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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Tour of America's Test Kitchen in Brookline

Thanks to swapper Melissa Pocek, I had the good fortune to tag along on a tour of America's Test Kitchen in Brookline earlier this week. Assistant editor Jill Fisher took us behind the scenes to see how chefs at ATK perfect their recipes and even taste-teste a few treats!

Research starts in ATK's cookbook library, which contains over 4,000 cookbooks organized by region, diet, and style of cooking. Chefs apply the "5 recipe test" in which they find five recipes encompassing a broad range of flavors for a single dish and invite editors to try each sample and determine what works and what doesn't in each recipe. Then chefs tweak every variable possible (cooking time, resting time, type of leavening agent, etc) to find the most foolproof recipe.

We weren't allowed to take photos in the actual photo studio, but we did learn that the still photos in the magazines and cookbooks use all natural light. There's a huge props area where photographers can choose different dishes, pots, pans, placemats, and even countertops to create the perfect effect for each shoot.

Jill also told us that ATK chefs only use pots, pans, and other tools that would be available to home cooks, never industrial-sized kitchenware. They also taste test ingredients to determine which broths, milks, beans, and other items work best for cooking. (Interestingly, Charles Shaw is one of ATK's cooking wines of choice, even outperforming pricer bottles.)

Most magazine recipes are planned six months ahead of time, so that means that ATK chefs grill in the alley behind the office even during wintertime! On the day we visited, chefs were perfecting recipes for almond cake and gluten-free chocolate chip and sugar cookies. We tasted the cookies and four different variations on the almond cake (pictured above). Meanwhile, a group of chefs (pictured below) clustered around the counter discussing the cakes' density, stature, and the ratio of almond paste to sugar.

I get creative when making salads or granola, but I tend to closely follow recipes for baked goods, because messing with ratios can result in muffins or cookies that are too dry, too sweet, or too moist. Watching the ATK chefs in action gave me a deeper appreciation for the amount of time and research that goes into creating those recipes to begin with.

After the tour, we walked over to Cutty's, since Jill told us the sandwich shop is a favorite of the ATK staff. Cutty's has a giant chalkboard listing where all the ingredients come from (cheese from Cabot, flour from King Arthur, chocolate from Taza), so we could see why they love Cutty's. I also spotted this sign.

Even as a vegetarian, I was kind of intrigued. Can someone explain to me how pork fat is used in clubbing?

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