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Twelve Months of Cookbooks: June|”Cook’s Illustrated” (multiple authors)

This month’s cookbook is a magazine.

Which is kind of cheating, I guess, but I got my cooking start from a magazine – trying to replicate a rhubarb and strawberry tart on the cover of a Food & Wine my boyfriend brought home – and I’ve had so many subscriptions to food magazines (Gourmet, Sauveur, Food & Wine, Sunset, Bon Appetit…) that I’ve come to feel cooking magazines are as indispensable as cookbooks for learning.

Cook’s Illustratedis the best cooking magazine I’ve ever read.  Along the same lines as my encounter with Ratio, CI showed up at my door just at the right time.  When I first started cooking, this magazine would have bored me to tears.  Back then I was interested in replicating things, not really in understanding how things work.  And most cooking magazines work well for replication; they have lots of gorgeous photos of immaculate food being enjoyed by people who are clearly having the best kind of time with each other.  Who wouldn’t want to duplicate that in their home?

CI, by contrast, has no photos in the magazine itself (they are on the very end page) and it’s wordy.  Wordy wordy wordy.  In fact, sometimes it’s too wordy, even for me.  But the minute our free copy arrived in the mail (sent away for by my husband) I was hooked.  I read that first issue cover to cover, never having experienced anything quite like it before.  Wordy it was, but the two-page-long articles – with minimal (and black and white) photography – were about one dish.

One dish?  Yes, two pages for one dish.  Cook’s Illustrated covers in its handful of bi-monthly pages only a few dishes, generally one or two pages full of text at a time.  There are recipes, but only at the end of the article, which always starts with what the writer was looking to make (the perfect southern biscuit in a home kitchen, restaurant-style hummus, braised short ribs in half the time of a traditional recipe), a detailing of the challenges and then a blow-by-blow account of how he or she finally succeeded.

This is one of the best guides for an intermediate home cook.  Like Ratio, it teaches technique rather than simply doling out recipes and pretty pictures.  It’s possible that a beginning cook would appreciate CI, but I certainly wouldn’t have.  When I was starting out I had no idea what a profiterole looked like let alone why I would have wanted to make one and I have a limited imagination* so slick magazines with mouth-watering photography was perfect for me.  They inspired me and always lured me back to make yet another go of it, no matter how badly the last thing had turned out.**

Cook’s Illustrated captured the imagination of my advanced-beginner cooking brain.  The part of me that now wants both to do and to understand.  If you’re interested in learning not just how to make recipes but also why they work***, I highly recommend this magazine.  And, it only comes once every couple of months, which is just enough time for me to take it all in before the next one, which makes it a treat in my mailbox.  Can’t beat that.


*I’m a visual person
**And I’ve had my share of bad outcomes.  Not much ended up in the trash, mostly because I’m pretty frugal and hate to throw away food.  But there was plenty that I would never have served to anyone else and so many things that ended up served at a ridiculous hour (and in fact, that still happens more than I’d like to admit)
***This is where the real learning about cooking begins.  As with the ratios, once you start to understand why foods interact the way they do, you are on your way to really cooking, as opposed to just following recipes well.  This is the kind of knowledge that is applicable over all foods, not just limited to one particular recipe.

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