Christopher Kimball on The Science of Good Cooking

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First aired on Q (7/11/12)


Christopher Kimball has been called "the most influential home cook in America" by the New York Times. He's also been described as "a nerd," in part because he takes a scientific approach to cooking. His methods have made his TV show, America's Test Kitchen, the most watched cooking program on public television. Kimball is also the founder of Cook's Illustrated, a magazine that will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. In a recent interview on Q, Kimball spoke to host Jian Ghomeshi about The Science of Good Cooking, the latest book from the Cook's Illustrated franchise.

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Asked for an example of a scientific fact that every home cook should know, Kimball said, "A simple thing would be if you're going to sauté a piece of steak or chicken, you should dry it off before putting it in the pan." The presence of water interferes with the cooking. "You need 300° to start the browning process, which adds flavour. It ain't gonna happen if there's water in the pan, because that water has to evaporate [first]."

Kimball compares his scientific approach to cooking to playing a musical instrument: you can't just pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano and be creative. You have to have a basic knowledge. "Sure, there's creativity in the kitchen. But you have to have the chops to know what meat does at different temperatures, and how baking works, and how baking powder works, so there are rules," he explained. "If you take the time to learn the rules, which takes some practice, once you get to that point, then you can be creative in the kitchen."

Kimball is a polarizing figure in culinary culture. Some see his approach as accessible and straightforward, but he's also been described as "an arrogant know-it-all." Kimball says both descriptions are true. "The arrogance is simply that, look, I spent years in a kitchen myself, making bad food. And I got sick and tired of making bad food," he said. Then an idea occurred to him. "What if we went into a kitchen and rigorously tested recipes to figure out why they don't work?"

According to Kimball, "most recipes are badly constructed, and they're not tested properly." Factors like substituting or adding ingredients, using a different stovetop or cheap cookware will affect the outcome. "My whole purpose is to say, look, we've done the homework for you," he said. "The home cook gets a better batting average, that's all."

Kimball's approach has its critics. Karen Page, an influential food writer and the author of The Flavor Bible and The Food Lover's Guide to Wine among others, emphasizes that imagination and the subjectivity of taste come into play in cooking. In a clip, she comments, "It's important for people to be able to judge their own palates," and compares being creative with a recipe rather than following it to the letter to "the difference between painting by numbers and creating fine art."

Kimball acknowledged there are differences in taste, but he insisted that you still have to get the fundamentals right. "Sure, creativity at some point is great. But you have to marry creativity to technique," Kimball said, adding that what his empirical approach provides is "a starting point. Here's a repertoire you can count on."

Kimball also doesn't try to disguise the fact that cooking involves hard work. He's critical of food shows that make it seem like you can turn out a three-course dinner in 30 minutes, when actually a lot of preparation goes on in advance, and behind the scenes. "On our shows, and our magazines, we always start with bad food. We make bad food every day. We're masters of bad food. That's how you get to good food. By admitting there's bad food, and explaining why it's bad," Kimball said. He believes that people readily identify with this approach. "If you don't take them on that journey, and [instead] just say, here's how to do it, and not talk about the bad food, I think people are less likely to understand and less likely to go along for the ride."






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