Archive for: cooks illustrated
Many people will describe baking as a science, and point out that they like the freedom of cooking by feel a lot more than the exactitude of baking. All kinds of cooking rely heavily on science, however, and whether you are aware of it or not, scientific principles help govern what ends up on your plate for dinner at night. The test kitchen at Cook’s Illustrated has been working for more than 20 years to determine what makes the perfect recipe and why, and in The Science of Good Cooking, they’ve put together a list of 50 basic concepts that explain the science behind your cooking that makes recipes work.
The book is divided up by concepts, not simply by recipe type. The concepts are written simply, so you might be surprised to see titles like “Bones Add Flavor Fat and Juiciness” and “Bloom Spices to Boost Their Flavor” instead of chapters about chicken, pork, etc. There are quite a few chapters that are baking-oriented, too, so “Cocoa Powder Delivers Big Flavor” and “Two Leaveners are Better Than One” are great places to start if you love to bake. The science behind each concept is fully explained in cook-friendly terms, so the book doesn’t read like a boring textbook, and you get plenty of examples that illustrate the concept. There are also 400 recipes in the book, so you will have plenty of places to put your new scientific knowledge to use. The introduction, instead of just listing the tools and ingredients that you might need to work with, even gives its information from a scientific perspective.
This book is filled with a lot of great information that will most likely help you to become a better cook. It is fun to read through, even if you don’t end up making the recipes that are paired with each concept (although, since their CI recipes, you know that they will be reliably delicious). Knowing the “whys” and “hows” of cooking lets you make good decisions in the kitchen and allows you to develop your culinary instinct – it also cuts down on the number of failed experiments that you might do, since the basics in this book keep you pointed firmly in the right direction.
An egg topper is a kitchen gadget that you really only need if you like soft boiled eggs. But if you do, you know the value of a gadget that will neatly slice off the top of an egg – shell and all – to allow you to easily get to the perfectly cooked center with your spoon or with a stick of buttery toast. Egg toppers work neatly and quickly, and I’ve also used mine (which is pictured above) to make cool looking egg cups to serve puddings and panna cotta in.
Cook’s Illustrated recently (Jan/Feb 2013) put some toppers to the test to see which ones worked the best. They found that egg toppers come in two styles: scissor and spring-loaded. The scissor models worked faster and were significantly cheaper, but cut less cleanly. The spring toppers worked like little plungers, pulling the tops off with much more precision, but were triple the cost of the scissor models. In the end, the test kitchen team opted for the easier-to-use plunger models over the scissor style, despite the price difference. The winner was the Rosle Egg Topper, which was very precise and reliably topped eggs time and again. Their second choice topper was made by Paderno World Cuisine, which topped the eggs cleanly, but often cracked the bottom shell as well. Their last choice was the scissor style Fox Run Topper, which did get the job done, but not as neatly as the spring-loaded competition.
Cocoa powder is a staple ingredient for everyone who likes to bake and is called for in most chocolate recipes, because it adds an intense chocolate flavor to everything from cookies to pies. Cocoa power is also a somewhat expensive ingredient and, in a recent issue (Nov/Dec 2012), Cook’s Illustrated set out to taste test supermarket cocoa powders to see what brands offered the best flavor and the best value.
They primarily looked for flavor in the eight brands they tested. They found that, for the cookie recipes and hot chocolate recipes that they used in their tests, it didn’t matter whether the cocoa was natural or dutched processed in their rankings (cakes, however, may call for one or the other for more precise chemical leavening reasons). It turned out that how the cocoa nibs were roasted before being ground into powder and just how fine that powder turned out to be were the most important flavor factors for the cocoa. It also turned out that price didn’t necessarily translate to a flavor that the test kitchen loved.
Their top ranked supermarket brand turned out to be Hershey’s Natural Unsweetened Cocoa. It was inexpensive and produced an “assertive” chocolate flavor with a lot of depth that taste testers loved. Second place went to Droste Cocoa, a Dutch process that ranked high in taste tests but was almost three times the price of the Hershey’s. The other top spots went to Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa and Valhrona Cocoa Powder, which was good but too smokey for some tasters.
Brands that received a “Recommended with Reservations” rank included Ghirardelli Natural Unsweetened Cocoa, Scharffen Berger Unsweetened Cocoa, Nestle Toll House Cocoa and Equal Exchange Baking Cocoa.
The test kitchen did have one other cocoa powder that they loved, but that wasn’t included in the results of this taste test because it isn’t a supermarket brand. Their top cocoa powder was actually Callebaut Cocoa Powder (which is what I primarily use). The pricy cocoa is typically only available from specialty retailers and some restaurant supply-type stores, but it has exceptional depth and richness to it. The Hershey’s came close in a side-by-side bake off with the Callebaut, so it deserves its top ranking in the supermarket brand test, but Callebaut is still a test-kitchen favorite.
Custard, cake and apples all come together into one spectacular dessert in this French Apple Cake. The recipe was featured in a recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated (Sept/Oct 2012). Often, the test kitchen remakes recipes that I am already familiar with, looking for a better way to approach them. This time, I hadn’t heard of this particular kind of cake before, but it sounded too good to resist and I gave it a try as soon as I had a chance.
The cake is rich, eggy and custardy, with 1 1/2 pounds of thinly sliced apples packed into it. On top of that custardy layer is a thin layer of tender, fluffy cake. It’s a very unique combination of elements in this cake, but everything works together beautifully. The vanilla in the cake batter really comes through and is a nice compliment to the apples. I added a cinnamon sugar mixture to the top before baking, which made a fragrant and crisp topping. Making a layered cake like this one may sound like a daunting task when you’re looking at the picture of it, but it is surprisingly easy to make. The most difficult part of the recipe is peeling and slicing 1 1/2 pounds of sweet-tart Granny Smith apples when you start out!
The apples for this cake are cut into very small pieces that are cooked in the microwave prior to being incorporated into the cake batter. They’re cooked covered, so they actually steam in the microwave. This tenderizes the apples and helps them meld a little better into the finished cake, so that you get apple slices that still have some texture but aren’t too hard compared to the custard.
After my own testing, baking the cake several times, I found that I had a few changes over the test kitchen’s version of the recipe. First, I found that their recipe called for so much oil that while the cake was “moist” it was also greasy. I reduced the fat in the recipe by almost 25%. I also compared a cake made with melted butter one made with the oil they called for. While the oil version of the cake did taste good, I felt that the butter cake was just as moist and had a little bit better flavor overall. My taste testers couldn’t really tell the difference, however, so go ahead and use the oil if you want to keep things easy and you won’t miss out.
I recently lost my regular blender when the motor burned out as I made a batch of iced coffee drinks on a hot weekend afternoon. I had to scrap the blended coffee drinks for the day, of course, but not having a working blender also meant that I wasn’t able to make my favorite blender waffle recipe until it was replaced. I haven’t picked out a new model yet, but luckily for me, a recent Cook’s Illustrated (Sept/Oct 2012) featured a test kitchen review of blenders that is making the process a little easier!
The test kitchen was looking for a blender that could handle any task, from blending milkshakes to margaritas and pureeing soups to smoothies. They wanted something with a lot of power, durability and that made less noise than a jet engine. They also looked for a blender that was a consistent performer, blending smoothly and not leaving chunks of unblended food trapped beneath its blades.
The two top performers, and co-winners, were the Vitamix 5200 and the Breville Hemisphere Control Blender. The Vitamix has the steepest price, but has exceptional strength and durability. The Breville costs less than half of what the Vitamix does, and performed admirably at every task it was challenged with. The test kitchen also noted that if the Breville holds up to their prolonged use in the test kitchen as well as it did to their durability tests, it might end up being their top overall blender in the future. It is going to the top of my list of blender choices at the moment, too!
Runners up, receiving the “Recommended with Reservations” designation, were the Ninja Professional Blender and the Hamilton Beach Rio Commercial Bar Blender. The Ninja didn’t quite crush ice as well as the winning blenders, and the Hamilton Beach sometimes trapped ice cubes and fruit beneath its blades and needed a little encouragement from a spatula to finish the job.
The “Not Recommended” blenders included the Cuisinart Blend and Cook Soup Maker, Hamilton Beach Wave Maker, Oster 7-Speed Blender and the Waring Pro Professional Food and Beverage Blender. I also want to point out that the test kitchen’s previous favorite model, the KitchenAid 5-speed Blender, was dropped completely from their testing and didn’t even make the “not recommended” list because it showed signs of falling apart during the test.