Really, really good recipes
Comprehensive coverage of most types of Western and some international cuisines
Exceptionally well organized, with a thorough table of contents (28 pages) and complete index (78 pages!)
Perfect amount of detail, including some science of why the recipes work
Recipes based on teams testing many ways of cooking the same thing, and selecting the best choice from a taste test
Too big and heavy to carry around (I had to think awhile to find a con)
First, I have to admit I am biased: I have subscribed to Cook's Illustrated and learned a lot, I love their BBQ cookbook, and I think their TV show is the best cooking show I have seen. Chris Kimball has brought some science and scientific testing to cookbooks in exactly the amount it was needed. In getting this book, I already knew what it would be like - and fortunately, it is that, and more.
I was amazed at the size and weight of this cookbook. But to have 2,000 recipes described in the level of detail that we expect from the authors of Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen, I should not be. With 890 strong pages (actually more, if you include the table of contents etc), which are 10x8.5" in size, it is going to be big and heavy. With 807 pages used for recipes (excluding the index and reference in back), the average recipe takes 40% of one page.
If you have the magazines, you know they are cumbersome to deal with, and sometimes the articles have more detail than you actually want to read when preparing a recipe. This book pares the recipes down to the basic information, while preserving just enough of the science to give you insight to become a better cook. And unlike a collection of magazines, this single volume organizes and index all the recipes for fast and easy use.
In my 39 years of cooking, I have always believed that The Joy of Cooking was the essential reference for all cooks in the US: that if you could have only one cookbook, that should be it. For some, it may be blasphemy to say so, but this book might just be a better choice if you can have only one cookbook - especially if you lean towards modern cuisines. Fortunately, we can have both.
1. Appetizers - 26 pages
2. Salads - 38 pages
3. Soups - 30 pages
4. Chilis, Soups, and Braises - 34 pages
5. Curries, Stir-fries, and Asian Noodle dishes - 30 pages
6. Pasta - 62 pages
7. Rice, Grains, Beans - 20 pages
8. Vegetables - 66 pages
9. Poultry - 64 pages
10. Meat - 62 pages
11. Fish and seafood - 30 pages
12. Grilling - 70 pages
13. Eggs and Breakfast - 26 pages
14. Quick Breads and Coffee Cakes - 26 pages
15. Yeast Breads and Rolls - 20 pages
16. Pizza, Calzones, and Flatbreads - 18 pages
17. Cookies, Brownies, and Bars - 38 pages
18. Cakes - 46 pages
19. Pies and Tarts - 34 pages
20. Fruit Desserts - 20 pages
21. Pastry - 14 pages
22. Puddings, Custards, Frozen Desserts - 26 pages
23. Beverages - 8 pages
Table of Contents - 28 pages, listing ALL recipes by chapter
Index - 78 pages!! Amazing!
Conversions - 2 pages
EVALUATING THE RECIPES
So far, I have ready many recipes, and made only a few. As an experienced cook, I can tell that the recipes will work, and how they are improved from the way I do things now. I know I will learn a lot by reading the rest of them. I decided to test the cookbook by applying it to Sunday's weekly shopping trip.
Cauliflower - I love the roasted cauliflower recipe, which starts by oven-steaming the oiled and spiced cauliflower, then finishes by roasting it (removing the foil) to carmelize and sweeten the vegetable. Instead of spicing it with curry or chili powder, as suggested, I used Ras el Hanout spice blend. Next time I'll make it plain with one of the two recommended sauces. But there are 17 recipes in total for cauliflower, so maybe I'll try something different.
Broccoli - 32 recipes (not including the recipes for Broccoli Rabe) - roasted, steamed, fried, etc.
Pork shoulder - I was originally thinking pulled pork, but it is cold and wet this week, so maybe carnitas, which I have never made before. The book has four ways of cooking a shoulder, including a great looking recipe for carnitas that I will make this weekend, and an indoor version of pulled pork. I was surprised that it does not include pulled pork in the grilling chapter - but pulled pork is really bbq (slow-cook), not grilling (fast-cook). The Grilling chapter does include some grill-roasting recipes, which is in between slow and fast grill cooking.
Update 11/3/11: I used the recipe for whole pork shoulder slow-roasted in the oven, and served with the recipe for a peach sauce made with the pan drippings. It was terrific! Though I might be tempted to roast it longer, perhaps at a lower temperature, to render more fat. When I slow-cook a shoulder on the outdoor cooker, I normally finish it in the oven at 225F until it reaches 205F or so. This recipe called for 325F until 190F. I would also add more water when checking the temperature, because the "jus" was very concentrated and there was not as much as expected.
Chicken legs - Whereas Chicken Breasts merit their own major heading in the index, chicken legs, my favorite part, is not listed at all. There IS an entry for chicken thighs. So I had to do more searching to find only 10 recipes that call for chicken legs, thighs, or quarters. The authors clearly favor chicken breasts and whole chickens, as there are MANY recipes for these.
Update 11/15/2011: Made the Chicken Cacciatore recipe, which uses chicken thighs, substituting dry chanterelles for the portobello mushrooms, which I did not have. Used an inexpensive but nice Carménère red wine - the recipe needs 1 1/2 cups, so it left some for serving with the meal. I found the result slightly saltier than I prefer, and it reminds me that Cook's Illustrated likes to use salt (for example, brining poultry and pork for bbq). No problem, just reduce the salt.
Pork Chops fared much better with 21 recipes.
COMMENTS ON RECIPES
The authors hail from the Boston area, and not surprisingly, the recipes reflect modern tastes in fine American cooking, as well as seafood like lobsters) that are available and affordable around Boston. "American tastes" means American classics, including barbecue, but also international flavors. Italian, French, Hungarian, Moroccan, Mexican, Indian, Jamaican, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese... just scratching the surface of what you'll find, along with *regional* American cuisines.
Like Joy of Cooking, there is a fairly detailed recipe and some variations that are much shorter, as well as sauces or other accompaniments, which also tend to be shorter. Presumably each of these counts as one recipe. While I said that the average for all recipes is 40% of one page, the variations, sauces, etc that go with many recipes mean that the detailed recipe is actually considerably more than 40%, often closer to a page, and sometimes more than a page when you include the variations and sauces. Most major recipes also include an introductory paragraph on "why this recipe works" which gives an overview of some of the techniques or science behind the recipe.
Usually with a cookbook featuring so many recipes, the recipes are pared down to the bare minimum of ingredients and instructions. Not so with this cookbook: the recipes have all the detail I think the beginning to average cook will need to successfully make the dish.
Generally, the recipes do not call for a great deal of time-consuming labor to prep the dish. I think they use the right amount of shortcuts to speed up the work - for example, the use of frozen peaches or cherries when making a sauce. After all, if you are going to cook the fruit anyway, there is not a lot of advantage to using fresh fruit, which requires more time to prepare.
Mixed in with the recipes are 153 boxed hints and tips relevant to the recipes on the page.
For me, this large cookbook is a dream come true. Even though I am a very experienced cook, I know I will learn a lot from it and further improve the quality and range of my cooking. I also think that beginning cooks can use most of what is here, because the recipes are not complicated, and when special techniques are required, they are explained very well.
Fortunately, I don't have to decide whether this will replace Joy of Cooking: I have both, and will continue to use it. But I know I will be using this cookbook a LOT, and I recommend it to anyone seeking a broad overview of what is popular in western cooking - which of course includes some international dishes as well.
This is bound to become one of my favorite and most-used cookbooks. I am disappointed by the bias of chicken breasts vs chicken legs (though honestly, you can subsitute the legs for breast in most cases), and there is more Italian and pasta recipes than I am interested in... for which I might deduct a half a star in total. But I recognize that these things represent mainstream tastes, and the authors have done a fine job of creating a comprehensive cookbook that covers the modern American taste.