Food fight results: Did Cook's Illustrated or food52 come up with the best recipes for pork shoulder and sugar…

What to eat. What not to eat.
May 20 2010 11:42 AM

The Envelope, Please

Announcing the winner of Slate's recipe contest.

The results are in for Slate's recipe contest. About two weeks ago, we matched Web upstart food52 (which invites recipe contributions from users) against Cook's Illustrated (which relies on professional cooks and a meticulous testing process). Each contender created two recipes—one for pork shoulder, another for chewy sugar cookies; then we asked Slate readers to vote for their favorites.

In both competitions, Cook's Illustrated won. But it was a very close vote. This particular election did not necessarily provide a broad mandate for experience, tradition, and professional expertise over crowd-sourcing. Out of the 103 respondents who prepared both pork shoulder recipes and completed our poll, 54 chose the Cook's Illustrated pork shoulder with peach sauce, and 49 opted for food52's porchetta. The cookie competition was even more of a squeaker: Out of 166 respondents, 84 chose Cook's Illustrated Chai-spice sugar cookies, while 82 preferred food52's chewy sugar cookies No. 2.

Especially with such close numbers, it's worth digging into what the taste-testers liked, and didn't like, about each recipe. I combed through the comments section in the surveys and also gathered responses from a dinner party I hosted this past Saturday. For my party, I carefully prepared all four recipes and served them to a tableful of avid food lovers (10 in total), including, among others, a restaurant critic, two architects, a social worker, an unemployed marketing executive, and my lovely mother. I served each pair of dishes to my guests without identifying the source of the recipe. (One problem with our poll for Slate readers, of course, was that they knew the source, which may have prejudiced them.)

First off: the pork.

Slate readers praised the Cooks Illustrated pork for its texture, for its glistening crust, and for its, well, porkiness: "The flavor was fantastic and really emphasized the 'porkiness' of the meat. It really amped up the flavor of the pork itself instead of relying on tons of spicing," wrote one reader. "Very tender," wrote another. They also loved the simplicity of the recipe and the ease of access to the ingredients. While the food52 recipe had participants rolling and tying a butterflied pork shoulder, then draping it with either pork skin or pancetta; Cook's Illustrated worked with a bone-in pork shoulder that didn't need much manipulation.

The Cook's Illustrated shoulder was cooked for a very long time—six hours for me—until it reached 190 degrees, a point at which the connective tissue contained in the pork shoulder has melted. So the texture was particularly yielding. On the other hand, food52's Porchetta was supposed to remain in the oven only until it reached 150 F—a temperature that I thought was a little low for an unctuous cut like pork shoulder. At least one Slate commenter agreed with my observation: "I think if it had been cooked to a higher done point it would have been more tender."

The other very divisive issue, at my table and in the comments, was the Cook's Illustrated sauce. "The fruit and pork thing is overdone—the fruit just masks the pork," said one of my companions, and frankly I agreed. Though many commenters liked the sauce, made with frozen peaches, white wine, sugar, rice vinegar, thyme, and mustard, it was also repeatedly described by Slate commenters as "too sweet." Others wondered if the recipe could be tweaked with a different fruit: "I think apples or pears would have gone better with the recipe."

The food52 porchetta was admired by many Slate commenters and at my table for its more complex marinade, made with orange, fennel seed, black pepper, rosemary and coriander. "The finished pork had more layers of flavor," wrote one participant. It had a forthright sauce as well, made by deglazing the roasting pan with a half-cup of red wine vinegar, to make "a porky vinaigrette" (a memorable turn of phrase … in general the writing in the food52 recipes was much livelier than the careful prose from Cook's Illustrated). Because pork shoulder is so rich, it can take a lot of acid—think of the salsa you might put on your carnitas (aka pork shoulder) tacos, and you'll get the picture. But the unadulterated acid in the porchetta sauce was a dash too strong—I agreed with the Slate commenter who said she'd cut the vinegar with a little wine if she tried the dish again.

Slatereaders were almost equally divided between the two recipes. In my house, the vote was perfectly equal: five to five, between those who could live with the sweet sauce and valued the superior texture of the Cook's Illustrated pork, and those who forgave the food52roast its tougher texture because of its more complex, aggressive seasoning, as well as the crispy bits of pancetta. "At first I was shocked by y (the food52 porchetta) after I ate X (the Cook's Illustrated pork), but now I prefer Y for the flavor," said one of my guests, "Y is Mars and X is Venus," said another.

And now for dessert.

The tiny two-vote margin in favor of the Cook's Illustrated sugar cookie would send politicians calling for a recount. The Cook's Illustrated cookies were made from a very soft dough, which included butter and vegetable oil and cream cheese, and eerily simulated the doughy-chewy nature of a commercially baked soft cookie. I agree heartily with the Slate reader who described the recipe as "interesting and counter intuitive"; the dough is unlike any I've worked with before, and it delivered on the desired texture. "I enjoyed how the crisp edges with the chewy middles formed a nice contrast," wrote another. Whether the Cook's Illustrated cookies were really sugar cookies was more of an issue: They were seasoned with a blend of ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and clove that one of my guests described as "snickerdoodle-y." A Slate reader picked up the thread: "I really don't think they are 'sugar cookies.' …. I thought this was going to be a head to head cookie contest, with plain sugar cookies competing. These clearly are not."

As for the food52 cookie, it was more of a classic recipe reworked to use not just white sugar, but also brown sugar and crunchy turbinado sugar. Commenters liked the crunch of the turbinado, which contrasted with the soft center of the cookie—and so did I. Some described the cookie as having a caramel taste, and several liked that the cookie was flavored very simply. "My husband just wants a normal sugar cookie. This is it," said one Slate reader.

Oddly enough, considering the close vote among Slate readers, at my dinner table there was almost no debate about which cookie was superior—we had a 7-to-1 vote in favor of the Cook's Illustrated cookie, with two abstentions (one for gluten issues, another for a powerful aversion to clove, one of the Chai spices). I suspect I know the reason: For the competition, I followed the recipes to the letter. For the food52 cookie, this meant beating flour into the batter for one minute and then scraping the bowl and beating the flour for another minute. Had I not been preparing the recipe for a contest, I would have mixed the flour in only until it was incorporated. I think this over-mixing ended up toughening the dough, and that the cookies would have been pretty lovely otherwise.

This brings up one of the issues that consistently came up in the comments. The looser prose of the food52 recipes sometimes made for confusion—when the sugar cookie recipe said "cream butter and sugars for 1 minute," was I supposed to include the turbinado sugar as well, or was that just for rolling the cookies in the end? And how long should I allot for the pork shoulder to come to room temperature? Should I really aim for room temperature, or rather something in the 50s? These questions can be major or minor depending on the audience. An experienced cook is likely to use a recipe less literally, while someone new to a technique depends on precision.

In the end, it's that kind of precision that earns Cook's Illustrated its many fans. But for me, at least, the whole process once again called into question the very premise of a "best recipe." Many Slate commenters obviously weren't quite finished with the debate: One suggested deglazing the porchetta pan with apple cider rather than vinegar; others discussed different cooking temperatures for both roasts. At my dinner table, my friends offered that the Cook's Illustrated pork sauce would have been less cloying if offset by the stronger seasoning on the food52 porchetta. We were already cooking again before we finished our meal. It's that kind of open discussion that has drawn people to the Web for cooking advice and input.

Cook's Illustrated should celebrate its victory, but without being too namby-pamby, I hope both forms of recipe development (and food52) continue to thrive. I agree with the Slate commenter who wrote: "I think that there is a room in this world for both approaches. The scientist in me loves the CI approach; the people connection in the Food 52 approach is valuable as well."

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