Alton vs. Martha in the Kitchen?
November 28, 2005 11:42 AM   Subscribe

Alton Brown vs. Martha Stewart: Who do you trust more in the kitchen?

Please help my wife and I with a minor disagreement regarding who should be more respected in the kitchen with the cooking. This has nothing to do with crafts and gardening, we all know the scope of Martha's domain. Strictly food.
If you wanted to follow the teachings of one or the other, which would you prefer and most importantly, WHY?
posted by UnclePlayground to Food & Drink (40 answers total)
Alton Brown. Period.
He's the scientist of the kitchen.
posted by tom_g at 11:44 AM on November 28, 2005

I'd be more prone to follow Alton, rather than Martha. Martha's food looks [and no doubts tastes] quite good, but Alton's food is more about the preparation and the taste, rather than aesthetics - i.e. you can have his cake and eat it too, while Martha would be more likely to chop off your finger if you went to dip it in the frosting.
posted by sporky at 11:50 AM on November 28, 2005

I guess Alton because he tells you why to do things a certain way a little more than she does and in a more real way since it is science based. They both seem very knowledgeable (personalities aside, of course). Martha seems to have an eye on the bigger picture. Her foods are also more fanciful, he seems most concerned about the basics.
I used to watch Alton but I kind of felt like he was sucking the fun out of cooking. I like a lot of his ideas but I guess I am just not that in to being so precise or making a huge production when it comes to cooking most stuff.
I do recommend seeing him live if he is ever on another book tour. He is a lot of fun.
posted by TheLibrarian at 11:54 AM on November 28, 2005

Alton, he's able to explain WHY and HOW hence I love him.
posted by yodelingisfun at 11:54 AM on November 28, 2005

I trust Martha--she's all about the whole experience, from sourcing ingredients to cooking to presenting something gorgeous for the table. I get the sense that her recipes are time-tested. Martha don't allow for no failure.
posted by hamster at 11:54 AM on November 28, 2005

Alton. I find his style much more approachable, though that's a personal thing. He also gives much, much more information about *why* things work, so later on you can go and create your own things from scratch, based on first principles. Martha gives you the recipes, sure, but ...

It's that old saying, "Give a man a fish (or a Martha Stewart) and he'll eat foo-crusted bar with a baz sauce and sauteed baby things served on a kitschy hand-folded paper platter for a day; teach him to fish, and he'll be whittling his own for a lifetime."

Er, or something.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 11:55 AM on November 28, 2005

Alton Brown, hands down. Because that phrase rhymes.

Just kidding. Alton is obsessed with food, and with doing things right, because science and/or history has proven what the right way is. Not to say that he isn't flexible, but just that when it comes to the basics, he unwaveringly sticks to the best techniques.

Martha, from what I've seen pre-prison, seems more concerned about aestetics and pleasing people.

And remember: cooking is an art, but baking is a science.
posted by chuma at 11:56 AM on November 28, 2005

Martha has tons of practical catering experience that Alton can't touch. He's a lot of fun, and I learn from his shows--but they're just for television. For actual, down-and-dirty cooking, it's Martha.

Mind you, I'm interpreting your question as, say, who could pull off a better meal for a bunch of people, not who has the best advice for others. If you're looking for the latter, I'd say it's a toss-up. I've learned a lot from both of them--though I've learned different things. And they've both been full of crap on many occasions.

If you want the real goods, there are half a dozen better cooks on the Food Channel alone. For example, I've had a lot more success following Rachel Ray's advice than either Alton or Martha. But that's off topic.
posted by frykitty at 11:59 AM on November 28, 2005

the thing about Alton is that he gives you the basic technique and shows you how to adjust the recipe to your personal taste. i've never watched Martha, but most of the "traditional" teevee cooks make recipes while you watch. you can replicate it, probably, if you take careful notes and already know how to cook, but it's not likely to help you be a better cook. what someone said about about giving a man a fish.
posted by crush-onastick at 11:59 AM on November 28, 2005

To clear up what seems to be a common misconception: Alton Brown is not "the scientist of the kitchen." His methods frequently involve multiple unnecessary steps that are less than helpful to beginners without their own sense of what's necessary and what's a waste (e.g. use an ironing board to roll out ravioli, build a box full of sand to store your beets). The person I've seen who comes the closest to really explaining the "why" and "how" is Harold McGee and some of the Cook's Magazine stuff, but even McGee doesn't consistently cite his sources.

Alton Brown has furnished a very reliable pie dough recipe (you can google that up). Aside from that, I feel like he offers a lot of flash and only a little substance. I'd only recommend him as a tutorial to beginners if he were complemented by an experienced person who could serve as a BS detector. Furthermore, Alton Brown's food is usually soulless and boring- one needs some external inspiration to transform his recipes into meals.

In contrast, Martha Stewart is all about good menu ideas, some of which translate into reliable recipes, and some of which don't. Again, one really needs a good second opinion on this stuff.

It would be a bad idea to go with only one of these two people (or, for that matter, just the two of them together)...
posted by rxrfrx at 12:04 PM on November 28, 2005

If either AB or MS publishes a recipe you like, I say go with it and be happy. But when it comes to explaining what's going on and why things work, you want Alton Brown, not Martha. I ran across this several days ago when Martha gave hideous instructions for "the perfect pot of tea," prompting me to blog about it (and now to apologize for the self-link).

AB, on the other hand, explained so much about tea in his show that I was instantly able to see what Martha was doing wrong and why. You don't have to measure tea with soulless precision, but "put a bunch of leaves in a bunch of water" isn't going to make "perfect tea." "About this much tea in about this much water" gets you a lot closer.

But that was a live segment at the end of a Martha show. The recipes that MSLO publishes have been through their test kitchens, probably multiple times, and are just as reliable as anything else you'll find. Sometimes on the live Martha show, I hear Martha say things about food science that just aren't true - but I largely know that from having read AB, McGee, and Shirley Corriher.

When it comes to explanations on TV, go with AB. For published recipes, go where your taste buds lead you.
posted by mdeatherage at 12:27 PM on November 28, 2005

Alton, because I've never heard rumors of him trying to back an SUV over his neighbors.

but then, Martha, because I've heard rumors of her trying to back an SUV over her neighbors.

so, uh, it's a toss up.
posted by bilabial at 12:38 PM on November 28, 2005

I have always loved Martha's enthusiasm for whichever particular dish she's cooking.
posted by JanetLand at 12:45 PM on November 28, 2005

I'd second what rxrfrx said above and elaborate a little: "Cooking" is too broad of a domain for either Alton or Martha to be considered superior to the other in all respects. Alton does the explaining-the-science-of-cooking thing a lot better than Martha, obviously. OTOH, I'd go with Martha if the question is along the lines of "how do I make dish X a treat for the eyes as well as for the taste buds." I wouldn't blindly follow either Alton or Martha in all respects in the kitchen.

mdeatherage, no apology is necessary. Self-links are forbidden only in front-page posts; they are completely acceptable in comments as long as they are on-topic.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:50 PM on November 28, 2005

Alton, hands down. Reaffirmed recently when I saw Martha insisting that stuffing should be cooked INSIDE the bird. Psha.
posted by surferboy at 12:50 PM on November 28, 2005

Alton, definitely.

He's practical information (with demonstrations), while Martha is really nothing more than a brand name nowdays. Every time we see something "new and exciting" from her, my wife says "I wonder which one of her minions came up with that.."

In addition, I've not heard of Alton Brown being a snobby bitch.
posted by mrbill at 12:53 PM on November 28, 2005

I think it depends on what you want. I'd trust each at different times, for different things.

Alton Brown is great at explaining the theory behind cooking. He is really in the Harold McGee mold of cooking-as-science. Nothing wrong with that at all, but he tends towards simplicity in his dishes, which is not always what you want. For foundation techniques and concepts, I'd vote Alton.

Martha, on the other hand, has a more holistic approach, one that defines the boundaries around cooking much more loosely. She includes style and presentation in the mix. I find her much more useful when I'm thinking about planning a dinner or a party. So if entertaining is the goal, I'd vote Martha.
posted by NYCnosh at 1:01 PM on November 28, 2005

For television shows, Alton Brown. He has a background in the film industry and it shows. Even though he is overly corny at times, you can be guaranteed that he included the scene for a reason and that they are about to cut to a new scene.

For learning to cook, Alton Brown. The horse is trampled to death by now, but I am far more interested in learning why something is done a certain way, than simply being told to do it.

For presentation, Martha Stewart. As much as I dislike people reading recipes at me, her stuff does come out looking very nice, and she sometimes has tips on this.

For recipes, anybody. Every brand-name chef is going to put out solid recipes that have been reasonably well tested and verified.
posted by I Love Tacos at 1:06 PM on November 28, 2005

Reaffirmed recently when I saw Martha insisting that stuffing should be cooked INSIDE the bird.

So does Alton. Or at least describes how it can safely be cooked inside the bird and still be Good Eats.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:07 PM on November 28, 2005

I would definitely give Alton the nod over Martha for providing the kind of information one needs to be a better cook.

However, I would give the edge to the Cook's Illustrated Magazine/America's Test Kitchen Crew over both Martha and Alton. I have had far more successes with Cook's Illustrated recipes.

For me, if I get a random recipe out of a cookbook or magazine (say Martha Stewart or Cooking Light), I would estimate that 25% of the time the recipe turns out well and I know I will do it again, about 25% of the time it turns out OK or a little bad but I either see the mistake or I see how to improve it (i.e. more seasoning) for next time, and about 50% of the time it is a failure and wonder how you could ever get the pretty food pictured in the magazine from those instructions. Too often it seems as if little or no testing has been done or important steps have been left out of the instructions.

Alton Brown is a little better, but not by much. I love his shows and I learn a lot from them, but I also have two of his cookbooks and sometimes the recipes have been uninspiring and the instructions hard to replicate. One of his recipes that I like the most is his ribs, but the cookbook calls for an astonishing 3 hours of cooking time which turn the ribs into mush. On his show about ribs, this was changed to a more reasonable 2 hours. So the cookbook either has a typo or it was sent to press without sufficient testing.

In comparison, I have probably had a 2/3 success rate with the CI recipes. I love their approach and they seem to combine the food scientist approach of Alton and McGee with a food engineering approach. And their recipes are impeccably written and easy to replicate.

Finally, CI’s reviews of food ingredients and kitchen ware are wonderful and practical. And they are a nice antidote to the Martha Stewart approach which seems to assume that the best stuff is always the most expensive.
posted by Tallguy at 1:09 PM on November 28, 2005

Can I suggest another possibility?

James Barber.

Non-terrifying recipes that taste great. (And quick -- usually he doesn't have to resort to the old, "Now we put this in the oven for 40 minutes, but I have one just finishing up that I started earlier," bait-and-switch.)

That maneuver always makes me think they maybe can't cook - after all, you have no proof that the pan full of uncooked whatever they just put in the oven is going to turn out at all.
posted by Crosius at 1:11 PM on November 28, 2005

I should also add that AskMeFi is a lousy place to settle this kind of argument. Alton Brown's geeky earnestness is far more valued than Martha Stewart's WASP-y patrician persona by the crowds that tend to dominate on these here Internets.
posted by Tallguy at 1:18 PM on November 28, 2005

That maneuver always makes me think they maybe can't cook - after all, you have no proof that the pan full of uncooked whatever they just put in the oven is going to turn out at all.

It's not as if seeing the guy on TV "completing" the dish is really any proof either. Who knows how it tastes? Watch Mario Batali on his show and you can see that he's actually cooking (albeit hurriedly), whether he takes a long "break" or not. Watch Ming Tsai on his show and notice that he'll say "caramelize some onions" but only cook his onions for 30 seconds before deglazing.
posted by rxrfrx at 1:19 PM on November 28, 2005

Followup recommendation for the Cook's Illustrated books. I love them to death too.

I haven't seen James Barber before -- thanks Crosius, I'll have to check him out. In the defense of Alton, what he puts into the oven is clearly the same thing he brings out -- one of the advantages of not doing a "live" cooking show, he can resort to the magic of "TV time" (Christmas cookies episode notwithstanding).
posted by 5MeoCMP at 1:20 PM on November 28, 2005

If you're at all experienced with cooking, you'll find time and time again that Martha's recipes aren't going to work as written. And if you're not experienced, you won't know how to work around all the discrepancies, you won't see obvious mistakes, and you'll end up crying. And if it's a baking recipe, you might get screwed even if you do know what you're doing.

However, she's pretty inspirational to me on the whole. She's just not of any technical use to a novice cook--and it's the novice who's probably intimidated by her, and would never think "This recipe just doesn't work", they'd think "Wow, I really do suck, I'll never be MARTHA".

Alton's great for entertainment and factoids, but I wouldn't consider him a master chef, and I don't think he'd want me to.
posted by padraigin at 1:22 PM on November 28, 2005

If I were having a few friends over, Alton.

If I were having the boss over, Martha.
posted by madajb at 2:02 PM on November 28, 2005

Alton - I have learned more about how to make my cooking better from him than all the rest combined.

Martha for how to make an attractive center piece to go with the dinner.
posted by captainzero at 2:04 PM on November 28, 2005

If I were having the boss over, Martha.

If I were having the boss over, I'd ditch Martha in favor of Jacques Pepin. Especially if he brings Claudine.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:12 PM on November 28, 2005

Someone beat me to it, but (caution: appeal to authority) my wife who is a chef says that Jacques Pepin is the man.

But yes, Alton Brown though we make Martha's crabcake recipe all the time.
posted by fixedgear at 2:49 PM on November 28, 2005

oh yeah, I meant to say that. Jacques Pepin and ditch the rest.
posted by rxrfrx at 3:15 PM on November 28, 2005

While I'm sure Martha Stewart is great running a catering company, have you seen her actually cook on her show? She looks SO uneasy with everything. She definitely comes across as lacking the familiarity of the kitchen that an experienced cook would have.

I've always thought that she was better at cooking in theory - and definitely in terms of menus and the overall picture - than actually mixing ingredients on a stovetop to serve to people.

James Barber is great, though I think his schtick is a little tired now. He goes to great extremes to prove to people that cooking isn't that difficult, but sometimes is way over the edge.
posted by mikel at 3:37 PM on November 28, 2005

Alton, without a doubt. I actually believe that he does the stuff on his show.

Martha? I doubt she's as much as peeled a potato in her entire life. All show, no go.
posted by griffey at 4:02 PM on November 28, 2005

Martha? I doubt she's as much as peeled a potato in her entire life. All show, no go.

Although I once saw her race with a couple of butchers to see who could debone a chicken fastest, and she kicked their ASSES, and her chicken looked better, too.
posted by padraigin at 4:10 PM on November 28, 2005

I love Alton, but he has too many stupid rules. The day I saw Martha trimming snowflake cookies with shears to "make them perfect"...well...

I vote Jacques Pepin as well - exactly the right balance between serious gourmet knowledge and skill, and real life application that you could actually make in your own kitchen.
posted by biscotti at 4:45 PM on November 28, 2005

Another vote for Cook's Illustrated as THE source for good recipes. Don't get me wrong, Alton is an awesome, entertaining host of a cooking show. And I've learned some interesting things from him.

However, when I've prepared Alton's recipes, I've probably had the same success ratio as Tallguy. 25% are great, 25% are OK, and 50% are "throw that crap over the fence to the racoons and opposums."

To Alton's credit, 25% is a pretty good hit rate on recipes. Cooking out of off the bookstore-shelf cookbooks sometimes makes me wonder if the author ever cooked the recipe themselves before they published the book. I've made some truly awful, chemical warfare grade food from highly rated cookbooks, and in comparing notes with others, they've had the same experiences.

Cook's Illustrated is a 75% hit ratio the first time, and I'd say about 95% with a bit of tweaking. Half of that tweaking needs to be done because I'm working with a gas oven so part of it is not really CI's fault.

Christopher Kimball and his crew are the main reason why I love to cook today. I would have quit in frustration years ago if I had to deal with 3 out of 4 recipes failing.
posted by ensign_ricky at 5:45 PM on November 28, 2005

James Barber would certainly be the most entertaining, he was once described as "the antichrist of cooking shows", it's fun to watch saying to yourself "is he gonna break it, is he gonna break it... he broke it!!!" lol
posted by Cosine at 5:47 PM on November 28, 2005

Dude, it's Metafilter. Alton Brown is totally hip among the e-lite (like what I did there?), and Martha Stewart is the archetype of unhip to the point of being mildly cool.
posted by abcde at 6:27 PM on November 28, 2005

But, objectively, the answer is clearly Alton.
posted by abcde at 7:00 PM on November 28, 2005

Then again, Tallguy beat me to it, and less snarkily.
posted by abcde at 9:46 PM on November 28, 2005

Alton Alton Alton. Because he is my boyfriend.

Another vote for Cook's Illustrated, though -- really, really great and generally straight forward recipes. I've also recently enjoyed the Silver Spoon italian cook book that's been getting all the hype lately.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 12:12 AM on November 29, 2005

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