There is a moment near the end of Fed Up, the thoughtful new documentary about America’s childhood obesity problem, when Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) posits a solution that is equal parts sane, simple and soundbite-friendly: cook your own food. In some viewers, this piece of advice is received with a slight smile and nod of recognition. Others react differently—with a pained visage, like they’ve just received word of a relative’s death.
America's Test Kitchen Live!
August 14, 8 p.m.
615 Louisiana St.
These days, it seems, which camp one falls into is often a function of how much time he or she has spent watching America’s Test Kitchen on PBS, or its sous chef-ish relation, Cook’s Country. Ours being a nation where home economics classes have gone the way of the eight-track tape player, and where grandma is too busy cruising the Nile or mastering aquatic Zumba to pass down family recipes for apfel strudel, ATK has gleefully stepped into the breach.
Patiently, gently, and with a minimum of arrogance, the TV programs—not to mention the cookbooks, magazines, radio show and websites—have transformed whole armies of kitchen klutzes into decent bakers, sauteers, parboilers and the like, this writer included. There are those who will tell you that once you catch the ATK bug, your life will forever be changed, that you will never again bring dinner home in a Styrofoam carton without feeling a pang of guilt for what might have been—yes, this writer included.
Christopher Kimball, the bowtied creator/leader/poster boy for the culinary conglomerate may have spent much of the past few decades in his big kitchen up in Vermont, but word of ATK’s successes has reached him anyway. Not only are his the highest rated cooking shows on public TV, fans have been known to write him tearful letters of gratitude, to gush over the radio. Perhaps it was inevitable then that Kimball would take his show on the road, although, in a nod to the serious nature of his pursuit, America’s Test Kitchen LIVE is staged not in convention halls but cathedrals of high culture—places like Jones Hall, for instance, where Kimball makes a stop on August 14.
Still, as much as I owe my entire cooking life to him, I couldn’t help wondering what the hell ever made Kimball think people wanted to see him perform live.
"Live performance makes one think of performance art, I suppose," he told us via email, "covering myself in chocolate and howling. But this is really an extension of what I have been doing for years—standing up in front of a crowd and having a dialogue. I love the back and forth, the arguments about whether to include nutritional information with recipes (we don't), the best way to poach a chicken breast or cook a pork loin, or even the best way to get one's spouse interested in cooking. Everyone who likes to cook shares something in common and the evening allows me to enjoy that sharing with hundreds of people."
In a way this is fitting, for America’s Test Kitchen relies to no small degree on the wisdom of the crowd—the hundreds of average joes who regularly test recipes and volunteer their opinions for free. It’s created a community of sorts out of what once seemed just a commune—the humble pack of Bridget Lancasters and Julia Collin Davises that make the show what it is. And though Kimball is the closest thing the show has to a marquee name, he’s well aware that audiences aren’t tuning in for a star vehicle. His is a company in repertory, a culinary Group Theatre—viewers watch to see what surprises the ensemble has in store.
"To be Rachael Ray, you need to have a very unique set of skills (as in talking to camera while pulling a knife out of a drawer)," said Kimball, "and our show really does not have any solo artists. It's the relationship between myself and Jack [Bishop, who runs the shows’ taste test segments] that makes the tastings. One of us alone would not be that compelling. It is also the back and forth with Julia and Bridget that enlivens the cooking segments, not just them talking to camera."
Still, it isn’t personal chemistry that accounts for the franchise’s success, it’s real chemistry—the show’s recipes, that is. America’s Test Kitchen is not a misnomer. If anything it’s an understatement. Recipes are tested hundreds of times, and it’s not unusual for a thousand eggs to be cracked on the way to determining the best way to soft-cook an egg.
No kidding. Asked what the process of creating a typical recipe involves, Kimball referred me to John "Doc" Willoughby, executive editor of his magazines.
"One interesting thing about the recipe development process at ATK is that the seemingly simplest recipes are often the most difficult to perfect," Willoughby wrote to us before launching into an explication of the Test Kitchen’s efforts to concoct the aforementioned perfect slow-cooked egg. It is a mini-epic of 550 words that simply must be quoted in its entirety.
It couldn’t be easier, right? Put eggs in water and boil them until they [are] done. But in fact Andrea, the test cook who developed this recipe, had to cook over 1,000 eggs to come up with the perfect approach. The problem here is that egg whites and egg yolks are “done” at different temperatures, plus we needed a recipe that would work with any saucepan and any number of eggs. Andrea started out by trying to modify our recipe for hard-cooked eggs, in which you put the eggs in cold water, bring the water to a boil, then remove it from heat and let it sit for 10 minutes. Since we obviously wanted to cook these eggs to less than a hard-cooked state, she tried cracking open one egg as soon as the water came to a boil, then cracking another every minute thereafter. But she never found a point at which the yolk was soft and the white set but tender.
So she switched to the high-heat approach. After a number of attempts, she did find that putting two eggs into boiling water, boiling them for 6-1/2 minutes, then running them under cold water for 30 seconds, worked perfectly. The problem, though, was that this didn’t work if you added more than 2 eggs, since the additional eggs lowered the water temperature and consequently required more time to cook. Rather than having a different cooking time depending on how many you wanted to make, she searched for a different method.
The key breakthrough was when she thought about how she could boil the eggs without actually submerging them into the water, so the water temperature would not be affected. Sounds a little crazy, but when she tried steaming the eggs using a vegetable steamer, the timing was the same no matter how many eggs she used. But that approach required setting up a steamer, which seemed like too much work for this dead simple recipe.
After another dozen or so attempts, she finally found that when she cooked put the eggs into a mere half-inch of boiling water, the eggs didn’t have enough contact with the water to lower its temperature, and the steam cooked the eggs in a reliably consistent time: 6-1/2 minutes to soft-cooked perfection, no matter how many eggs you want to cook.
Even this long history doesn’t take account the many dead ends Andrea went down in the development process. At one point, for example, she decided the key was to have the egg yolks perfectly centered in all the eggs. This involved fashioning a homemade candler to look into the eggs and figure out which did not have centered yolks, then vigorously shaking those eggs for 15 seconds before cooking. This did in fact center the yolks and produce enviable soft-cooked eggs. Unfortunately, it also moved the air sacs in the eggs from the broad end to the side, which resulting in a 25 percent greater chance of the eggs exploding during cooking.
And that’s how you cook over 1,000 eggs to come up with a foolproof recipe for what seems like one of the world’s simplest dishes.
I know, but still. Now we know.
There is a certain amount of pedantry, pretense and calculated hokum to America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country, what with all the bowties and banjo music and loving shots of sunny Vermont, but at bottom, Kimball and Co. deserve all praise for their pedagogical successes, and maybe a Presidential Medal of Freedom or two for their part in restoring cooking to its rightful place in the American imagination. While it’s true that no home cooks ever lost weight on an ATK regimen, they do at least learn the difference between real food and fake, which is no small thing. Speaking of real vs. fake:
"My TV persona is actually me," Kimball told us. "I may not wear a bowtie when I go rabbit hunting, but I am who I am. Never got my actor’s equity card."