It took several months to work through this cookbook. Working through it I learned how to make sauces and custards and that overcooking, over-mixing and over-baking is not my friend. I learned that reducing a recipe takes more than just dividing the ingredients by serving size. I learned the right equipment matters.
I had already owned the celebrated "Joy of Cooking" and many swear by Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" and I'd seen recommendations for Martha Stewart's cookbook for basic cooking as well. I'd still pick "Cooking School" as my first cookbook (and get the more comprehensive "Joy of Cooking" second). For one, "Cooking School" doesn't just have recipes. They tell you what can go wrong, why a recipe works and the cookbook has extensive tutorials with step-by-step pictures--you won't find that in the relatively spare "Joy of Cooking." Also ATK recipes are thoroughly tested. The one compliant I've seen in review after review of Bittman is that his recipes are poorly proofed and inconsistent in their results. Despite making numerous adaptations because of a restricted diet, I found it rare to find a recipe--after practicing some tricky techniques--to fail. In fact, in this cookbook I'd say only the fish cakes were a disappointment despite following their recipe to the letter.
Downsides? Well, I suspect Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen is modeled on a very limited range of tastes. (Christopher Kimball's?). The recipes are richer in fats and sugars than I'd like. Nor do I think they tend to do well by ethnic recipes, which they tend to Americanize too much and make too bland (Kimball is on the record that he doesn't like spicy food). And example number one is their Hot and Sour Soup--without lily buds or wood ear fungus.
There's only one cookbook I looked at in stores I could consider a rival and I'm tempted to buy--J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's, The Food Lab. He's an ATK alumnus and it's obvious his recipes are throughly tested and he has a similar scientific approach to cooking. His recipes reading through them seem both lighter and more authentic and often simpler. And unlike "Cooking School" he gives specific brand-name recommendations for equipment. Like "Cooking School" his cookbook is also richly illustrated. If there's a downside it's that the emphasis is on cooking--there are no baking chapters.