Tried And True Tricks From 'America's Test Kitchen'

Dec 7, 2011
Originally published on December 7, 2011 3:07 pm

The mission of America's Test Kitchen is simple: to make "recipes that work." The syndicated PBS cooking show, hosted by Christopher Kimball, simplifies recipes in ways that home chefs can easily replicate with a fairly high degree of success.

Making sure amateur chefs can re-create recipes designed by professional chefs is of utmost importance, Kimball tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

"We bring people into our kitchen and watch people cook our recipes and send our recipes out by email, and we know that what people do with those recipes bears little resemblance to what we do with them," says Kimball. "For example, they will substitute ingredients with great abandon. They will never read the recipe ahead of time."

Kimball remembers a chicken recipe from several years ago. One man wrote in to say it was the worst chicken recipe he'd ever made. Turns out, the man didn't have chicken in the house, so he'd substituted shrimp.

"Well, 40 minutes of cooking shrimp in a skillet is simply not going to come out very well," Kimball says. "And guess whose fault that was? Mine. So most of recipe writing is what the person at home is going to do to your recipe. It's not whether you can make it in your test kitchen."

Kimball is also the founder, editor and publisher of Cook's Illustrated Magazine. More than 2,000 recipes from the magazine are collected in The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook. On Wednesday's Fresh Air, Kimball and his Test Kitchen colleague Bridget Lancaster highlight some of their favorite kitchen shortcuts and cooking techniques:

On turkey: Cooking turkey is fraught with peril, Lancaster says — all sorts of things can go wrong. She recommends either brining the bird before cooking — by placing it in a salt and water solution for a few hours — or dissecting the bird ahead of time and roasting it in parts.

"It's the most genius concept that I think we've come across," she says. "You roast the turkey breasts, you roast the parts, they all go on at the same time right onto a sheet pan, and the turkey breast, the thighs, they come out perfect. ... It's the most hands-off recipe you can come across."

On minestrone soup: Need an easy way to make minestrone soup broth? Use V8, says Lancaster: "Somebody just mentioned, 'Why don't we try V8, like the commercial says?' And V8 was perfect. It gave just the right body to the minestrone, the right seasoning. It was an 8-for-1 instead of a 2-for-1 ingredient, because it has all of those flavors in one shot."

(After adding the V8, Lancaster added pancetta and chicken broth to heighten the flavors. She suggests tasting as you go to see what works.)

On store-bought beef broth: Make sure to check the back of the can to make sure beef is actually listed as an ingredient. Kimball says that store-bought broths are often full of chemicals and salt. "I think the last time we rated them, Rachael Ray's beef stock won," Kimball says. "And I remember doing a blind tasting for the TV show, and I was surprised."

(Homemade tastes better but can require pounds and pounds of meat to make, so it's easier to doctor the store-bought kind.)

On using frozen peas to make pea soup: Lancaster says if you're making pea soup, don't bother with the fresh stuff — they're a pain to peel, and they might not be in season.

"[Frozen peas] are actually picked at the most fresh point," she says. "And somebody else has done all the work [of peeling] for you. And they're great, especially if you're using them as an ingredient in a stew. The key is to add them almost as an herb right at the end, and to let them sit in the soup or a risotto for just five minutes to warm them up."

(Kimball adds that canned tomatoes and frozen blueberries can also be substitutes for the fresh stuff — and sometimes taste better, depending on the season.)

On poaching salmon: Salmon is expensive, and if you poach the entire fillet in water, it can wind up with very little flavor, says Lancaster. She recommends adding lemons to the bottom of a pan so that you're only partially submerging the fish in the poaching liquid. Also, try adding wine and herbs to the poaching liquid to lower its boiling point — in order to build a fish with more complex flavors. "It's pretty darn amazing," she says. "And flavorful, which you never get with poached salmon."

On the best pie crust ever: Kimball recommends substituting vodka for half of the water used in your recipe. "You end up using more total liquid [with this method]," he says. "When you bake it, half of the vodka, which is one-quarter of the total liquid, is alcohol, and almost all of that dissipates in the heat of the oven. So you end up with a dry, flaky dough, which you can also roll out."

On one of the biggest mistakes made in the Test Kitchen: Kimball says you should never put a hot glass casserole dish on a wet countertop. Why not? He says it can break into about a thousand pieces. Lancaster adds that one incident with a roux, a glass container and a wet countertop once left the Test Kitchen looking like a scene from Lethal Weapon. "Test cooks were diving across the counter to get away from it," she says.

On working in the Test Kitchen: Think working in a test kitchen and tasting food all day would be enjoyable? It is, but there are downsides to the job — like the "five-pound-a-year rule," which is how much weight the typical test chef gains in a year. And then there are the constant tastings.

"One of the worst things was brownie tastings," says Lancaster. "Because, of course, you don't just have to taste them, you have to feed on them all day. One of the test cooks that works there, she and I counted up the calories we consume in one day. And it was frightening."


Recipe: Fluffy Mashed Potatoes
Serves 4

This recipe works best with either a metal colander that sits easily in a Dutch oven or a large pasta pot with a steamer insert. To prevent excess evaporation, it is important for the lid to fit as snugly as possible over the colander or steamer. A steamer basket will work, but you will have to transfer the hot potatoes out of the basket to rinse them off halfway through cooking. For the lightest, fluffiest texture, use a ricer. A food mill is the next best alternative. Russets and white potatoes will work in this recipe, but avoid red-skinned potatoes.

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes (4 to 6 medium), peeled, cut into 1-inch chunks, rinsed well, and drained

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Table salt

2/3 cup whole milk, warm

Ground black pepper

1. Place metal colander or steamer insert in large pot or Dutch oven. Add enough water for it to barely reach bottom of colander. Turn heat to high and bring water to boil. Add potatoes, cover, and reduce heat to medium-high. Cook potatoes 10 minutes. Transfer colander to sink and rinse potatoes under cold water until no longer hot, 1 to 2 minutes. Return colander and potatoes to pot, cover, and continue to cook until potatoes are soft and tip of paring knife inserted into potato meets no resistance, 10 to 15 minutes longer. Pour off water from Dutch oven.

2. Set ricer or food mill over now-empty pot. Working in batches, transfer potatoes to hopper of ricer or food mill and process, removing any potatoes stuck to bottom. Using rubber spatula, stir in melted butter and 1/2 teaspoon salt until incorporated. Stir in warm milk until incorporated. Season to taste with salt and pepper; serve immediately.


Recipe: Oven-Fried Bacon
Serves 4 to 6

Use a large, rimmed baking sheet, such as a jelly-roll pan, that is shallow enough to promote browning, yet tall enough (at least 3⁄4 inch in height) to contain the rendered bacon fat. To save time, you can add the bacon to the oven before it reaches 400 degrees, but exact cooking time will vary from oven to oven. If cooking more than one tray of bacon, exchange their oven positions once about halfway through the cooking process.

12 slices bacon, thin- or thick-cut

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Arrange bacon slices in a large jelly-roll pan or other shallow baking pan. Roast until fat begins to render, 5 to 6 minutes; rotate pan front-to-back. Continue roasting until crisp and brown, 5 to 6 minutes longer for thin-sliced bacon, 8 to 10 minutes for thick-cut. Transfer with tongs to paper towel–lined plate, drain and serve.


Recipe: Ultimate Banana Bread
Makes one 9-inch loaf

Note: Be sure to use very ripe, heavily speckled (or even black) bananas in this recipe. This recipe can be made using 5 thawed frozen bananas; since they release a lot of liquid naturally, they can bypass the microwaving in step 2 and go directly into the fine-mesh strainer. Do not use a thawed frozen banana in step 4; it will be too soft to slice. Instead, simply sprinkle the top of the loaf with sugar. The test kitchen's preferred loaf pan measures 8 1/2 by 4 1/2 inches; if you use a 9 by 5-inch loaf pan, start checking for doneness five minutes earlier than advised in the recipe. The texture is best when the loaf is eaten fresh, but it can be stored (cool completely first), covered tightly with plastic wrap, for up to 3 days.

1 3/4 cups (8 3/4 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon table salt

6 large very ripe bananas (about 2 1/4 pounds), peeled (see note)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

2 large eggs

3/4 cup packed (5 1/4 ounces) light brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped (optional)

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 8 1/2 by 4 1/2-inch loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray. Whisk flour, baking soda, and salt together in large bowl.

2. Place 5 bananas in microwave-safe bowl; cover with plastic wrap and cut several steam vents in plastic with paring knife. Microwave on high power until bananas are soft and have released liquid, about 5 minutes. Transfer bananas to fine-mesh strainer placed over medium bowl and allow to drain, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes (you should have 1/2 to 3/4 cup liquid).

3. Transfer liquid to medium saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until reduced to 1/4 cup, about 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat, stir reduced liquid into bananas, and mash with potato masher until fairly smooth. Whisk in butter, eggs, brown sugar, and vanilla.

4. Pour banana mixture into flour mixture and stir until just combined with some streaks of flour remaining. Gently fold in walnuts, if using. Scrape batter into prepared pan. Slice remaining banana diagonally into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Shingle banana slices on top of either side of loaf, leaving 1 1/2-inch-wide space down center to ensure even rise. Sprinkle granulated sugar evenly over loaf.

5. Bake until toothpick inserted in center of loaf comes out clean, 55 to 75 minutes. Cool bread in pan on wire rack 15 minutes, then remove loaf from pan and continue to cool on wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Excerpt from Cook's Illustrated Cookbook by Cook's Illustrated Magazine Editors. Copyright 2011 by permission of Cooks Illustrated.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. With the holidays in mind, we're going to talk about some unconventional recipes, unconventional in the sense that they challenge conventional wisdom and are designed to simplify preparation. I have two guests.

Christopher Kimball is the founder of Cook's Illustrated magazine and Cook's Country magazine, as well as two public TV shows, "America's Test Kitchen" and "Cook's Country from America's Test Kitchen." Bridget Lancaster is an onscreen test cook for both shows and is responsible for all recipe testing and development in Cook's Country.

Cook's has a 2,500 square foot test kitchen just outside of Boston, where each recipe is tested over and over and over again, varying the ingredients, techniques and cooking times until the cooks and the tasters decide they've come up with the best version. Two thousand recipes are collected in the new book "Cook's Illustrated Cookbook." Christopher Kimball, Bridget Lancaster, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Christopher Kimball, let me start with you. Describe the mission of your test kitchen.

CHRISTOPHER KIMBALL: It's simple. It's three words: recipes that work. I think, back in the 1970s, I realized, after a series of very unsuccessful dinner parties, that there was something wrong with recipes; it wasn't just me. And so I set out over the last 30 years or so to find a test kitchen methodology that would take recipes and turn them out in a way where people could actually make them at home with some fairly high degree of success.

GROSS: Well, the way you said there's something wrong with recipes, and you wanted to fix them. That's a kind of broad statement to make. What was wrong with recipes?

KIMBALL: Oh, I like broad statements.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KIMBALL: Here's the problem. The problem is that cookbook authors, food writers live in a fantasy world. It's a fantasy world where they can get all the ingredients, they're very good ingredients, they know what they're doing, they understand their approach to cooking, whether it's Moroccan or traditional New England fare.

When that recipe gets sent out into the world, you know, like your 18-year-old child, things happen to it. And we know - because we bring people into our kitchen and watch people cook our recipes, and we send our recipes out by email - we know that what people do with those recipes bears little resemblance to what we do with them.

For example, they will substitute ingredients with great abandon. They will never read the recipe or rarely read the recipe ahead of time. We sent a recipe out, a couple years ago, to a gentleman for chicken breast. He responded by saying it was the worst chicken recipe he'd ever made. And there was a comment area at the bottom of the form, and he wrote in: I didn't have any chicken.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KIMBALL: And then he said: I substituted shrimp. Well, 40 minutes of cooking shrimp in a skillet is simply not going to come out very well. And guess whose fault that was? Mine. So most of recipe writing has to do with what the person at home is going to do to your recipe; it's not whether you can make it in your test kitchen.

GROSS: So something else you I think neglected to mention about a lot of cookbooks is that they assume you have a lot of time. And you're often doctoring recipes so you don't need to take so much time. And one of the things that you do is try to simplify things so that you don't have to get, like, the finest ingredients in the world, you don't have to have a whole lot of time. And there are certain shortcuts that you do.

And you're also always testing common wisdom. So I want to kind of get a few examples from you of things that you've tried that have worked, that you think make it easier to cook.

So with the holidays coming, just tell us one simple thing that you learned about turkeys that you tested, and you found this is a good solution to make it a little bit easier, a little bit quicker. Bridget, do you want to take that one?

BRIDGET LANCASTER: Sure. Turkeys, well, there's a lot that can go wrong with those big old birds. And the fact that we only practice cooking it usually once a year, that's a huge problem with turkey, but one of the - and the fact that it always comes out dry and unevenly cooked.

So there's a couple things that you can do. You can brine it, which is something that we talk about, soaking turkey or a lot of other different kinds of proteins, in a salt and water solution. And that makes especially the white meat stay really nice and juicy so that even if it tends to overcook a little bit, it's still going to come out really nice.

The other thing that we do is salt it, just, you know, basically rub some salt underneath the skin. It has a similar property to brining. But one of the things that I love, that I've been doing in the past few years, is basically dissecting a turkey and then roasting it in parts.

It's the most genius concept that I think we've come across. You roast the turkey breasts, you roast the parts, they all go on at the same sheet pan. They go in the oven. It's a slow roast. But they...

GROSS: They go in at the same time?

LANCASTER: They go in the same time, right onto a sheet pan, and it comes out, the turkey breast is perfect, the legs, the thighs. There's hardly any flipping or dancing with the turkey that's necessary. It's the most hands-off recipe that you can come across. It's one of my favorites.

GROSS: So one question: How do you dissect the turkey parts?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LANCASTER: Well, you don't even have to do that yourself. You can buy a bone-in turkey breast, and then you can buy the turkey parts yourself. Or you can...

GROSS: Oh, that sounds so cheating. Is that OK?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LANCASTER: Yeah, it's totally OK. See, that's what we don't tell you. You can buy all those parts, and you don't have to do all the work yourself. But, you know, I'm kind of a mad knife-wielder in the kitchen. So I like hacking that thing up and getting my aggressions out on it. Plus you get the back, and you get to use that for stock and stuff like that. I'm also cheap.

GROSS: So in talking about shortcuts, one of the things, Bridget, that you demonstrated on the TV show is a minestrone soup where all of the ingredients you get from the supermarket, nothing fancy, and you had a real, like, shocking shortcut to making the broth. And the shocking shortcut included buying V8.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LANCASTER: That's right. That's a good way to get your vegetables.

GROSS: Yeah, so I want you to describe this recipe and how you came up with it.

LANCASTER: It was very interesting. I mean, when you think about what goes into minestrone, it's basically kitchen-sink soup. So there's a whole bunch of different muddle flavors that go in there. But one of the flavors that have to go in there, in our opinion, was tomato.

And we were just having a lot of trouble with finding tomato products that didn't make it taste like a bad pasta sauce. You know, and then we also talked about making kind of a broth. That's what we wanted, something nice and light.

And somebody - I mean, this is how we come across a lot of our findings - somebody just mentioned, well, why don't we try V8, like the commercial says? And V8 was perfect. I mean, it gave just the right body to the minestrone, the right amount of seasoning. It's kind, you know, an eight-for-one instead of a two-for-one ingredient, because it has all of those different flavors in it, all in one shot.

GROSS: But then you doctored it.

LANCASTER: Oh, yeah, we doctored it. We had - what else did we have in there? We had - Chris, can you maybe help me with my memory there? We had pancetta in that recipe, I think.

GROSS: I think there was a little chicken broth in there.

LANCASTER: That's right, that's right.

KIMBALL: Well, there has to be meat.

LANCASTER: Oh yeah, there has to be meat.

KIMBALL: I mean, yeah...

LANCASTER: Well, any recipe of mine, even vegetarian, has to have meat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KIMBALL: Yeah, I think the joke around the test kitchen is our next book will be vegetarian cooking with bacon.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LANCASTER: That's my name, Bacon.

GROSS: So speaking of doctoring, you also have a quick beef and vegetable using doctored, store-bought beef broth. So how do you shop for the right beef broth to doctor, just a broth that you like?

LANCASTER: Well, we do tests. We do a lot of tastings of beef broth, and that is always an interesting day, trying to get enough people to show up for beef broth tasting because basically what we do is we heat up the broth, and people sip it out of cups, which, you know, might sound good if you're sick one day, but certainly, you know, to come across 12 different brands and having to sip hot beef broth is not necessarily the best part of the job.

But that's how we come up with the best brand. Now, of course, beef broth has come a long way, but it's still a far cry from anything you can make homemade. But, you know, when you compare having to spend hours and hours and hours making your own really great homemade beef broth versus opening up a can, it's a lot easier to doctor it.

KIMBALL: Well, we did find, with chicken and beef broth, that if you look on the back of the can at the ingredient list, sometimes you never see chicken or beef mentioned at all. And it's certainly not in the first three or four ingredients. So it's usually better living through chemicals. It's some...

LANCASTER: Or salt.

KIMBALL: Or salt. And I think the last time we rated them, believe it or not, Rachael Ray's, was it?

LANCASTER: Yeah, that's right.

KIMBALL: Rachael Ray's beef stock won. And I remember in the tasting, I did a blind tasting on the TV show, and I was surprised. But beef stock in general isn't very good. I mean, chicken stock is better.

LANCASTER: Yeah, it is better.

KIMBALL: But canned beef stock is usually not very good. In fact, we had our own recipe where the best recipe was six - some huge amount of beef.

LANCASTER: Massive, and you have to meat, more than bones to make it.

KIMBALL: Yeah, I mean, in the old days they made it out of bones because they were cheap, and they were recycling ingredients, and that's why they cooked it all day. But making beef out of bones is difficult because if you use meat, it's got more flavor, but proportionally it's also more expensive.

GROSS: So say you're making a beef vegetable soup, and you're avoiding spending all day, you know, like simmering the soup and having the beef or the beef bone in it, so what else are you doing? How are you doctoring the store-bought, canned beef broth to make it a good beef vegetable soup?

LANCASTER: Well, you're definitely going to have use beef in there. You're going to have brown cuts of beef to use in the soup. But there's also something call glutamates', and that's what we're looking for in a beef vegetable soup. Those are flavor compounds that make things taste meaty so things like tomato paste, which I believe goes into that soup.

There's also lots of mushrooms that go into that soup. Mushrooms have that really meaty flavor. And that's how my parents got me to eat mushrooms when I was a kid. You know, I wouldn't touch them because they look slimy, and they said no, it tastes like meat. And so then I tasted it, and sure enough, it tastes like meat.

So it's all these - it's just layers and layers. Soy sauce is another one that has a lot of the glutamates in it. And that's one of those secret ingredients that we'll often reach for - soy sauce, tomato paste, mushrooms - to boost foods that maybe don't have that oomph, that substance, that meatiness on their own.

GROSS: So when you're throwing in the mushrooms, do you saute them first?

LANCASTER: Definitely, definitely. You would want to cut them up as small as possible so that you have a lot of little release cuts, a lot of places for all that flavor to come out. And then you always want to saute them in butter, or even better in pancetta or bacon if you have it.

GROSS: OK, there goes the bacon.

KIMBALL: There goes the bacon again.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Christopher Kimball and Bridget Lancaster. Kimball is the founder of Cook's Illustrated magazine, and now there's a new Cook's Illustrated cookbook that includes 2,000 recipes from the magazine. And Bridget Lancaster is the onscreen test chef, test cook, for the two TV shows, "America's Test Kitchen" and "Cook's Country." Both of those shows are affiliated with Cook's magazine. So let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Christopher Kimball and Bridget Lancaster. And Kimball is the founder of Cook's Illustrated magazine, and now there's a new collection of all of those recipes, like 2,000 of them, in a new book called "Cook's Illustrated Cookbook."

He also founded the two TV shows affiliated with the magazine, "America's Test Kitchen" and "Cook's Country." Bridget Lancaster is the onscreen test cook for those two TV shows.

So since it's winter, let's get to another soup, a creamy pea soup recipe that you have uses frozen peas.

LANCASTER: That's right.

GROSS: So why are frozen peas tastier than fresh peas?

LANCASTER: Well, that's another thing that we say. They're actually picked right when they're at their most fresh point. If you go to the supermarket or a farmer's market and buy fresh peas, there's literally like a three-day period where fresh peas taste great.

And then you've got to buy them by the bushel, and I don't know if you've shelled fresh peas, but, you know, you get three or four out of each pod. It's kind of a pain. So - or you can go, and you can buy - somebody else has done all the work for you.

So it's kind of the same thing. They actually pick them right when they are at their best, and they flash-freeze them, and they're great, I mean, especially if you're using them as an ingredient in something such as a stew, a soup something - the key is to really add them almost as an herb right at the end and to let them sit in either the soup or if you're making a risotto for just five minutes to warm them up because they're basically tender right out of the bag, once they've thawed.

KIMBALL: Bridget Lancaster from the American Frozen Food Council has now...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KIMBALL: I think tomatoes is another example where a supermarket tomato is always inedible, and we always call for canned tomatoes. For making tomato soup, they're vastly better. So there are times when canned or frozen is better than the fresh ingredient, at least in the supermarket.

GROSS: Are there any like chefs and cooks who mock you for being willing to use, like, you know, canned tomatoes or frozen peas?

KIMBALL: Well, chefs - look, chefs live in an exalted, rare atmosphere. It has nothing to do with home cooking. I think people confuse the two. Restaurant chefs really know nothing about home cooking because they probably don't cook at home to start with. Two, they have perfect ingredients, and they have 50 people in the kitchen.

LANCASTER: Prepping.

KIMBALL: Prepping and washing their dishes. So we don't really care about that world because the home cook is dealing with very different things. We use, for example, a garlic press, which no self-respecting chef would ever touch. And we do lots of things they would make fun of.

On the other hand, if you ever tried to cook out of a chef cookbook, there are a few good ones, but by and large, you know, the recipes start: Day One, colon. You know, and then you're starting on a three-day recipe.

LANCASTER: It makes you think a lot.

KIMBALL: Yeah, come on, get a grip here. We're trying to cook Tuesday night, and we have an hour to cook. So - although chefs have gotten better, and there's a bunch of books out for home cooking by chefs lately which are - some of them are pretty good. But it's a totally different universe.

GROSS: So when you're trying to save time, and you're buying, say, frozen or canned ingredients, you know, frozen peas, canned tomatoes, are there certain foods that you would only get canned or only get frozen as opposed to - frozen peas versus canned peas or...?

LANCASTER: Right. I think those two are huge examples. I would - 99 percent always buy frozen peas over fresh because I don't - I'm too lazy, and I don't want to do the work, and they're probably not as good.

GROSS: But you wouldn't get canned peas?

LANCASTER: I wouldn't get canned peas, no. Canned peas, I've never - canned peas have way too bad memories, childhood memories attached to them.

GROSS: I've got those, carrots and peas.

LANCASTER: Yeah, yeah, but canned tomatoes, to my knowledge they don't have frozen tomatoes yet. Something else that's actually quite good are canned beans. We have found that certain brands of canned beans - kidneys, pinto...

KIMBALL: Not green beans.

LANCASTER: Not green beans, right. Legumes, I should say - are actually quite good. And if you let them cook, simmer them in, say, your chili, don't add them right at the end, but you actually let them cook in there for at least 15, 20 minutes, they can start to absorb all that flavor, and then you didn't have to go to the trouble of soaking dried beans and going that whole route.

KIMBALL: I think for some fruit desserts, like cobblers, frozen fruit works well, like Maine blueberries, the wild blueberries, are great. They're less expensive, as well, and you get them all year round. Frozen pearl onions.

LANCASTER: Oh, yum.

KIMBALL: I'm not - there's no way I'm cross-hatching, you know, 50 pearl onions, peeling them. That's not going to happen. Canned tomatoes absolutely. Chicken stock, although you can buy canned chicken stock, low sodium is great, but you can also buy that paste, which I think did very well in one of our recent tastings. So it's sort of a concentrated paste where you get a teaspoon of the paste in with a cup of hot water and reconstitute it, and it'll sit in your refrigerator forever. And that's really convenient, as well.

GROSS: So let's get to another dish. You have a recipe for poached salmon. What is the problem you were trying to solve in making poached salmon?

LANCASTER: Well, poached salmon, there's a couple of problems. It's an expensive piece of fish. You go, and you poach it in water. Usually it's a court bullion, which is water and some aromatic vegetables that you make as this poaching liquid.

Well, you end up with a really washed-out piece of salmon that doesn't taste very rich, it doesn't taste very buttery, and the whole thing wasn't really worth your whole paycheck, which is what you spent on - to buy the salmon, at least my paycheck. I'll have to talk to Chris about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LANCASTER: But one thing that we did was we found that the problem with poaching, where it's basically mostly submerged, you submerge, in this case, the salmon in the liquid, when we really cut back on the amount of liquid, so only part of the salmon was submerged at a time, we could actually start to build a really nice and flavorful and concentrated sauce from that poaching liquid.

We also put in a lot more wine than just water in there. And what that did, it actually lowered the boiling point a little bit. So we created more steam. We could cook the salmon at a slightly lower temperature so we didn't overcook it. And the result is - it's pretty darn amazing. It's really buttery, very tender and flavorful - which you never get with poached salmon.

GROSS: What are you doing to the broth to make it more flavorful?

LANCASTER: Well, one of the things that we do, we rest the pieces of salmon actually on lemon slices in the bottom of the pan.

GROSS: Kind of like on lemon stilts.

LANCASTER: Yeah, exactly, exactly. So right away, we're not just using the poaching liquid as a medium to cook the salmon, we're starting to think of it as the beginning of a nice sauce. So we're building, you know, a little bit of a salmon stock with lemon. We're using a lot less liquid to begin with. So all the flavors are more concentrated, and we've got some herbs, just a few herbs in there, and the wine really helps to start that flavor process.

And of course the salmon does give up some of its flavor, too, and you end up, you know, the salmon's done, you just really have to reduce that liquid down a little bit and finish it off, and it's a very elegant and easy meal, even on a Tuesday night.

GROSS: Can I - I'm like such a kind of fast, sloppy, no-nothing kind of cook. So when I've made poached salmon, you know, as quickly as possible, putting the whole thing basically in boiling water, then when I take it out, it's kind of like you have to wring it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's so much...

LANCASTER: It is. It's like a washcloth.

GROSS: Yeah, there's so much liquid that's accumulated in it. So I have to, like, pat it down with paper towels.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's kind of weird. So that...

LANCASTER: No, you do, you have to get it a bath towel, you know.

GROSS: Exactly. So is that part of the - is that just me, or is that one of the problems you've tried to solve?

LANCASTER: No, that is one of the main problems with poached salmon is the salmon seems to just soak up all that liquid, and then it tastes like nothing. And then the poaching liquid doesn't really taste like much, either.

You know, I fear sometimes that the population is starting to go for food that doesn't taste like much. I think that's why people like chicken breast over chicken thighs and tenderloin over a big old chuck roast sometimes. But, you know, we really want the salmon to taste like salmon. We want it to taste full and rich and salmony.

GROSS: Bridget Lancaster and Christopher Kimball will be back with more recipes in the second half of the show. Two thousand recipes from their test kitchen are collected in the new book "Cook's Illustrated Cookbook." Kimball is the founder of Cook's Illustrated magazine. Lancaster is an onscreen test chef for Cook's two public TV shows. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about some unconventional but relatively simple approaches to cooking with two people famous for their test kitchen. Christopher Kimball is the founder of Cook's Illustrated Magazine and Cook's Country Magazine, as well as two public TV shows, "America's Test Kitchen" and "Cook's Country From America's Test Kitchen."

Bridget Lancaster is on screen test cook for both shows and is responsible for all recipe testing and development in "Cook's Country." Two thousand recipes from the Cook's test kitchen are collected in the new book "Cook's Illustrated Cookbook."

So let's look at another main course. You have a recipe for Chicken in a Pot. What was the problem you are trying to solve?

KIMBALL: Well, actually, this is a recipe you get if you go to any bistro in Paris and they come out with a usually a metal cacott(sp) or small oval pan with a...

LANCASTER: It's like a casserole.

KIMBALL: Yeah, a casserole dish with a top, and they take the top off at the table and what you get inside is the most flavorful chicken in the world that's been really cooked in its own juice, as it were. The skin is marginal but the flavor is great and that is what we started with. And so the whole notion is to cook a chicken in a Dutch oven, you know, a covered casserole with just a few vegetables and really add almost no additional liquid to it. And its own juices come out and it almost braises the bird, you get a lot of flavor, and we ended up starting off browning breast side down. Browning it for a few minutes first in the pot just to develop some browning and also some flavor in the bottom of the pot. But it's to retain, as we do with salmon, it's all about retaining the flavor of the chicken and getting a very moist bird. And also we with a nice cast iron pot you can cook it nice and evenly at fairly low temperature.

LANCASTER: Mm-hmm.

KIMBALL: It takes over an hour. And so it's nice and gentle, the breast meat gets cooked properly, the dark meat gets cooked properly and you have a lot of flavor. And it takes what, three or four minutes, five minutes in preparation?

LANCASTER: If that.

KIMBALL: Yeah. A few garlic cloves. A little...

LANCASTER: I think there's a little celery in there.

KIMBALL: Yeah.

LANCASTER: Yeah.

KIMBALL: And you're done. And that's it. It takes an hour, an hour and 10 minutes to cook. It's the world's simplest chicken recipe but it has a lot of flavor.

LANCASTER: And the pan juices that comes out of the chicken...

KIMBALL: Right.

LANCASTER: ...are amazing. I mean it's almost worth just throwing away the chicken, just drinking the pan juice.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So let's get to a side dish. You have a recipe for French fries? What's the problem you are trying to solve?

LANCASTER: French fries. French fries, one of the things is to make great French fries you have to twice fry them. And what I mean by that is after you cut the potato into planks or into strips you have to start them in oil basically to get most of the cooking done but not really the browning. And then you have to let them sit out of the oil and then later on you fry them again, and that's to really build up the crust on the French fries, make it nice and fluffy in the center and really, really crusty on the outside.

We wanted to rethink that. This is another one of those classic dishes. There's one way to cook French fries, and we wanted to go back and test this. And this is the cold oil, starting potatoes in cold oil, which everything about that sounds wrong to me. You know, we've been told if the oil temperature isn't hot enough that the tables are actually going to soak up all that oil and you're going to end up with greasy French fries, which by the way, I would still eat. But, you know, there's still French fries at the bottom of it. But this is amazing. As the potatoes come up to temperature, the oil comes up to temperature, the potatoes come up to temperature, they actually will not soak up the oil until they get to a certain point. And once you've heated up the French fries they're pretty darn amazing. They start to cook slowly, they're nice and tender on the outside, and then they build up crust on their own. It completely changed the way in the test kitchen that we think about cooking French fries.

KIMBALL: Well, we actually tested them after we had fried them and they had a third less fat, saturated fat from the oil.

LANCASTER: That right.

KIMBALL: It was actually less oil in the fry. And we did a little science experience with it and we found there were two things going on. One is they can't absorb oil until they lose moisture. So the oil is replacing water...

LANCASTER: Right.

KIMBALL: ...that was in the potato. So you put potatoes in a cold oil there's no transfer of oil to potato. The other thing is that a lot of the oil absorption happens in the cooling down period. So a typical fry, French fries, fried twice, and it cools down the first time oil is getting sucked into it...

LANCASTER: Sucked in.

KIMBALL: ...and then the second time. With our method there's only one cooling down method, period at the end and that means less oil. So you get substantially less oil. And by the way, this idea came from Joel Robuchon, the French Chef. He actually I think was the one who pioneered the cold oil...

LANCASTER: Mm-hmm.

KIMBALL: ...so we need to give him credit. But less fat and it's much easier. It takes what, 25 minutes from start to finish.

LANCASTER: Right.

KIMBALL: And you don't have to keep moving fries in and out of hot oil. It's also not very messy.

GROSS: OK, time for dessert. You have what you described as a full proof pie crust that uses vodka. So what's the problem we were trying to solve by adding a vodka?

KIMBALL: Well, a couple of years ago I went down to the test kitchen and said I've been making pie crust for 40 years and they never come out the same way twice. In fact, we had a reporter there that day and we had made a couple of pies for a Thanksgiving piece. In the pie crusts actually were kind of tough I thought. They weren't very good.

LANCASTER: Well, depended on who was making it too.

KIMBALL: Yeah. One was good one wasn't.

LANCASTER: Yeah. Right.

KIMBALL: I said look, can we come up with a recipe that actually works consistently? The problem with I crust is this: you need a fairly wet dough to make it easy to roll out. And most recipe say that only enough water until the dough holds together. Well, most people don't add enough liquid. The dough is crumbly and try. You've probably had this problem on Thanksgiving, and so when you roll it out it falls apart. If you had too much liquid then when you bake it there is more gluten formation. That is when water comes in contact with flour, gluten, which is what you develop when you make bread, starts to be formed and you get a tougher crust. So on one hand you want liquid to draw dough, on the other hand you want as try as possible dough to get a tender dough.

When you substitute half the water - you're using the recipe for vodka - you end up using more total liquid. I think we used about eight tablespoons for it...

LANCASTER: Something like that. Right.

KIMBALL: ...instead of six. So you have more liquid. It makes it easy to roll out. When you bake it, half of that vodka - which is one quarter of the total liquid - is alcohol and almost all of that dissipates in the heat of the oven. So you end up with a very dry, very tender, very flaky dough, which you can also roll it out, I think. And this was not my, I didn't invent this. This is one of our test kitchen...

LANCASTER: You just threw down the gauntlet.

KIMBALL: Yeah, I just claimed credit for it. But I think it's one of our best recipes overall because it really solved the problem, which is how do you create a pipe so you can't roll out but also is tender when you bake it up, and the vodka was the answer to that.

LANCASTER: Right. Because there's no gluten development in the vodka itself.

KIMBALL: Right.

GROSS: And is vodka of the best alcohol to use 'cause it doesn't have as strong a taste as - like you wouldn't use bourbon for instance.

KIMBALL: I use bourbon for everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KIMBALL: But I would probably use bourbon. But no, it has, that's a strange thing about vodka, isn't it? The best vodka has no flavor.

LANCASTER: Right.

KIMBALL: I still don't understand that. But, yes, it's flavorless. And as Bridget said, alcohol when contact, in contact with a protein of flour, does not form gluten. So the gluten formation is a really big problem with pastry 'cause you don't want in most recipes.

LANCASTER: You want some.

KIMBALL: You want a little because you need to have it hold together.

LANCASTER: Right.

KIMBALL: But a really tough pie crust - we've all had them - is due in part to too much gluten being formed.

LANCASTER: And this pie dough is super forgiving too. I mean you can actually use tons of flour on the board while you are rolling it out. And we found a lot of people had a fear of rolling out pie dough. It's one of the things that they despise the most when it comes to the holidays, is that the, you know, the actual action of making pie dough. They're terrified of it.

KIMBALL: Yeah, we should talk about fear for just a second. You know, I think part of what are our mission is - if you want to call it that - is try to, is to overcome fear. And my job on the show is to look like a complete idiot, and which I do very well.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KIMBALL: And so to get people comfortable because I think, you know, so often you pick up a cookbook or watch a TV show and someone says with only five ingredients in 20 minutes you can turn out this great meal. And everyone knows that's actually not true. So our job, and if you watched the show, we start with bad food. We start with a disaster. You know, we say look, this is a horrible lasagna. Maybe we can do better. So by starting with a worst-case scenario and by me, you know, being sort of the average fool in the kitchen, I think it puts people at their ease and they come away and say, oh, well, if he can do it, you know, or, you know, if the test kitchen showed me bad food it makes people comfortable. Because I think that learning process is more about what goes wrong then what goes right, and that's the elements we tried to add in this whole discussion of food.

GROSS: All right. Entertain us with one of the biggest mistakes you ever made in the test kitchen. Make us feel superior.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KIMBALL: Well, I think that, well, a couple. A number of times we put a hot Pyrex casserole dish on a wet countertop.

LANCASTER: Mmm.

KIMBALL: Have you ever - it actually happened to one of our folks on TV recently.

GROSS: Oh, that's a recipe for cooked countertop, isn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KIMBALL: No. No. It's a recipe for a terrorist explosive. Actually...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Really?

KIMBALL: No. It goes into about a thousand pieces. It explodes all over.

GROSS: Great.

KIMBALL: We've had this happen two or three times, so...

GROSS: Actually, it sounds dangerous. I shouldn't be laughing.

KIMBALL: Well...

LANCASTER: Well, I happen to have been in the test kitchen all three times...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LANCASTER: ...which may made me look suspect. But I mean one of the things we did, we were working on a gumbo years ago and we were trying to figure out the easiest way to make a roux. And so we actually found in a couple of cookbooks a microwave roux where you...

KIMBALL: Oh, I remember this now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LANCASTER: You mix the flour and oil in a specifically a Pyrex measuring cup and you microwave it. Well, at that particular time the countertops I think were soapstone and soapstone contains, you know, usually has a little bit of moisture from washing dishes. Well, we took that and the roux looked beautiful coming out of the microwave, looked beautiful, took that out, was really hot, put it on the countertop and we were kind of staring at it, looking at the roux going, I wonder if this is going to be brilliant if this works. Well, we started to hear this tick, tick as the glass was starting to...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LANCASTER: ...starting to contract very quickly. And then it was like a scene from "Lethal Weapon," this bomb went off, there's shards of glass everywhere. Test cooks were diving across the counter to get away from it.

GROSS: Big crash.

LANCASTER: And it was hot roux everywhere. And needless to say, we scratched the idea of a microwave roux.

KIMBALL: But I think my favorite, I mean talk about in the department of stupidity department, was someone figured out that to grill a steak the best way to do it would be to turn it every four seconds. Remember this?

LANCASTER: That's right.

KIMBALL: So we actually - and we have our grilling department's in a back alley behind the test kitchen outside of Boston, so I believe if you cooked a steak for 10 or 11 minutes every four seconds there was almost 200 flips.

LANCASTER: Mm-hmm.

KIMBALL: So the poor test cooks stood there flipping a steak 170, 80 times. And actually it was a perfectly good technique, except completely idiotic.

LANCASTER: It wasn't worth it.

KIMBALL: Yeah, it was insane. The other one was someone decided that to roast chicken the best thing to do would be to take the skin off the chicken...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KIMBALL: ...and then we roasted the skin separately by pinning it out, you know, sort of like if you skimmed a Buffalo and you like, you know, on the plains, you know, you wanted to try you take stakes and you...

LANCASTER: It was a pelt.

KIMBALL: It was a pelt.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KIMBALL: And we used toothpicks, the little chicken pelts. We roasted them separately and it was brilliant. That is it did achieve the objective. But, of course...

LANCASTER: It was creepy.

KIMBALL: It was creepy. It was, yeah, as someone said it was a Hannibal Lecter moment in the test kitchen. So...

GROSS: But it tasted good?

KIMBALL: Well, it worked. But, of course, it didn't pass the test for sanity.

GROSS: My guests are Christopher Kimball, founder of Cook's Illustrated Magazine and Bridget Lancaster, an onscreen test chef for Cook's two public TV shows. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guests are Christopher Kimball, founder of Cook's Illustrated Magazine and Bridget Lancaster, an onscreen test chef for Cook's two public TV shows. Two thousand recipes from the Cook's test kitchen are collected in the new book, "Cook's Illustrated Cookbook."

So what you're trying to improve an old recipe how do you go about figuring out what you're going to test and what you're going to substitute within that recipe?

KIMBALL: Well, we have each group of people, I will say at a Magazine there are 15 or 20 of us, someone is assigned a recipe. He or she goes finds 25 or 30 examples of the recipe in cook books online etcetera. They then take five of those recipes in cooked them and there's a blind taste test in the kitchen with whoever is available at the time. So a dozen people taste it. They say what they like and don't like and then they cobble together a working recipe from those five recipes. Then they start the process of substituting ingredients, trying new techniques.

There's a weekly editorial meeting Tuesday or Wednesday morning where they talk about what they did do, what happened. Everybody at the table has had a chance to taste the food, and then we just go on down the road. We'll take cake flour versus all-purpose. We'll do saturated versus unsaturated fats. We'll do brown sugar for white sugar. We'll try top lay versus top round. And then over time, we eventually get to a finer recipe. We send it out to a few thousand of our readers who have been kind enough to offer make it. Some percentage of them will make it in the first week and at least 80 percent of them would have to say they would make it again; that's the key test.

Some percentage of them will make it in the first week and at least 80 percent of them would have to say they would make it again. That's the key test. If less than 80 percent say that, we go back to the test kitchen and we figure out the shrimp for chicken problem, you know, whether there was a substitute problem, they couldn't get an ingredient, something was too hard, they didn't like the flavors.

And we go back and work on it again and then we do one last thing, which is when the recipe's done, we try to blow it up. So we'll use - we have a horrible electric stovetop. We have terrible cheap cookware.

LANCASTER: Pans. Right.

KIMBALL: Pans. We'll substitute, you know, similar, like, natural cocoa for Dutch process.

LANCASTER: Right.

KIMBALL: So we'll make the mistakes we think a home cook might make and see how badly it turns out, and we might incorporate that information in the recipe or in the head note. So it's about a six week process. Not full time but a six week process from beginning to end. That's how we do it.

GROSS: Do you ever get sick of the recipe you're making because you have to make it over and over until you get it right?

LANCASTER: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I mean, we work about six months in advance of a story being published and that is a great thing. Because if you're, say, working on the turkey story for that particular issue, you're probably making turkeys in April or May of that year, if not sooner. So at the end of it you're fine if you've never seen – if you never want to see a turkey again for the rest of your life.

But luckily, six months later, that's when you come back against(ph) the turkey, see the turkey again. But, yeah, we get sick and tired. Chocolate for me is the one that does me in. Anything that's chocolate – and I can't believe I'm even saying this – at the end of it, it's just so rich...

KIMBALL: But Bridget, your nose is growing.

LANCASTER: No, no, no. Chocolate brownies. One of the worst things is brownie tastings, because, of course, you know, you don't just have to taste them; you have to feed on them all day. So, yeah, probably. One of the test cooks that works there, she and I counted up the calories that we consume in one day and it was frightening.

KIMBALL: Well, there's this rule in the test kitchen which is the five pound a year rule. Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LANCASTER: Yeah.

KIMBALL: You gain five pounds a year. That's the typical...

LANCASTER: At least.

KIMBALL: Yeah.

LANCASTER: A minimum of five pounds a year.

KIMBALL: Because you make the recipe 50 or 60 times...

GROSS: Right.

KIMBALL: ...on average, and you have to eat it at every stage along the way.

GROSS: Wait, wait. So you're saying every year you gain an extra five pounds?

LANCASTER: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: So after two years it's 10 pounds?

KIMBALL: That's been the rule. Some people take up riding 20 miles back and forth to work on a bike or do other things, but yeah, a lot of people will gain four or five pounds a year if they're in the process of developing recipes in the kitchen all the time. Sure.

GROSS: Do you have food scientists that you work with?

KIMBALL: Yeah. We have a guy called Guy Crosby, who's always available as a consultant by phone or email and he's our – he comes into the office frequently as well. But you know, food scientists are sort of like discussing the Torah, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KIMBALL: I mean, it's the same thing. I've actually done this with this guy. I said here's what I did, and I explained a recipe and I'll tell him what happened. And then he'll give me this lengthy explanation about why the proteins did this and that and the other thing. And then I'll say, well, actually, it also happened the other way. And he'll say, oh yeah, well, that'll happen too. So he'll justify any end in any way.

So I think that the problem with science is, I used to, 10 or 15 years ago, think I knew something about it. The more I do it, the more Guy, you know, he talks to you like you're one of the uninitiated, so you get the simple explanation...

LANCASTER: Yeah.

KIMBALL: ...like the idiot explanation.

LANCASTER: Just candy.

KIMBALL: Yeah. And then if you keep pressing him and say, well, that doesn't make sense, then you go deeper down and this huge mysterious world of food science opens up and you realize that, as I often say, that's why Einstein was never a food scientist - it's too hard. There are too many things going on. And so you have to take food science with a grain of salt, no pun intended, because what's really going on is infinitely complicated.

And the scientist is trying to explain it to you in a simple version. Which, you know, it's like those stupid little balls and things in chemistry class in sixth grade, and then someone tells you, well, actually, you know, atoms and molecules don't look like that really.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KIMBALL: We're just trying to give you a rough idea of what's going on. So that's the problem with food science. It's mysterious and complicated and you're getting easy explanations when sometimes there really are no easy explanations.

GROSS: So we're almost out of time, but I'm just curious. Do you cook Christmas dinner?

KIMBALL: Yes. We both do. Absolutely.

LANCASTER: Yes. Definitely.

GROSS: What are you making?

LANCASTER: Well, I always like to make a braise, and I make it the day before so that on Christmas I get to enjoy myself. So I'm probably going to make a beef burgundy this year. And a simple salad.

KIMBALL: I do boiled beef. I'm a huge fan of the old notion of boiling a nice piece of veal or beef for a few hours until tender. I take it out and then I have a great broth, beef broth. And take vegetables for 15 or 20 minutes, cook them in the broth, and serve a little sauce or something on the side, and it's a boiled beef dinner. It's very traditional and that's what I always serve on Christmas.

GROSS: All right. Well, Happy Holidays.

KIMBALL: Same to you.

LANCASTER: And to you.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

KIMBALL: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Christopher Kimball is the founder of Cooks Illustrated magazine. Bridget Lancaster is an onscreen test chef for Cooks' two public TV shows. Two thousand recipes are collected in the new Cooks Illustrated cookbook. You can find Cooks' recipes for brownies, mashed potatoes, and banana loaf on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg chooses his word of the year. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.