Learning to cook at America’s Test Kitchen

Reppin’ America’s Test Kitchen at BookExpo America

In 2010, I got what many foodies might consider a “dream job.” I was hired to create the online presence for America’s Test Kitchen, the Boston recipe-testing empire that powers TV shows, magazines, and cookbooks.

I created their first blog (on WordPress, of course!), started their YouTube channel, launched their blogger network, and got them onto Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram (more on all of this here).

Photo courtesy of Steve Klise
Photo courtesy of Steve Klise.

Here’s the thing: when I started, I barely knew how to cook. I had plenty of experience in web and social, but I struggled to follow a recipe. Thai takeout was a staple.

But, at work, I would spend all day reading and absorbing Test Kitchen content to figure out how to best share and iterate their creations for blogs, social media, YouTube, and LifeHacker. I’d follow around test cooks as they developed recipes, asking questions and watching them work.

One of the very best things I got out of working at the Test Kitchen (besides meeting amazing friends) was learning the basics of how to cook. This has profoundly changed my life – I cook most nights I don’t travel, I’m able to walk into a grocery store and invent based on what’s fresh, and I love, love, love cooking for friends and family.

Here’s what I learned.

Photo courtesy of Steve Klise.

Mise, please!

My friend Austin preps for a clam bake we made in his backyard.
My friend Austin preps for a backyard clambake.

Mise en place means “to put in place.” But, the very first thing you need to put in place is your head! Read the entire recipe from start to finish, and understand what ingredients will be needed when. Then, gather the ingredients and tools (baking sheets, slow cooker, pots, parchment paper) that you need. Cooks often call this “mise-ing.”

Before you cook, you want to have all the ingredients chopped and your station clean. Because cooking is all about timing, the last thing you want is for something to overcook while you frantically measure out spices or finish dicing an onion. I used to “cook messy” like this. But after a few overcooked, mushy meals – no more.

It’s Hot In Herre

Do you know what prevents food from sticking to a pan? Properly heating it. A properly heated pan means well-seared meat and crisp veggies – what you need for excellent flavor.

I once watched a friend put down a cold pan, crack an egg into it, and turn on the heat. The result was mess adhered to the pan. I was so horrified I still remember it to this day. And then I showed him the water test.

I use the water test daily. If a pan is properly heated, a droplet of water on the pan will skid gently around in a little ball. If it evaporates right away, it’s too hot. If it doesn’t ball up, it’s too cold.

Pat It Down

When you’re trying to create flavor, steam is the enemy. Steam is what creates chewy meat and mushy veggies.

If you’re searing meat, do not wash it. Washing meat just spreads germs around the sink, and will steam your meat when you put it on the pan. The pros know that the simple act of cooking meat will kill any bad bacteria.

So, before putting your meat or veggie in the pan or oven, pat it dry with a paper towel (unless you’re using a marinade). This will help sear and brown the ingredient. And browning is what creates flavor.

I’m fond of deglazing

After you sauté meat or veggies, you’ll always have caramelized brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. This is called fond, and it’s absolutely packed with flavor. In a lot of recipes, you’ll notice that it will call for you to make the sauce in the same pan that you cooked the meat. This is because the recipe wants you to deglaze the pan.

I always try to deglaze to get an extra bit of flavor. All I do is make sure the pan is hot, and pour in a bit of liquid – chicken broth, wine, sauce, even water, and use a wooden spoon to scrape up the caramelized bits. This will make a delicious sauce that you can use to add flavor to the meat, or put on top of your rice or veggies.

Don’t be a tool

You don’t need expensive kitchen tools, but you do need good ones. A few important tools:

  • A Sharp Knife. A dull knife is the most dangerous tool in the kitchen, because you’ll use more pressure to cut things, and then you’re more likely to slip and cut yourself. Get a decent knife (I think mine was $30), and a dummy-proof knife sharpener.
  • A Stainless Steel Pan. Once you learn how to properly heat a pan, you’ll love your stainless steel pans for their deglazing power.
  • A Cast Iron Pan. For certain meats, you’ll want a pan that gets really hot and stays that way.
  • Prep bowls. When you’re dicing and slicing for a recipe, you’ll need lots of small, light, easy-to-clean bowls to put things in.
  • A sharp peeler, a large colander, a flat spatula, a wooden spoon, and a heat-proof rubber spatula. It will become your favorite tool in the kitchen.
  • I’m fussy, so I would also put a food processor and slow cooker on this list. (These pictures of my kitchen demonstrate my level of fussiness.)

I hope this post gets you into the kitchen! If you’re looking for some terrific recipe sources (besides America’s Test Kitchen’s cookbooks), here are some of my favorites:

  • The Woks of Life  – my new obsession, this is a family that blogs together.
  • Smitten Kitchen – pretty much every recipe I’ve made from here is a home run.
  • Real Simple Food – I love everything this magazine does, and their recipes are easy and realistic.
  • (Not) Recipes app by Food52 – exactly as it sounds, these are recipes without measurements or finicky directions. Quick, easy, and trust your taste buds.
  • America’s Test Kitchen cooking school – a lot of what I learned is from working on the Test Kitchen’s cooking school. The website isn’t flashy or sexy, but the content is solid.