BLUE HILL — Have you ever read a Cook’s Illustrated article and wondered about the cooks who repeatedly test, taste and reformulate recipes until they are perfect?
One of those test cooks is Orono native Afton Cyrus, who landed a job at America’s Test Kitchen, the company that produces the popular TV show by the same name as well as the magazines Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country and books.
“Sometimes you walk through the kitchen and there’s about 60 of us working,” Cyrus said. “It’s madness. There’s people doing every test imaginable. I sort of don’t lift an eyebrow anymore.”
Cyrus, 32, spoke at the Blue Hill Public Library Dec. 22. Her sister, Hannah Cyrus, is the library’s assistant director.
As a test cook in the company’s book division, Cyrus spends every weekday in the company’s Brookline, Mass., kitchen with dozens of other test cooks who are creating recipes for the books, the magazines and the TV show.
The mission of America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) is to develop the best recipes for all your favorite foods. This is achieved by testing and refining them until achieving the combination of ingredients, technique, temperature, cooking time and equipment that yields the best, most foolproof results.
Cyrus arrives by train in the morning, hunts for an empty spot in the 2,500-square-foot kitchen, tags the area with a Post-it note and gathers supplies.
“I usually work on one recipe in the morning and one in the afternoon and switch off depending on where things are,” she said. “I might make a recipe times two or times four, but with one variable changing. We do hundreds of tests.”
Cyrus said the amount of testing depends on whether ATK is updating or tweaking an existing recipe, such as changing the flavor profile of a dish. That recipe may only need to be made a couple of times.
“For new recipes that are in development, though, it’s usually 10-20 times, sometimes even up to 50,” Cyrus said. “This was especially true of Bread Illustrated, when we were testing dozens of tiny, incremental changes in ingredients, baking times and temperatures, etc. for those recipes.”
“It’s definitely super obsessive,” Cyrus said. “It’s very methodical.”
As she’s working throughout the day, Cyrus takes notes on the recipe, which she attaches to a clipboard.
“When I go back to my desk, I put those notes into the next version of my recipe,” she said. “I have one long running document so you can see the different iterations of the recipe and we go to the final.”
She has to run blind tastings on each recipe. Or, she may have to interrupt her cooking to taste someone else’s dish.
Cyrus said she is usually assigned three to five recipes per chapter of a book to test and retest before publication. Each book requires a team of five to six to test the recipes.
Cyrus did not intend a career in a kitchen. She spent a decade working as an art teacher and administrator in Boston. In 2014, she launched an artisan food business, jamsessionsjam.com, and realized that she was happiest working around food. On a whim, she applied and won a three-month internship at ATK.
Cyrus said she expected to be unemployed after the internship.
However, fortune favors the prepared. During Cyrus’s internship the company was working on a preserving cookbook.
“I was so thrilled,” she said. “I was like this is the one thing I know how to do.”
Not many of the test cooks had much food preserving experience, so Cyrus was enlisted.
“They were able to keep me on after the internship to help finish that book,” she said. “And then they kept me on. They liked my work.”
“I was on a very linear career path for a decade, and had a whole future mapped out for myself, and suddenly took this left turn into the unknown,” Cyrus said. “Taking that leap was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I’m reminded in the kitchen every day that you never know what’s going to happen next or where inspiration will come from, but as long as you stay in the moment, surround yourself with great people, and trust your gut, joy and success will follow.”
“I’d always been a huge ATK fan,” she said. “Growing up that’s how I found cooking. This has been a total dream come true.”
Cyrus is currently working on a super foods cookbook. The week before Christmas she was testing an oatmeal pancake recipe.
One of the challenges, she said, is “how many oats can we get into pancakes before it turns into a brick?”
She has previously worked on “Foolproof Preserving,” “Bread Illustrated,” “The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook,” “The Make-Ahead Cook,” as well as a vegan cookbook, which will be released in 2017.
“It’s really surreal to see my name in a book,” Cyrus said. “Or see my hand in a book. I’m one of the hand models now.”
The ATK staff, which numbers about 220, includes a team dedicated to grocery shopping.
“As interns, that was part of our job,” she said. “We take that giant grocery order (kept on a spreadsheet), go through the list, label everything and deliver to each cook.”
Another team keeps the test cooks stocked with clean pots and pans and mixing bowls and implements.
“They truly are the heroes,” Cyrus said. “They keep it going like nobody’s business. We make sure the best food gets to them first.”
Ah yes, the food. You may be wondering what happens with all the food created each day.
“When we have leftovers from a tasting, we put them in a take-home fridge for employees to take home,” Cyrus said. “You never know what it’s going to be, leftover ingredients or prepared food.”
Test cooks also participate in the editorial process.
Cyrus said the test cooks are periodically asked to pitch ideas for new books based on trends they are seeing or interesting ideas in the food world.
“When a book gets chosen for development, we also have the opportunity to give input and brainstorm ideas for which recipes should be included,” Cyrus said. “We meet weekly as the whole department, cooks and editors, to talk about the progress of all of the books we are working on, and meet frequently throughout the week in small groups and one-on-one with our specific book editors to talk through specific recipes and chapters.
“I love seeing how the books come together and move through the whole process from concept, to development, to design,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to not only cook, but also write and understand the editorial process.”
Tagliatelle with Artichokes and Parmesan
4 cups jarred whole baby artichoke hearts packed in water
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for serving
Salt and pepper
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 anchovy fillets, rinsed, patted dry
1 Tbsp. minced fresh oregano or 1 tsp. dried
⅛ tsp. red pepper flakes
½ cup dry white wine
1 pound tagliatelle
1 oz. Parmesan cheese, grated (½ cup), plus extra for serving
¼ cup minced fresh parsley
1½ tsps. grated lemon zest
1 recipe Parmesan Bread Crumbs (see recipe below)
Cut leaves from artichoke hearts. Cut hearts in half and dry with paper towels. Place leaves in bowl and cover with water. Let leaves sit for 15 minutes. Drain well.
Heat 1 Tbsp. oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add artichoke hearts and ⅛ tsp. salt and cook, stirring frequently, until spotty brown, 7 to 9 minutes. Stir in garlic, anchovies, oregano, and pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in wine and bring to simmer. Off heat, stir in artichoke leaves.
Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add pasta and 1 Tbsp. salt and cook, stirring often, until al dente. Reserve 1½ cups cooking water, then drain pasta and return it to pot. Add 1 cup reserved cooking water, artichoke mixture, Parmesan, parsley, lemon zest, and remaining 3 Tbsps. oil and toss to combine.
Season with salt and pepper to taste and adjust consistency with remaining ½ cup reserved cooking water as needed. Serve, sprinkling individual portions with bread crumbs and extra Parmesan and drizzling with extra oil.
Parmesan Bread Crumbs
Makes 1 cup
2 slices hearty white sandwich bread
2 Tbsps. extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
Pulse bread in food processor until finely ground, 10 to 15 pulses. Heat oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add bread crumbs and cook, stirring constantly, until crumbs begin to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add Parmesan and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until crumbs are golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer crumbs to bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve.