Behind the Scenes: America’s Test Kitchen

August 2013

I remember the details surrounding the first time I purchased an America’s Test Kitchen magazine more than I remember purchasing my first and only car. On one particularly fated checkout session at Whole Foods, the clean, crisp visual of America’s Test Kitchen drew me into its pages and pages of tantalizing food images. “I must have this I thought.” When I finally glanced the price on the cover, I though, “I must have this and use this!” Use it I did, checking off page after page, as I worked my way through the majority of recipes.

The Library Table
A very impressive table marks the center of the America’s Test Kitchen library, one of the largest private cookbook collections in America, with more than 4,000 items. Each recipe process begins here.

As my checkmarks increased, I learned the true value of that $9.99. Each recipe was more than just a set of ingredients and steps. Each recipe represented a precise approach to obtaining perfection! Each recipe had been analyzed, tested, discussed, improved, rejected or accepted, etc until finally fit to bear the America’s Test Kitchen name and appear in print. Though this approach varies from my “ah, I’ll just use this and sub [just about everything],” I respect their maniacal methods tremendously!

Photo Schedule and Props
Photo schedule and details (left). Photo props for backdrop and base textures (right).

Thanks to an invite from a very talented friend who works for ATK, I had the chance to experience the devotion and dedication behind the scenes.

ATK Photo Props
Prop collection for the in-house photo studio.

In their own words…

America’s Test Kitchen is a real 2,500 square foot test kitchen located just outside of Boston that is home to more than three dozen, full-time cooks and product testers. Our mission is simple: to develop the absolute best recipes for all of your favorite foods. To do this, we test each recipe 30, 40, sometimes as many as 70 times, until we arrive at the combination of ingredients, technique, temperature, cooking time, and equipment that yields the best, most-foolproof recipe.

Natural Light Studio
The origin of all those tantalizing food images. ATK uses all natural daylighting for their photos.

So Many Plates

After stifling my jealousy for those who work in the beautifully minimal photo studio and the ABUNDANCE of props, we continued the tour, and our path opened to the reason behind the name.

Photos Only Kitchen Tools

Enviable Creuset

Glimpsing the Kitchen

Testers At Work

I asked one of the head recipe developers what the note-taking is like for such an intense process, and she showed me this (good thing she wasn’t using an iPad!)…

Working Recipe
A recipe in progress might look like a stained, ripped printout long before it becomes a beautiful magazine page.

After the research phase, the ATK process draws from five existing recipes. After scouring their own extensive cookbook collection, the other sources might include a recipe passed down from a relative, a NY Times article, a famous chef or a food blog. Then the testers hit the kitchen!

Taco Casserole of Sorts
If your mom turned her taco dip into a casserole and put A LOT of time into perfecting that recipe, you’d see this on your dinner table.
Rice Pudding Taste Test
Comparing rice puddings. Here’s a helpful tip: use coconut milk!

I was fortunate to tour on a day when there was lots of taste testing opportunities. While savoring my two spoonfuls of rice pudding and drawing my own conclusions, I suddenly felt transported to a critique in architecture school. “Have you thought about..?” “I like ______, but what about _____?” “This is what I was thinking when I tried this approach…” It really was a creative, constructive process, but the advantage of architecture school was obvious when I took my second helping of the rice pudding with coconut milk!

Testing Pans
Testing the effect of the pans on the recipe.
Icing The Banana Cake
Of course she is smiling to herself. This cake was memorably delicious!

Imagine your favorite banana bread/cake with a cream cheese frosting marked by a walnut crunch. Enticing as that may be, now imagine the bananas were roasted, and the remaining juice from the roasting became a sweetener for the icing. That’s the America’s Test Kitchen difference, and it’s the difference between a long-lasting craving and an “oh yeah, I think I ate a piece of that cake.”

Grilling Station
America’s Test Kitchen grilling station.
Backyard Reality
What looks like your average grill in an alley transforms to an idyllic backyard scene when the camera rolls- the wonders of tv!
ATK Office
What’s it like to work for America’s Test Kitchen? Sometimes it’s hard to see over the stacks and stacks of cookbooks.

From a checkout lane magazine to the heart and soul of the publication, my many paths had taken me on quite the journey! The peek inside the well oiled machine [olive or canola? ;p] inspired me on many levels. I left eager to delve into a cookbook or two, fiddle with this and that and then review, critique, taste, review, critique, taste, repeat. Granted, you’ll still find me making substitutions with abandon, but I’ll be doing so with the utmost respect for those whose mission is perfection.

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