I’ve written and tested recipes for many more years than I’d like to admit, and currently Bryan Miller and I are working on our 5th edition of Cooking for Dummies. I’ve learned that recipe development and testing nourishes several facets of my personality. And that’s important because generally recipe developers/testers don’t make piles of money. There had better be a good reason, other than a financial one, that propels a recipe tester into the work kitchen every day. For those of you who have recently embraced a testing career, I hope my thoughts on what it takes to enjoy the recipe testing process will encourage you to continue.
Be a good teacher and understand your audience
While working on this 5th edition of Cooking for Dummies, it’s very important that I have understanding and empathy for the novice cook who has never before hard-cooked an egg or grilled a steak. I try to visualize the person I am creating a recipe for. I place her at a supermarket after working all day, then see her racing home to make dinner for four or five hungry, perhaps picky, eaters. What can I do to improve that person’s culinary experience?
Have a passion for researching and testing new food products
In developing more than 125 recipes for Bacon Nation, which was published by Workman in May 2013, I bought, cooked, tasted, and tested more than 40 different kinds of bacon. I admit that before I started testing, I thought all bacon was pretty much the same. It’s not! There are often significant variations in the amount of salt, smokiness, and sweetness, depending on how the bacon is seasoned, smoked, aged. A recipe developer loves discovering these variables. I find it helpful to maintain a log of testing notes as I work, to explain or define a particular technique or ingredient. They often make interesting editorial copy in a cookbook or magazine article.
Embrace what you don’t know
Yesterday, while developing a chicken curry recipe, I had to admit I didn’t know much about making curry sauces, except that they can include multiple spices, lemon grass, Kaffir lime, and other foods not traditionally found in the pantry of a novice cook. I began my research looking at simple recipes and found that they often relied on jarred curry pastes, none of which I’d ever bought before. So I made a trip to my go-to market for international foods, and purchased red, green and yellow curry pastes. Once home, I tasted them, examined the ingredients on their labels, and continued to research the different uses for each. In the end I created a simple, mild yellow chicken curry and wrote a thorough side bar for readers on the different ingredients and uses for each of these wonderful, convenient curry pastes. If I don’t understand a product or technique, chances are neither will my reader. My lack of knowledge isn’t an obstacle but rather an opportunity to learn and pass on that understanding.
Enjoy precision work
Writing and testing a recipe has much in common with baking, where accurate measuring and careful step-by-step activity is a requirement for success. You cannot act like an improvisational chef when developing a recipe. You must be methodical. Your recipe is a road map for some cook out there making it for the very first time. But sometimes we get too close to the process and need another pair of eyes or hands to give us perspective. That’s why it’s always important not to test in a “kitchen vacuum.” Send your recipes out to friends and ask them to try a few. Wear a thick skin to listen to what they don’t understand, what needs tweaking, what they like or don’t like. They will enjoy taking the recipe for a test run before you hand it off to your publisher.
Wear Different Creative Hats
Publishers increasingly require that cookbook authors and recipe testers blog, tweet, and even create instructional food videos that can be uploaded to YouTube. Keep your smart phone in the kitchen with you as you work to snap lots of still shots and video footage for your website, blog, and social media accounts. Armed with nothing but an idea, I approached a professional photographer about creating a couple of cooking videos from recipes in Bacon Nation. Fortunately, he recognized the idea as a way to increase his own portfolio, and we collaborated on a story-board and copy for the voice over. After shooting in my kitchen, we did some careful editing and uploaded two videos to YouTube where they will remain indefinitely, attracting attention for Bacon Nation. Our publisher then embedded them into our e-book, creating extra value for our fans. You can watch them here. It’s all doable (and fun!), if you’re willing to wear a few different hats.