on July 2, 2002
Cooks Illustrated is like no other cooking magazine I have ever read. It's a sort of Consumers Reports for cooking, aimed at the beginning gourmand. The magazine includes recipes, tips sent in by readers, standard methods for important cooking procedures, reviews of gadgets or food items, and reviews of cookbooks. All of these are accompanied by beautiful black-and-white illustrations and photos of the foods and techniques used (which explains the "Illustrated" part of the magazine title).
My favorite articles are those that delve into the development of the recipe featured. These articles all provide a standard format of describing the "perfect" representation of the items and then the authors explain their process for creating their final recipes and the method by which to read and make the recipes. While this sounds scientific (and indeed, it is), the writing is delightful and down-to-earth, not dry or esoteric as other gourmet magazines. In addition, sidebar articles explore choosing particular ingredients or comparisons of different brands or gadgets relating to the recipe shown and give clear direction where the more elusive ingredients and gadgets can be purchased.
While I am not always confident that the recipes in other magazines or cookbooks have been tested, I am always certain that the recipes in Cooks Illustrated have been rigorously reviewed and have been designed to be made by the average cook, not trained culinary experts. If you are seeking a magazine that provides tried-and-true recipes for basic food items (ranging from Beef Stroganoff to Salade Nicoise), this is a perfect choice. It is obvious that this magazine is a work of love for its editors and writers. There are no advertisements, and the only color photos are on the inside of the back page of the magazine.
(At one time, Cooks Illustrated had a special featured area on Amazon.com. The articles posted there are still available on Amazon.com, but you have to dig. Search under the book The Best Recipe, click through to the book description, and under "Book Information" in the left column, click the Amazon.com articles link and explore from there. These articles are great--albeit more brief and non-illustrated--versions of the articles in the magazine.)
"Cook's Illustrated" serves as a mentor to me and others who refused to learn the art and science of cookery in the kitchens of their loved ones. I did take a home economics class in high school, but my main memory of it is my teacher's repeated iteration of "Oh mercy, Elaine. Mercy." It took a long diet of college jello and Spanish Rice, and then a marriage in which neither of us fathomed the mysteries of the kitchen to get me interested in the art of cooking for myself and others.
Most of the other magazines in the culinary market don't seem to cater to the cooking-challenged. For instance, the seemingly simple instruction "beat enough sugar into the meringue to stiffen it" caused me to set the oven on fire. I added cups and cups of sugar to my three egg whites and the darn meringue finally got grainy, which I figured was the equivalent of 'stiff.' Not so. Once enough heat was applied, the meringue flooded over the sides of the pie plate and set the oven ablaze. It was not easy explaining my culinary mishap to a sceptical fireman.
My inadvertent attempt at incendiarism wouldn't have happened if I had been following a recipe in "Cook's Illustrated." Here the recipes are lovingly detailed, and there diagrams on 'simple' techniques such as How to Slice an Onion. Most of you probably learned about such matters at your mother's knee, but I was more interested in Astronomy than Onions back in the good old days when someone cooked for me. As a consequence, I've been slicing onions incorrectly until the December 2004 "Cook's Illustrated" hit the newstand.
The contributors to this magazine test their recipes multiple times, varying the ingredients, using different cooking utensils, until they get what they consider to be the perfect outcome. For instance, in the article on "Balsamic Braised Chicken," John Olson writes: "At that point, I stopped my tests with the high-end vinegar. Simmering such a vinegar might well be considered high crime in Italy. All the time and effort expended to create its subtle flavor balance would be wasted, as boiling destroys it. (This is not a problem with the cheap stuff.)"
"Cook's Illustrated" recipes are adventures into a mysterious art, as well as producers of wonderful dishes. The editors don't accept advertisements, so you can trust their ingredient and product recommendations. If you are a fan of the show, "America's Test Kitchen" on public television, then you'll definitely love the magazine that details this program's favorite recipes. Also check out their website at cooksillustrated.com for eleven years worth of recipes.
on September 24, 2006
This is a good magazine for the home cook that wants to branch-out from the standard Family Circle or Good Housekeeping no risk recipes.
My BIG problem with this company is once they've got your contact information, you will receive more junk mail than you thought one company could generate; hawking every single publication they produce, relentlessly.
I stopped subscribing and it took a year to stop receiving their snail spam; and there's no way to 'opt out' online
on September 15, 2009
Cook's is an above average cooking magazine, don't get me wrong. Its format gets a bit stale after awhile, but the magazine itself is ok. The sales techniques used are what makes me give this a 1 star.
I had a representative of Cook's call me and ask me if I would like to buy their cookbook. I answered "no thank you". As a typical sales call, they continued their rehearsed sales techniques on how it would be worth it, told me if I didn't like it, I could simply send it back within 30 days. I restated my no thank you. He asked me why I wouldn't just try it and send it back if I didn't like it. I told him that I don't want to be hassled and I don't want to have to remember to return something in 30 days.
The Cook's Illustrated representative then began a personal attack on me, asking me how I manage to pay my bills on time if I'm that unresponsible. I was speechless. I was hoping that this was a one time thing - a rogue employee on a bad day, but after googling the magazine, I'm afraid it is more par for the course.
Above average magazine, TERRIBLE sales techniques.
on March 15, 2009
Subscribing to this magazine will subject the recipient to unwanted and unsolicited book orders. Cooks Illustrated has a well documented history of pushing unordered books on individuals in its mailing list, then aggressively pursuing payment.
Think carefully before gifting a subscription to friends of family.
on July 10, 2002
This magazine series is an excellent source of information beyond the wonderful recipes and cooking tips. For each simple recipe, there is a story behind how the formula was derived. Each recipe is painstakingly prepared in a test kitchen to get the best results -- with suggestions for alternative approaches.
The standard format is that each magazine has approximately ten good recipes plus some cooking gear/tips. Each recipe is given with a brief history, the trials in the kitchen and then the recipe/instructions/hints.
As an example, the editor goes into great detail about the perfect New York Cheesecake. He provides information about the impact of adding additional eggs or egg yolks, tips on making a graham cracker crust easier to fill the pan, and why cracks happen (and how to avoid them.) All of this was done as a learning process (I tried this and the result was... so I tried this and ...)
The recipes are all wonderful. I have yet to be unsuccessful with anything I have tried. You will find this magazine well worth the cost if you enjoy the process as much as the preparation.
However, if you are just looking for the best recipes, I would suggest skipping the subscription and buying the cookbooks from the "Best Recipe" series that the magazine editors have also published.
on May 18, 2012
This magazine will sell your name and address to every magazine under the sun, so you will receive a lot of offers in the mail.
I subscribed under a nickname that I only used for this magazine, so I know when my name is being sold.
on January 22, 2011
This is a great magazine - buy it anywhere but from the source. If you do go ahead and get a subscription, be prepared to receive books and 'specials' you haven't ordered as 'previews'. Of course they offer a preview period, which is usually over by the time you actually get whatever it is they sent you. Also be wary of ordering books or DVD's from them. I ordered a DVD and kept getting unsolicited books from CI for a year. The material is pretty good, although not particularly healthy - usually high in fat and calories. It's the company and it's sales approach that is aggravating.
Shortly after the last kid left home six years ago, I took early retirement and began doing almost all the cooking for the two adults remaining in the house, plus occasional guests. I'm a pretty good cook out of sheer self-defense, because I really enjoy good food. But I'm not a gourmet; I don't do peacock tongues and I consider fads like "vertical food" pointless affectations. But I do a mean jambalaya, and my spaghetti carbonara is always in demand at family parties, and whenever the kids come home to visit they insist on my biscuits and sausage gravy for breakfast. For all these reasons, for the kind of cook -- and eater -- I am, COOK'S ILLUSTRATED is simply the best kitchen magazine around. They deconstruct classic recipes, figuring out what *makes* the "best" version of something the best, and going through piles of ingredients until they get everything exactly right. They expect you to pay attention to what you're doing, but the ingredients and the implements are never unobtainable, and the methods are never bizarre. The letters to the editor often consist of questions to which the staff will chase down a canonical answer. There's no advertising (except for their own books, several of which I own) and the beautifully executed pen-and-ink drawings are far preferable to photographs in demonstrating methods and pointing out details. I'm also pleased that I can nearly always recognize the mystery tool featured in the "What Is It?" column. And if that's not enough, Christopher Kimball's editorial page essays, usually about people and food events in his small home town in Vermont, are modest gems.
on April 2, 2008
This is a generally useful magazine with a clear vision, but I don't always find myself agreeing with that vision. Try a couple of issues from the newsstand before splurging on a subscription.
CI is a great choice if you want reliable, no-nonsense recipes that (a) involve foods most people would be open to eating, (b) educate you a bit about the purpose of various ingredients and techniques in a recipe, and (c) involve minimal use of canned and processed ingredients (e.g., not just dumping cans into a crock pot). If you're interested in moving up from typical Better Homes and Gardens recipes or a PTA Cookbook, CI is a reliable source of reliable recipes. Call it serious cooking for the traditional home cook. You won't see restaurant reviews, discussions of molecular gastronomy and Top Chef, or travelogues. I've been a regular reader for over five years, archive all my copies, and cannot think of any recipe which has turned out poorly. There's no "food porn" showing fabulous presentations that are beyond the skills of the average home cook, as the recipes all present themselves as something that a reasonably skilled home cook could achieve. CI is at its best when they happen to feature a recipe for a food you enjoy, or one that you have already cooked and wondered about improving.
On the other hand, the magazine has several annoying qualities. Equipment reviews are not consistently helpful to me as, like Consumer Reports, CI often subjectively emphasizes much different features than are important to me. Ingredient tastings are rarely useful because they invariably choose brands that are not available in my region. Why don't they research which brands are nationally distributed? The opening essay by Christopher Kimball is a maudlin, page-wasting moralistic vanity puff about country living. The recipes often seem recycled, particularly between the related magazines and books (Cook's Illustrated, Cook's Country, America's Test Kitchen, Best Recipes, etc.). It can be difficult to find the recipe that you seek unless you spend more at the website or for additional publications. The magazine is organized by recipes (e.g., Roast Chicken, Brownies, etc.) but not indexed by ingredients, so if you are in the mood for something based on a particular ingredient you may not find it terribly efficient to use. Many of the reviewers here on Amazon seem fascinated with the culinary experimenting and optimization process described in the text before each final recipe, but this doesn't do much for me. I don't always agree with CI's definition of the proper taste, and their experimental procedure is poorly designed. By this, I mean that if a recipe involves ingredients and methods ABCDEF, it doesn't always work to find the best A, then the best B, and so on. It's quite possible that the choice for E makes a different B the better choice in the ultimate outcome. There's a certain pomposity of tone when CI is preparing something outside their own New England regional cuisine. It can be grating to have a Yankee self-proclaimed expert assert how a Southwestern dish is supposed to taste or announce that this-and-that is the "proper" technique to make American Southern biscuits. Sometimes the recipes are too interwoven, as in a recent issue where it seemed they were just thrilled beyond words with their new Dutch oven and everything involved use of the same $240 LeCreuset. It's also annoying to have to buy a hard-bound book or another magazine at the end of the year to get something useful as a reference for the cook's bookshelf. Without spending more money you will not be able to use the magazine as a reference. For example, if I noticed some really striking specialty produce at the farmer's market and brought it home not sure what I wanted to use it for, CI would be at the bottom of the list for sources I'd consult for ideas. The stylistic limitation of using only Wall Street Journal-style monochromatic drawings instead of color illustrations is sometimes useful and sometimes less than ideal. Finally, I find that I frankly enjoy advertisements that are designed to inform me about new cooking tools, products, training or culinary topics, and that can make a magazine more enjoyable to browse. If you enjoy this sort of thing, then CI will seem quite dry as the only advertisements are for more products from their publishing empire.
Bottom line: it's a worthwhile magazine if you are geek-serious about cooking, fussy about making familiar foods better, or enjoy having ideas presented about things you already happen to be considering cooking. It's not so useful as a reference, for quick feed-the-family-in-30-minutes meals, or for those moments when you want to figure out how to make a particular dish you have in mind or how you can use a given ingredient. I'd say it's more useful and archive-worthy than Saveur, Bon Appetit, or Gourmet. It's more accessible than pro-level magazines like Arts Culinaires. Buy a sample copy or two at the newsstand before you decide on a subscription. Myself, I'm leaning toward Taunton's Fine Cooking lately.