February 21, 2017
By the time a recipe appears on America’s Test Kitchen or in Cook’s Illustrated magazine, it has gone through about twenty weeks of development and cost approximately $10,000 in groceries. “We spend about half a million dollars on groceries a year,” says Julia Collin Davison. “And 60 gallons of dish soap?” she asks, turning to Bridget Lancaster. “60 gallons of dish soap a year,” Lancaster confirms.
Collin Davison and Lancaster are the new co-hosts of America’s Test Kitchen, the half-hour cooking show that recently premiered its seventeenth season. While this is their first season as hosts, the two friends have been with the series since day one.
“Julia and I were two of three test cooks for Cook’s Illustrated when the show launched,” Lancaster recalls. “It began with ‘Oh yeah, we’re thinking about doing a show, you want to be on it?’ Actually, we didn’t even have a choice, it was just ‘You should be on it.’ We did that first season thinking that nobody’s going to see this. Now, between the two of us it’s something like 52 combined seasons on TV, if you add the nine seasons of Cook’s Country,” which focuses on more rustic cooking.
Despite their long identification with the show, however, both cooks emphasize that the 2,500-square foot test kitchen is more than just them, a fact especially evident from the new faces appearing on the show this season. “The test kitchen isn’t a space necessarily, it isn’t a person, it isn’t just us,” Lancaster says. “It’s the whole group of people that really develop the food every single day before it gets to camera.”
“The whole point of the show is to tell the story of this one recipe and how we developed it,” Collin Davison adds. “There are so many ways to tell a story, and that’s why I think the new people are so valuable, because they have a different perspective. There are 40 test cooks in the test kitchen and every time you turn around there’s something else cool going on. Between everybody, it’s a hoot in there.”
So what do all of those test cooks do during the twenty weeks they spend developing a recipe? “To choose a recipe, we come up with a whole bunch of ideas based on new trends, classic foods, the cooks’ own interest,” Lancaster explains. “Then we send out all of these titles to our subscribers and non-subscribers. We get back survey scores, and it has to be over a certain threshold for it to be considered.”
“The best way to know what people want is to ask them,” Collin Davison says. “For the most part. I mean, everyone says they want salads, but they really want steak, potatoes, and chocolate.”
“I do think that’s starting to change a little bit, at least with vegetables.” Lancaster pitches in. Collin Davison agrees: “Our vegetarian book that came out last year is one of our current best-sellers. And we have a vegan cookbook coming out in a couple months. Our readers want to know how to eat meat-free, dairy-free, egg-free some of the time.”
Even if the test kitchen is exploring more vegetarian options, it’s clear that Lancaster and Collin Davison still love meat. Just take the example Collin Davison uses to explain the recipe development process. “So then, after we decide on a recipe, it gets assigned to a test cook. They start in our library. If the dish was, say, honey fried chicken, they pull out every recipe for it that they can find. They pick five of the recipes that really span the range, then they make them side-by-side.”
“I really want honey fried chicken now,” Lancaster interjects, and they both laugh. This is characteristic of their interactions: the two are a delight to be around, and constantly crack each other up. (“Sometimes we forget the camera is rolling,” Lancaster says. “We have to remember, ‘Right, this is not Thelma and Louise.’”)
After the test cook makes the five recipes side-by-side, the other test cooks and editors sample them and identify what worked, what didn’t, and what the ideal would be, while the cook determines what was successful execution-wise. The test cook then creates a recipe based on those considerations and methodically tests different variables such as frying temperature or size of chicken until they achieve the perfect recipe.
“And then, believe it or not, we’re not done,” Collin Davison says. “We send it out to a group of readers called “Friends of Cook’s” for free. They make it, and they have to fill out this intense survey about whether the recipe worked for them. Because the idea is, even if we can make the best fried chicken, if it doesn’t work for someone in their home kitchen, it’s a failed recipe.”
If 80% of respondents say they would make the recipe again, it is approved for publication. It’s tweaked based on the survey comments, and then, finally, is published under the test cook’s byline.
Having been test cooks themselves, Lancaster and Collin Davison understand the joys and the difficulties of developing a successful recipe, and are happy to display those recipes now as hosts. “There’s this proud ownership from the test cooks who actually develop the recipes,” Lancaster says. “Being a host is amazing, because we get to flip ourselves and be on the other side and be the advocate for the viewer.”
But hosting does come with its perils, especially in the ingredient-tasting segments. “I had to do a tasting of fish sauce,” Lancaster says with a shudder. “Shots of fish sauce. At around 7:30 in the morning. It kind of felt like a fraternity hazing thing. That same day, I had to taste anchovies, and I learned I can eat a lot of anchovies.”
“I love stinky foods,” Collin Davison adds. “I would have loved the fish sauce – I would have nailed it. But I was tasting almond butter or something, I don’t quite remember, but it was lovely compared to fish sauce.” And they burst out laughing again, beaming the whole time.