Recipe Testing and Taste
Surprise! Recipe Testing is Not Always About How it Tastes
Recipe Testing: Who’s to Judge?
Unless you are testing recipes for your own project, you will be testing recipes for someone else. The client may be a book publisher, print or digital publication, a professional test kitchen, a recipe developer looking for feedback on new recipes, or a brand trying out recipe submissions from readers. Professional recipe testing always includes recipe editing, because the goal is for the written recipe to allow the reader to duplicate the writer’s results. Videos and reels are terrific for showing technique, but whether you are frantically jotting down amounts as you watch, or scrolling through comments hoping for a link to the recipe, we generally need recipes in some written form.
If the written recipe is the end result, there is a long road leading to it. Finding ingredients: shopping, ordering, storing. Preparation – the mise en place – and technique: slicing, dicing, blanching, mincing. Arranging steps in order: Can the cod be steamed while you make the sauce, or should you make the sauce first and keep it warm? Cooking: glass pan or steel? Low heat, medium, or high as you can go?
And, finally, how does it taste? Easy question, complicated answer.
“How do you decide if a recipe is ‘good’?”
In my 35+ years of professional recipe testing, I’m often asked how can I judge if a recipe is “good.” The question is a challenge (the implication being: is your taste more valid than mine?) and it’s my favorite question to answer. It goes back to what the client wants. Most of the time the feedback that is wanted has to do with flavor – and texture, because texture can affect flavor. Is it too salty, too spicy, too soupy? Would it benefit from some crunch – a fried onion topping, some croutons, a burnt-sugar crust? Experience as a recipe tester – and as many people mistakenly call it, a recipe taster – and an understanding of my client and their intended audience – guide me.
I want to love everything I cook, if only because it’s more fun for me. My adult sons still remember a recipe I tested for the New York Times 25 years ago that involved wild pheasants shipped from Scotland. It was delicious but we did not enjoy picking out the birdshot from the moist and tender meat, akin to picking out fine bones from a tasty fish – not for everyone.
But just because I don’t love it doesn’t mean that you won’t. And I can still test it for you. Here’s how that works.
Having a Good (Sense of) Humor
Many years ago I was assigned a recipe to test for lima bean ice cream. You read that right. You can probably guess who came up with this interesting idea for a summer treat, lima bean growers in West Cape May, New Jersey. This dessert, called Lima Bee ice cream for the 1 cup of honey included in the custard, was not my all-time favorite flavor of ice cream, but it would not have done for me to suggest that it would be greatly improved with the substitution of bananas for lima beans. Still, I know what ice cream needs to be and how to make it that way. The recipe worked just fine, and if you want to know how popular it is you’ll have to ask the possibly-bewildered children of West Cape May.
More entertaining was the recipe I tested for Peanut Butter and Pickle Ice Cream, that called for bread-and-butter pickles appetizingly diced “about the size of pencil erasers,” which are then frozen until solid. Oh yum. The other ingredients are standard ice cream custard fare, with the addition, of course, of 1/2 cup natural unsalted peanut butter. As prevously mentioned, I know all about making ice cream so I made the ice cream in the usual way. How did it taste? Peanut butter and frozen pickles? What do you think? Let’s just say the ice cream recipe “worked fine.”
And when I gave it out to kids on my street, they absolutely adored it.
Speaking of Ice Cream, These are Both Unusual and Wonderful
Edward Bottone’s Pumpkin Ice Cream is made with fresh pumpkin puree, maple syrup, and a touch of dark rum. Garnish with toasted pecans. Just do it.
Annabel Hughes’ Wild Sourplum Ice Cream and Crisp Meringues can be made with cranberries or other sour red fruit if you don’t have access to sourplums.
Jeff Rogers’ Pistachio Coconut Vegan Ice Cream is a dairy-free treat made with pistachio milk and coconut milk.
Annabel Hughes’ recipe for Musika (Tamarind) Ice Cream uses native tamarind from her home in the Zambezi Valley in Africa. You may use storebought tamarind and still get great results.