Upstart startups vs. veterans: Who has the best recipes?

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2010; E01

Another day, another culinary smackdown. It's a staple of food television and charity events. Last week, the Office of Personnel Management sponsored a cook-off for federal workers, for goodness' sake. And so it would be easy to yawn and ignore the upcoming battle between the Cook's Illustrated veteran test kitchen and Internet start-up Food52, which publishes and promotes home cooks' recipes.

But that would be a mistake.

Next week, the rivals will post their best recipes for slow-roasted pork shoulder and chewy sugar cookies, then allow readers to vote online. But much more than dinner might be at stake. The future of recipe development seems to hang in the balance: Do the experts know best? Or is there more wisdom in the home culinary crowd?

The whole thing began in October when Christopher Kimball, the bespectacled and bow-tied founder of Cook's Illustrated magazine, posted an item on his blog challenging the proponents of recipe wikis, Web sites that rely on readers to share and rate recipes. "I think that only a professional test kitchen with substantial resources, strict testing protocol and lots of time can develop the very 'best' recipes. . . . So, I am willing to put my money, and my reputation, where my big mouth is," Kimball wrote. "Should be fun! Who is interested? Amanda? Anyone else?"

His call-out was to Amanda Hesser, a former New York Times reporter and editor and a co-founder of Food52, which had launched a month earlier to great food-media fanfare. The reference to her was later removed. But Hesser and business partner Merrill Stubbs jumped at the chance to promote, perhaps even prove, their model.

"We see it as an experiment. We believe in what we do," Hesser said. "But I also felt Chris had publicly challenged us to a contest. So we held his feet to the fire."

The adversaries have legitimately different approaches. Every dish that appears in Cook's Illustrated (and on the company's two public television programs and in its library of cookbooks and Web sites) is put through an exacting two-month process. A professional tester begins by researching historical and current recipes and making dozens of stews, pies, you name it, to construct a working recipe. It is sent to an experienced, paid Cook's tester, who tries it at home, critiques measurements and times, and might make suggestions to clarify the language.

Next, the recipe is sent to 2,000 readers, known as the Friends of Cook's. Typically, several hundred of them test the recipe and fill out a survey about their experience. The goal is to make the recipe so clear and so precise (and some might say dry) that anyone who reads it can make it successfully.

Food52, in contrast, relies on its readers to submit recipes and help choose the best ones. Each week, the Brooklyn-based editors put out a call for readers to send in their best recipe in a specific category, such as lamb, asparagus or Italian desserts. Over one weekend, the editors and several freelance testers read and choose and try a handful of the most promising recipes in their home kitchens and choose two finalists, on which readers then vote. The winning recipe in each contest will be included in a Food52 cookbook to be released next spring.

Food52's staff doesn't test each recipe dozens of times. (Indeed, because readers upload their recipes to the site themselves, many of the nearly 4,000 recipes in the database have never been tested by Food52.) Hesser and Stubbs say they see themselves as curators, giving a platform to creative cooks around the globe. "The recipes reflect the authors and their personalities," Hesser said. "We benefit from the collective experience."

The debate about where the best recipes come from is not new, said Sandra Sherman, a historian and law professor at Fordham University in New York. It began in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the first commercial recipe books tried to supplant home-cooking manuals that were kept and shared among families and neighbors. "Women at that time kept manuscript books that they handed down to their daughters and their nieces. And successive generations corrected them and made additions," Sherman said. "The results were recipes that had authority behind them because they came from the women you knew in the community."

The newfangled cookbooks had to compete with trusted, homespun wisdom. Early cookbooks also began to add more-precise measurements than had been previously necessary when a mother or a sister would have been there to give advice. Those recipes are the ancestors of the kind Cook's provides today, Sherman said.

"What this comes down to is a battle between old and new epistemologies, which is a fancy word for how we know things," said Sherman, author of the forthcoming "Invention of the Modern Cookbook" (Greenwood, May 2010). "Food52 believes that knowledge, especially culinary knowledge, comes from the bottom, from the people. Whereas Cook's believes it comes from the top, from the experts."

Some might call Food52's approach inclusive. To others, it is loosey-goosey and anathema. "The main benefit for someone trying one of our recipes is that they have someone to walk them through the recipe and provide them hand-holding," said Jack Bishop, editorial director of America's Test Kitchen, which publishes Cook's Illustrated. "You could argue that that's the great trend in home cooking. People's expectations have gone up -- everyone thinks they can be on 'Top Chef' -- but they are starting with less experience than previous generations. That's why we've been so successful."

Take the Cook's entry for the chewy sugar cookie. After dozens of successful batches were made in the test kitchen, a significant number of the Friends of Cook's found the cookies greasy. The Cook's team realized that many testers, who were measuring by volume instead of weight, weren't using enough flour. (Previous Cook's tests had shown that a cup of flour can range in weight from 4.2 ounces to 5 ounces, depending on the cook.) The solution: Slightly reduce the amount of butter to compensate for the variation in the flour that cooks might use. The recipe was once again sent to readers. Problem solved.

That kind of reader interaction undermines the idea that Cook's is a top-down, we-know-better-than-you system, Bishop said. "The myth is that we are experts working in a vacuum in a test kitchen, and they're the crowd voting to come up with what's best. Neither is what is really happening. Amanda and Merrill are editors who are choosing things and pushing them forward for the crowd to vote on. There's a test kitchen there. And if we had published the recipe that [the tester] had first come up with, it wouldn't have worked."

Hesser and Stubbs disagree. Cook's Illustrated relies "on their users for approval of their work, to let the editors know whether or not the recipes they created in the Cook's Illustrated test kitchen are working in home kitchens. We turn this inside out," Hesser said. "People from all over send in their recipes, and then we and our community determine the best of them."

Readers will have the chance to weigh in on May 5 on Slate, which has agreed to host and certify the vote. For many, the choice may be less about theoretical models and processes than about trust developed over time. If Cook's recipes consistently work for readers, they will use them no matter how they were developed. The same is true for Food52.

"You and the 'new media' types are not so much at odds as you think," a Cook's reader, Tim Martin, commented on Kimball's initial post about the challenge. The winners are the editors who "collectively have proven your worth by producing so much useful content. . . . That, I think, is the beauty of the new world. We, the readers . . . become curators of the best information."

Which is another way of saying that every day, all over the world, recipe smackdowns are taking place. Votes are being cast at the dinner tables, where they really count. Whether Cook's or Food52 claims victory, a good recipe will win fans ¿ and, these days, live forever in cyberspace.


Chewy Sugar Cookies #2

Chai-Spice Sugar Cookies

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