Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen: Which book(s) to buy?
January 6, 2011 6:45 AM   Subscribe

Help me decide which cookbook(s) by Cook's Illustrated and/or America's Test Kitchen to buy. Too much consumer choice has left me paralyzed!

I love their scientific approach to recipes and want to buy one of their cookbooks, but I'm a bit overwhelmed by the all the variations. I'm also a bit concerned about this review, which suggests that there's a lot of overlapping content among the various books.

Ideally I'd buy one book of easy recipes for weekdays, and then one comprehensive book-- but would I be buying the same recipes twice? And should the simple recipe book be Cook's Illustrated's The Best 30 Minute Recipe or ATC's Best Simple Recipes? Should the comprehensive book be The Best Recipe or The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook? For that matter, should I take a MeFite's advice and find a used copy of the original best recipe?
posted by yankeefog to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I have CI "The Best Recipe" and it's fine but I never use it anymore since I have an online subscription to CI. They do go back and refine and change recipes over the years, and I like being able to see all of the versions at once (i.e. with a keyword search.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:54 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Cook's Illustrated repeats recipes a lot between the Cook's Illustrated branded books. With that said, I adore my New Best Recipe and use it all the time -- that's my choice for an essential cookbook. We also have copies of the Cook's Illustrated books on vegetables and Italian food, but there is lots of cross-over.

I don't have much familiarity with the ATC books, but I would surely start with the Cook's Illustrated New Best Recipe and add to it if necessary (and it probably won't be).
posted by seventyfour at 6:56 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have both the New Best Recipe and the ATK Family Cookbook. I use the latter far more often.

There's quite a bit of overlap between the two, although NBR is a bit more "fancy" and ATKFC is a bit more "downhome", similar to the difference between Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country magazines (which also have quite a bit of overlap recipe-wise).

ATKFC is just an easier cookbook to use. It's a looseleaf binder rather than a traditionally bound book like NBR, so it's easier just in a functional sense--lies flat, stays open, has tabs so it's easy to flip straight to what you need. It's also an easier read: less of the minute detail of how they came to establish one recipe as "best". It has photos instead of drawings.

I love the chatty "here's all the things we tried before determining that this is the size your stew meat should be" stuff, but when it comes down to just making dinner, I don't really need the history of the thirty iterations of a soup that led to a final recipe (as interesting as that can be), I really just need the recipe for soup.

Most of the recipes in ATKFC are fairly quick and all of them are pretty simple and easy. Based on having picked up a few of the "special issues" that focus on short-timeframe recipes or simplicity, I can tell you most of the recipes are just reprints from the more comprehensive couple of books. Sometimes I get the sense that the folks at America's Test Kitchen just draw from the same pool of however-many recipes and republish them using different categorizations, so don't be fooled by "The Best American Recipes" or "Best Recipes For Entertaining", because it's going to be stuff that is almost entirely available in either NBR, ATKFC, or most likely, both books.
posted by padraigin at 7:00 AM on January 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Disclaimer: My SO used to work for Cook's and we have ALL the books

The book's we use the most are The Best 30 Minute Recipe, The Best Light Recipe and The Best Recipe. I would suggest staying away from the Family Cookbook. I'm not sure if it's still being produced the same way, but our version has a 3 ring binder feel to it and pages keep ripping out.

We use the website a lot and tend to gravitate to it more then the books.
posted by Constant Reader at 7:01 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you're not dead-set on having a pre-printed-for-your-convenience paper book, by FAR the best bang for your buck is to buy a one-year subscription to their online site and a new toner cartridge for your printer. Thousands and thousands and thousands of awesome recipes from the past two decades of Cooks' reign of fussy greatness.
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:01 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

This doesn't really answer your question, but I too have a subscription to the website, and I find that works better than having the books, because I have full online access to all recipes going back to 1993. So I can just print out the recipes I decide to use.

If you're unsure, you can sign up for a free 14-day subscription to try it out.
posted by PompatusOfLove at 7:01 AM on January 6, 2011

The two cookbooks that have made the biggest difference to my cooking are both Cooks Illustrated's New Best Recipe and Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything. You should pick up both -- they both read really, really well as books. Like fingersandtoes, I rarely use my New Best Recipe now that I have the online subscription, but it was really useful to read the text for the different sections. Mark Bittman has similar exposition for his recipes.

For what it's worth, I have a number of other CI books and I rarely get anything out of them. They're interesting as a compilation, but New Best Recipe (plus a web subscription if you're into that) is all you'll really need.
posted by kdar at 7:03 AM on January 6, 2011

I have avoided the whole question by subscribing to their website ($35 I think, I get a discount as a subscriber) and then getting the "Editor's Choice" add on for a year, which allows me access to the contents of all the cookbooks.
posted by anastasiav at 7:06 AM on January 6, 2011

Yeah, the website's the way to go, if that's an option for you (except I'm pretty dang displeased they've created a separate, premium, "Editor's Choice" subscription level, behind which green door they've hidden their favoritest recipes from their books).
posted by notyou at 7:08 AM on January 6, 2011

I have Best Recipe, Soups & Stews, Best 30 Minute Recipe, Best Quick Recipe, Cover & Bake.

Best Recipe gets so much use the page are starting to look a little gross. Used at least once a week, if not more.

I love soup, so the Soups & Stews book gets the next most amount of use. Used at least once a month.

I find 30 Minute recipe and Quick recipe to fit nearly the same niche. Both get a small amount of use, 30 Minute more so. Each are used around once every 6 weeks or so.

Cover and Bake has barely been cracked.

Nthing others-- TONS of overlap between books. So much so that I never intend to buy another Cook's Illustrated book. I'd also recommend NEVER accidentally getting on their phone marketing list. That said, I'd be lost without Best Recipe, it's the best cookbook I've ever used.

I've made the Best Buttermilk Waffles recipe every Saturday for the last 8 or 9 years.
posted by mcstayinskool at 7:12 AM on January 6, 2011

The yearly versions of America's Test Kitchen don't repeat each other. You can also usually get the DVDs with it for cheap.
posted by smackfu at 7:18 AM on January 6, 2011

I have the ATK Family Cookbook and a few CI cookbooks. 99% of the time, the ATK Family Cookbook is my go-to (as should be evidenced by the fact that I can't even remember which CI cookbooks I have - I'm at the office or I'd go check them now).

I love the fact that it's looseleaf in ring binder rather than a bound book. I can find things easily via the tabbed sections, and it always lays flat. I have also found it helpful to be able to take out pages as necessary. I once had a roommate that would take out the page he was cooking from and hang it up near the stove, to keep the rest of the cookbook out of the way. (This was a college apartment with very limited counter space, so it was very helpful to have the necessary pages on the wall at eye level and the cookbook not taking up a kitchen counter where the cutting board needed to go.) I've never accidentally torn the pages out of the binder.

That said, if I were to do it all over again, I'd probably buy a subscription to the CI website, download a billion recipes, and keep them in Evernote. I do like casually leafing through a cookbook, though...
posted by pemberkins at 7:27 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend the ATK Family Cookbook. If you're looking for the best versions of standard, weeknight recipes, I think that's the book you'd want to buy. I found the binder a little annoying at first, but have gotten past this by photocopying my favorite recipes and taking the copy into the kitchen so the original doesn't get frayed.
posted by belau at 7:40 AM on January 6, 2011

Sorry to slightly derail, but can someone tell me how much extra the "Editor's Choice" option is? Also, are the videos HTML5 ready - as in can I watch them on an iPad?
posted by backwards guitar at 8:07 AM on January 6, 2011

Our local public library carries all of these cookbooks (often at other branches, but requesting them is free, and they are delivered to the local branch). It's worth checking them out long enough to find which ones you like enough to buy.
posted by Ery at 8:50 AM on January 6, 2011

I have the Best 30 Minute Recipes and love it. I don't have any of the others, so I can't compare. (But now I want a subscription to the website...thanks, guys...)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 8:58 AM on January 6, 2011

I'll nth that the Family Cookbook is the best bang for the buck in their printed literature. The lay flat ring binder is exactly what you want in the kitchen. I do have the Best Recipe and it is neat to read two pages of prose on what does and doesn't makes a great pancake but that isn't what is needed most nights. Also there is a lot of overlap between the two books.

If I was starting from scratch I'd strongly consider a web site subscription.
posted by mmascolino at 9:08 AM on January 6, 2011

Man, I just looked at the web site trying to find pricing information. Not easy. Finally found the annual subscription rate of $34.95 (already mentioned here) in the FAQ, but no information on the "Editor's Choice" option.
posted by amtho at 9:47 AM on January 6, 2011

Just throwing in a shout-out for the Best Simple Recipes cookbook. We have been plowing our way through it for several months and haven't come across a bad recipe yet. Our preference for meals leans heavily toward "real" cooking even on weeknights, and the BSR cookbook strikes an excellent balance between weeknight-do-able and sufficiently-home-cooked. We also recently received the Best 30-Minute Recipes book and haven't had the chance to explore it in detail, but a quick perusal leads me to suspect that BSR is still the better choice if you enjoy cooking.
posted by briank at 11:01 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I love the Family Cookbook, I use it a lot. I really am wanting the "healthy" version they have now.
posted by pyjammy at 12:26 PM on January 6, 2011

backwards guitar: As far as I remember, I paid around $15 extra for the Editor's Choice part of my online subscription to CI.
posted by waitangi at 2:03 PM on January 6, 2011

I use New Best Recipe all the time and occasionally the Best 30 Minute one, but the website subscription's great. The Editor's Choice add-on is $15/year on top of the $35/year for the base subscription, though they pro-rate it if you pick it up later so that both subscriptions end at the same time.

My favorite thing to do with recipe print-outs is to stick them in those clear plastic sign-holders. It holds them up so I don't have to bend my head to read them, and keeps things from spilling on them.
posted by asperity at 2:15 PM on January 6, 2011

Oh, the other great thing about the website is being able to print out combined grocery lists. It'll even organize them by category. Very convenient.
posted by asperity at 2:18 PM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you have a Nintendo DS? If so, drop what you're doing and go get America's Test Kitchen: Let's Get cooking. It's not a game, it's an interactive cookbook. It talks you through each step, and has videos from the Test Kitchen to explain things like how to know when your oil is at the right temperature.

I really can't say enough awesome things about it.
posted by Caravantea at 4:15 PM on January 6, 2011

Voting The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook for your comprehensive volume. Here's why I like it:

-The recipe selection is great - it's a fantastic one stop cookbook for old favorites as well as unique recipes.
-I have yet to make a recipe from it that wasn't really wonderful.
-I love that they give cooking tips and explain what makes certain pans or methods better for your desired outcome.

Basically, it doesn't just include great recipes - it helps improve your skills.

In fact, I can't think of a better standalone comprehensive cookbook.
posted by amycup at 5:01 PM on January 6, 2011

Thanks, everybody! This is has been very helpful. Some followup questions, just to make sure I understand.

So, the America's Test Kitchen book DOES explain the techniques and principles-- they just don't include the 2-page "Here's all the things we tried" intro that Cook's Illustrated has? Is that right?

Having read through your comments and though about what I want, I think I'm looking for two things:
1. A book that will help me understand the principles behind recipes, so I know why I'm doing various things, and:
2. A general everyday cookbook I can easily bring to my kitchen and cook from.

It definitely sounds like ATC Family Cookbook will take care of #2. Will it also take care of #1, or do I need I get New Recipe for that?

And I'm going to sign up for the website free trial and see how I like it. Thanks to everybody who suggested that. It hadn't occurred to me.

(By the way: I live in the UK, and my local library system doesn't have either book, nor have I found them in my local bookstores, so I can't browse through before making a choice.)
posted by yankeefog at 12:23 AM on January 7, 2011

In case anybody is still following this thread, or stumbles upon it later, here's what I ended up doing:

1. I bought "The New Best Recipe" as a thick, detailed tome to help me understand the principles behind the recipes.
2. I signed up for the website's free two-week trial, and printed out a bunch of 30-minute recipes to serve as quick, weeknight cooking. I didn't feel that the website offered enough value-added to the book, though, so I didn't continue with it after the subscription period ended.

So far, I'm happy with my decision.

Thanks again, all.
posted by yankeefog at 3:25 PM on February 24, 2011

« Older My Mother-in-Law is Deaf   |   In or out of hot water? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.