07 April 2012

Weekend Cooking: Review: Cook's Illustrated Cookbook by American Test Kitchens

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If you haven't drunk the Cook's Illustrated (CI) Kool-Aid yet, you should. I've been a faithful reader of the the magazine since its very beginnings and have rarely been disappointed in a recipe. When in doubt, I turn to CI and its associated American's Test Kitchen (ATK).

If you've just discovered ATK, you'll be happy to know they've published a cookbook that includes, as the subtitle says, 2,000 Recipes from 20 Years of American's Most Trusted Food Magazine. No matter your skill level, The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook will soon become a staple in your kitchen, and here's why.

Every recipe has been tested, retested, tweaked, tested again, undergone blind taste testings, and refined as need. And all this cooking is done using regular appliances and pots and pans found in normal well-stocked home kitchens. If a special pan is called for, that's because other pans didn't produce great results. If a recipe calls for an ingredient at room temperature, that's because the dish was less successful when the ingredient was cold (or hot). The cooks at ATK have tried all the variations, so you can trust their advice.

So if you're a new cook or an unsure cook, you can use this cookbook with confidence. If you are a seasoned cook, you'll love the sections called "Why This Recipe Works," which explain the details, such as why a particular cutting method is best or why you need low-starch potatoes for a specific recipe. In addition there are 154 tips and hints and at least as many illustrations showing specific cooking and baking methods.

Cooks who wish they were better at making substitutions will appreciate the many recipes in The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook that come with variations. For example, you'll see how easy it is to turn Sauteed Pork Cutlets with Mustard-Cider Sauce into Sauteed Pork Cutlets with Lemon-Caper Sauce, and you'll find four easy variations for the Classic Couscous recipe. Once you feel comfortable with tested variations, you'll soon be making up your own.

Vegetarian/Vegan Alert: This general cookbook comes in at a hefty 900 pages, and I know there are plenty of recipes for vegetarians. But vegetarians should be aware that poultry, meat, and fish take up about 200 pages, and that doesn't count the meat that would be found in the salad, soup, and pasta chapters. I think you'll find a lot of great recipes, but I suggest you look before you buy. I don't think vegans would find many recipes to suit their tastes.

One of the many winning recipes in The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook is Simple Lasagna with Hearty Tomato-Meat Sauce. Vegetarians could leave out the meat, substitute a soy product, or substitute veggies (those are my suggestions, not ATK; there are, in fact, about a dozen vegetarian lasagna recipes in the book).

Simple Lasagna with Hearty Tomato-Meat Sauce

Serves 8 to 10 (see note at end)

Tomato-Meat Sauce
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped fine
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 pound meatloaf mix (see note)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1 (28-ounce) can tomato puree
  • 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained (see note)
Cheese Filling
  • 14 ounces (1-3/4 cups) ricotta cheese
  • 2-1/2 ounces Parmesan cheese grated (1-1/4 cups)
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 16 ounce whole-milk mozzarella, shredded (4 cups)
  • 12 no-boil lasagna noodles (see note)
For the Sauce: Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in meatloaf mix, salt, and pepper, increase heat to medium-high, and cook, breaking up any large pieces with wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 3 minutes. Add cream, bring to simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid evaporates and only rendered fat remains, about 4 minutes. Stir in tomato puree and diced tomatoes, bring to simmer, and cook until flavors meld, about 3 minutes. Set aside. (Sauce can be cooled and refrigerated for up to 2 days; reheat before assembling lasagna.)

For the Cheese Filling: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375F. Combine ricotta, 1 cup Parmesan, basil, egg, salt, and pepper in bowl.

To Assemble: Spread 1/4 cup of meat sauce evenly over bottom of 13 by 9-inch baking dish (avoiding large chunks of meat). Arrange 3 noodles in a single layer on top of sauce. Spread each noodle evenly with 3 tablespoons of ricotta mixture and sprinkle entire layer with 1 cup mozzarella. Spoon 1-1/2 cups meat sauce over top. Repeat layers of noodles, ricotta, mozzarella, and sauce 2 more times. For final layer, arrange remaining 3 noodles on top and cover completely with remaining sauce. Sprinkle with remaining 1 cup mozzarella, then sprinkle with remaining 1/4 Parmesan.

To Bake: Cover dish tightly with aluminum foil that has been sprayed with vegetable spray. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove foil and continue to bake until cheese is spotty brown and edges are just bubbling, about 25 minutes loner. Cook lasagna for 15 minutes before serving.

Beth Fish's notes: This makes a huge amount. I make the entire pan. We eat it for two nights and I freeze the rest in batches so I have easy meals later on. This freezes beautifully. I use ground lamb because that's what we always have. I have forgotten to drain the tomatoes and found no ill effect. My lasagna pan is larger than 9 by 13 inches and the only no-boil noodles I can find in local stores are small. It takes me 1-1/2 boxes of short noodles to make my lasagna; all other ingredients work fine in the larger pan.


Marg 4/7/12, 5:54 AM  

This sounds a lot like the Australian Women Weekly cookbooks which have been Australian standards for many years!

The little chef and I do like to make lasagna although I have been known to cheat a bit and use pre-prepared pasta bolognaise sauce.

Rikki 4/7/12, 6:12 AM  

I have only recently discovered ATK and really like the website and program that I can watch there. Sounds like a good book, but maybe not so much for the veggies.
I am also blogging about a 800+ page book today (and have decided to add a "veggie factor" to my reviews, :))

Peggy Ann 4/7/12, 6:30 AM  

My post today is an ATK recipe! With a side trip to Cinncinnati! I love all of them, ATK, Cooks Illustrated, and Cooks Country!

Uniflame 4/7/12, 6:33 AM  

I don't know this but that must be because I am non-American. The lasagna sounds good and this would be easy for me to make because I can replace the meat :) But I am curious: What exactly is a Dutch oven? I am from the Netherlands but I have no clue ;)

caite 4/7/12, 7:11 AM  

lol..that is funny. according to wikipedia, A Dutch oven is a thick-walled (usually cast iron) cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid. Dutch ovens have been used as cooking vessels for hundreds of years. They are called “casserole dishes” in English speaking countries other than the USA, and cocottes in French, They are similar to both the Japanese tetsunabe and the Sač, a traditional Balkan cast-iron oven, and are related to the South African Potjie and the Australian Bedourie oven.

as to the review, well you know what a fan I am of ATK! Love them!

Beth F 4/7/12, 7:58 AM  

Thanks for the information, Caite! I couldn't help but wonder what I'd think if a recipe called for an "American pan." LOL.

Stacy 4/7/12, 8:11 AM  

I drink the Kool-aid:) I only pick up the magazine occasionally but I continually turn to the ATK Family Cookbook. They taught me how to make the perfect hard-boiled egg... the method I will be using tonight to make eggs for tomorrow's hunt.

Carol @ Always Thyme to Cook 4/7/12, 8:16 AM  

Haven't had Kool-aid in years, at least not to drink. My daughter and her friends tried to dye their hair with it :) Love America's Test Kitchen, the book sounds like a good one to add to my list! Couldn't join in this weekend, I had the flu :( I'll be back next weekend for sure. Have a great week!

jama 4/7/12, 8:57 AM  

Used to subscribe to the CI Magazine -- what an education! This mammmoth tome sounds like a great go-to reference for every cook's bookshelf. Would make a great bridal shower gift.

I'm craving lasagna now. Thanks for the recipe.

Sandy Nawrot 4/7/12, 9:21 AM  

I got two paragraphs into this review and I whipped over to the library website and ordered it. Yeah baby! I love ATK. I trust them completely.

Libby 4/7/12, 9:22 AM  

My mom gets Cook's magazine and passes stacks along to me when she is done. You're right - these are the most precise recipes out there. These are not recipes meant for flipping through and daydreaming about, they are meant for actual cooking and eating :) Having said that, your lasagna looks GREAT for eating...wish I could reach into the monitor!

bermudaonion 4/7/12, 9:48 AM  

Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen are great go to sources. I love to make lasagne when we have overnight guests because it can be made ahead of time and then I can relax and enjoy them while they're here.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity 4/7/12, 9:58 AM  

You have convinced me that I NEED this book. I'm trying not to keep too many cookbooks in my pantry these days because I find myself moving more and more to the Internet when searching for a recipe that my (1970s edition) Betty Crocker cookbook doesn't have. But...I love the idea of learning more about substitutions and WHY things work the way they do. I'm certain that the more I learn about the HOW AND WHY that I'll continue to be a stronger cook. Thank you for bringing this one to our attention!

JoAnn 4/7/12, 10:04 AM  

I love ATK and occasionally purchase CI Magazine. Like Sandy, I just ordered this from my library!

Margot 4/7/12, 10:15 AM  

I completely agree with you about this coookbook and all the CI/ATK products. They are so reliable and creative. Plus they are interesting to read. I always stop everything when an issue arrives.

Melanie 4/7/12, 11:04 AM  

Ooh, this looks good! Anything covered in cheese is usually a safe bet for me!

Gilion at Rose City Reader 4/7/12, 11:38 AM  

I want this book! I've gone back and forth with the magazine over the years -- love it, but then do a clean sweep and cancel all magazine subscriptions because I get tired of them stacking up unread. So the book version would be a perfect compromise for me.

I haven't been participating much lately and am pleased to be back. I made an easy plum cake for Easter weekend.

Fay 4/7/12, 12:00 PM  

I feel sure my Italian-American mother-in-law would not approve of cream in the lasagne, but overall it does sound delish.

Linda 4/7/12, 1:21 PM  

I've seen ATK around but never picked it up. Sounds like a goldmine. That lasagna looks delish.

Heidenkind 4/7/12, 1:51 PM  

I love CI, even though they're not my go-to. Not for any reason, I just never think of it. Mainly I read for the science on how the recipes work. I do like to watch their TV show on PBS.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 4/7/12, 2:21 PM  

I have drunk the ATK Kool-Aid; it's addictive!

This is a seriously HUGE cookbook; people familiar with Cook's Illustrated will get the most from it, I think. The format may be a little dense (and the lack of photos off-putting) for some. But, those who (like us) like ATK, will pull this off the shelf often!

Carole 4/7/12, 3:51 PM  

Lasagne - sounds very tempting. Thanks again Beth.

Peaceful Reader 4/7/12, 5:20 PM  

I used to get this magazine. What an education! The lasagna looks yummy for this chilly day.

Sheila (Bookjourney) 4/7/12, 5:51 PM  

It must be dinner time... I am looking at that lasagna ans drooling a bit!

Alex 4/7/12, 10:03 PM  

That lasagna looks a whole lot better than any I have ever made. It looks like a good recipe to keep in mind for next time - and I just love Italian food.

Shelley Munro 4/7/12, 11:07 PM  

This does sound like the Australian cookbooks that Marg mentioned. I have a heap of those. I love lasagne. We had it for dinner last night.

Cecelia 4/7/12, 11:28 PM  

I've never used this cookbook - you'd think I'd know about it at least, with cooking-mad relatives. I don't make pasta recipes often, but I'll have to bookmark this recipe.

Anonymous,  4/8/12, 9:08 AM  

This is not the kind of cookbook I want to own, it's the kind of cookbook I NEED to own. I'm still what you would call a beginner cook, and although I can follow a recipe I'm not so good at just whipping something up with whatever ingredients I have on hand. I think this cookbook would teach me a lot.

Heather 4/8/12, 10:20 AM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heather 4/8/12, 10:20 AM  

I have loved everything I've ever made from ATK. This looks like another winner! I'll have to try it soon and, um, maybe sneak and get the cookbook too… ;)

Julie Goucher 4/8/12, 2:32 PM  

This looks a great book - tut, off to Amazon! My Good Friday entry is up, albeit, a little late!

Hope everyone is having a good Easter break.

Rhiannon 4/8/12, 2:44 PM  

You know I only just recently started drinking the Kool Aid, at my mom's insistence, and I can't imagine what's taken me so long!!
The Lasagna looks divine, I'm drooling while eating easter chocolates over here.

Julie P. 4/8/12, 8:16 PM  

I just made my lasagna recipe today for Easter dinner!

Carole 4/8/12, 11:17 PM  

Hi, I just wanted to thank you for following my blog.

By the way I have clicked through to some of your ads to "spread the love"

Carole's Chatter

JaneofAustralia 4/10/12, 2:43 AM  

Hello Beth, oops I posted in a January linky.

Ok here I am in the right place.

Lovely to see the list has gown some more...

thank Google and I have issues
Jane of Australia

Leslie @ This is the Refrain 4/12/12, 9:14 PM  

Ooh! I need this cookbook. It definitely seems like something that I could use in my library.

Carole 5/19/12, 6:23 PM  

Hey, great that you linked this in to Food on Friday. Thanks, too for your comment on my chicken casserole post.

Othromas 1/7/17, 10:52 AM  

Random question for this recipe. Has anyone tried using the low moisture shredded mozzarella in this recipe (like ATK says not to use)? Curious if so to see how it turned out and if there was a way to make it acceptable. I'm going to be making it on Jan 8th, so if you have any info, it'd be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

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