There are only so many nights those of us without an arsenal of line cooks can dedicate to cookbooks promising delicate eggplant croquettes with tarragon aioli and towering 8-layer chocolate cakes. Most nights, we're content-by-necessity to whip up whatever is already in our cookbook library — roast chicken and vegetables, maybe a twice baked potato, a favorite cookie. And that's exactly the sort of recipes you'll find in the just-release 3rd edition of The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook.
The word “family” in the title is a bit of a misnomer, as this isn't one of those “the family that cooks together, stays together” sort of books. It's really more of a compilation of everyday American classics like Boston baked beans, monkey bread and Caesar salad, the sort of reference cookbook the Better Homes and Gardens series was several decades ago. Only here, test kitchen guru Christopher Kimball and crew have turned out a thoroughly modern version with rigorously tested recipes (surprise, surprise), step-by-step photo instructions (how to trim a whole tenderloin or stuff a calzone) and useful tips for even the most seasoned cooks (how to keep those twice-baked potato shells crispy). It's the sort of book you pull out when you need a refresher on how to make fried chicken the “right way” — because with Kimball, there is always a right way.
Even if you don't agree with America's Test Kitchen on all of their culinary proclamations, you step away from the stove with some useful ideas. For instance, we didn't love the “extra crispy” fried chicken recipe in the book. All of that batter made the thighs and legs in particular taste like flabby boneless chicken-fried chicken patties (too much batter on bone-in, skin-on meats means you can't get that crispy skin that is the entire point of fried chicken). But still, we liked the idea of adding much more salt than usual to the buttermilk brine for a quick-soak (just one hour rather than the normal overnight gives the chicken huge flavor and keeps it moist). And adding a little of the buttermilk to the dry ingredients to get it to “stick” more to the chicken was pretty ingenious, even if overly effective. Next time, we'll be experimenting on our own with those ideas in mind (which to us, is entirely the point of an really good recipe — you follow it first, then make it your own).
This third edition also contains new recommendations for purchasing and maintaining cookware (Do you really need an expensive nonstick skillet for those omelets, or will any old version do just fine? What kind of oil should you put on your wood cutting board?). And it's replete with tips like when you can get away with using imitation vanilla in a pinch from a crew of bakers who has made more bake sale blondies than anyone should ever have to. Another thing we love is that the book's layout is suited to last-minute flipping. Like say when you want to make basic steamed mussels in white wine with those bearded fellows you picked up on a whim, but don't feel like getting into — or even trying to find — complicated cookbook versions, or clicking on dozens of mussel recipes online.
Overall, this is one of the best all-around reference cookbooks we've seen in a long time, exactly the sort of useful nostalgia we were hoping the updated editions of the Better Homes cookbook would have grown up to be. It's an everyday guidebook that serves as both a teacher for novices and a reminder for seasoned home cooks: as much as we're going to keep creating those 80% chocolate-sea salt-lavender-whatever tarts, a good old apple pie really is just plain good.