Culture

‘Making Mistakes, So You Don’t Have To’: America’s Test Kitchen at 20

Bridget Lancaster and Julia Collin Davison on America’s Test Kitchen. (America's Test Kitchen/YouTube)
Thank you, ATK, for bringing joy and confidence to home cooks across America. Here’s to 20 more years.

We all have our favorite go-to solution. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Toula’s father is convinced that Windex cures all. Ramona Quimby, the charming creation of Beverly Cleary, rigs her too-long bridesmaid dress with Scotch Tape. My dad swears by super glue. Me? Any and all kitchen and food-related questions can be answered by the cooks and food editors at America’s Test Kitchen.

ATK isn’t a new obsession in my life. In fact, my mom introduced it to me years ago. (Nor is it new, period; next year will be its 20th on the air.) Breastfeeding can be a lengthy affair, so she would pass the time watching PBS airings of ATK (interspersed with Antiques Roadshow, of course). Christopher Kimball, the original host, was quirky and engaging, and I admired the seeming ease with which all the cooks prepared the episode’s recipes. They could slice onions four different ways, crack eggs perfectly, and break down whole chickens in no time. But these cooks didn’t assume you, the viewer, knew what to do or why they were doing it. Without becoming didactic, they taught viewers how to curl their hands when chopping veggies (lower chance of losing fingers), or why they should sprinkle salt on meat from higher up (for better coverage), or why baking soda helps meat brown better (it has to do with the Maillard reaction).

The eponymous test kitchen is “a very real 2,500-square-foot kitchen located just outside of Boston,” and filming for the show usually happens right on location. The multifaceted brand also includes a magazine, Cook’s Illustrated (founded in the early ’90s), and a second show, Cook’s Country (filmed in a 200-year-old Vermont farmhouse). Cook’s Country is also a favorite of mine. While that show does still care about the technique and the science, its purpose is more focused on the history of food and the origins of different meals and dishes.

After being away from ATK for some years, I found it again on YouTube while living in New York City and straightaway began recreating the show’s dishes. I’d sit in front of my computer with a pen and paper, constantly hitting pause to jot down ingredients and amounts. My long-suffering roommates put up with a rather smoky apartment as I baked and fried pork chops, determined to follow the instructions to the letter no matter how many fire alarms went off. The best chocolate-chip cookies I’ve ever made came next. (Browning your butter makes all the difference, as does the unusual creaming method, believe it or not.) My greatest success, though, was with roasted potatoes: par-baked, shaken, coated in olive oil and salt, tossed onto a screaming hot sheet pan, and baked until golden outside and creamy within. I’ve made this recipe (from ATK’s The Science of Good Cooking) countless times now, and my family has started calling them “Sarah’s potatoes,” so I needed to set the record straight.

Part of ATK’s “manifesto” is the mantra, “We make the mistakes, so you don’t have to.” Its cooks believe that there are fundamentals in cooking, basic techniques that hold true all the time, and that by knowing them, you can be a better cook. While their testing rigor may seem odd or extreme to the casual observer, they do indeed get results. I don’t claim to know their secrets, but one, I might guess, is time. They care about what they do, and they understand that all good things take time. In an era of fast food and microwave meals, painstaking processes such as brining chicken, stirring cookie batter in three-minute increments, and soaking French fries in water before frying them strike some as silly or unnecessary. To be sure, I have nothing against fast food or quick meals. But food is meant to be enjoyed. So why not take a little extra time when you can to create something delicious?

If you still think this is silly, just watch the show. At the end of each cooking segment, the hosts taste the food they’ve shown us how to prepare. Nearly every time on every episode, with all the many dishes they’ve made over the years, they plate the food onto a pretty serving dish. Why? Why dirty another dish when you could just eat out of the pot? One Thousand Gifts author Ann Voskamp has stressed the importance of not serving your meals in the pots and pans in which you made them, but putting the food on platters and in bowls. Yes, it adds dishes and cleanup. But what it says to your family and friends is more important. It shows you care. ATK does this often. Their cooks cook to eat, and when the dish allows, they plate it. So what if it’s for a camera shot or a photo-op? It still makes a point: The time you spend making food shows its importance, and serving it nicely shows your care for those eating it.

The hospitality aspect doesn’t end with plating, though: ATK’s cast of hosts, cooks, and editors is delightful, giving the show a family-like coziness. Julia Collin-Davison and Bridget Lancaster have been with the show for a long time, and transitioned in the role of hosts in 2017 (ATK had an unfortunate falling out with its founder, Christopher Kimball, who left the show to start another magazine and TV show). Their on-air chemistry is genuine and pleasurable. They enjoy each other’s company, appreciate each other’s skills, and take great joy in good food. Adam Reid in the equipment corner and Jack Bishop in the tasting lab have also been part of the magic for decades, as well as test cooks and food editors Erin McMurrer, Dan Souza, Lisa McManus, Bryan Roof, and Becky Hays.

These personalities are on both ATK and Cook’s Country, as well as on social media and their robust YouTube channel. Recently, I taught a small cooking class composed of some of my siblings and their friends, all between the ages of nine and 14. Our chili recipe called for garlic, so while the final product was simmering on the stove, I had my students watch the garlic video from ATK’s YouTube series What’s Eating Dan? Even though some of the science is a bit beyond them, the video is simple and engaging, with concepts clearly explained by veteran test cook and Cook’s Illustrated editor, Dan Sousa. These five- to seven-minute videos are fascinating. Sousa has covered all manner of foods, from lemons and beets to celery and sweet potatoes. He is passionate about the science behind these foods, and the enthusiasm he brings to these well-produced videos shows it.

Much more could be said about this American staple, such as the fact that the staff are currently recording ATK’s next season from their own home kitchens due to COVID, or how grateful I am to them for their paleo and gluten-free cookbooks that saved my palette from despair. But perhaps the best compliment is to describe the show’s talent as family. Cheesy though it may sound, the familiarity and personality brought to the show by its wonderful cast are refreshing and inspiring. Thank you, ATK, for bringing joy and confidence to home cooks across America. Here’s to 20 more years.

Sarah Schutte is the podcast manager for National Review and an associate editor for National Review magazine. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she is a children's literature aficionado and Mendelssohn 4 enthusiast.

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