Cook's Illustrated: Stirring up synergy to sell online food content

At first blush, the idea of charging people for recipes and food content at Cook’s Illustrated’s Web site seems to be half-baked. There are more free recipes online than you can shake a breadstick at, and free sites such as Epicurious boast much more sumptuous designs.

But when you dig down to the bottom of the pan — OK, enough bad food metaphors — you find that Cook’s is not just an ordinary food site with ordinary recipes. Instead, the folks at the independent publishing venture just outside Boston have meticulously created the Consumer Reports of food. Their test kitchen isn’t just for show, though it is featured on PBS’ “America’s Test Kitchen” TV show. It’s more like a laboratory, with blind taste tests of chocolate ice cream, and electric knife sharpeners that are tested and tested and tested again. Even the recipes are made dozens of times to get every detail right.

As with Consumer Reports, Cook’s Illustrated magazine has no advertising, nor does its Web site. The idea is to give readers an unbiased, more detailed look at the methods necessary to make great home cooking. The magazine costs $24.95 per year for six issues, while the Web site costs $24.95 annually, $3.95 per month or $19.95 for print subscribers. As print circulation has grown to 800,000, the Web site now has more than 80,000 paid subscribers, doubling in the past 18 months.

One of the secrets to Cook’s success is that it has always charged for Web content, at one point actually charging per recipe. Jack Bishop is executive editor of Cook’s Illustrated, and writes recipe books and appears on the TV show alongside Cook’s editor and founder Chris Kimball. Bishop says the unique content is valuable to readers.

“Our magazine is timeless in many respects,” Bishop told me. “We are not covering the latest greatest trends, we don’t do travel, we don’t have features on the hippest chefs in Los Angeles. It’s about the techniques, equipment and ingredients that go into good home cooking, and that doesn’t change much month to month or even year to year.”

And Boston Common Press, the company behind Cook’s, has been successful at taking that content and running with it on multiple platforms: cookbooks, TV show, magazine, Web site. Bishop estimates that the TV show, which started airing in 2001, has a reach of 2.5 million to 3 million viewers. They sell that audience one unique cookbook each season, promote the America’s Test Kitchen free Web site, which in turn links copiously to the pay Cook’s site.

More than just an archive

After a run of being a pay-per-recipe site from 1998 to 2000, Cook’s became a subscription site and was mainly used by people who wanted to search through archives of magazine content. But now, the site is coming out from the magazine’s shadow and becoming a destination of its own. Bishop says that half of the site’s subscribers also subscribe to the print publication, while the other half is split evenly between people who let their print subscription lapse and those who have never had a print subscription.

Now there are editorial efforts afoot to expand online-only content. First, Cook’s has started to update taste tests and equipment reviews, so readers wouldn’t have to wait years until the next magazine test. And just recently, the first explanatory video appeared on the site, a demonstration of rolling pie dough that’s free to the public to watch. Bishop says the site has always had some free content — the better to entice people and showcase what they’ve got.

“Video and illustrations are a great way to show people how to do certain things,” said Shea Rosen, food technologist at G.L. Mezzetta, maker of peppers, olives and specialty foods. “Other sites might tell you how to bone a chicken, but pictures and illustrations and video are much better. If you wanted to know how to dice vegetables properly, you’d want to see how the cook holds the knife.”

Rosen said it took him awhile to warm to the Cook’s site, as the top tabs in the navigation — links to the TV show, bookstore and chat — were of less interest. He was much more impressed with the content in the next level down in navigation: recipes, tasting lab, equipment corner, quick tips and food science.

“The food science has copious amounts of information,” Rosen said. “Like if you’re whipping egg whites, why should you use cream of tartar? You might read that in a recipe — ‘use cream of tartar’ — but you might be curious why. They answer those kinds of questions for you. Or why is it good to rest a roast after cooking it and before you serve it? It’s interesting to know that.”

Cook’s has also won support from the less technical crowd, at least in food technology. Michael Chu, who writes the Cooking for Engineers food blog, is a print subscriber (though not an online subscriber) and trusts the equipment and product testing at Cook’s.

“I find their content very informative and their particular approach toward testing recipes until they have achieved their desired goal to be well executed,” Chu told me via e-mail. “Sometimes, the dish I wish to create does not quite match their definition of that dish, but Cook’s does a good job explaining how they arrived at the destination as well as accurately explaining the final recipe. This way, I’m often able to save time when preparing my recipes by reading about what Cook’s Illustrated has already tested and building off of their well-documented results.”

Heidi Swanson, who writes the 101 Cookbooks blog and is a food photographer and cookbook author, concurs that Cook’s does meticulous editorial work and says that the Web site’s 12 years of searchable recipes is an impressive resource.

“What I like about the Cook’s Illustrated writers is that they make it very clear in the introduction to a recipe what they are shooting for,” Swanson told me via e-mail. “In some cases I might not agree with their position on what makes a perfect this-or-that, but at least I know up front what the end goal is. I’ve always loved the look and feel of the print publication — simple, clean, easy to read, beautifully illustrated.”

Overzealous marketing?

While Cook’s has a pretty loyal following as a trusted resource, you can’t please all the foodies all the time. Amy Sherman, who writes the Cooking with Amy blog from San Francisco, says that Cook’s has an East Coast bias and aims its recipes and tastes for the lowest common denominator.

“They’re not pushing the envelope very much,” Sherman told me. “You run out of the basics after awhile. When I’m looking at somebody’s recipe, I’m looking for something creative and innovative, I’m not looking to make Kung Pao chicken at home, and that’s what they’re doing. … As someone who’s a foodie, and who has more sophisticated tastes, is an urbanite who eats out, it doesn’t speak to me.”

Bishop says it might be true that the magazine has more of an East Coast bias, though they do have writers in Portland and San Francisco. He says the editorial is not aiming for gourmet recipes with ingredients only available in certain cities. While Cook’s doesn’t need to know the demographics of its audience to target ads, it does help to know what its audience likes to eat.

“Our test kitchen director has a list of several thousand friends of Cook’s — subscribers who volunteer to give us feedback on a regular basis,” Bishop said. “Almost every week she sends out an e-mail asking them for feedback — can they get a particular brand of canned tomatoes in their local supermarket or how is a particular cut of meat labeled in their markets (there’s a lot of regionalism in the world of butchery). We also ask this group of subscribers to test our recipes before publication and give us feedback — this gives us a broad perspective about our readers’ tastes.”

On the food forums at Craigslist, Cook’s Illustrated has its defenders and attackers. When one person complained about pizza dough being too sticky in a Cook’s recipe, another person retorted, “Humidity and flour density and gluten are too variable for a ‘perfect’ one fits all solution. [Cook’s] wants cooking to be a science when it is mostly an art.”

Worse than that is a running thread that Cook’s has been overzealous in its direct marketing appeals for print subscribers. One person on the food forum complained about getting multiple unsolicited free issues of the magazine, though Cook’s did end up giving them free cookbooks to make it up to them. Another said they were getting multiple notes, letters and calls at night to renew their print subscription.

“Many of our direct mail efforts rely on sending free sample issues of the magazine — rather than traditional direct mail packages with letters from the editor and flyers (but no actual editorial content),” Bishop told me. “As with direct mail efforts conducted by other publishers, we sometimes inadvertently hit the same names more than once. Since people are getting an issue of the magazine, you could argue this is less of a nuisance than getting the promotional material (minus content) that other companies send out more than once.”

Still, Cook’s crosses the line from good marketing into bad consumer experience on the Web site at times. While going through the Cook’s site as a paid subscriber, I hit walls where it demanded I sign up for a free issue of the magazine. My only way to avoid these online walls was to completely leave the site and return again.

Now that the Web site is becoming a valued property on its own, perhaps Cook’s Illustrated will ratchet back some of its co-marketing efforts and realize that some Web subscribers are happy paying for online access and don’t need or want the print product.

Mezzetta’s Rosen, for one, prefers the Cook’s site to the magazine, because he likes the searchable keyword access online and uses Web resources more than print ones.

“I tend to use online more than print for recipes, because it’s handier, and it’s more specific if you want to make a certain thing and there’s a database of recipes,” Rosen said. “With a magazine, it’s more of an impulse, the picture looks nice and then you’ll make it. A lot of people cut out recipes from magazines and put them in a notebook. But I like using the Web site and just print out what I want.”

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at