Behind the Scenes with Fine Cooking Magazine

Amy Kundrat

Similar to my omnivorous approach to food, I’ve been known to devour almost anything when it comes to food in print. And although I love any and all food magazines, my allegiances bend toward the recipe-driven and away from the trendy and overly-styled. It’s nice to know that some serious time has been logged in someone else’s kitchen before amateur hour and its inevitable chaos, commences in my own.

Firmly in the category of “not afraid to get their hands dirty,” Fine Cooking magazine is one of those few who are dedicated to the act of cooking. Their meticulous seasonally-driven recipes reflect a dedication to process and a glimpse into their tireless recipe testing. So when I learned their headquarters and test kitchen also happened to be firmly inside our Fairfield County borders at Taunton Press in Newtown, CT, it only became a matter of time before I invited my CTbites-self for a tour and taste.

The Fine Cooking test kitchen is where the kitchen staff and editors cook, taste, discuss, re-test, write, edit, style and shoot each and every recipe that appears on its pages and online. The stand-alone nondescript building is nestled in the woods a short walk from the publishers sprawling building just off South Main Street. If it weren’t for the smoking grill expertly manned by one of the magazine’s staff just outside its front doors, the structure could easily be mistaken for a maintenance building.

Inside, a steady hum of activity hits me just as swiftly as a succession of familiar savory aromas, the unmistakable signature of a kitchen (or in this case, kitchens) firing on all pistons. But before I can even poke my head into one of the three kitchen bays, I am greeted a maze of dishes, flatware and other kitchen accoutrement laying in neat piles, waiting to be styled for the shoot of the day. Today’s starring role? A dish of bubbling mac and cheese.

Entering mid-shoot, I find a small well-equipped army including a photographer, art directors, photo editor and food stylist, and two editors well underway with that day’s shoot. I observe the photographer and stylist working together in an alternating sequence of verbal cue, the nudge of a dish or spoon, and the flash of a camera bulb. Their motions are rythmic and as the nearby monitor is scrutinized frame by frame, the sequence begins again. Just beyond this dance, lay a series of kitchens to the left and in the center, a central communal table. Just beyond that a video kitchen and to the back corner, a deep pantry filled with pottery, linens, and essential pantry items.

In each kitchen bay, small teams busy themselves prepping, saucing, baking and plating that days set list of recipes for the Fine Cooking team to taste for one of any of their upcoming planned issues. This activity comes to boil three a week, when the team gathers together to taste and discuss the nuances of each dish and its candidacy for an upcoming issue

The recipes in the pages of Fine Cooking appear in print and are indexed online, contributed by professionals such as chefs, cook book authors and writers. Simply reprinting the recipes would be easy, but wouldn’t do the home cook any good. That is where the Fine Cooking test kitchen comes in.

Therefore every recipe in the magazine and online receives this star treatment. These communal tastings are critical to fine-tuning each dish, from dissecting flavor profiles, textures, temperature, cooking times, ingredients and presentation so that when it hits print, the home cook like me can recreate almost seamlessly. Every recipe is tested at least twice. A first successful test is met with the second test by a cross-tester. And then more often than not, there are changes and subsequent testing before any recipe may be considered final.

The result of this persistence is a consistent and diverse collection of recipes that the home cook can rely on. Peeking behind the curtain, it becomes clear that the emphasis on the act of cooking and the importance of seasonal and fresh ingredients in the pages of Fine Cooking, is a labor of consistency and love.

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We've had the great pleasure of sharing and trying out a few Fine Cooking recipes ourselves (see below) on CTbites. And as a result, the site has not only earned a spot in my personal recipe rotation, it has seriously (and thankfully) reduced the number of my own kitchen disasters.