The moment Christopher Kimball of America’s Test Kitchen took the stage at the Tobin Center recently, my pen was poised. And then it ran out of ink.
So there are no notes with quotes to help me remember what the genial host had to tell his charmed audience of about 700.
But few who were there could forget the sight of Kimball sporting one of his signature bow ties while talking about the way America cooks. He’s learned our cooking habits the hard way, if you can believe some of the letters that have come his way after ATK’s recipes have been placed in the hands of home cooks out there. One concerned a pound cake recipe in which the writer had substituted everything from coconut flour to egg whites, instead of using the ingredients in the original recipe. There were a great many laughs and even a few gasps from the audience as he read of how the cook had used Smart Balance, a margarine substitute, instead of butter, which is not meant for baking and is clearly marked so on the package. The writer went on to write that she had tried several variations of her substitutions, but none of them had worked. Go figure.
Then there was the man who wrote in because how disappointed he was in an ATK chicken recipe he had tried. He admitted he substituted shrimp for chicken in the recipe, but they tasted terrible even though he had cooked them for the 40 minutes that the recipe had called for. Shrimp cooked for 40 minutes? Yikes.
Sorry, folks, but the whole point of America’s Test Kitchen, which is home to the magazines Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, is that they do the testing so you don’t have to. The folks in their kitchen may taste dozens of recipes or ingredients before deciding on what meets their standards and what they think will appeal most to their public. They test techniques, too, as a means of helping you save time. And they’ve paid attention to America’s evolving diet and tastes. They even have plenty of gluten-free recipes for those whose bodies can’t tolerate the ingredient.
Their research has filled the nearly 1,000-page cookbook, “The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook: 2001-2015” (America’s Test Kitchen, $45), which was for sale in the lobby, at least until the last copies were carried away. Each recipe in the book begins with a note on “Why this recipe works.” In the case of the Ultimate Creamy Mashed Potatoes, ATK suggests using Yukon Golds in which the surface starch has been rinsed away, a move that “helped intensify their creamy texture without making them gluey.” They also tried Barbecued Pulled Pork with a variety of meat cuts but eventually settled on a shoulder roast, also called Boston butt, because it “has the most fat, (and it) retained the most moisture and flavor during a long, slow cook.”
The evening was a relatively gimmick-free presentation, with little but a pair of tables, one with a microwave and a few other gadgets on it while the other was strictly used for tastings. As fans of the TV show know, Kimball doesn’t cook — but he knows his food. He demonstrated this by inviting a half-dozen eager volunteers to join him on stage for several tastings, one of which showed that people of all backgrounds generally prefer orange juice concentrate over the supposed freshness found in ready-to-drink brands like Tropicana, though the sales of concentrate lag far behind the jug juices. Another group found imitation vanilla to be more to their liking than real vanilla when it’s baked in cookies, which has also proven to be the case in America’s Test Kitchen.
The 90-minute presentation was also filled with cooking tips that were extremely practical. I think my favorite was the suggestion to ignore the direction in the next recipe you try that tells you to seed a tomato before chopping it up for use. The flavor of a ripe tomato is concentrated in the seeds, Kimball said, so why would you want to throw away the flavor?
Another was that your beef will taste better if you slow cook it before putting it on the grill. Kimball’s associate Dan Souza said that you should place the meat in a 250-degree oven until it reaches an internal temperature of 90 degrees. Then finish it off on the grill.
While talking about beef, Kimball also destroyed one myth of cooking: Searing the outside of meat over really high heat does not seal in the juices. But searing does produce a flavor that people really like, so don’t stop using this technique.
One demonstration worth writing in the memory bank was the best way to whisk eggs. Souza had three audience members whisk egg whites using different techniques: one was in a circular motion, another also used a circular motion but lifted the whisk out of the bowl, and the third moved back and forth. The last worked best and it was the simplest. By the time the demonstration was finished, the egg whites beaten with a straight back-and-forth motion were stiff and the stirrer was ready for more, while the other two featured still-runny eggs and the stirrers’ wrists were tired from all that work. I’m going to put the technique to work in ATK’s recipe for Rich and Creamy Scrambled Eggs.