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Buy the Cook's Bible Only If You DON'T Already Own a Kimball
on August 5, 2001
I'm an avid cook and, while I no longer subscribe to "Cooks Illustrated" magazine, I respect Chris Kimball and his expert kitchen team and have had good luck, more or less, with their recipes which, if followed EXACTLY, are virtually foolproof. I also never fail to learn something from their informative kitchen commentary, including kitchenware recommendations. All in all, his recipes and advice are beneficial to both novice and experienced cooks.
That having been I have to point out that taste is, of course, subjective. For instance, I've found, from trying a number of Kimball's recipes, that he is a salt-a-holic. I prefer to cook with little or no salt, as I find the taste harsh and unpleasant, and if I followed Kimbell's recipes exactly I'd be drowning in the stuff. I prefer pepper and tend to double or triple the often meager amounts Kimbell calls for in his recipes (usually he calls for four or fives times more salt than pepper, and I tend to reverse those ratios).
The recommendations too, are, of course, all one man's opinion. He speaks harshly of Le Creuset, which is my favorite cookware, despite the expense (don't listen to Kimball: the enamel service is as good or better than non-stick), and frequently raves about plain cast iron which, while I'm sure can be great, takes a great deal of patience to properly season (I've NEVER had any luck doing so), can't be washed in a dishwasher (big downfall, in my opinion) and can easily destroy an induction cooktop (something Kimball fails to even mention). He also highly recommends an electric rice cooker which is, perhaps, the least useful tool in my kitchen and is quite scornful of breadmakers, an appliance I use several times a week quite happily.
All of Kimball's cookbooks follow the same basic format: a long-winded, but often interesting, discourse on how Kimball views the "perfect" version of whatever it is he's showing you how to cook, including a lengthy explanation of variations he has tried, followed by his "Master Recipe" for the food. I recommend carefully reading the introduction, focusing on what Kimball considers "perfection," before attempting the recipe. For instance, he prefers very hard, extremely crusty bread (one of the main reasons he despises breadmakers, by the way) with a light, "air-filled" interior, while I like a soft, almost blonde, crust and am quite fond of the "cakelike" bread consistency Kimball is so disdainful of. So, in terms of bread, Kimball's "master" recipe is obviously not going to suit me.
In short, if your taste is the same as Kimball's when it comes to a particular food his well-researched and thoroughly-tested recipes will be amazing. If you don't feel the same way about, say, chicken (he likes it quite salty and greasy--though he uses the terms like "savory," "succulent" and "moist" to describe what I think of as "salty" and "greasy") as the author, his recipe for roasting a chicken will leave you cold.
The other caveat to keep in mind when purchasing Kimball's books is that many, most notably the "Cook's Bible," are extremely outdated (far more so than they should be, judging by the publication date), particularly when it comes to appliance and cookware recommendations. (Often the products he has tested either no longer are made or have been radically changed, and the ones he panned are now considerably better.) For instance, Kimball frequently talks about the "rarity" of a kitchen which contains both a food processor and a stand mixer while I'd say at least half the wives I know have both, and quotes bread machines as costing "upwards of $300." (There's also a rather long and ludicrious section where he goes into great deal about how "most" people who own a stand mixer "only have a whip attachment" when KitchenAid, and other popular models, have been including dough hooks and paddles, as well as whips, as standard equipment for at least the last 15 years.) Kimball also terms ceramic cooktops "experimental" though they are actually quite common now. (Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen people I know who cook on induction or ceramic ranges.) In addition, he completely ignores the Internet when giving out reccomendations of where to purchase certain items. (Most of the things he says you need can be easily found online.) In addition, he says you can buy a top-of-the-line Wusthof Trident chef's knife for "around $85," when in fact the knife he reccomends now costs well over $100. I could go on, but I think you get the point: Listen to Kimball's advice, but don't always take it as hard fact.
But my biggest problem with Kimbell cookbooks is this: If you have one, you have them all. He lifts whole passages and recipes and uses them in multiple books. "The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook," and the "Cook's Bible," for instance, have at least 50 identical recipes, not to mention verbatim introductions to each section and cookware reccomendations repeated word-for-word. "The Best Recipe" features ALL of the recipes (as far as I can tell) from the "Cook's Bible," with the same commentary, which is, in turn, lifted in whole chunks from past issues of "Cooks Illustrated." I'm sure this saves Mr. Kimbell a great deal of time when compiling his cookbooks but it leaves little reason to own more than one edition of his work. Exceptions to this rule are his specality cookbooks, such as his "Complete Pasta and Noodle" or "Complete Poultry," which again contain exact repeats from other books but also add a wealth of new recipes and information.
If you're going to buy a Kimbell cookbook, and I do think it's a worthy investment for any semi-serious cook, buy his latest (for example, "The Best Recipe," in lieu of "The Cook's Bible"), whatever that may be. That way, you're sure to get 90% of what's contained in earlier versions, without paying for "repeats." On the other hand, if you already own, say, "The Cook's Bible," don't bother with "The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook" or the "The Best Recipe." In addition, as mentioned earlier, Kimbell's speciality cookbooks, focusing on one particular item, are also worth the purchase price, but only if you're interested in that particular food type.