Recipe testing, whats the scoop?

Imagine the scene, you buy a new glossy cookbook, you look at the pictures, and the recipes look fun.  Not only that, you look at the lifestyle shots too and think you want to be a part of that.  You see varients of recipes you know well, but the way they are presented looks special and you start to dream about the dinner parties you want to have.


Image courtesy of HERE

Firstly, let me assure you this is a natural reaction.  I am guilty of it too.  However, I want to tell you a bit about what actually goes on behind the scenes to get all of this to the point you want to look at and lick the page.

Food is a funny concept.  Everyone believes they are an expert in this field.  The reality is only a gifted few who have studied food actually understand it.  That’s why professional food writers and recipe testers and Home Economists are needed by authors and publishers to finish the book production, not to mention the food stylists and props stylists needed by the photographer to get the food that extra bit yummy.

My last blog about the difference in food writers and chefs went hugely viral, so I thought I would follow it up with an explanation about recipe testing.  For simplicity sake I will keep this to the UK.  Translating ingredients and cooking times from one country to another is a whole different story as ingredients do not behave the same outside the UK and ovens heat in different ways, that’s some of the reasons why results are different.

To get to this point in my career I have a Masters in Home Economics, won the Gourmand Wold Cookbook Award, published many books myself and an iPhone App, worked for the Good Housekeeping institute, Le Cordon Bleu and many many others.  It’s not something you can learn overnight.

So the recipe creator (usually the chef) gives the publisher a recipe.  It sounds great, but there are a few things than need to be done to start with.  Firstly look at the proportions of liquid to dry product and look at the type of recipe and the amount of heat the recipe will be subjected to.  A good food writer will be able to instantly know if this will work or not to make a finished product.  This only comes with years of experience.  Liquid is what flavours a food and heat is what sets, thickens and finishes it.  Think of a tomato sauce that has not been reduced or a cake made of more eggs than needed, the results are sloppy!

Before testing any recipe one needs to sit back and look at the written recipe, it’s always best to print it out.  This is the bit I like, pencil in hand and reading through the method.  Firstly the ingredients list needs to be in the order of cooking, and any missing ingredients added.  If for example the method says ‘chop the onion’, I would change the ingredients list to read ‘1 onion, chopped’.  That way the concept of ‘mise-en-plce’ is available to the cook.  That means getting your head ready before cooking.  Chef’s recipes are the worst of all to edit.  Ingredients nearly always appear in the method that are not in the ingredients list; the most famous being ‘add the stock’.  To which I say “what stock?”, never mind how much!

At this point its time to cook.  Now, this is the most difficult bit.  I’m a fantastic cook (if I say so myself), but I have to follow the recipe to the letter.  I tick off every ingredient used, measure the quantity to pin point accuracy and then assemble the product.  Mistakes always appear at this point.  However other factors need to be included like will the product turn out the same in a gas oven to an electric one to a fan oven.  AGA recipes are always the easiest to do as an AGA cooks buy function and not temperature and results always turn out superb.

Looking at heat, did you know that 50% of the energy of a gas flame turns to water and does not actually reach the pan with heat energy, AGA is always constant and slightly faster, Induction is instant and solid plates, halogen hobs and ceramic tops all work differently.  Flour thickens at differing rates, raising agents rise differently, and different materials of the cookware cook at different rates an example being stainless steal v silicone v cast iron.

Ingredients in different seasons have different properties, eggs are always medium in a recipe unless states, all spoons are level unless stated and then there is the issue of substituted ingredients – for example using a can of caramel rather than boiling a tin of condensed milk.

And this blog does not even cover the number of portions, the degree of difficulty or the difference in measurement systems.  Not to mention styling guidelines for the food stylist.

So who do I write these for?  I’ve written 9 cookbooks in my time and had them translated into 3 languages, then there is my blog, food magazines, other cookbook authors, recipes for websites and others for food and domestic appliance brands.

All of these factors make a recipe work for all kinds of cooks with all types of cookers.  Its a job of great attention to detail.  Oh, but I do love it, now, after my last testing day what will I do with 24 rich fruit cakes, any takers?

7 thoughts on “Recipe testing, whats the scoop?

  1. Yes please. I hardly ever make fruit cakes, but am always keen to try a good one. You make some very good points. I’m trying to get better at writing up recipes and must stop assuming that anyone following them is a competent cook so only needs guidelines.

  2. Boy can I relate. Test cooking now (again!) for my cookbook which a publisher just made an offer on. My two biggest problems:
    2) I don’t usually measure, so doing so which is not an organic thing for me.
    2) My book is about cooking in leaves. Unfortunately leaves are not uniform in size so amounts of filling needed, in the end, will vary.

  3. Very interesting article especially myself being a recipe tester. You are so very right that there is so much to be done prior to sending out recipes to be printed. Also another factor (and even more so in baking) is the quality of ingredients, its weight, the humidity where you live and the altitude. All that can fully influence a recipe. I love buying cookbooks, but so very often the end result is far from my expectations, though throughout the years, I now spend countless hours at the bookstore reviewing the recipes to make sure they do make sense, much as you were describing dry vs. wet ingredients. Another item that drives me crazy is when a recipe does not have accurate measurement such as juice from a small lemon (tbsp or CL please?)

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