The Magazine

Cooks' Tour

The simple, practical guide for the amateur chef.

Aug 10, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 44 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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Christopher Kimball knows what you are eating.

"I can tell you to a T what people cook at home and what they don't," says the founder and editor of Cook's Illustrated. "They say they want chicken, cheese, beef, chocolate." Who doesn't? But for the 16-year-old culinary magazine, knowing exactly what readers prefer is vital: Their feedback determines what makes it into each issue (grill-roasted turkey breast, for instance) and what doesn't.

Cook's Illustrated relies on some 10,000 "friends of Cook's" to test recipes and let Kimball and his staff know what they enjoyed making, and what they didn't. (As it turns out, candy and seafood--with the exception of salmon and shrimp--are at the bottom of the list.) The most popular dishes are tested dozens of times by the magazine's chefs who refine the recipes using the most precise measurements before they appear in the next issue practically foolproof.

Here is, for example, a partial description for making "Best Charcoal Grill-Smoked Pork Chops."

5. Remove skewers from chops; tip chops onto flat side and brush surface with 1 tablespoon sauce. Transfer chops, sauce-side down, to hotter parts of grill (2 on each side) and cook, uncovered, until browned, 2 to 4 minutes. Brush top of each chop with 1 tablespoon sauce; flip and continue to cook on second side until browned and instant-read thermometer inserted into center of pork chop, but away from any bone, registers 140 to 145 degrees, 2 to 4 minutes longer. Remove chops from grill and allow to rest, tented with foil, 5 minutes. Serve, passing half cup reserved sauce separately.

In other words, Cook's Illustrated is an instructional magazine (and one that would no doubt meet the approval of Phil Hartman's Anal-Retentive Chef). Aside from the selection of recipes, several pages of each issue are devoted to cooking and cutting techniques. There's a tasting and equipment-test section in which different brands are blindly sampled by in-house staff and the consensus winner revealed.

What is the best chef's knife? Try the Forschner Fibrox 8-inch blade for only $24.95 (compared with, say, the Shun Ken Onion 8-inch chef's knife for $250). The best sweet pickle relish? Cascadian Farm organic comes in first (no yellow dye #5) but Heinz is a close second--"sparkles with a shocking glow-in-the-dark color, but won tasters over with its 'crunchy' texture and 'mustardy' flavor." There are no celebrity chef profiles or travelogues. There aren't even any four-color photographs--a still-life of fruits or vegetables usually adorns the cover.

But the thing most notably missing is advertising. Not a single ad appears in Cook's Illustrated, forcing the magazine to depend solely on the loyalty of its readers for revenue--something it seems to be doing rather well. At last count, Cook's Illustrated had a paid circulation of 910,000 (the cost is $19.95 for six issues or $5.95 each on newsstands). Cooksillustrated.com, whose content is mostly restricted, also has a separate paid online readership of 272,000.

A sister magazine called Cook's Country, which launched in 2005 and specializes in comfort-country cuisine like Kentucky Burgoo and lemon pudding cake, claims an additional 310,000 paid readers. Another publishing arm sells roughly one million cookbooks a year. And perhaps most important, Cook's Illustrated is featured front and center on America's Test Kitchen, the most-watched cooking show on public television, with 1.7 million viewers each week. (Cook's Country TV has its own weekly audience of 1.1 million.)

So despite a worsening economy that has spelled doom for many print publications, Cook's Illustrated is thriving. And as more people choose to save money by skipping restaurants and staying home to cook, the magazine is finding itself in a most enviable position.

How, then, did this anomaly in print journalism come into being?

Cook's Illustrated is the brainchild of Christopher Kimball, a 57-year-old entrepreneur originally from Westchester County, New York, who currently resides with his wife and children in Boston and has a weekend home (actually a hobby farm) in Vermont. Not long ago I visited Kimball at his office in the Boston suburb of Brookline Village (home to Cook's Illustrated, Cook's Country, and America's Test Kitchen studios) and asked him just how he arrived here.

Surprisingly, Kimball is not a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America or Johnson & Wales. He spent his undergraduate years at Columbia.