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If You Can’t Stand the Heat ...

Don’t bother venturing inside America ’s Test Kitchen, where excellence is merely adequate.

It’s midafternoon in America’s Test Kitchen. Through a hum of conversation and motion, test cooks stalk from cooktop to walk-in cooler to dish room, stirring pots and chopping herbs and pouring batter. They pass a central egg-shaped counter crowded with roast beef and baked goods ready for tasting. Along the way, they sniff, breathe — even the air has flavor. Sometimes they stop and pick up a fork. Every few minutes, a digital timer beeps shrilly, and heads turn, scanning for the cook whose food needs attention. The magnetic center of the room is not the food-laden counter, however, but a corner where four spice cakes sit ready for taste-testing. Keith Dresser, senior editor of Cook’s Illustrated, hovers with his notes. “Keith looks stressed,” someone mutters. Everyone in the room knows that he’s been trying for weeks to develop a recipe for spice cake. There have been 19 taste tests, three to four cakes each time, and every cake layer has been riddled with small bubbles. All have been given the goodbye gong.  “The texture of number one is like sawdust,” a taster says now. “Tastes like Sara Lee pound cake,” says Erin McMurrer, director of the test kitchen.

“I like the slight floral flavor of number two,” says test cook David Pazmiño, encouragingly. “And the texture of number three.”

“I like three, as well,” McMurrer says, “but the flavor of number four.”

Beep! Beep! Beep!

Heads turn. One white smock breaks away from the tasting and wends its way to another oven, another recipe in the making.

BEYOND THESE KITCHEN WALLS lie the offices of Boston Common Press, an umbrella group comprising Cook’s Illustrated and its sister magazine, Cook’s Country; the America’s Test Kitchen TV show; and a cookbook-publishing arm. The publishing headquarters is somewhat typical, with open offices and cubicles and the mazelike quality that results when a growing company expands into adjacent space again and again. The hallways and back stairs have a habit of leading either to dead ends or back to where one started — which is a little like how it is with recipe testing.

Here, standard equipment includes two long oval tables known as Harkness Tables, which are used in many prep school classrooms to promote give-and-take among the teacher and students. Around the table, everyone’s in plain view; no one can hide in a back row. If Socrates hadn’t been able to dispute with pupils in the Athenian agora, he might have liked a Harkness Table.

Editors and test cooks gather around to apply the philosopher’s dialectic to food. They challenge every premise, prod every solution for weaknesses. It’s an approach suited to the cerebral Cook’s Illustrated, which for each issue subjects about a dozen recipes to the scientific method (also a descendant of Socrates). That’s a mere handful, compared with the scores of dishes in a typical foodie-zine, which are all presented in succulent color.

At Cook’s Illustrated, art tends toward the antique and sedate: Each cover displays food specimens painted in the style of old botanical illustrations, and inside are black-and-white line drawings that resemble eighteenth-century engravings. The articles are intellectual yet friendly (but never chummy). A resident food scientist explains why recipes work, or don’t, using words like autolyze. Experiments with kitchen equipment and pantry staples are reported with cool aplomb, even when the verdict is a hearty thumbs-down (“not recommended” is the courteous yet sniffy term of choice).

In a media culture that often relies on shock and snarkiness, the polite, philosophical Cook’s Illustrated seems out of place, out of time. But even more radical is this publishing office’s missing link: There’s no ad-sales department. Cook’s Illustrated and its fellows lack the one vital component of most publications.

“Chris [Kimball, founder of Cook’s Illustrated and its related properties, and the bow-tied star of America’s Test Kitchen] called me in 1992 and said he wanted to start Cook’s Illustrated back up at 32 pages, all black-and-white, no ads,” says editor in chief Jack Bishop, who worked with Kimball at the original Cook’s magazine in the ’80s. “I thought, I’ll give that six months. But those decisions  happened to be the exact right decisions. Now we have one million subscribers.”

In addition to that success, there are a quarter-million paid subscriptions to Cook’s Country, the flagship’s more lighthearted kid sister. There also is the America’s Test Kitchen TV show, which airs on public television stations; the Cook’s Illustrated website, with 165,000 members who pay about $20 annually for access to recipes, equipment testings, cooking tips, and tastings; and about a half dozen new cookbooks a year. All of these are based on two simple rules:

1. It’s the recipe, stupid.

2. Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

“People get that we’re different,” Bishop says. “That we’re willing to tell them, ‘You shouldn’t buy that’ — that’s not the way magazines work.”

CERTAIN TERMS USED HERE are pronounced as though in capital letters, like sacred principles or scientific theories. During my visit to the test kitchen, people ask, “Do you know the Five-Recipe Test?” “Has someone explained the Aha! Moment?” “Did they tell you about the Abuse Test?”

And then there’s the Fudge. Everyone knows exactly what that one word means — and no one knows better than Pazmiño. After the Fudge, it’s no wonder that he empathizes with Dresser’s travails in the valley of the shadow of spice cake. For Pazmiño endured a harrowing by chocolate, a private Fudge nightmare. “He spent months,” says Kimball. “He made a ton of it, literally.”

Fudge is notoriously temperamental. It has to be cooked to 238 degrees and stirred precisely the right way as it cools. Pazmiño perfected a recipe using an instant-read thermometer; when Kimball tried it with a regular one, it didn’t work. Because the test kitchen prefers to publish recipes that need no special equipment, the perfected Fudge went on the website (www.cooksillustrated.com). A more reliable version went into the magazine. But that fudge — noncapitalized — was no purist’s recipe. “It wasn’t the marshmallow creme version, but almost,” Kimball says.

So when Bishop introduces Dresser, who’s enduring similar torment but with spice cake, Pazmiño, looking on, begs to differ. “It’s not Fudge,” he says, deadpan.

“You know about Fudge?” Bishop asks me. “Has someone told you about Fudge?”

Someone has. Knowing nods are given all around. Dresser shares his spice-cake worries — the air bubbles, his attempts at preventing excessive aeration — and confides that today he’s trying the technique scientifically known as “squiggling a spatula through the batter in the pan.”

“I have my fingers crossed,” he says. “That’s about it.”

“Some recipes, you get where you want to go quickly,” Bishop puts in.

“But it’s the spice cakes that make it all worthwhile,” Dresser jokes.

Spice cake, it appears, is a capitalized term in the making.

AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN feels like the well-equipped home version squared. With eight refrigerators/freezers, 10 cooktops, and so many wall ovens that it’s hard to concentrate long enough to count them — not to mention 26 professional cooks with their beeping timers and chest-pocket thermometers — the kitchen is the kind of busy home cooks experience only on big holidays when all the kinfolk vie for one oven. The pantry is the size of a walk-in closet and is stocked with the kitchen’s taste-tested favorites, and the flour and sugar are in tubs so large, they’re on wheels. Then there’s the cooler, its wire racks laden with condiments, milk, meat, herbs, etc. — everything a serious home cook has, but on a larger scale.

Of course, at home, there’s no committee of the chosen to rate roast chicken as if for the chef Olympics, no recipe philosophers to dispute herbs and oven temperatures. For most cooks, that’s a major plus.

“It takes a certain kind of person to work here,” Kimball says. “It’s hard, hearing every day ‘That’s terrible’ or ‘Do it this way.’ And then you write the story, and I rip it apart.”

Kimball has certain, ah, requirements. He abhors stories that recount a cook’s testing notes. He wants a variation on Aristotle’s prescription for drama — a beginning that presents the problem, a middle with clues that heighten dramatic tension and build to a climactic moment of clarity (the vaunted Aha! Moment), and then an end, the denouement, the recipe itself.

So that certain kind of person is not only thick-skinned but also (ideally) a decent raconteur. Patient. Perfectionistic. Possessive of a palate able to detect tiny variations in flavor and of a stomach that can take dozens of samples daily — even when they’re all desserts.

The recipe-testing process is also well defined. First, there’s the preamble: the brainstorming for ideas, the surveying of readers about which recipes they’d most like tested. Once the goal is set — say inexpensive roast beef, which Pazmiño is testing alongside Dresser and his spice cake today — the test cook hits the company cookbook library and then goes online and to other libraries for backup resources.

From there, the cook plucks a lineup for the Five-Recipe Test, in which five variations on one particular dish are prepared. Colleagues taste and critique, and the test cook cobbles together the best aspects of the five individual recipes into a final working recipe, which he’ll defend at the Harkness Table and then submit to tastings, modify, and defend again.

Each recipe has its highest form, its Platonic ideal. With the roast beef, the goal was to use kitchen science: Enzymes that self-tenderize beef are active only when the meat is between 70 and 120 degrees, so Pazmiño theorized that keeping the meat in that range for much of the cooking time would create a tender product. He experimented and finally settled on cooking the beef at 200 degrees for one hour. Then he turned off the oven to let residual heat bring the meat to 130 degrees.

Once a cook nails down part of a dish, he focuses on something else, and so on. But progress isn’t step-by-step, explains Cook’s Illustrated managing editor Becky Hays, who’s sautéing onions in three Le Creuset dutch ovens, the kitchen’s favorite kind. At her elbow are the remaining ingredients for French onion soup. She’s tried the soup with all water, all beef broth, and all chicken broth; now she’s using a third of each. “It’s not linear,” she says. “There’s a lot of backtracking.”

After the kitchen passes a recipe, it goes to a professional recipe tester and is emailed to some 5,000 reader volunteers. TypicallY,  20 to 200 of them cook the recipe and respond.

“If we need to, we go back to the kitchen until we have a hit,” Hays says. She smiles wickedly. “And then … has anyone told you about the Abuse Test?

“We try to think of what people might do,” she says, still stirring her onions, “and we do it. I’ll cook this in a cheapo aluminum pot to make sure it still works.”

She’ll also try the “not recommended” brands of broth, because home pantries aren’t stocked only with Cook’s Illustrated– approved ingredients. “We want to make it foolproof,” she says.

BACK IN DRESSER’S corner, Hays peers at a cake’s innards. “Still a little tunneling,” she says, referring to the infernal air bubbles.

“That’s why they like the texture of three and four,” Dresser says. “I wasn’t as vigorous with squiggling on two.”

On and on it goes. People troop from all over the building to taste spice cake, frosted and unfrosted. For every batch of tasters, Dresser recites the variations in each cake: Number one’s made from a working recipe that calls for cake flour instead of all-purpose; in number two, there’s milk steeped with whole spices, including cardamom; number three has ground spices toasted in browned butter, no cardamom; and number four’s made from a working recipe that calls for brown sugar instead of molasses.

Tasters argue. Opinions cloud the air. Dresser listens, scribbling notes.

During a lull, Dresser listens to Pazmiño kvetch about recipe testers’ responses to his roast beef, which are starting to roll in via email. “It’d be better if you used prime rib, ” Pazmiño quotes. “Well, yeah. You’ll never make eye of round into tenderloin.”

More worrisome is the fact that some people couldn’t get the roast to 130 degrees in the extinguished oven. “How many responses?” Dresser asks.

“Twenty. Only 64 percent say they’d make it again,” answers Pazmiño. Dresser nods. The magic number is 80 percent. “Let it go another weekend,” he counsels. “Maybe work on it five degrees at a time?”

Pazmiño agrees. He doesn’t want another recipe killed. It’s a far cry from Fudge but painful nonetheless.

MEANWHILE, IN HIS OFFICE, Chris Kimball ruminates on a favorite subject: the philosophy of the recipe.

“People who write recipes don’t understand how people cook at home,” Kimball says. Home cooks don’t follow recipes. They substitute when they don’t have ingredients. They make do with the wrong equipment.

And they improvise. Kimball does not approve. His advice: Follow the recipe exactly, at least the first time. Better yet, pick 25 recipes, repeat making them until you can do it by memory, and expand from there.

“The greatest improvisers of all time spent their effort not on improvising but on practice,” Kimball says. “Jerry Garcia spent two hours a day just playing scales. Because even the simplest variations on a theme are hard.

“It’s hard to improvise in the kitchen unless you really know what you’re doing. And coq au vin that’s been toyed with too much isn’t coq au vin — it’s just chicken with some wine.”

It’s counsel like this that marks America’s Test Kitchen’s approach, setting the cult of Cook’s Illustrated apart from the rest of the foodies. Cook’s Illustrated is a phenomenon, because its readers don’t want to improvise toward a pseudo coq au vin. They want the real thing. They want perfection.

But there’s a paradox here. Don’t all great philosophies include one? To get home cooks to strive for perfection, Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen take them to awful. When readers and viewers see a test cook fail, they’re comforted about their own less- than-perfect results and persevere. One of my favorite moments in the test kitchen— one I’ve related to all my friends— was when a woman rushed to a wall oven, saying, “ I knew I smelled something burning!” She pulled out a sheet pan of brown, desiccated biscuits. I’m not the only one, I thought.

Now Kimball chuckles about cooking mishaps, but he once dumped a free- form tart on to the bottom of his oven during a visit from Boston magazine. “Everyone learns to cook by making a lot of bad food,” he says.

His next comment might sum up his company’s business model, er, soup to nuts. “ But if you give a reader two or three recipes that really work,” he says, “you have a customer for life.”

NOW IT’S TIME for McMurrer and Dresser to decide what’s next for the spice cakes. It’s the tensest conversation yet. She wants Dresser to test steeping the spices in milk. But Dresser’s still worried about bubbles. He suspects it wasn’t the squiggle alone that produced the fine texture of cake number three but also the browned butter in it. Oil coats the flour in a cake, making it tender, he explains, so with part of the butter in oil form…But McMurrer doesn’t think a home cook would steep spices and brown butter. And she doesn’t consider the squiggle an Aha! Moment. “Why not?” Dresser asks, for the first time sounding defensive.

“I guess we could say the batter is thicker than usual, so you pulled a spatula through to release air bubbles,” McMurrer says doubtfully.

“Or steeping might be the Aha! Moment,” Dresser allows.

Eventually, they reach a consensus: The next test will focus on spices. The squiggle and browned butter may come after.

“No wonder my daughter tells people her daddy’s job is baking cakes,” Dresser mutters as McMurrer leaves.

But Dresser isn’t deterred. “I figured out the texture, I think,” he says. Trying out his conclusions, he recites, “Drag a spatula through the batter in the pan; then tap the pan on the counter. That might make good copy.”

But is it an Aha! Moment? He’s not convinced. Nearby, Pazmiño is still talking roast beef— “Make sure not to lose the tenderness,” McMurrer says— and next to him, assistant editor Liz Monze

Is testing an inexpensive dutch oven. Across from her, a small crowd is arguing over whether to add an ingredient to chocolate- and-hazelnut-topped cookies.

Beep! Beep! Beep! Heads turn. There’s a shout and then a cook rushing to her oven; another debate is about to begin.