LOS ANGELES — There are cooking shows hosted by celebrities, some of whom may know a fricassee from a frittata, and shows that feature arrogant chefs and bad cooks. There’s an upcoming digital series in which blindfolded chefs get smacked in the face with a dish and compete to identify and make it.
Then there’s the gimmick-free “America’s Test Kitchen,” in its 20th season of expertly guiding viewers through well-vetted steps for savory sauces, perfectly grilled fish and flaky pie crusts, among the 1,000-plus recipes it has demystified to date. Also on the menu are reviews of a range of ingredients, from anchovies to baking chocolate to pasta, as well as cookware.
No need to sample more than a half-dozen styles of yogurt, including Australian and Bulgarian, because “America’s Test Kitchen” has done it for us. Being practical, not trendy, has its benefits: It boasts of being the longest-running U.S. cooking series. (Japan’s “Today’s Cooking,” which debuted in 1957, has it beat internationally.)
The show’s unwavering focus explains its success, said Jack Bishop, chief content officer for America’s Test Kitchen and on-screen host of the product comparison segments.
“There’s a lot of food content on television and on video platforms, especially in either the competition genre or in the travel genre,” Bishop said. With the public TV series, “it’s first and foremost the content and the utility of the show, that it helps people cook.”
After “America’s Test Kitchen” airs on PBS stations (check local listings), weekend traffic surges to its website as viewers decide, “hey, I want to make that recipe,” he said.
The average weekly audience is 2.25 million, holding steady and even climbing a percentage point or two in the past two years. Meanwhile, the show has expanded its reach — and appeal — online, with a YouTube subscription channel whose audience includes cooking-curious young men who hadn’t discovered the series on TV, according to the America’s Test Kitchen company.
The company publishes the “Cook’s Illustrated” and “Cook’s Country” magazines, which are ad-free like the public TV series.
The series ‘is public television personified. It’s all about life-long learning, being educated while entertained” and empowering viewers to develop their passion and skills, said Cynthia Fenneman, president and CEO of American Public Television, which distributes “America’s Test Kitchen” to public TV stations nationwide.
Recipes are tested dozens of times by more than 50 full-time cooks who are aided by a panel of some 40,000 home cooks. The goal is to create a reliable blueprint that can be followed by viewers, with the average cost of testing for one recipe about $10,000, according to America’s Test Kitchen.
It all happens in the vast, industrial-looking kitchen in Boston seen on TV. Taping on this season’s 26 episodes were completed before the coronavirus epidemic forced a widespread shutdown of TV and movie production.
A key ingredient for the show is the chemistry between the hosts-cooks, Bridget Lancaster and Julia Collin Davison, and the ensemble of fellow test cooks and Bishop. The vibe is friendly cooperation, not culinary one-upmanship.
“All the research we do about the shows indicates people like to just turn it on and spend time with us,” Bishop said. “We actually like each other. I’ve done the shows since day one. I’ve known Bridget since 1998, Julia since 1999, and Adam (kitchen equipment expert Adam Ried) since, I think, 1995.”
Christopher Kimball, who co-founded America’s Test Kitchen in 1980, hosted the program until a contract dispute led him and the company to part ways in 2016.
There are talking points but no scripts or prompters, Bishop said, which means that viewers are getting accomplished chefs and other experts sharing their knowledge in a relaxed way.
Perhaps the biggest change over the years can be found in the recipes themselves. “When America’s Test Kitchen” launched, there was an emphasis on traditional family fare that mom or grandmom made. That interest has all but evaporated, Bishop said, and people instead are choosing to re-create the dishes they enjoy when eating out.
“They want to make Thai food, Mexican food, Italian food, and do it well. So the recipe selection has really evolved over the 20 years of the show and reflects the audience tastes,” he said.