What is recipe testing and why is it needed? A brief overview

In this column we’ll look at the need for testing recipes and how to get started testing your own recipes and the work of other authors.

Though I regularly introduce myself as a recipe tester, I’m often mistakenly referred to as a taster, making it sound as if my job is all about taste. Even clients sometimes refer to me as their taster – probably because no one likes to think of their work being tested and perhaps found wanting.

But recipe testing is not primarily about how food tastes. While taste is important, it’s the job of the recipe developer – the author of the recipe – to decide what the dish should taste like.* It’s the job of the recipe tester to understand the author’s intent, to organize the recipe so it flows smoothly, and to put the recipe in writing in such a way that it can be replicated endlessly with the same (or at least similar) results each time it’s prepared.

Put simply, recipe testing consists of shopping for and cooking a recipe, making sure it fits the intent of the author and needs of prospective publisher, and then editing it in the appropriate style.**

To understand the importance of recipe testing, it helps to understand the scope of what has to be considered when writing a recipe.

Instructions

A recipe is a set of instructions, and of course it’s crucial to make sure that all of the instructions are present and in the correct order. It’s not enough to read a recipe to try to detect flaws. Often, it isn’t until we try to follow instructions that we realize that a vital piece of information is missing, or that a sequence that looks fine on paper doesn’t make sense in practice. Recipes adapted from use by commercial kitchens – where they were assembled by a crew instead of an individual – often have instructions listed randomly. A direction to prepare fish and then assemble the sauce will leave the fish overdone or cold. A cook working alone will do better to prepare the sauce, keep it warm, and then cook the fish.

Ingredients

It seems as if a list of ingredients should be simple until you need apricots when they’re out of season, look for 000 flour at the supermarket, need – and don’t have – epazote or verjus or sumac, or have a recipe that calls for fresh hominy when all you can find is canned or dried.

The commonly-used names of ingredients vary as well. The first time I saw a recipe – written in English – that called for “manteca” I didn’t immediately realize that it is the Spanish word for lard.

Recipes from commercial kitchens offer their own challenges. Restaurants depend on products like sheet gelatin and xantham gum*** that home cooks rarely use.

Weights and Measures

In the United States there is much confusion between fluid ounces and weight in ounces. Chat rooms and websites prove this, authoritatively offering all kinds of grossly incorrect information, and professional chefs are often as confused as home cooks.

Fluid ounces indicate volume; dry ounces indicate weight. Eight ounces of water always equal one cup, but one cup of flour, beans, sugar, or chopped apples will all have different weights.

To further complicate matters, some professional chefs – especially bakers – weigh everything, liquid or dry.

Food writers in the United States are more and more often following the method used elsewhere in the world, which is to measure liquids in volume and dry products by weight – preferably in grams to avoid confusion with fluid ounces. The advantage of writing recipes in this style is that if temperatures are given in both Centigrade and Fahrenheit, the recipes are then suitable for international use.

Equipment

A large skillet, a nonreactive saucepan, a tamis, a mandoline. A spice grinder, mortar and pestle, a roasting pan with a rack, a covered sauté pan. Kitchen twine, parchment paper, cheesecloth, cake tester, instant-read thermometer. The home cook may have all of these in the kitchen – or may have none. A professional recipe tester is likely to have all of these and dozens more. It’s the job of that recipe tester to decide what can reasonably be found in the home kitchen and to offer alternatives. No double-boiler? A pan set over a few inches of boiling water works equally as well.

There are different kinds of ovens, and their temperatures vary even when set to the same number. Broilers can be electric, flame, or infra-red, built into an oven or standing alone. Grills can be charcoal, gas, wood, infra-red, built into range tops or free-standing, or even stove-top grill-pans.

A knowledgeable recipe tester can advise a client on possible substitutes for appliances, cookware, and tools.

Technique

Testing a recipe can sometimes aid in explaining technique, or the tester may even suggest an improvement to the author of the recipe. As I was developing a recipe for spinach-and-feta filled phyllo triangles and brushing oil over the pastry, fellow recipe tester Eva Baughman pointed out that spraying oil was a lighter, healthier, and more efficient method. It worked well and I was grateful for the advice.

An experienced tester can help describe how to shape biscuits, how to transfer a rolled pie crust into a plate, how to cut a head of kale into paper-thin shreds.

A tester can also make a client aware of (and avoid) possible dangers in a recipe – splattering oil, flaming alcohol, concerns about storage.

Taste and Texture

The question isn’t as much “how does it taste?” as it is “does it taste the way the author of the recipe wants it to?” And, of equal importance, “will the publisher of the recipe be pleased with readers’ reactions?”

Is taste subjective? Of course it is, which is why it’s the job of the recipe tester to understand what the author of the recipe has intended.

A recipe tester can spot problems with flavor (which could indicate an error in the recipe)  or can recognize when the seasoning in a recipe – say, one that is extremely hot – falls outside of what the average reader of the recipe might expect. It might be that the Aperol martini is supposed to be bitter (after all, Aperol is a bitter liqueur) or the chocolate truffles (sprinkled with coarse sea salt) are supposed to be salty. But when a flavor or texture or even an appearance is outside what we might normally expect from that recipe – flat macaroons, a sunken cake, a fiery-hot stew – it’s time to confirm that this is what the author intended. And sometimes it IS what the author wants. I once tested a recipe for a salad wilted in dressing, pretty much what you’d find in the bowl after the dinner party and everyone’s gone home. Recipes for peanut-butter-and-pickle ice cream, lima bean ice cream, and tomatoes stuffed with pineapple in a caramel sauce were not what I’d choose to cook for my own pleasure, but that was irrelevant to my work in testing them.

Putting it in Writing

Cooks learn from each other by watching, talking, and of course, tasting. But it’s the recording of recipes that makes them last. Writing down the recipe lets you remember it and lets you pass it along. Writing it down for publication requires an understanding of who the audience will be – chefs, home cooks, children, readers with special interests or dietary needs. Cookbooks, paper magazines and newspapers, and digital publications of all kinds have different designs, needs, desires, and restrictions. After the shopping, cooking, note-taking, tasting, questions asked and answered, the recipe is edited so that anyone who chooses to can recreate it.

*For more about writing recipes, see The Cook Writes.
**For more about editing recipes, see The Cook Edits.
*** See Herbs & Spices in this issue.