Buying my first and last (?) cookbook
August 13, 2014 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Help me choose a Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen cookbook.

I'm thinking of getting a massive tome of a cookbook. I've my eye set on the Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen series; I've glanced at the Joy of Cooking but like the CI/ATK's style more. I know that CI/ATK has a lot of duplication between books, but lucky me, I don't have any of their cookbooks. This is going to be my occasional-use/party-cooking/impress guests cookbook since I know the receipes tend to be time consuming.

So my current choices are:

The New Best Recipe
Cook's Illustrated Cookbook
America's Test Kitchen Complete Cookbook 2001-2014
The America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook

Only the first two are available in my library so I'll be taking a look at them. I had a quick skim of the last two in my local bookstore, and both look solid.


1) I have a decently stocked kitchen, but I don't have much room in the way of expansion--I might get a small thing like a quick-read thermometer, but I'm not going to have fourteen kinds of knives in the kitchen. So I'm not sure how much use I'd get out of the shopping guides (which I know is in the Cooking School book, not sure about the others) for equipment. Shopping guide for ingredients is a little more helpful, but again, I'll probably get easily available at the expense of a little bit of flavour.

2) For approximately the same size, Cook's Illustrated Cookbook has around double (?!) the amount of recipes as America's Test Kitchen Complete: 2000 vs. 1000-ish. Did the latter just have a lot of pictures?

3) How much duplication are there between the recipes in Cook's Illustrated Cookbook vs. America's Test Kitchen Complete? I know the former came out around 2004...

4) I skimmed the how-to cook X sections in the Cooking School cookbook and found it really helpful and informative, buuut...I was hoping that some of that information might be duplicated in the other bigger books because I would like more recipes as a whole than their...I think it was 600.

5) I'll revisit this once my library copy comes in, but while I'm sure I'll find the details on "how we derived this exact receipe" interesting, it's not crucial for me, and I think that takes up a large component of New Best Recipe.

Thoughts on what to buy would be appreciated!

PS: I'd also love thoughts on how How to Cook Everything compares with the above. (Or if it has a lot of How To Info like the Cooking School cookbook, I could get it + an CI/ATK book.)
posted by Zelos to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The America's Test Kitchen Cooking for Two is quite dense and has lots of recipes. It has information of technique and helpful hints.

I have How To Cook Everything. I would go with a America's Test Kitchen book first. It's quite delicious, easy and straightforward.
posted by exois at 12:37 PM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

We have the Complete ATK as well as the Complete Cooks Illustrated. I think they are both great. The complete CI is better for things like the best vegetable soup or great grilling recipes. I think ATK is better for regional dishes and interesting takes on things like Chinese food and diner classics. We use both of them frequently, but we also use Pasta Revolution, Slow Cooker Revolution, and the ATK Healthy Family cookbook as well.

As far as techniques in any of the books, if there is a special technique required, they all have sections that specifically explain it.

I honestly don't think you can go wrong with either of the two Complete cookbooks. Check them out from your library and spend time with both of them to see which has more recipes that your interested in. If you library doesn't have one, ask if they can do an inter library loan.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 12:40 PM on August 13, 2014

If you have any specific questions about either book, pm me!
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 12:41 PM on August 13, 2014

Pretty sure you want the Cooks Illustrated Cookbook (which was published in 2011, not 2004), which would be a bargain at twice the price. I have it and find myself reaching for it much more often than the Bittman, because I know if there's a recipe in CI, the odds are that it's going to turn out significantly better (if I have all the ingredients). Relatively light on the explanatory preambles.
posted by ndg at 12:42 PM on August 13, 2014

I have one of the ATK cookbook as well as How To Cook Everything. I find the former to be more sort of middle America food, while HTCE incorporates more ethnic flavors. I also find that HTCE has more sort of big picture stuff about how to approach different techniques, whereas ATK's explanations are too specific to a particular recipe.

That said, HTCE seems slightly more geared towards everyday cooking, while ATK is maybe fancier.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 12:46 PM on August 13, 2014

Pretty sure you want the Cooks Illustrated Cookbook (which was published in 2011, not 2004), which would be a bargain at twice the price. I have it and find myself reaching for it much more often than the Bittman, because I know if there's a recipe in CI, the odds are that it's going to turn out significantly better (if I have all the ingredients). Relatively light on the explanatory preambles.

Yeah, this is spot on. I'd absolutely go to the CI Cookbook, as it's pretty much a bible. My one criticism is that it's very exacting in its methods, so it can be discouraging to experimentation. That's both a feature and a bug, but once you get used to it and if you're comfortable with cooking in general, you'll start to see where you can substitute, improvise, and riff on its recipes. Many of the recipes are indeed fancy, but many or most can be made faster, too, once you're comfortable in knowing which steps are crucial and which are nice adds.
posted by The Michael The at 12:59 PM on August 13, 2014

I would get a subscription to the website in lieu of any of the cookbooks (though I have the baking one, and it is quite good).

Other books to look at are:

Canal House Cooks
La Varenne Pratique - it's out of print, but is really amazing in terms of learning the whys of recipes (i.e. what is a quiche vs frittata vs tart vs souffle vs...); not many actual recipes though, more like proportions...
posted by melissasaurus at 1:03 PM on August 13, 2014

The Best Recipe cookbook sees a lot of use here. It's got a section on vegetables that has the vegetables arranged alphabetically, with a few recipes for most of them. I chose it because I was looking for the right chocolate cake recipe for a birthday cake -- this book has three, with additional variations, and explains the flavor/texture differences among them. It also has instructive sections on things like "why sift flour" and other ingredient discussions.

In short, if you don't already know everything about cooking, this book will give you recipes and tell you how you yourself can change them if you want, as well as what ingredients are super important to get exactly right.

Ours (first edition) has several recipes which we can find by looking for the wavy-edged pages. It's been great.
posted by amtho at 1:18 PM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd also love thoughts on how How to Cook Everything compares with the above.

It's a different animal. The Cook's books—I'd favor Best Recipe, but honestly none of them are all that different—are aimed at people who are somewhat exacting, who do in fact want the best way to prepare a given dish, and who enjoy understanding why each ingredient or technique works better than its alternatives. Bittman, on the other hand, writes for a wider audience. If you just want to cook good food, and you have no particular interest in ever being food-nerdy about it (eg, Harold McGee will never sit on your bookshelf) then Bittman is probably a quicker and smarter choice. Put differently: Bittman can be useful forever, but if you see yourself eventually graduating up a few levels as a cook, then when that time comes you'll find yourself reaching for Bittman much less often than a Cook's book.
posted by cribcage at 1:18 PM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm have How to Cook Everything and one of the America's Test Kitchen cookbooks (don't remember which). The one I keep going back to is How to Cook Everything. Its breadth means that it's basically always useful.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:30 PM on August 13, 2014

I have New Best Recipe and it is AWESOME. Get that.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:32 PM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

If I want to make a specific thing that I know what it is, I reach for The Best Recipe. (I use their pie crust and banana bread recipes regularly.)

If I have an ingredient, or a general idea of a type of dish I want to make, or I'm looking for ideas, I reach for How to Cook Everything.

I concur that the Bittman is great for teaching you general techniques/adaptations for things. CI is more for fine-tuning and getting things exact.
posted by suelac at 1:38 PM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wow, not much love for New Best Recipe in here! I'm surprised; it's a great favorite of mine. I guess it depends on the level of cook you are, maybe? I'm kind of a permanent beginner, and I find New Best Recipe to be really clear and easy to follow; it doesn't assume you know how to do anything, and the "meticulous deriving" portion at the beginning of each recipe lets you figure out substitutions ("If I don't want to use the oven, I can pan-fry these and it'll just be a little crisper; I can substitute for half the flour since I'm almost out; I bet I have olives..."). You'll get a better sense once the library comes through for you, I guess.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:44 PM on August 13, 2014

I have The New Best Recipe (NBR) and How to Cook Everything (HTCE), and I'd say that if you're looking at the same recipe in both books--for example, Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic--the NBR will be more twiddly and take longer but will taste significantly better compared to HTCE. Mostly because the techniques they use rather than the actual ingredients (NBR is more likely to sub in things you'd be able to find at a grocery store in the midwest rather than assuming you can get your hands on anything fancy or ethnic)--Bittman is all about getting something 80% as tasty for 20% of the effort.

That said, now that I have a kid and it's more of a rush to get dinner on the table, I reach for HTCE more often because I know I will find something about how to prepare whatever cut of meat or type of vegetable I have, and Bittman explicitly gives you insight into how to improvise with what you have on-hand in terms of making marinades or sauces or rubs. So I feel like NBR upped my game in terms of technique but Bittman has made me more intuitive about pulling together something from what I have on-hand, versus needing to go do a shopping trip to get all the ingredients together.
posted by iminurmefi at 2:17 PM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes, both the new and the old Best Recipe cookbooks are fabulous and probably my most-used cookbooks in my cookbook-heavy collection.
posted by purenitrous at 2:26 PM on August 13, 2014

I have both The New Best Recipe and How To Cook Everything. As others have said, Cooks Illustrated books have a narrow focus and will handhold you through an extremely good execution for staple dishes in the American diet -- make your own pizza dough, brine and roast a chicken, pancakes from scratch. It's got you covered. How To Cook Everything has a broader scope, but the recipes aren't as fussy and are more improvisational. Sushi, chocolate souffle, jambalaya -- all that is covered plus the stuff that you get in The New Best Recipe, but you might get more wildly variable results until you get the knack for tasting and tweaking down.

If this were poetry, the Cooks Illustrated books will teach you how to write great sonnets. How to Cook Everything will teach you how to rhyme. Or to put it another way, the Bittman book taught me how to cook and made me comfortable with improvisation and substitution*, and when I wanted to focus my education on a specific cuisine, I'd get a specialty tome for that culture. Italian is Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking, Indian is Madhur Jaffrey, American is The New Best Recipe

* (the Cooks Illustrated books are less good at improvisation, because they frequently mention that you "can" tweak recipes, but they don't always tell you "how" to tweak the recipes, and they typically look at tweaks as suspect and inferior to their canonical approach).
posted by bl1nk at 5:58 PM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have the first edition of the Best Recipe and a web subscription to cooks, which includes access to the mobile app, which I believe has a lot of the content of the cooks illustrated cookbook. I use both very often but they fulfill somewhat different uses. If I were you and only picking one ATK book, I'd probably go with the web subscription. If you're willing to invest the time to learn the thought process behind their recipes, I'd get the New Best Recipe; the longer explanations are quite valuable and something i miss when I follow the Cookbook recipes.

Versus HTCE (which I also have), I agree with much of the sentiment above. Its repertoire is much broader in terms of cuisine and so in some ways it's more useful. But head to head on the same recipes I think ATK usually results in a better dish.
posted by odin53 at 6:53 PM on August 13, 2014

I have the Best New Recipe book as well as the America's Test Kitchen cookbook. I love both books but a serious advantage to the later is that it is ring bound, lay flat book that makes it very easy to cook from. I really do like the ATK recipes since they are for the most part foolproof if you follow them. If you are creative and have some kitchen know how then they do make for good jumping off points for experiments.

I definitely agree that the culinary choices in the book are very mainstream American which means that you'll get a smattering of Mexican-American, French, Italian dishes but for the most part it is very straight forward American flavors.
posted by mmascolino at 6:21 AM on August 14, 2014

If you decide to buy the ATK Complete Cookbook, don't buy the 2014 edition. Hold off for two months -- the 2015 edition comes out on October 15, 2014. And if you preorder, it's actually less than the 2014 edition is right now.
posted by booksandlibretti at 8:47 AM on August 14, 2014

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