Pestles at dawn: recipe heavyweights in food duel

Everyone loves a food fight. And there’s a sizzler going on right now between the culinary pros at Cook’s Illustrated and the website Food52.com, an online community for home cooks.

Everyone loves a food fight. And there’s a sizzler going on right now between the culinary pros at Cook’s Illustrated and the website Food52.com, an online community for home cooks.

At issue: what produces the better recipe — rigorous professional test kitchen protocols or the online consensus of multiple cooks?

It began last fall, when Cook’s founder Christopher Kimball threw down the oven mitt with a blog post saying a test kitchen is likely to produce a better recipe and declaring, “I am willing to put my money, and my reputation, where my big mouth is.”

Food52, which was started by Merrill Stubbs and Amanda Hesser, cookbook author and former food writer for The New York Times, took up the challenge and the contest took shape.

Each side was to come up with two recipes, one for chewy sugar cookies, one for roasted pork shoulder. The results from each side will be posted on the online magazine Slate, then put to a public vote.

At Cook’s, editorial director Jack Bishop thinks portraying the contest as a battle of old-line versus online is oversimplifying. He says Cook’s gets plenty of reader feedback.

At Food52 the workflow is reversed. Hesser and Stubbs test recipes readers submit, then use their experience to select the best.

Stubbs, a veteran food writer who trained at the Cordon Bleu and also interned at Cook’s, notes home cooks are the original “old guard” of cooking.

One of the recipes submitted for sugar cookies to Food52 (not a finalist) described the cookie dough as being ready when it looked like freshly scooped ice cream, Hesser said. “That is the kind of thing you get from real people cooking in their own kitchen.”

An introduction to the contest will be posted on Slate on May 5.

Readers will then have two weeks to test the final recipes from both sides. Results from the voting that follows are expected later in the month, said Juliet Lapidos, food editor at Slate.

The Cook’s testing process is, to say the least, thorough.

A typical recipe begins with research that leads to a folder of 50 to 100 recipes, which then are boiled down to a composite. That’s when work begins at the test kitchen, a 232-square-metre facility just outside Boston, home to the magazine’s more than three dozen full-time cooks and testers.

Each ingredient and method of the recipe is tested and tinkered with over a period of a month or more. When a final recipe has been developed, it then is vetted by a professional tester. It also goes out to 2,000 volunteer testers, of whom about 100 will make the recipe and fill out an online questionnaire. Unless there’s an 80 per cent approval rating, it’s back to the mixing bowl.

For the contest, Cook’s came up with a chai spiced sugar cookie that Bishop says “is pretty creative.” It’s recognizable, “but it isn’t your grandmother’s sugar cookie.”

At Food52, regular contests are held. Upcoming recipe themes are announced on Fridays, submissions are reviewed and then Stubbs and Hesser taste their favourites among the submissions and put two up for vote with the winner slated for an upcoming Food52 cookbook.

Reaction to the contest has been as varied as you would expect.

Cook’s reader David Holstrom thinks the contest is pointless.

“Who cares?” he said, predicting that neither side will be swayed regardless of the outcome.

Holstrom, president of Guy du Vin, a Portland, Ore.-based online wine retailer, said it’s possible to get good results by either method, “but my experience is I tend to get a more reliable end result from Cook’s Illustrated or something in that mould.”

The problem with blogged recipes, in Holstrom’s view, is it’s hard to know whether they come from a talented or trained chef, or are simply the musings of a disaster in the kitchen.

Emily Nunn, a food writer in Chicago who is a fan of Food52 and has submitted recipes to the site, uses Cook’s Illustrated cookbooks, but thinks “there’s something qualitatively different about what’s going on at Food52.”

With something like a Cook’s recipe it’s been decided that there’s one way to make a dish. Food52 recipes, on the other hand, “have a history. You learn about the people who are submitting them, and you understand what kind of a chef Mrs. Wheelbarrow is. I kind of know these people now.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney updates media on measures taken to help with COVID-19, in Edmonton on Friday, March 20, 2020. Alberta is set to join three other provinces in exploring the feasibility of small modular reactors as a clean energy option. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Four provinces to sign memorandum of understanding to explore small nuclear reactors

Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick sign memorandum of understanding

FILE - In this Nov. 17, 2016, file photo, Chris Kempczinski, then-incoming president of McDonald’s USA, speaks during a presentation at a McDonald’s restaurant in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. On Wednesday, April 14, 2021, McDonald’s said the company will mandate worker training to combat harassment, discrimination and violence in its restaurants worldwide starting in 2022. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
McDonald’s to mandate anti-harassment training worldwide

New standards starting in January 2022

Innisfail RCMP say Brandon Pitts is missing. (Photo contributed)
FOUND: Missing central Alberta man

Innisfail RCMP request public’s help

Grounded WestJet Boeing 737 Max aircrafts are shown at the airline’s facilities in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, May 7, 2019. WestJet says it will extend its temporary suspension of international sun flights to destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean until June 4. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
WestJet extends temporary suspension of international sun flights until June

Customers with affected itineraries will be notified of cancellations

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, right, and United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, April 14, 2021. United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Brussels on Wednesday for talks with European and NATO allies about Afghanistan, Ukraine and other matters. (Kenzo Tribouillard, Pool via AP)
US co-ordinates Afghanistan pullout with NATO withdrawal

Attacks on U.S. troops have largely paused but that Taliban attacks on the Afghans increased

In this Nov. 12, 1995, file photo, Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy looks on during the second quarter of the Bills game against the Atlanta Falcons at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Bill Sikes, File
Former Alouettes head coach Marv Levy tops 2021 Canadian Football Hall of Fame class

The ‘21 class will boost the Hall of Fame’s membership to 316

Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health, provides an update on health system preparations in Nova Scotia for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, in Halifax on Friday, March 6, 2020. Strang says plans are in place to stage the women’s world hockey championship in the province next month with limited spectators.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Nova Scotia plans to allow limited crowds at women’s world hockey championship

All 10 teams in Halifax and Truro must participate in a 14-day quarantine

”Kim’s Convenience” cast member Andrew Phung poses in this undated handout photo. “Kim’s Convenience” has just ended but Andrew Phung is already “knee-deep in ideas and stories” for his next project, “Run the Burbs.” The Calgary-raised actor, who played comical car-rental employee Kimchee on “Kim’s,” co-created the upcoming comedy series and will star in it as a stay-at-home dad with an entrepreneur wife and two kids. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - CBC
‘Kim’s Convenience’ actor Andrew Phung on crafting his own series, ‘Run the Burbs’

‘Run the Burbs’ production could start in the summer or fall

Canisia Lubrin poses in this undated handout photo. Rising literary talent Canisia Lubrin is among the Canadian finalists for the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize. The Griffin Trust announced the three homegrown wordsmiths and four international poets on this year’s short list on Wednesday. Lubrin, who recently received the US$165,000 Windham-Campbell Prize, is nominated for “The Dyzgraphxst” (pronounced diss-graff-ist), published by McClelland and Stewart. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Anna Keenan
Rising writer Canisia Lubrin among Canadian finalists for $65K Griffin Poetry Prize

Griffin will award two winners, one international and one Canadian

A prairie fire in the Burnt Lake district. (Photo by Bert Fors via Red Deer Archives)
Michael Dawe: Fires of spring 1931 in central Alberta

Central Alberta has just come through a relatively warm and dry winter… Continue reading

Gwynne Dyer
Opinion: Boris Johnson is to blame for what’s happening in Ireland

Twenty-three years of peace in Northern Ireland, after a sectarian war that… Continue reading

Canada's Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes, fom left, celebrate after winning women's gold medal match against Brazil's team at the Beach Volley Worldtour Major Series, in Vienna, Austria on August 4, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Ronald Zak
Canada’s world champion beach volleyball duo finally getting games before Tokyo

Canada’s world champion beach volleyball duo finally getting games before Tokyo

Toronto Raptors center Khem Birch (24) gets fouled by Atlanta Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic (13) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Bogdanovic, Capela lead Hawks past Raptors 107-103

Bogdanovic, Capela lead Hawks past Raptors 107-103

Most Read