Cookbook Watch: ‘America’s Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook’

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You can’t make a low-fat pie crust. It just won’t work.

That’s the sad conclusion that Jack Bishop came to during a two-year-long endeavor to put together ‘Healthy Family Cookbook,’ the first-ever healthy recipes cookbook to come out of America’s Test Kitchen.

‘We haven’t really tackled the subject in such a comprehensive way, but there’s huge interest in this area, we always get people asking, ‘Why can’t you guys do more healthy recipes?’ ' says Bishop, who served as editorial director on the project and will be signing copies of the book Thursday night at Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica.

It took a team of 10 people more than two years to test and develop the recipes. Some dishes are inspired by other recipes from America’s Test Kitchen’s archives, but all are original for the book, Bishop says. The team quickly found out that you can’t just do the obvious -- slash the sugar or butter in half, eliminate the oil, or substitute whole wheat flour for white flour. The testing group also decided it would be cheating to simply scale back portion sizes. ‘We didn’t take a biscuit recipe for 12, cut the portions in half, and then say ‘Look, we cut the fat in these biscuits by 50%,’ Bishop said.

Before Bishop’s team even got started, there were some philosophical issues to tackle. What does healthy really mean? Is it low-fat? Low-carb? High-protein? The Test Kitchen decided it was none of those things. Instead, they put together recipes that kept the calories in reasonable check and revolved around fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, or looked for ways to cut back the calories in fat in other dinnertime favorites, such as pizza. Click here to see a few of the recipes from the book.


‘This is not a diet book, it’s not specifically tailored to one health issue, it’s really an all-purpose cookbook,’ Bishop says. ‘These are recipes that had to taste good, first and foremost,’ and not be larded down with excess fat and calories.

Most entrees are in the 300 to 500 calorie range, many side dishes are 100 to 200 calories, and there are plenty of slim desserts clocking in at about 200 to 300 calories.

The resulting cookbook works on several different levels. There are amibitious multi-recipe dishes for the experienced cook looking to cut calories. The book is also a guide to whole grains and seasonal vegetables for the uninitiated looking to venture out. And it could also serve as a handy ‘starter’ cookbook for kids heading off to college or their first apartment, or, perhaps newlyweds who are also new to the inside of a kitchen.

Bishop says testers quickly learned that no-fat can often mean no-flavor, but that using low-fat was often an acceptible substitute that tasters didn’t even notice. In one creamy dip, for example, mayonnaise is replaced with low-fat sour cream, and some low-fat cottage cheese blended with boiling water (to eliminate the curds) for a velvety, tasty dish with a fraction of the calories. ‘And you really can’t tell the difference,’ he says.

The big heartbreak, though, was pie dough. The testers simply could not find a way to make a lower-fat version. ‘We found that the simpler the recipe, the harder it can be to make it healthy, and pie dough has basically three ingredients: flour, sugar and a fat. What can you replace? It was a doomed endeavor.’ After more than 40 stabs at it, the team gave up. ‘No one really felt like the pie [dough] was worth publishing. Go with a crisp or a cobbler instead.’

One happy discovery: Bishop says he remembers whole wheat pasta from back in the day, when it was gritty, sour and ‘just plain awful.’ The whole wheat pasta on the market today is not only good, it pairs better with ‘hearty, gutsier olive oil sauces’ than traditional pastas, he said. The Test Kitchen’s favorite: Bionaturae Organic 100% Whole-Wheat Spaghetti.

And one surprise: You can make a butter-free roux, if you toast and brown the flour first. That’s what made the chicken pot pie recipe in the book a reality, Bishop says. ‘That was one of the recipes where we were really able to take out that fat, and still ended up with a beautiful, thickened sauce.’

-- Rene Lynch / renelynch