The new hosts of “America’s Test Kitchen” on PBS, Bridget Lancaster and Julia C. Davison, have been test cooks on the show since day one. They begin filming this month for a new season of episodes to begin airing in January 2017. I’ve long been a fan of the show for its scientific and measured approach to cooking (food nerds unite!), but had no idea that one of these new hosts is a serious homebrewer. Ahead of their filming and coinciding with DRAFT’s annual May/June food issue, it was a perfect time to chat food and beer.
What’s it like stepping into the host role?
Davison: We’ve got some big shoes to fill, but luckily there are two of us. I don’t want to speak for Bridgett, but I can say we’re really excited and honored to be the hosts. What’s really cool to me is sharing my point of view from the test kitchen, which is maybe different from what other points of view are. I started out doing the shopping and the dishes and then got into recipe development, so my view is of all the people there. We have 30 people who work in a really collaborative environment; it’s 30 intelligent collaborative people figuring stuff out together.
What’s the major difference between cooking on TV and cooking at home?
Davison: I would divide into three categories: When you cook at home, when you cook here on camera, and when you cook here to develop a recipe. It’s much more scientific than just jotting down notes as you throw things in the pot; if you’re developing a roast chicken recipe, you break it down into different testable variables, and this is all happening at your desk. You might roast eight chickens side-by-side in ovens with 25 degree variables, so you’re analyzing the results of your experiment. On TV here, you’re showing people how to do it; the recipe’s already developed, most of the stuff is already prepped for you. Of course, everyone’s extremely quiet in the kitchen and all eyes are on you. At home, it’s home, so there’s a glass of wine and the phone’s ringing and the TV’s on. When I’m cooking at home, sometimes I follow recipes and get all “Cook’s Illustrated” about it, and other times I just cook from the hip.
Is there a dish or type of food that’s especially fun for you?
Lancaster: For me, I love all things barbecue. I love the process of it and the ida of low and slow cooking, of taking your time. It’s a magic process that happens: You put these tough cuts of meat on the grill or in the smoker but with time and patience, you take the most tender cut of meat off the grill. I love that it forces us to be patient, because we’re always in a rush to get dinner on the table. Slow cooking, stews and barbecue make us slow down and when you’re at home, you count the hours with the beers you’re drinking.
Is there anything you’ve still found difficult to master?
Davison: There’s one elusive recipe: fudge. There’s a recipe that goes down in history around here, where a tester developed a recipe but not all of our viewers had a candy thermometer or a thermometer that could go high enough for candy-making. So this guy, he tried everything, over 100 batches of fudge to figure out how to do it without a candy thermometer. Some fudges were like stirring cement. He got a rotator cuff injury! We never printed the recipe because there’s not a foolproof way to make fudge without that candy thermometer.
What’s the most important piece of equipment a home cook needs?
Lancaster: I think the number one tool that people should have at home is a good quality 8-10 inch chef’s knife, preferably two knives and a knife sharpener. A sharp knife is the most useful tool in the kitchen. The other must-have that a lot of people don’t have is a fast-read thermometer and high temperature thermometer. There’s no guessing if you have an instant-read thermometer; you know exactly if that beef, pork, whatever meat is cooked through.
Davison: Both of those pieces of equipment don’t have to be expensive. Our favorite knife is under $50 and the best thermometer can be under $20.
Do you ever just want to go home and order pizza?
Lancaster: Absolutely. My husband is a chef, so between the two of us, it’s the old story about the cobbler’s children that have no shoes. We basically draw straws to see who has to cook; I love cooking at home but it’s a different challenge because kids tend to be a bit more picky about what they want and they’re very vocal about what they like and don’t like.
Bridget, how did you get into homebrewing?
Lancaster: I’ve been brewing more seriously for the past six or seven years but I started brewing off-and-on back in 1992 . It was a terrible experiment. I was under the impression that the more sugar I added, the more alcohol I had, the better it would be. I ended up brewing what tasted like a clone of Formula 44 cough syrup, and I called it Good Night Ale because half a glass of it and I was out.
Davison: Once in a while Bridget brings us gifts of her beer and they’re amazing.
Lancaster: My husband and I have stepped it up and built our own keezer kegerator with five taps. We have one that’s a nitro tap for our stouts, and one always has a root beer or cream soda for the kids. We just have to make sure they’re pulling from the right taps.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for space.