[8 August 2012]
Today, you can watch countless TV shows about food and yet never learn a single thing about cooking from them. In our age of Cake Boss, Top Chef, Cupcake Wars, and Hell’s Kitchen there’s plenty of entertainment for the masses that puts food in the spotlight but there are very few programs out there for the serious home cook to turn to for worthwhile in-the-kitchen advice. Thank goodness, there’s America’s Test Kitchen.
America’s Test Kitchen is produced by the knowledgeable staff of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine. Like the magazine, the PBS show is characterized by extensively tested recipes and thorough step-by-step instructions. The recently released four-disc America’s Test Kitchen: Season 12 DVD faithfully continues its reputation of pleasing the gastronomes that make up its dedicated audience.
The show’s host Christopher Kimball is something of a poor man’s Alton Brown, complete with a bow tie, measured delivery, wit, healthy skepticism, and plenty of geeky admiration for food science. Kimball, who is also the editor-in-chief of Cook’s Illustrated, introduces each segment and banters with the other various cast members that actually demonstrate how to prepare the recipes. Talking just to the camera has almost always been a tough sell both for the hosts and viewers of cooking shows. So, Kimball’s interaction with the other food testers and tasters is vital to the show’s success because the conversation is so natural.
To his credit, Kimball does throw out plenty of quick tips on his own and he’s always ready to step away from the action to include a mini food science lecture. In a Season 12 episode in the middle of a gingerbread cake recipe, for example, he thoroughly breaks down the components of baking powder and baking soda so you’ll understand why they react differently inside your oven.
Never content to just tell you, for example, that corn starch will thicken your soup or sauce, America’s Test Kitchen tells you the molecular science behind the culinary techniques, whether you’ve ever wondered about it or not. They’re concerned about “the why” as much as they are “the how” which is surprisingly charming. Rudimentary chemistry graphics, though dull in their appearance, emerge alongside Kimball to support explanations so he can better explain why, for instance, cornstarch is an effective emulsifier. It can be as interesting, or as tedious, as it sounds. In any given episode you should expect to hear about things like phospholipid molecules, ions, and pH levels.
Season 12’s recipes aren’t necessarily budget friendly and, the scrambled eggs recipe excluded, replicating the recipes would surely be time consuming. But, no matter which cook is guiding Kimball through the recipe, they really exhibit some masterfully descriptive language when it comes to describing the taste of food, making it seem worth all that work. To everyone’s credit, the latest season provides you with winning recipes for cuisine that you’d actually want to eat like pub-style burgers, thin crust pizza, broccoli cheese soup, roast chicken and strawberry pie. They’re not the most adventuresome dishes, they’re mostly comfort food staples, but they all seem appetizing.
The cast’s goal is to bring you the best version of every recipe they tackle. So, instead of making a unique pasta dish for the sake of variety or affectation, in one episode they give audiences the best recipe for spaghetti and meatballs they could muster, hence the “test kitchen” part of the show’s title. Whether or not there is actually one single best recipe for everyone’s palate is debatable, but you can’t fault the cast of Season 12 for wanting to pursue excellent taste and foolproof cooking. Based on the few recipes that I’ve followed, they do succeed. Kimball mentions in passing in a couple of the episodes that variations of some recipes are tried over fifty times before they sharing the winning, exemplary recipe on television. So, each finished product has been tested like crazy and the cast both knows and explains the reasons behind the tasty end results. Doing something “just because” wouldn’t be welcome on the show, which is a good thing for the enquiring home chef.
Also, admirably the program features only a couple recipes per episode when most half-hour cooking shows feel obligated to shove at least three or four recipes your way. The people behind America’s Test Kitchen take their time, taking exhaustive steps to actually teach the viewers how to prepare each recipe. Correspondingly, no, it’s not fast paced. They don’t just throw in ingredients, they walk you though every technique with detailed, helpful explanations.
The cooks downplay the intimidation factor quite well and everything they do ends up seeming like something you really can do at home. Part of that is the amount of information they give you. It’s not information overload, but at times it flirts with crossing that line. Yet, it’s much better than the opposite.
The recipe segments are educational and the food always looks beautiful, especially this season’s decadent chocolate torte and the colorful vegetable lasagna.
However, these lengthy recipe segments are often overshadowed by the show’s other regular segments: the Tasting Lab and the Equipment Corner. Thanks to its syndication on PBS stations, America’s Test Kitchen doesn’t have to worry about upsetting potential ad revenues like typical network’s cooking shows do, so during the typical product evaluation segments, the crew calls brands like it sees them, or tastes them, for better and for worse. The cast would be perfectly content to tell you that one iconic brand of peanut butter is flat-out terrible or that an expensive top-of-the-line food processer isn’t really any better than one you’d buy for half the price. It’s this type of information that comes from the show that is especially valuable.
In the Tasting Lab segments, where the show assesses several brands of the same food product, Jack Bishop’s chemistry with Kimball is the best. The duo is like brothers who seem to love a little squabble to go with their savoring. After completing a taste test of several brands of brown rice, Bishop says, “You picked the loser, Chris,” to which Kimball responds, “I thought it was really chewy and tasted great!”
Thankfully, when it comes to the talent on America’s Test Kitchen no one tries to be a rock star in the kitchen. I hold nothing against TV chefs like Guy Fieri or Rachael Ray, they’ve earned their celebrity status, but it’s delightful that no one on America’s Test Kitchen tries to be larger than life. Nobody’s especially in-your-face or wacky on the PBS program and with that loss of sheer entertainment value comes a welcome boost of credibility.
Even so, a little more pep or star-quality would go a long way. Most of the 26 episodes in Season 12, like those in earlier seasons, feel like superb lectures, but indeed, still like lectures. As the Season 12 DVD demonstrates, the show is not for everyone, though it’s accessible enough.
In a nutshell, the show’s a cooking show for foodies. Nothing more, nothing less. The episodes are not unentertaining by any means, but it’d be hard to imagine someone watching the program that doesn’t spend hours of quality time preparing meals each week. America’s Test Kitchen knows its audience and serves them well. However, I’d imagine that if even the most dedicated viewers were to sit down and watch several episodes back to back on the DVD, the formula for the show itself would quickly become stale and bland.
Still, if you want great lessons about how to cook and good advice about which food-related products you need to purchase, there’s no better place to turn to on TV than America’s Test Kitchen. You are guaranteed learn something in each half-hour episode. Everyone has to eat, so you might as well learn how prepare something tasty. The America’s Test Kitchen: Season 12 DVD serves up that advice nicely and with authority.
When it comes to the special features on the four-disc set, the cabinet is nearly bare. You will only find PDFs of the recipes via a DVD-ROM drive but perhaps, given the nature of the program, that’s all you could ask for.