Rumble in the Oven
Slate pits Cook's Illustrated against food52. Who can come up with the best recipes for pork shoulder and sugar cookies?
Just as citizen reporting is mounting a challenge to professional journalism, wiki food sites are threatening the traditional mode of culinary writing. Instead of relying on professionals to create and vigorously test recipes, crowd-sourced Web publications invite the huddled masses to share their favorite Caesar salad or chicken fricassee. But which model is more likely to produce the most delicious meals? With this question in mind, we invite you, Slate readers, to judge a showdown between Cook's Illustrated, a venerable recipe resource, and food52, a scrappy crowd-sourced startup. It's a fight between highly trained experts and passionate amateurs, between stern Yankee precision and Brooklyn bobo spontaneity.
You'll find links to the competing recipes—for dinner, pork shoulder; for dessert, sugar cookies—at the bottom of the page. But, first, a little background. The Cook's Illustrated approach is famously thorough, and its style self-consciously nerdy. For each recipe—whether prime rib roast or chocolate cupcakes, a crew from the Boston-area test kitchen determines the ideal qualities to pursue for the dish. They test several existing recipes as a jumping-off point and start creating a composite recipe, which may be tweaked dozens of times. After this comes "abuse testing," in which they prepare the recipe with less-than-ideal equipment or common home-cook substitutions. Next, they send the recipe out to a professional tester and to volunteer reader-testers. If no major problems emerge, they finally publish a recipe. The C.I. crew is proud of its scrupulous method—and so confident that, in October, Christopher Kimball, the suspendered majordomo of C.I., threw down the gauntlet in his blog: "I am willing to put my money, and my reputation, where my big mouth is. I offer a challenge to any supporter of the WIKI or similar concept to jump in and go head to head with our test kitchen."
The crowd—at least, the edited crowd as represented by food52—leapt to the challenge. Site founders Amanda Hesser, food columnist for the New York Times Magazine, and Merrill Stubbs, a New York Times contributor, argue that home cooks have a lot of compelling culinary ideas, too—ones that might never find the spotlight if we leave recipe creation solely in the hands of credentialed pros like those at C.I. Food52 is not a wiki site, like Foodista, where the recipes are open for editing from the public. Instead, each week, food52 members, which include both well-known bloggers and neophytes, respond to weekly calls for a recipe on a given theme—such as asparagus or shrimp or something broader like "Best Spring Refresher." Hesser and Stubbs sort through the entries and choose two finalists, each of which they test a few times. (They don't do serious revisions to the recipes: If it's not working, it doesn't rank as a finalist.) Then, once the recipes have been packaged with images, headnotes, and, sometimes, videos, readers vote for their favorite.
There are fine arguments to be made for both the top-down and the grassroots models, but in the end, the proof is in the pork butt. And so for this contest, food52 and Cook's Illustrated have developed two recipes each: one for pork shoulder (often called "butt"), that marvelously adaptable cut of meat, and one for a chewy sugar cookie. It is up to you, the Slate reader/cook, to determine which recipes are, in fact, the tastiest.
With such great power comes great responsibility, and we ask you to take your job as judge seriously. Culinary bragging rights are on the line—it's essential that you prepare both recipes in a particular category before voting and that you share your honest opinion of the results. To vote, fill out the brief questionnaire linked to at the bottom of each recipe page by May 17. Your identity will remain private, of course, but we may end up quoting your observations in our summation of the contest.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.