If you’ve ever tried to look up the best French onion soup recipe or the most time-tested thermometer for the kitchen, chances are, you’ve followed the advice of Christopher Kimball. Mr. Kimball, the bow–tie-clad founder of America’s Test Kitchen, Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, has made a name for himself for his tireless pursuit of recipe perfection—in recipes, equipment and products.
Now, Mr. Kimball—who is also a radio host, cookbook author and frequent TV expert—has moved on to a new venture, Milk Street Kitchen, which combines global cooking techniques and ingredient combinations to present a new way to cook food at home.
We took a few minutes to chat with him about how he’s rethinking American cooking, the ideas that still inspire him after years in the kitchen, and what he’s covering in his upcoming Culinary Mystery Tour.
What can fans expect to see on your Culinary Mystery Tour?
Christopher Kimball: The audience loves to participate, ask questions, and become part of the show. Everyone in the audience will get to do a tasting. We’re going to bring people up on stage to do some science experiments. There’s a culinary quiz, and we do some bloopers, like that time when I was on the Today show and almost burned it down. We talk about mistakes people make at home when cooking and actual letters we’ve gotten. We talk a lot about the amazing science behind why marinades don’t work. We talk about the fusion coefficients and alternative parallel universes when making soufflés, and how to take one egg white and turn it into 25 liters. We talk about conventional wisdom about cooking, and why a lot of it’s wrong, and give a lot of examples. We talk a little bit about Vermont. But it’s mostly about the audience and how they cook. We have some clips from our radio show as well. We hear from a lot of people, how they cook, and how they look at cooking differently.
Share one of your funny blooper moments with us.
CK: I was on the Today show with Matt Lauer, and doing rice krispy treats—gourmet versions of them. On the set, when I was melting the marshmallows, I turned off the stovetop to move on to the next recipe, and unfortunately, I turned it on high instead of off because their controls were opposite of mine. So we’re standing there working, and all of a sudden, this pot starts smoking. The cameraman kept cheating the camera. It got so bad we had to stop the segment. There’s smoke everywhere, and Matt Lauer’s talking about how the kitchen’s on fire. It was really something. But the producer loved it! I realized that morning television is not about information; it’s about entertainment.
What inspired you to start your new venture, Milk Street Kitchen?
CK: A few years ago, my cooking started to change, and it got a lot better. I was cooking out of a bunch of cookbooks from around the world. I thought, if you think about a couple in Mexico City at night: Are they cooking Mexican food? No—they’re just cooking dinner. The same goes for Istanbul or Marrakesh or Chengdu. So it dawned on me that there are lots of ways of thinking about cooking dinner.
We know a lot about Northern European cooking, but we don’t know much about how people in other parts of the world think about cooking. There are lots of ways to think about cooking dinner that are very different from the way we think, but many of those ideas actually translate extremely well to the American kitchen. So let’s go with them and figure out how to be smarter in the kitchen here.
Ultimately, what you want is something that’s simple, and not too hard in the technique department, but that ends up with big flavors—that’s how people want to cook. If you go back to French cooking, they use very few herbs and spices; it’s all about great ingredients and technique. But in the rest of the world, you don’t have to have perfect technique. It’s not really about technique—it’s about how things come together.
What’s an example of a dish and how you’d approach it differently?
CK: American chicken soup. It’s not bad, but there are probably 10 other ways of doing chicken soup around the world that I can think of that are much better, because they use handfuls of herbs, lots of spices, hot chiles or fermented sauces. Now you can get any ingredient you want online or in your local supermarket, so it’s not an issue of finding ingredients; it’s how to put them together. If you can take from other cultures and learn from them, you can really transform American cooking to be something much more interesting than it is today.
There’s been a renewed interest in the science of cooking. Why do you think that is?
CK: People like to understand cooking so they can become better cooks. It helps you understand what’s going on. Science just for the sake of science can be entertaining in a staged show. When I start explaining the theory of parallel universes, it’s kind of fun, especially in relation to making soufflés.
But at some point, it becomes theoretical and gnarly, because nobody really knows what’s going on. It turns out that food science is infinitely complicated, because there are so many variables. On stage, I talk about why marinades don’t work and why brines do work. When you deal with food, there are so many different factors that it’s kind of hard to isolate what’s more important: When you talk about marinating fish versus chicken versus beef, the protein structure’s different and the chemistry’s different.
You’ve covered a lot of food topics on your programs in the past, from regional food history to cooking techniques to the science behind cooking something perfectly. These days, what aspect of cuisine and cooking interests you the most?
CK: What interests me is when I cook with someone who’s a really good cook, and they do something so obviously smart that you’ve never thought of before. What really interests me is bringing that to a home cook.
I was cooking with Fuchsia Dunlop, author of Every Grain of Rice. She was using a wok, and before she put the chicken in, she rinsed out the wok with water, and put some used cooking oil in it, swirled it around and got it really smoking—almost to a flash point—then poured it back into the jar of cooking oil. And then she added fresh oil and cooked the chicken. I said, “Why’d you do that?” And she said, “Every time you put something new in, you season the pan quickly with cooking oil and that gives you a perfectly nonstick surface.”
What’s the last big thing about food you learned?
CK: I was cooking with Claire Ptak; she owns a bakery in London and she wrote The Violet Bakery Cookbook, which is a great book. She was whipping egg whites for a chocolate prune cake she was making. And she didn’t whip them very much; they were half whipped. She started folding them into the batter. I said, “Claire, they’re not holding soft peaks.” Every recipe [calls for this]. And she said “Well, you should whip egg whites until they’re the same texture of whatever they’re folded into.” A huge lightbulb went off in my head, and I said, “Of course. If you whip them to a stiffer consistency, they’re not going to fold into the batter.” And so, that was a moment.
What’s the last meal you cooked at home?
CK: The last meal I cooked at home was white cooked chicken, from Sichuan, and it was delicious. You take a chicken, put it in a pot with a bunch of water, a little sherry or cooking wine, ginger, some scallions. You cook it for 25 minutes, turn the heat off, let it sit for 45 minutes. Then you make a quick sauce with some hot oil, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil and scallions. You can make rice with the broth, if you like, or you can just serve it over cabbage. It’s literally about 10 minutes of work. It’s fabulous. You don’t have to worry about getting perfect skin or rotating the chicken in the oven. It’s just a whole different way to think about cooking chicken, but it’s easier, and it’s better, and it’s foolproof. Anybody can do it.
And I made a green couscous with tons of herbs—cilantro and parsley—in it. And I threw together an improved galette: pie dough, with blueberries, throw it in the oven for an hour. It was easy.
Are other people too intimidated to cook for you?
CK: Well, it depends where I am. In Vermont, they don’t care—they’re happy to invite you over. I had woodchuck at one of my neighbors in a stew. It was a little greasy, but good. And squirrel—slow-cooker squirrel spaghetti sauce. When I’m in Boston, there are three groups of friends who will actually invite me over for dinner, but that’s about it. It doesn’t happen too often.
What I learned cooking with other people over the years who are better cooks than I was [is that] they just made one or two things. And that’s the secret about cooking for people. Just make a soup or stew or simple roast, have some nice wine, and don’t worry about it.
What is the world’s most underrated kitchen appliance?
One thing that is very useful is a very inexpensive stainless-steel Chinese cleaver, which keeps its edge pretty well. The instant-read thermometer’s really important. But I would say the most useful thing would be a knife sharpener, because 98 percent of people have dull knives. I just don’t see how they chop an onion. It’s really bad. You’re going to kill yourself! I just don’t see how you can do anything.