The mini media empire that is America’s Test Kitchen, based in Brookline, produces a lot of books (as well as TV shows and the flagship Cook’s Illustrated magazine). There’s a certain amount of overlap between books, which presumably find different ways to package the recipes in the ATK database. But if you buy one ATK book, it should be this one.
“The Science of Good Cooking,” by Guy Crosby, ATK founder Chris Kimball, and other editors, adds value to its meticulously foolproof, if sometimes familiar, recipes by clearly explaining the physics and chemistry behind many common kitchen reactions. Its chapters are organized conceptually: “Brining Maximizes Juiciness in Lean Meats,” “Starch Keeps Eggs From Curdling,” “Creaming Butter Helps Cakes Rise.” If you take the time to read the explanations, it’s a kitchen education between hard covers. Ideal oven temperatures are one of the many elements that are tested to a fare-thee-well. Gentle, covered baking in a pot leaves a pork loin roast “en cocotte” sweating with apple-y, shallot-y juices. Later, I happened to have a bit of prime rib taking up badly needed freezer space; I’d been avoiding it because I didn’t quite know how to cook it. Browning it in a skillet and then roasting it at a mellow 200 degrees — barely warmer than a sauna — is how you get a perfect, juicy roast (a trick chefs have been using forever).
Even if you’re sure you know how to cook a chicken breast, it’s worth trying another technique: brining, browning, and then roasting at high heat, which gives you a moist, flavorful interior and a golden brown surface, irresistibly butter-tinged with sage and vermouth. An apparently ordinary roast chicken pulls off another hat trick: shatteringly crisp skin, thanks to puncturing it (to let the fat run) and a baking powder rub (to alkalize and dry out the skin).
That old-school standby, beef Stroganoff, stands the test of time with a few untraditional improvements: a soy marinade, browning followed by resting and slicing, and mushrooms microwaved for speed. One meat recipe falls short of my expectations: a stir-fry. I was surprised by the instruction to use a nonstick skillet, since nonstick doesn’t do well with high heat, and indeed, my skillet came close to becoming permanently “sticky” while browning strips of beef. In the end, it recovered, and the flavors of tangerine and sweetened soy sang with onions and snow peas. You’d still be better off with cast iron.
Although my testing focused on proteins (the trickiest to cook, and therefore the most likely to benefit from technical care), vegetable dishes are equally competent, from a creamy buttermilk cole slaw (wilted and tart but not too drippy), to a sure-fire tomato and mozzarella tart that’s essentially a puff pastry pizza. Pasta alla Norma so ably does away with the usual sogginess of eggplant (salting and nuking is the secret) that my kids ate every last bit. And a batch of home fries comes out with a gilded crust (baking soda in the boiling water, followed by roasting) and onions so sweetly caramelized, it’s worth dropping everything to sit and savor them.
“The Science of Good Cooking” may not be your book if you like speed. Sometimes there are extra flavor-building steps, and the editors freely exploit hours-long marinades and braises. It may not be your book if you like novelty, as it tends to focus on delivering the best possible version of classic recipes. But you could hardly do better if you’re looking for consistent results and abundant flavor in recipes you may already know. And answers to that eternal culinary question: why?