The America’s Test Kitchen television show has aired on public television for 20 years, and over those two decades, it’s featured countless techniques that result in better, faster, easier, and more foolproof recipes. Whether it was achieving a chocolate chip cookie with the ideal amount of chew, uncovering a hack for cooking grains in less time, or understanding the best way to impart flavor to meat with a marinade, there have been numerous discoveries from the show’s 20 year history. Here are a few of the game changers that transformed how we—and our viewers—cook.
1. Pretreat meat by brining it
You may have missed our Roasted Brined Turkey in 1993—the recipe that put brining on the map. But you can't have missed that brining and salting poultry and meat are two of our core techniques. Brining adds moisture, seasons the meat, and prevents toughness, while salting ensures crisp skin.
2. Don't boil eggs—steam them
While developing our recipe for Soft-Cooked Eggs, we discovered that the only way to get reliable results was to place the eggs directly into boiling water—but only ½ inch of it. Because of the curved shape of the eggs, they actually have very little contact with the water and instead, cook in the steam above it. In addition to producing perfect soft-cooked eggs, steaming the eggs instead of boiling them means you can use the same technique and amount of water for anywhere from one to four eggs without altering the consistency of the finished product.
3. Finish cooking meat in a turned-off oven
We’ve found that in many recipes, such as our Slow-Roasted Beef, cooking food partway at a moderate temperature and then shutting off the heat yields the best results. As the heat of the cooking environment declines, the temperature of the food gradually rises. In lean proteins, this gentle heat prevents muscle fibers from getting too hot and squeezing out moisture and can even increase enzymatic activity that helps tenderize the meat.
4. Don't boil corn—steep it
Cooking corn perfectly every time was easy once we discovered that instead of boiling the corn, the better method involved simply bringing a measured amount of water to a boil, shutting off the heat, dropping in the corn, and letting it stand for at least 10 minutes, as in our Foolproof Boiled Corn recipe. Since the water temperature decreases, the corn cannot overcook. What’s more, it’s flexible: The corn can sit in the water for as long as 30 minutes without overcooking.
5. Melted (not softened) butter makes for the chewiest cookies
When developing our recipe for Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies, we found that one key element was melting the butter. Melting the butter released water, which created a final product that boasted a chewy rather than crispy texture.
6. For tender meat, “reverse-sear”
When we dug into beef cookery for our Classic Roast Beef Tenderloin recipe, we realized that the best way to achieve a uniformly rosy interior and a deep crust was to reverse the traditional two-step process of browning the tenderloin on the stovetop and then finishing it in the oven. Instead, we first roast the meat in a low oven and then brown it in a hot skillet to finish. The hot pan rapidly browns the already warm, dry surface of the beef so there’s no time for the meat beneath it to overcook.
7. Don't just soak dried beans, brine them
You can brine more than meat. One thing we’ve found to be integral for flavorful cooked beans is brining the beans overnight, a method we employ in our New England Baked Beans recipe. This helps jump-start the beans’ hydration and soften their skins so that they cook up tender in the oven, with few blowouts.
8. For taller pancakes, leave some lumps
When developing our recipe for Easy Pancakes, we found it crucial to leave the batter lumpy, but not for the reason we originally thought. It’s commonly believed that overmixing leads to excess gluten (and therefore rubbery cakes), but thorough mixing can’t actually create too much gluten in pancake batter, which is liquid-y enough. Rather, lumpy batter is optimal due to its thickness, which can better hold on to air bubbles during cooking, producing taller, more leavened pancakes.
9. To cut down polenta’s cooking time, use baking soda
Knowing that dried corn cooks similarly to dried beans—and when cooking dried beans we often add baking soda to help soften their skins—we tried using this method during recipe development for Creamy Parmesan Polenta. Sure enough, adding baking soda to the polenta helped soften its outer corn layer, thus speeding up its cooking time.
10. Use an Asian bread-baking technique to achieve the fluffiest-ever sticky buns
After applying the Asian bread-baking technique called tangzhong, which adds extra moisture to the dough in the form of a flour paste, to our recipe for Sticky Buns, the final product boasted an airy, feathery crumb that remained fresher and softer than any version we’d made the conventional way. Incorporating this flour-water paste allowed more water to be added into the dough than previously possible when simply combining dry and wet ingredients, resulting in a superhydrated dough.
11. Cook brown rice in the oven for perfectly fluffy grains
When developing our recipe for Cuban-Style Black Beans and Rice, we ran into problems when cooking the rice on the stovetop: scorched rice on the bottom and undercooked rice on the top. The solution was to cook the rice in the oven, where the all-around heat of the oven cooked the rice evenly and consistently.
12. A cold skillet leads to even cooking
Adding food to a ripping-hot skillet will quickly brown the exterior, but we’ve discovered that if you want to brown a food that requires more than a flash of blazing heat to cook through, like the brussels sprouts in our Skillet-Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Chile recipe, it’s best to place the food in a “cold” (not preheated) skillet and then turn on the heat. That way, the food’s interior has more time to gently cook through before the exterior burns.
13. Baking soda isn’t just for baking
Of course we use baking soda as a leavening agent, but we’ve discovered its numerous other talents that can all be attributed to its alkaline properties and the pH-high environment it creates. Adding just a pinch of it to grains, vegetables, and chickpeas during cooking weakens their cell walls so they break down and soften more quickly. It also boosts flavor in baked goods by imparting a salty, mineral taste; it tenderizes meat by raising its pH and making it difficult for proteins to bond excessively; and it hastens browning—as in our recipe for Best Buttermilk Waffles.
14. Making a low-liquid braise? You can skip the sear.
While making our Hungarian Beef Stew in 2008, we learned that there’s no need to sear the meat if you’re making a low-liquid braise that cooks in the oven. Over time, the dry surface of the meat that sits above the liquid will reach a high enough temperature to brown and form thousands of new flavor compounds.
15. For perfect pasta salad, overcook the pasta
Just as leftover rice hardens when it’s refrigerated, al dente pasta tastes overly firm once it cools. This is due to retrogradation—as pasta cooks, its starches absorb water and swell. When it cools, the starches creep back together and tighten, only this time the water becomes trapped, leading to a more rigidly compacted starch. When developing our recipe for Italian Pasta Salad, we discovered that cooking the pasta until it’s a little too soft is best when serving it cool. This way, when it retrogrades, it will firm up to just the right texture.
16. Boost tartness with a cream of tartar
The secret ingredient to our recipe for the Best Lemon Bars turned out to be cream of tartar (or tartaric acid), which imparts puckery flavor and bright, lingering finish that tricks lemon-lovers into thinking there’s more lemon in the recipe than there actually is.
17. Amp up meatiness without adding meat
When we added a few anchovies (per tradition) to our Daube Provencal recipe in 2005—an addition that yielded particularly complex flavor—we learned that anchovies are uniquely rich in compounds called glutamates and nucleotides. These two compounds each enhance savory depth, or umami, in food but amp it up even more when present together. Now, we routinely slip anchovies into stews, soups, chilis, and even meatballs to boost meaty flavor.
18. A marinade’s most important ingredient is salt
Other recipes may call for soaking bland, chewy cuts in a marinade in the hope that it will tenderize or infuse flavor to the bone. Not ours. After dozens of in-house and independent lab tests, we declared in 2009 that marinades don’t tenderize and most seasonings won’t penetrate the meat, no matter how long it soaks. The one ingredient that does make a big difference? Salt. As a brine, salt in an overnight marinade is able to penetrate deep into the food to season the meat and enhance its juiciness, as evident in our Tandoori Chicken recipe.
19. No need for oil when searing fatty salmon
While developing our recipe for Pan-Seared Salmon, we found that starting the skin-on fillets in a dry pan (no olive oil) resulted in perfectly cooked fish. This is because the medium-low heat of the stovetop renders natural fat out of the salmon, so no extra fat is needed.
20. For perfectly tender dark meat, overcook it
The cardinal rule of preparing chicken is don’t overcook it or the meat will be dry and stringy. But while developing a recipe for Mahogany Chicken Thighs in 2015, we realized that dark-meat poultry is the exception to the rule. Due to dark meat’s particularly large amount of connective tissue, which dissolves into gelatin as the meat cooks and renders it juicy, we found that it tastes exceptionally juicy and tender when cooked to 195 degrees.
What’s your favorite cooking technique you’ve learned from the show? Let us know in the comments! And to find out where and when America's Test Kitchen airs on your local PBS TV station, enter your zip code into our station finder.