Cook’s Illustrated: An Excellent Choice for Avid Cooks

Posted: August 22, 2010 in Grade: A, Magazine: Cooking, Magazine: National, Reviews
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Cook’s Illustrated (

Issue reviewed: July/August 2010, Number 105

  • Published in Brookline, Mass., by Boston Common Press Limited Partnership
  • Circulation: 1.2 million; paid subscribers for website: 300,000


  • experienced cooks and chefs

Overall Editorial

In this magazine, cooking is an event. The stories are told in a step-by-step manner with imagery and drama that one wouldn’t typically associate with chicken and grills, such as this sentence in Grilling Stuffed Chicken Breasts: “Disaster started as a tiny drop of cheese that oozed out the end and grew into a lavalike eruption, dropping onto the coals and flaring up.” The creation and cooking of each dish is narrated in a manner that is gratifying to both experienced cooks and literature aficionados. My boss, in fact, recommended this magazine to me; he is an editor with thousands of magazine articles notched into his belt, and he is an avid reader of this magazine. I didn’t even know he cooked.

Overall Design

I was immediately turned off by this magazine when I first saw it. It’s so plain. It’s mostly black and white, mostly illustrations, and very copy-heavy. Once I adjusted to the look, I began to appreciate it for what it is: a magazine that is clean, is proud of its writers’ knowledge of cooking, and is made for hard-core cooks/readers. It does not accept advertising and therefore doesn’t have bold colors and flashy headlines that its editorial content must stand up to.

Cover Design and Blurbs

The cover each issue is an illustration of food, and in this particular edition, the illustration is of tomatoes. The cover blurbs are plain, mostly a list of the recipes inside. A couple of them stand out: “Extreme Banana Bread: Six Bananas in One Loaf” and “Diced Tomato Tasting: Two Winners, 14 Losers.”

Editor’s Note

The Editorial is just what an editor’s note should be: something relatable for the reader, rather than a pointer to different stories in the magazine. This particular one, “Buck Bites Back,” is an “as-told-to-me” story about a man’s capture of a deer gone awry. It’s amusing, colorful and conversational.

Departments and Columns

The departments in this magazine offer a variety of information. In Notes From Readers, readers ask questions such as “What is the gray area on salmon?” and “What is black garlic?” and the editors give lengthy, detailed answers. Two departments, Quick Tips and Kitchen Notes, teach the reader helpful bits, such as how to poach an egg via microwave and how to chill wine when you’re out of time.


People who want to cook something without flaw will treasure these features. These stories are about perfecting already-good recipes. And some, like Chiles 101, is about learning everything there is to know about a food. (This could actually be a department, but the table of contents doesn’t spell it out. So I’m going to go with feature.) One especially interesting feature was Inside Canned Diced Tomatoes. The staff members blind tasted 16 brands of the fruit that most of us think of as a veggie. (What a job!) Testers also searched for the perfect spatula on the next spread, rating the simple tools on performance, design and strength. These writers/editors are serious, and so are this magazine’s readers.

Use of Photography

The photography is sparse and all in black and white. I wasn’t wild about this at first. But after spending some time with the magazine, I think the publisher’s point is to not overpower the content of the magazine with dramatic and colorful photography. No people appear in the photos (a few hands, but no full people!), which seems uncommon. But the content doesn’t allow for the magazine to be without a point of view, so the lack of human appearance isn’t too bothersome. When photos are used, they show the perfectly prepared meal or the product being reviewed.

Use of Illustrations

It seems like it would be illegal for a magazine with “illustrated” in the title to not be full of excellent illustrations (which makes me wonder about Sports Illustrated?), but that is not the case with Cook’s Illustrated. The illustrations in this magazine are detailed, almost to the point of looking like photos, and show the reader exactly what he or she is supposed to be doing in the kitchen with the respective recipe. From cutting meat to adding wood to a fire to using a cake pan for make a quiche or pie.

Relevance to Intended Audience

I couldn’t find any information on who exactly the Cook’s audience is, but if the readers are avid cooks who like experimenting or learning from experimenters, they will be well-pleased.

Integration with Website

The Cook’s website is excellent and full of recipes, videos, equipment reviews and taste tests. The editors promote this content throughout the magazine, almost like the web is a hand-in-hand companion to the magazine. It’s a great way to keep the reader engaged in both media. The website charges for some content, but a good bit of it is free.

Flow, Story Hierarchy

This magazine has a definite arc: It starts small with letters and tips, crescendoes to larger, more robust stories, and ends with short tips and equipment reviews. It is readable from front to back. Even on foods I’m not that interested in (bananas, for instance), I found myself stopping to read the sidebars and then getting sucked into the story.

Paper Quality

This magazine is always 32 pages, and it is saddle-stitch with almost-matte paper. My copy wrinkled and buckled around the middle staple, and it looked well-worn before I’d even gotten much use out of it.

Overall Opinion

Although initially turned off by the look of Cook’s Illustrated, I give it a grade of A for changing my mind about it. It is well-written, well-organized and informative. It makes molecular gastronomy seem exciting and even approachable. It packs a lot of data and items of interest into only a few pages.

Did you agree or disagree with anything I said? Please comment. I’d love to hear from you!

–Tyler Reed

Editor, The Sidebar Review

  1. Cathy says:

    Hi, Tyler! I collect this magazine and I use it all the time. They publish a “Best of” Cookbook; I have both the older and the current edition–it is my Food Bible. Great Review. I wonder how they support the magazine if they accept no advertising? Is it all through subscription? Wow.


  2. The new layout looks awesome. Congrats on finding your niche. Enjoy!

  3. Jessica says:

    While I really appreciate a lot of the content that this magazine and its associates have provided over the years, my experience as a subscriber to Cook’s Illustrated has been gradually and subtly but ever so surely degrading to the point that I no longer support the company. At best, they are very seldom creating new content these days, merely updating old recipes and equipment or taste tests, as their culinary scope is actually (unnecessarily) quite narrow. Additionally, more and more content on their website is becoming blocked unless one agrees to seemingly endless up-sold subscription plans. Their business model seems to be much like the old book of the month subscription services where if you order any print material from them, they will continue to send you new material, unbidden and billed. And if you’ve only signed up for web content, don’t worry, they’ll hound you with advertising emails too! I don’t want to take up a book’s amount of space here in your comments, so I’ll simply advise anyone who may be interested in becoming involved with this company do some due diligence on their business practices and decide for themselves if it is worth the (ever-increasing!) costs.

    • Thanks for your comments, Jessica! Cook’s Illustrated definitely has a different business model than most magazines by not including advertising in the publication. The sales of online plans and additional print materials must be the way the company stays afloat. What magazine(s) have you switched to for new recipes and culinary articles?

  4. […] Some good examples of magazine-created social networks/platforms are Family Circle’s Momster, How Design’s blogs and forums, Martha Stewart’s Community, O Magazine Community and National Geographic’s Blog Central. Of course, several magazines have also ventured into the creation of apps for iPhone/iPad/Android/Blackberry, including Men’s Health, ESPN the Magazine and Cook’s Illustrated. […]

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