America’s Test Kitchen, home to Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country magazines, is known for its massive, lavishly produced cookbooks, offering definitive takes on subjects like this spring’s The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook with 700 recipes; or last fall’s The New Family Cookbook with 1,100 recipes. Concerned that less is more, particularly when it comes to the repertoire of home cooks, in October the press is going small for 100 Recipes: The Absolute Best Ways to Make the True Essentials. But, the press will still be going big with production values, including a stamped cover with photos from the test kitchen and thick 100-pound stock inside.
Given the ready availability of free recipes online, cookbook publishers have to make their books stand out. As the editors at ATK note in the introduction to 100 Recipes, “In this age of information overload, recipes are a particularly notable example of excess. Google the word ‘recipe’ and you get nearly 50 million results, and that’s just in English.” The editors advocate the less is more approach, particularly when it comes to home cooks. And they claim that what made earlier generations of mothers and grandmothers accomplished cooks was a limited repertoire of dishes, which they repeatedly served until they became second nature.
ATK executive editor Elizabeth Carduff says that “this is a cookbook with an agenda. These are the recipes people need to be able to make. By cooking from a smaller list of recipes that are fresh and modern, you’ll get a handle on what to cook.”
ATK editorial director Jack Bishop says that the press has been talking about the idea for four years. “It’s a snapshot, but it’s meant to provoke curiosity and to get people cooking.” To do that, ATK divided the book into three sections that offer a more contemporary, global view of cooking: Absolute Essentials, like Breaded Pork Chops and Blueberry Pie; Surprising Essentials, like Polenta and Grilled Pork Tenderloin, and Global Essentials, like Vegetable Curry and Pho.
The concept behind the book changed over the intervening years. Initially ATK’s editors focused on 100 basic recipes, an idea which Bishop dubbed “boring.” Another approach that Bishop rejected as “too esoteric” involved one-off projects inspired by 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.
The finished collection does include some basics, like Scrambled Eggs, that are intended to offer a fresh approach, and recipes like one for Fluffy Yellow Layer Cake with Chocolate Frosting that cooks might only make a few times a year for birthdays or special occasions. But Bishop is hoping that the selection process will help home cooks find recipes that they will want to repeat and make their own, both once-a-week dishes and once-a year ones.
“This is our big Christmas book. We want this book to look deluxe. We’re putting all the recipes on a pedestal,” says Carduff. The photos for the dishes have been reshot in natural light, and the camera comes in close so that the cook can see exactly how Rice and Beans or Maple-Glazed Port Roast should look.
To promote 100 Recipes ATK founder Christopher Kimball will be doing three or four large-scale events, while Bishop will tour bookstores in six or eight cities.