to get my information by reading instead of watching TV—mostly because I tend to zone out and then get all nervous about what I missed—so for several years I was a subscriber to Cook’s Illustrated, published by the same media company that produces America’s Test Kitchen. I admired its cooks for their obsessive dedication to finding the very best way to prepare a basic dish, though at times I also wondered if they were slightly insane. This, for a certain kind of cook, is the appeal of America’s Test Kitchen. That sort of cook is someone who is relatively new to cooking or someone who has been cooking for a long time and just wants to get the best-tasting dish possible onto the table. The ATK cooks endure the headaches, and you get the perfect scrambled eggs. The approach could come off as smug, especially given all the crowing about how they have discovered the One True Way, but if it works, who can blame them?
Now ATK the TV show is 20 years old, and it has produced a handsome cookbook of its greatest hits. It begins with an introduction to the cast members and a few behind-the-scenes stories in case you’re interested in getting to know them better (though, curiously, it ignores alumni such as J. Kenji Lopez-Alt and original host Christopher Kimball, who left abruptly and litigiously in 2015). And then it gets to business.
There are 580 recipes in America’s Test Kitchen Twentieth Anniversary TV Show Cookbook. They are all for things you’ve heard of and have probably eaten before: roast chicken, spaghetti and meatballs, vegetarian chili, lemon ricotta pancakes, enchiladas, mapo tofu. A short headnote for each recipe explains “why this recipe works”: why the specific ingredients were chosen, tips on buying your own, an explanation of the methodology, a brief overview of the testing process, including discussion of why certain things went wrong and how the cook finally arrived at the version you are about to read. It’s less intense than Cook’s Illustrated, with a lot less science. It asks you to simply trust.
Do they work? To find out, I made multiple recipes from the book: Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies, Fish Meunière with Browned Butter and Lemon served with Crispy Roasted Potatoes, and Best Chicken Parmesan.
Ever since the New York Times posted the infamous Jacques Torres chocolate chip cookie recipe in 2006 that called for the dough to spend at least 24 hours in the refrigerator before baking, it’s been almost impossible to find a chocolate chip cookie that you can eat the same day you decide to make it. This is sad, because when you get it into your head to make chocolate chip cookies, you want to eat at least some within the hour. So I am pleased to report that ATK agrees with me on this, and also that brown butter makes everything taste better. I was a bit dubious about using all melted better since, in my experience, it interacts with the flour in some weird way that makes the finished cookies shiny and cakey. But that’s me being an incompetent baker, not an ATK cook, so these turned out fine. Right out of the oven, they were smooth in a way that was not entirely satisfying, but that’s what I get for not obeying the recipe’s final directive: “Let cookies cool completely before serving.” The next morning, friends and I consumed them with great joy. Still. I’m slightly skeptical of any chocolate chip cookie that’s not tastiest when still warm and gooey from the oven.
I was happier with the savory entrees. The Crispy Roasted Potatoes are cut into rounds instead of cubes, which is actually kind of brilliant because it’s much easier to get potatoes evenly browned when you’re just cooking two surfaces instead of six. (I overcooked them and some pieces ended up burned, but that is entirely my fault.) The Fish Meunière was delicious, even though I used cod instead of the traditional sole. I mean, yes, a sauce that is essentially browned butter with a small squirt of lemon is hard to screw up, but the recipe did offer a helpful tip for using two spatulas to flip the fish in the pan so they don’t fall apart, as the fish I cook often do. And the Chicken Parm was comforting the way chicken parm is supposed to be. The breading stayed crispy, and yes, ATK, it was a good idea to put the cheese directly on the chicken so that it stayed put and then spoon the tomato sauce over everything.
So okay, maybe ATK is justified in its smugness. This cookbook will help you cook well without requiring much in the way of imagination, creativity, or even cooking skill. And that is absolutely fine. Sometimes, it’s nice to have someone holding your hand when all you want is to eat dinner at a reasonable hour without anyone crying.