Most cookbooks tell you what to do, but not why. Not so “The New Best Recipe”, in which the superlative is not advertising-speak but instead quite literal: here you will find the recipes that produced the best results in a professional test kitchen.
Initially, the idea of using this mighty tome to create a meal felt like being asked to write an essay based on an encyclopedia. Where even to start? What’s good? Then I started flipping through it, and realized that the point of this book is that it’s ALL good. Unlike most cookbooks, here each item is preceded by a short discussion of what the ideal properties of that item are (“Gingerbread should be tender, moist, and several inches thick. It should be easy enough to assemble just before dinner so squares of warm gingerbread can be enjoyed for dessert.”), followed by a summary of a battery of test experiments that hone in on what’s needed to achieve that ideal (akin to my own experiments with how much baking powder to use in biscuits, but far more extensive). Then comes the final, polished, optimized recipe.
This means that, in addition to getting a really great recipe for gingerbread, you also learn a smattering of fundamental cooking and food science principles in the process. Further, by the time you get to the recipe, you now understand why they made the choices they did (milk over water, molasses over honey, white sugar over brown, etc.). I LOVE IT!
“We start the process of testing a recipe with a complete lack of conviction, which means that we accept no claim, no theory, no technique, and no recipe at face value. We simply assemble as many variations as possible, test a half-dozen of the most promising, and taste the results blind. We then construct our own hybrid recipe and continue to test it, varying ingredients, techniques, and cooking times until we reach a consensus.”
The basic philosophy behind this book (an assumption that good cooking is definable, testable, repeatable, and achievable) is wonderfully comforting to my fundamental personality type. Cooking is art, and skill, but (here) it can also be science. Here’s the book’s phrasing: “All of this would not be possible without a belief that good cooking, much like good music, is indeed based on a foundation of objective technique. Some people like spicy foods and others don’t, but there is a right way to saute, there is a best way to cook a pot roast, and there are measurable scientific principles involved in producing perfectly beaten, stable egg whites.”
The book also includes hand-drawn illustrations of cooking techniques (like how to measure different kinds of ingredients and what style of measuring cups works best) and pictures of failed outcomes (like five blueberry muffins that do not qualify as “best”).
Now I can’t wait to actually try out one of these best-recipes. I think I see some “Chicken and Rice with Saffron and Peas” in my future tonight. Thanks to my friend Elizabeth for a fantastic gift!