Name: America's Test Kitchen
Location: Brookline, MA
Size: 2,500 square feet
If you didn't know it was there, you'd never assume an authority on recipe testing and development was housed in a simple brick building surrounded by condos and coffee shops. Like its popular magazines, America's Test Kitchen doesn't look flashy, but inside it is buzzing with energy and expertise. I took a peek behind the cameras to see how a typical day runs at the culinary nerve center responsible for two TV shows, two magazines, a handful of websites, and countless cookbooks.
It's fitting that you enter America's Test Kitchen in the library. The 3,000+ cookbooks on-hand is where each ultimate recipe begins. Julia Collin Davidson, executive food editor for the cookbook division and a familiar face to viewers of America's Test Kitchen Live, descends the spiral staircase from the office level to take me on a tour of the space. And like each test cook, we start with the books.Each recipe for Cook's Illustrated, Cook's Country, the cookbooks, and the TV shows begins with research. That includes the library here in the test kitchen, as well as online and trips to restaurants and bakeries. The cook picks 5 different recipes to test and taste side by side. Editors and cooks weigh in on the differences between each approach and what they're ultimately looking to achieve, and by the end of the process, there's the framework for the new recipe. It can take weeks to perfect the final version, and snippets of each stage are visible on any given day at America's Test Kitchen. I arrive shortly after the groceries, and I watch the interns swiftly break down the piles of produce and after double-checking the order list on their clipboards, transport them to each cook's dry and cold storage areas. There's a photo shoot going on in the small kitchen (if you can call a kitchen with 8 wall ovens small). The test cooks start to arrive from a meeting and soon enough, the sizzle of oil and rhythmic tapping of knives fills the air. Working on recipes for either Cook's Illustrated, Cook's Country, the book team, or the photo team (finalized recipes being prepared to be shot), everyone works solo. That is, until there's a tasting. In one corner of the kitchen, the book team is testing variables for beans: mainly, the difference salt makes in the soaking water. Not sure what they decided, but both dishes of black beans were creamy, and the salty spice from the chorizo definitely had me devouring my portions.
On the opposite end, the cooks are pitting sautéed Brussels sprouts against each other. The battle between shredded and halved has a no-contest winner for me, but everything at America's Test Kitchen is put to a vote.
In a space that heralds the scientific approach toward cooking, it's surprising that it also feels a little magical. It surely seems to take a bit of the supernatural to keep it all running. Kitchen director Erin McMurrer assures me it's all in the organization.
Prepping and tasting Brussels sprouts two ways. Before publication, Cook's Illustrated recipes are tested an average of 65 times by test cooks, and then by 150 readers.
7 Questions for Kitchen Director Erin McMurrer
What is your favorite thing about the test kitchen?
We have everything at our fingertips. There's over 300 tools that we've tested, so we have the best of the best, from small appliances to large. If you've ever worked in a restaurant kitchen, it's bare bones, you're tag-teaming, switching off using this or that. Here, we have enough for everyone, and it allows us to do our job better.
What gets the most use?
We have 33 ovens in the kitchen, 53 burners, and 3 microwaves, and they see a lot of action. For small appliances, the stand mixers, food processors, and blenders.
What, if anything, would you change about the kitchen?
Our biggest challenge is space. With so many people working here, the number of ingredients that come through, and the amount of equipment testings we do, space is always at a premium. Storage space, specifically. We have to have double of everything, some for photo shoots and the rest for general use. A room for just photo equipment would be great. And a dedicated grilling area. We currently grill in the back alley, so we have to bring the grills in and out, and it's a lot of wear and tear on them. We grill year round, so even in bad weather, someone still has to be out there grilling. A protected area with covered storage for the equipment would be ideal.
I was talking to some of the test cooks and interns, and everyone is working on something different! About how many recipes are being developed and tested over the course of a day?
We have around 40 test cooks and interns who work in the kitchen, and everyone is working on one or two recipes for either Cook's Illustrated, Cook's Country, the book team, or the photo shoot team. It could be anywhere from 40-60 recipes each day.
Is working in the test kitchen closer to a restaurant kitchen or a home kitchen?
Oh, definitely a home kitchen. Everything we do, we are approximating for the home cook. There were considerations when the kitchen was being designed because it's also a TV studio and a photo studio, but each station is its own mini-kitchen with a cooktop, oven, counter space, and sink nearby. So it's like 8 home kitchens in our big kitchen.
You do a lot of equipment testing. What's the process like for that?
It starts with a category. If we're testing sauce pans, is it 4-quart or 2.5-quart? Everything has to be nationally available, so Lisa [McManus, senior editor in charge of equipment testing] and her team narrow it down and order them in. Then as many tests as make sense happen. If it's pots and pans, they'll get dropped, oven mitts will get set on fire, rice cookers will run for long periods of time. And whatever wins, we stock and actually use here in the test kitchen. It's a way to monitor how they hold up long-term, and if there's an issue, we can revisit the test.
Are you loving anything in particular at the moment?
I just participated in the vegetable peeler equipment test. I loved our old winner, the Messermeister, but the Kuhn Rikon Y-peeler is amazing. Carbon steel blade, under $5. I've been using it non-stop.
• See three more kitchen tips from Erin: 3 Space-Saving Lessons for Home Cooks from America's Test Kitchen
America's Test Kitchen, By the Numbers:
• Ovens: 33 (DCS by Fisher & Paykel)
• Burners: 53
• Microwaves: 3
• Faucets & sinks: 8 (Kohler)
• Refrigerators: 20
• Freezers: 10
• Dishwashers: 2
• Walk-in: 1
• Grills: 15 (mix of gas & charcoal)
• Cabinets & drawers: 500
• Cookbooks: 3,000
• Grocery bill: $523,000
• Flour: 2,400 pounds
• Sugar: 1,900 pounds
• Garlic: 240 pounds
• Bacon: 480 pounds
• Dish soap: 60 gallons
• People working in the kitchen: 40
• Beef: 50 pounds
• Chicken: 100 pounds
• Milk: 10 gallons
• Eggs: 15 dozen
(Images: Tara Bellucci)