A cook's secrets are meant to stay in the kitchen. An off-recipe substitution, a unique addition, an improvised technique — they often come from inspiration, or just a sense of craft, that can make a home chef both proud and protective. Luckily for us, Chris Kimball of America's Test Kitchen is happy to share the secrets he's picked up in more than 30 years of cooking.
Kimball visited Washington, D.C., recently for Morning Edition's annual Thanksgiving special, when he takes co-hosts Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne — and our audience — through the steps of making a wonderful holiday meal. And because we decided to focus on cooks' secrets this year, one venue for Kimball's demonstration seemed ideal: the kitchen of Zola, a restaurant that shares a building with the International Spy Museum.
As the host of America's Test Kitchen on PBS, and the editor and publisher of Cook's Illustrated, Kimball is constantly working with his staff to find secrets that can make cooking easier — and give the finished product a nuance of flavor, or a consistency of texture, that amateur chefs might find hard to discover on their own.
One of the things we learned about Kimball, for instance, is that he once used the kitchen of a Navy submarine to cook a meal for a story in Cook's Illustrated. And it wasn't one of the nice nuclear ones, he says — it was a 300-foot attack sub.
We had more room at Zola to make our dishes, below. The menu may seem normal, even nondescript, at first glance. But anyone who witnessed the preparation would likely notice something unusual — and any diners would definitely sense that with these dishes, there's more than meets the eye.
Brie With Honey And Thyme — Cheap and Easy (Shh!)
"It's Thanksgiving — and the last thing you want to worry about is complicated apps," Kimball says.
This starter is as simple as it gets: a small wheel of brie loses its top, which is replaced by a drizzle of honey and a smattering of fresh thyme. Then, it's served with crackers.
"The bottom and sides are now a container," Kimball says, "and you're heating up the inside, and you can just scoop in, and take some and put it on a cracker. It's ready to serve."
Kimball reveals his secret: The brie is heated in an oven — not a convection, not a conduction, but a microwave oven.
At this point, we should note that while Zola has many useful things in its kitchen, a microwave oven is not among them. But a break room elsewhere in the building was so equipped, and we used it to heat the brie.
"It's my favorite appetizer, and it takes two minutes of your time," Kimball says.
As you might infer from the cooking method, this recipe doesn't call for any fancy $50 brie. The regular stuff from your closest grocer will do fine. The magic is in the honey and the thyme.
"It's one of those little transformation tricks," Kimball says, "which takes something ordinary and makes it much better, with just a couple ingredients and a simple technique."
Roasted Turkey With Herbs — Secret Compartments
Herb-roasted turkey has become a new alternative to the traditional basted turkey. When it's done right and paired with a brined bird, Kimball's herb paste — which includes shallots, mustard, lemon zest and olive oil — imparts a wide range of flavors to moist, juicy meat.
The downfall of many cooks, he says, is that they want to rub herbs around the bird, and maybe put some in the cavity, as well. But that's not the best way to give the bird flavor, Kimball says. The cavity won't allow much flavor to seep into the meat, because the juices flow in the opposite direction.
"If you just put herbs in the cavity, there's no flavor," he says. "And the herbs on the skin get dried out and sort of bitter."
So, he loosens the turkey's skin and smears the paste on the meat underneath. Then, facing the bird's cavity, Kimball uses a paring knife to make a sideways incision deep into the breast, about 1 1/2 inches wide. Then he pushes more of the paste inside each breast.
Only after these hidden pockets of flavor and moisture have been created does Kimball add some of his paste to the cavity, and smear the herb mixture on the bird's skin. Asked how one knows they've slathered enough on there, he answers, "You run out of paste."
The Stuffing — Codename: Cornflake
Kimball's stuffing for this Thanksgiving comes from a grandmother in Massachusetts.
Left to his own choices, Kimball says, he'd likely make his stuffing with cornbread and sausage. But he notes that traditionally, cooks made their stuffing with anything on hand — essentially, leftover starches, along with sauteed onions and celery, herbs and fat.
For this dish, the starch of choice is both simple and a secret surprise: cornflakes.
The cognitive dissonance set off by seeing a box of cornflakes being used to make stuffing is actually sparked by the sounds. First, there's the familiar tinkle of cereal being poured into a bowl — in this case, a large aluminum bowl.
Next, confused alarms go off in the sweet/savory area of the brain as a container of warm chicken stock is poured over the flakes, filling the kitchen with the fluid crackling sound that can mean only the breakfast table — until your eyes confirm that, yes, the cereal has been nearly coated by the stock mixture.
Like a bizarre version of a cereal box's "serving suggestion," bits of onion and celery rest atop the flakes, where Dr. Kellogg surely intended berries to live. It's like seeing a spoof of what can happen if a cook gets started too early in the morning, perhaps before enjoying a cup of coffee.
But the final dish tastes great and balances a nice, even moistness with a light and crispy surface.
In terms of flavor, the onions, herbs and cooking juices do all the work, Kimball says. "So, you might as well start with cornflakes."
While tasting the cooked dish, Montagne asks Kimball what he would say if he served the cornflake stuffing and one of his guests asked him what was in it.
"I would lie, of course," Kimball says, without hesitation. "The prerogative of the cook is, when someone asks you what's in it, you don't have to tell them the truth."
And besides, he says, "some things remain hidden forever."
Green Beans — Not Dry, But Shaken And Stirred
Sauteed green beans may seem like a straightforward affair. But that's precisely why Kimball calls it a "massacre dish" — something so basic that if one ingredient is mishandled, the entire dish is ruined.
"It's the simplest things that always are the worst," Kimball says, "because you actually have to think about this and do it just right."
Kimball's green beans have two secrets: They're fast to make because they can be partially cooked in advance; and a shot of dry vermouth is used to make their flavor more complex.
"This is something that Julia Child, I know, always had on hand and used," Kimball says. He adds that compared to wine, vermouth's advantages include having a more concentrated flavor and lasting much longer in a cabinet.
"And of course, as Julia knew well, it has higher alcohol content," Kimball says. "There's nothing wrong with that."
But that doesn't mean the cook, or the guests, will imbibe much alcohol with this side dish.
"You're definitely not getting drunk on this, I'm sorry," Kimball says, noting that nearly all the alcohol is cooked off when the beans are sauteed in an open skillet.
The beans also benefit from the use of shallots, the double-agent that crosses the line between onions and garlic. And to Kimball, that means "it'll add flavor, but it won't blow out the rest of the flavors."
Multigrain Rolls — The Proof Is In The Porridge
In a nod to health-conscious eating — and an insistence on food that tastes good — Kimball and his team came up with a recipe that adds fiber and texture to rolls without overloading them. The goal is to create "a full-flavored, whole-grain roll," Kimball says.
"Dense, squat" rolls just won't do, he says.
While the proof may be in the pudding, Kimball says, "the secret is in the porridge" — or what some of us call oatmeal. And in this case, the oats aren't alone, he says: "It's a seven-grain cereal. It's finely cut."
Using Bob's Red Mill 7 Grain hot cereal, Kimball adds hot water and lets the mixture sit so the gluten can develop, which will make the bread elastic. The wait also lets the water cool, so the heat won't kill the yeast that will make the rolls rise.
Kimball says the result is that the rolls come out "substantial, but not heavy."
The multigrain dough can also be made into a loaf of bread, he says.
He doesn't rule out store-bought rolls: "Parker House rolls are good because they have three sticks of butter in them."
Spiced Pumpkin Pie Cheesecake — 'The Squeeze Job'
Many people have turned to making pumpkin cheesecake instead of pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. And while Kimball recommends using pumpkin from a can instead of roasting your own, he also warns against a common, and serious, flaw in the store-bought variety.
"The problem is, it has a lot of moisture in it, and you don't want that extra moisture in your cheesecake," Kimball says, "because it ruins your cheesecake. So, what do you do?"
"The secret," he says, "is the way we wick away the moisture."
His technique calls for putting a triple layer of paper towels onto a baking sheet — one that has sides to catch the eventual runoff. The pumpkin goes from the can right onto the towels, where it's smeared around.
"This is a great thing for kids," Kimball says. "They can make a big mess."
Then Kimball puts more towels on top and folds the whole thing in half, then folds again. As he does, he's patting the bundle, squeezing water and moisture out. Then he flips it over, and carefully peels back the top layer of paper.
"This looks like one of those fruit roll-ups, doesn't it?" Kimball says.
Repeatedly flipping the bundle and peeling back the top layer of paper, Kimball eventually uncovers the pumpkin mash — now much denser and ready to be combined with the cream cheese, which he recommends taking out of the refrigerator at least one to two hours ahead of time.
In another tip, Kimball says to use spices like cinnamon and allspice sparingly. But his recipe also uses plenty of white sugar and heavy cream.
"There's no stinting," Kimball says. "Stinting is not a verb that's used at Thanksgiving. Absolutely not."
When all is ready, he reveals the next trick to the cheesecake: baking it in a springform pan that sits in a water bath, so the entire cheesecake cooks evenly.
Get Your Own Secrets
Anyone looking for other tips, recipes or ideas for your holiday meal can find a Thanksgiving Survival Guide at the Cook's Illustrated website. You can also experiment with adding an unusual or unexpected flavor — a trick that's often best when saved for last, Kimball says.
"There are so many things you can do to add a little flavor at the end," he says. Vermouth is one option, along with brandy; other ideas include adding fresh garlic or ginger, or even a dash of cocoa powder and chilies.
"Something concentrated at the end completely changes the dish," he says. "Those little tricks, those secret tricks, are what turns something that's sort of ordinary into something extraordinary."
Easy Melted Brie With Honey And Herbs
- One wheel of firm Brie (8 ounces)
- Fresh thyme or rosemary
- 2 tablespoons honey
Using a serrated knife, carefully slice the rind off the top of an 8-ounce wheel of firm Brie; leave the rind on the sides and bottom. Place the Brie cut-side up on a microwave-safe serving platter.
Drizzle the honey over the Brie and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme or rosemary. Microwave the cheese until it is warm and begins to bubble, 1 to 2 minutes. Serve with crackers or a thinly sliced baguette.
from The America's Test Kitchen Menu Cookbook
Herbed Roast Turkey
Serves 10 to 12
If roasting an 18- to 22-pound bird, double all of the ingredients for the herb paste except the black pepper; apply 2 tablespoons paste under the skin on each side of the turkey, 1 1/2 tablespoons paste in each breast pocket, 2 tablespoons inside the cavity, and the remaining paste on the turkey skin. Roast breast side down at 425 degrees for 1 hour, then reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees, rotate the turkey breast side up, and continue to roast for about 2 hours. Let rest 35 to 40 minutes before carving.
If roasting a 14- to 18-pound bird, increase all of the ingredients for the herb paste (except the black pepper) by 50 percent; follow the instructions below for applying the paste under the skin, in the breast pockets, and in the cavity; use the remaining paste on the skin. Increase the second half of the roasting time (breast side up) to 1 hour, 15 minutes.
If you have the time and the refrigerator space, air-drying produces extremely crisp skin and is worth the effort. After brining, rinsing and patting the turkey dry, place the turkey breast side up on a flat wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered, 8 to 24 hours. Proceed with the recipe.
Turkey And Brine
- 2 cups table salt
- 1 turkey (12 to 14 pounds gross weight), rinsed thoroughly, giblets and neck reserved for gravy (if making), tailpiece removed
- 1 1/4 cups roughly chopped fresh parsley leaves
- 4 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves
- 2 teaspoons roughly chopped fresh sage leaves
- 1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary leaves
- 1 medium shallot, minced (about 3 tablespoons)
- 2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
- 3/4 teaspoon grated zest from 1 lemon
- 3/4 teaspoon table salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1/4 cup olive oil
1. For the turkey and brine: Dissolve salt in 2 gallons cold water in large stockpot or clean bucket. Add turkey and refrigerate 4 to 6 hours.
2. Remove turkey from brine and rinse under cool running water. Pat dry inside and out with paper towels. Place turkey breast side up on flat wire rack set over rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan and refrigerate, uncovered, 30 minutes. Alternatively, air-dry turkey (see note above).
3. For the herb paste: Process parsley, thyme, sage, rosemary, shallot, garlic, lemon zest, salt and pepper in food processor until consistency of coarse paste, 10 2-second pulses. Add mustard and olive oil; continue to process until mixture forms smooth paste, ten to twelve 2-second pulses; scrape sides of processor bowl with rubber spatula after 5 pulses. Transfer mixture to small bowl.
4. To prepare the turkey: Adjust oven rack to lowest position; heat oven to 400 degrees. Line large V-rack with heavy-duty foil and use paring knife or skewer to poke 20 to 30 holes in foil; set V-rack in large roasting pan. Remove turkey from refrigerator and wipe away any water collected in baking sheet; set turkey breast side up on baking sheet.
5. Using hands, carefully loosen skin from meat of breasts, thigh and drumsticks. Using fingers or spoon, slip 1 1/2 tablespoons paste under breast skin on each side of turkey. Using fingers, distribute paste under skin over breast, thigh and drumstick meat.
6. Using sharp paring knife, cut 1 1/2-inch vertical slit into thickest part of each breast. Starting from top of incision, swing knife tip down to create 4- to 5-inch pocket within flesh. Place 1 tablespoon paste in pocket of each breast; using fingers, rub in thin, even layer.
7. Rub 1 tablespoon paste inside turkey cavity. Rotate turkey breast side down; apply half remaining herb paste to turkey skin; flip turkey breast side up and apply remaining herb paste to skin, pressing and patting to make paste adhere; reapply herb paste that falls onto baking sheet. Tuck wings behind back and tuck tips of drumsticks into skin at tail to secure.
8. To roast the turkey: Place turkey breast side down on prepared V-rack in roasting pan. Roast 45 minutes.
9. Remove roasting pan with turkey from oven (close oven door to retain oven heat). Using clean potholders (or wad of paper towels), rotate turkey breast side up. Continue to roast until thickest part of breast registers 165 degrees and thickest part of thigh registers 170 to 175 degrees on instant-read thermometer, 50 to 60 minutes longer. (Confirm temperature by inserting thermometer in both sides of bird.) Transfer turkey to carving board; let rest 30 minutes. Carve turkey and serve.
from The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook
Serves 10 to 12
"My mom always served this stuffing with chicken, but it's good with turkey, too. She sauteed the onions in chicken fat, but nothing's wrong with butter!" You can find rendered chicken fat with the kosher foods in the freezer section of most supermarkets. You will need 14 cups of cornflakes.
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter or rendered chicken fat
- 4 onions, chopped fine
- 2 celery ribs, chopped fine
- 1 (18-ounce) box cornflakes
- 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Grease 3-quart baking dish. Melt butter (or chicken fat) in large skillet over medium heat. Cook onions and celery until softened and beginning to brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool 5 minutes.
2. Combine cornflakes and warm onion mixture in large bowl. Stir in broth, parsley, eggs, salt and pepper until combined. Transfer mixture to prepared baking dish and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Bake until set, about 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake until surface is golden and crisp, about 10 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes. Serve.
From Diana Simon, Wayland, Mass., in Cook's Country Magazine
Blanched Green Beans
To serve the beans right away, increase the blanching time to 5 to 6 minutes and don't bother shocking them in ice water.
- 1 pound green beans, trimmed
- 1 teaspoon salt
Bring 2-1/2 quarts water to boil in large saucepan over high heat. Add green beans and salt, return to boil, and cook until beans are bright green and crisp-tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Meanwhile, fill large bowl with ice water. Drain beans, then transfer immediately to ice water bath. When beans no longer feel warm to touch, drain beans again, then dry thoroughly with paper towels. Transfer beans to large zipper-lock bag and refrigerate until ready to use, up to 3 days.
Green Beans With Sauteed Shallots And Vermouth
The amount of shallots in this recipe may seem like a lot, but they cook down.
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 5 ounces shallots, sliced thin
- 1 recipe Blanched Green Beans
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons dry vermouth
1. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in 8-inch skillet over medium heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown, fragrant, and just crisp around the edges, about 10 minutes. Set aside.
2. Heat beans and 1/4 cup water in 12-inch skillet over high heat and cook, tossing frequently with tongs, until beans are warmed through, 1 to 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and transfer to serving platter.
3. Return shallots to high heat, stir in vermouth, and bring to simmer. Whisk in remaining 2 tablespoons butter, 1 tablespoon at a time; season with salt and pepper to taste. Top beans with shallots and sauce and serve immediately.
from The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook
Spiced Pumpkin Cheesecake
Serves 12 to 16
Make sure to buy unsweetened canned pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filling, which is preseasoned and sweetened. This cheesecake is good on its own, but a Brown Sugar and Bourbon Whipped Cream is a great addition. When cutting the cake, have a pitcher of hot tap water nearby; dipping the blade of the knife into the water and wiping it clean with a kitchen towel after each cut helps make neat slices.
- 9 whole graham crackers, broken into rough pieces
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 1-1/3 cups (10-1/3 ounces) sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin
- 1-1/2 pounds cream cheese, cut into 1-inch chunks and softened
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 5 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1. For the crust: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Pulse crackers, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves in food processor until crackers are finely ground, about 15 pulses. Transfer crumbs to medium bowl, drizzle with melted butter, and mix with rubber spatula until evenly moistened. Empty crumbs into 9-inch springform pan and, using bottom of ramekin or dry measuring cup, press crumbs firmly and evenly into pan bottom, keeping sides as clean as possible. Bake crust until fragrant and browned around edges, about 15 minutes. Let crust cool completely on wire rack, about 30 minutes. When cool, wrap outside of pan with two 18-inch square pieces heavy-duty aluminum foil and set springform pan in roasting pan. Bring kettle of water to boil.
2. For the filling: Whisk sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and salt in small bowl; set aside. Line baking sheet with triple layer of paper towels. Spread pumpkin on paper towels in roughly even layer and pat puree with several layers of paper towels to wick away moisture.
3. Using stand mixer fitted with paddle, beat cream cheese on medium speed until broken up and slightly softened, about 1 minute. Scrape down bowl, then beat in sugar mixture in 3 additions on medium-low speed until combined, about 1 minute, scraping down bowl after each addition. Add pumpkin, vanilla, and lemon juice and beat on medium speed until combined, about 45 seconds; scrape down bowl. Reduce speed to medium-low, add eggs, 1 at a time, and beat until incorporated, about 1 minute. Reduce speed to low, add heavy cream, and beat until combined, about 45 seconds. Give filling final stir by hand.
4. Being careful not to disturb baked crust, brush inside of pan with melted butter. Pour filling into prepared pan and smooth top with rubber spatula. Set roasting pan on oven rack and pour enough boiling water into roasting pan to come about halfway up sides of springform pan. Bake cake until center is slightly wobbly when pan is shaken and cake registers 150 degrees, about 1-1/2 hours. Set roasting pan on wire rack then run paring knife around cake. Let cake cool in roasting pan until water is just warm, about 45 minutes. Remove springform pan from water bath, discard foil, and set on wire rack; continue to let cool until barely warm, about 3 hours. Wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, at least 4 hours.
5. To unmold cheesecake, wrap hot kitchen towel around pan and let stand for 1 minute. Remove sides of pan. Slide thin metal spatula between crust and pan bottom to loosen, then slide cake onto serving platter. Let cheesecake sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before serving. (Cake can be made up to 3 days in advance; however, the crust will begin to lose its crispness after only 1 day.)
For Pumpkin-Bourbon Cheesecake With Graham-Pecan Crust:
Reducing graham crackers to 5 whole crackers, process 1/2 cup chopped pecans with crackers and reduce butter to 4 tablespoons. In filling, omit lemon juice, reduce vanilla extract to 1 teaspoon, and add 1/4 cup bourbon along with heavy cream.
from The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook
Makes one 9-inch loaf
For an accurate measurement of boiling water, bring a full kettle of water to a boil, then measure out the desired amount. You will need about 1 tablespoon of melted butter to brush over the loaf before baking.
Scavenging for different grains is challenging and eats up precious time. We prefer the ease of one-stop shopping: one bag of hot cereal mix, which already has seven grains. Be sure to buy hot cereal mix rather than boxed cold breakfast cereals that may also be labeled "seven-grain."
- 1 cup (5 ounces) seven-grain hot cereal mix
- 2 cups boiling water
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus extra for brushing
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 2-1/2 to 3 cups (12-1/2 to 15 ounces) all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (5-1/2 ounces) whole wheat flour
- 1 envelope (2-1/4 teaspoons) instant or rapid-rise yeast
- 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 cup unsalted pumpkin or sunflower seeds
- 1/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats or quick-cooking oats
1. Stir the cereal mix and boiling water together in a medium bowl and let stand, stirring occasionally, until the mixture resembles a thick porridge and is just warm (about 110 degrees), about 30 minutes. Stir in the melted butter and honey.
2. Combine 2-1/2 cups of the all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, yeast, and salt in a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook. With the mixer on low speed, add the cereal mixture and mix until the dough comes together, about 2 minutes.
3. Increase the mixer speed to medium-low and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes, adding the seeds during the final minute of mixing. If after 4 minutes more flour is needed, add the remaining 1/2 cup flour, 2 tablespoons at a time, until the dough clears the sides of the bowl but sticks to the bottom.
4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and knead by hand to form a smooth, round ball. Place the dough in a large, lightly oiled bowl and cover with greased plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, 1 to 1-1/2 hours.
5. Grease a 9 by 5-inch loaf pan. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and gently press it into a 9-inch square. Roll the dough into a tight cylinder and pinch the seam closed. Place the loaf, seam side down, in the prepared pan. Mist the loaf with vegetable oil spray, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until nearly doubled in size and the dough barely springs back when poked with a knuckle, 45 to 75 minutes.
6. Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the loaf lightly with melted butter, sprinkle with the oats, then spray lightly with water. Bake until golden and the center of the bread registers 200 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 40 to 50 minutes, rotating the loaf halfway through baking. Cool the loaf in the pan for 15 minutes, then flip out onto a wire rack and let cool to room temperature, about 2 hours, before serving.
To Make Ahead: In step 4, do not let the dough rise, but refrigerate it overnight or up to 16 hours; let the dough sit at room temperature for 30 minutes, then continue with step 5.
from The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook