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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cook's Illustrated's New iPhone App: A Gut Check Test Drive

Posted By on Thu, Sep 23, 2010 at 2:45 PM

A free Cook's Illustrated app?


Christopher Kimball: bow-tied culinary mogul - AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN
  • America's Test Kitchen
  • Christopher Kimball: bow-tied culinary mogul

Cook's Illustrated, the flagship magazine of Christopher Kimball's food-media hydra, isn't known for giving it away. Kimball refuses to sell advertising in any of his magazines and cooking shows, which means everything's subscription- or newsstand-based. Which is great; in a media world where many push products and recipes based on paid advertising dollars, removing advertisers from the equation provides a welcome leveling of the field.

Last year, in a New York Times op-ed piece, Kimball blamed the demise of Gourmet magazine on bloggers giving it away:

"Is American magazine publishing on the verge of being devoured by the democratic economics of the Internet? Has the media industry fully become an everyman's playing field, without the need for credentials or paid membership? Or, to ask the questions that every media executive is really whispering, 'Will I have a job next year?'"

Good point. If you want Cook's Illustrated recipes, pay up by buying the magazines and books, by pledging to PBS stations that broadcast America's Test Kitchen" and/or by shelling out $34.95 for annual access to CI's online archives (pay for a subscription to the magazine and online access is discounted to $29.95).

So how about that free Cook's Illustrated app?

Let's just say you get what you pay for.

The app features 50 of the publication's most popular recipes. If you want more, be prepared to pay the online subscription fee. And don't count on the freebie recipe roster to provide enough information to prepare a full meal. Cooking times, temperatures and flavors of the handful of recipes don't provide enough variety to put together a menu. If you're looking for a few battle-tested and perfected recipes to add to your repertoire, this'll do the trick (and potentially spare you hours of digging through piles of old magazines).

The 50 recipes mostly span American classics -- soups, burgers, pies, grilled and roasted meats. The Asian section has one lonely recipe, for a beef stir-fry. Mexico gets steak tacos, India a cauliflower curry. And France? Rolled omelets, apple galette, roast chicken and a vegetable gratin.

This isn't the app if you're looking for something new. But Cook's Illustrated has never been about new. It's about perfecting the standbys, which the application reflects. It uses a tab system similar to Mark Bittman's awesome How to Cook Everything app ($4.99 for 2,000 recipes and variations, 400 how-to illustrations, menu planning, and Bittman's no-nonsense advice).

The first tab features an abbreviated version of the magazine's article about each dish, with explanations of the recipe testing process and the science behind the perfection. Bonus: Many recipes include videos to demonstrate techniques.

Tab 2 is the ingredients, with the cooking-app standard grocery list function. Tap the plus mark beside an ingredient to add it to a grocery list sorted by store department. Except there are some problems with the sorting. In adding items to make the app's poached salmon, crispy roasted potatoes, sautéed green beans and skillet apple pie, some fresh herbs are listed in the produce aisle, while fresh tarragon somehow lands on the pantry list, as does fresh lemon juice. Sorting errors like this defeat the purpose of making shopping easier. Similarly, the salmon falls into the "Miscellaneous" category and doesn't list an amount.

The app includes a handful of the magazine's taste tests of grocery staples, which are smartly cross-referenced in the ingredient list.

The third tab provides cooking instructions, given in CI's inimitable anal-retentive style. Cooking times can be tapped to create timers -- a fantastic idea. Timing's one of the hardest things for most cooks to learn, and a feature such as this could potentially remove a lot of the intimidation involved with getting everything done on time.

Except it doesn't work very well. The timer doesn't make a sound; it's a visual pop-up on the phone's screen. Having to watch your phone screen while cooking creates an extra inconvenience. Like when you're making the app's" French Chicken in a Pot" and your phone goes into sleep mode, deleting the timer: From app highlight to potential recipe destroyer in one frustrating step.

The recipes are excellent, of course. Saved by the foresight that the timers might fail, the chicken met the app's promise of being tender, moist, and full of flavor. The green beans -- sautéed, blanched and then sautéed again -- were toothsome and bright with flavor.

So go ahead and take advantage of 50 awesome and free recipes, but don't trust the app's bells and whistles. Until Cook's Illustrated fixes the shopping list and timer flaws, kitchen denizens need to suck it up and pay for the paper edition and/or website.

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