Barefoot Contessa's Dogged Recipe Testing

May 032011
 

Think your readers will make your recipes flawlessly simply because you’ve made them more than once?

Mega-star and cookbook author Ina Garten of Barefoot Contessa fame doesn’t, even though she has worked in the food business for more than 30 years. She still relies on an assistant and her friends when developing new recipes.

In How Easy is That?, Garten says once she’s tested a recipe repeatedly, she hands it over to longtime assistant Barbara Libath. Then she watches Libath make it.

“Every time I do that, I learn something about how someone at home, with only the printed recipe in front of them, might make the dish,” Garten writes. She’s careful not to make assumptions that her target reader cooks the way she does, even though, like them, she is not a professionally-trained chef.

In her cookbook, Garten explains how she watched Libath make a tomato dish where she tossed the tomatoes, as she sliced them, into a pan to saute for 5 minutes. As a result,”The first tomatoes were overcooked and the last ones weren’t done enough.” So Garten changed the instructions to cut the tomatoes, put them in a bowl, and add them all at once so they would cook evenly. It’s a small change, but enough to make her feel more confident about the recipe’s success.

Garten also road tests every single recipe for her next cookbook on her friends, “so I know everyone loves the dish before it even gets into this book.” And she doesn’t mind doing so right on her show. In this episode, a friend tests her soup recipes on his guests.

I wanted to talk to Garten more about her testing techniques, but her publisher said she’s too busy.

By the way, Garten’s assistant Barbara Libath has appeared on a few episodes of the Barefoot Contessa. Here’s a photo of her, prepping on the set. She’s the one in the blue shirt.

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  62 Responses to “Barefoot Contessa's Dogged Recipe Testing”

  1. Great to see that Ina is focused on recipe testing. I tend to think the cookbook authors that I’ve had great success with personally must make recipe testing a priority. On the other hand, there are some big cookbook authors I refuse to even waste my time on, as my experience in the past has often resulted in disaster. The recipes have clearly been under/not tested thoroughly.

    Big cheers to all those authors, bloggers and cooks that make recipe testing a priority. We love you!

    • I agree. I used to think I was a terrible cook because I followed recipes that didn’t work. Now I can tell by looking at them. I’m not sure how much bloggers test recipes, though.

      • So true Dianne about recipes not working and the poor person who tried it thinking that it’s their fault…not to mention the time and money that go into it. As a blogger, everyone one of my recipes is tested over and over. Many are personal favorites that I make often. Even then, I go back and review them from time to time to make sure I can’t improve them for readers. And I really appreciate comments and emails either letting me know a recipe worked, or about something I need to clarify.

        • How terrific, Sally, that you go back to recipes again to see if you can improve upon them. Maybe you’re a perfectionist. Sometimes I think that’s a great trait for a recipe developer.

  2. It’s no wonder why her recipes always work, that and all the luscious butter and cream.

    • Well yes, many cookbooks focus on that, but maybe you have her confused with Paula Deen?

  3. It is absolutely refreshing that she understands that she is writing her cookbooks for home cooks and that the recipes really need to be tested by others than just herself. This makes me actually want to buy one of her cookbooks! If I fail a first recipe in a cookbook I automatically assume that the cookbook has not been correctly tested for a home kitchen and I simply stop using that cookbook (no matter how wrong I may be). But I have had some of my own recipes made by several readers and received emails or comments from half that say they got absolutely perfect results while others complained that the recipe did not work. I then understood that not only there may just be changes that can affect a recipe that I have no control over (different flours or ovens or the ways people make things) or that maybe I need to foresee those problems by testing different methods/ingredients or having a friend try them out. Well, kudos to Ms. Garten for her insight into this dilemma! And boy, I wish I had an assistant!

    • Yes, nice to be able to afford someone like that, isn’t it. Maybe you could have a friend who represents your target reader try a problematic recipe?

      It’s a complicated thing, to try to assess why recipes failed with some readers. If they substituted ingredients, then that’s easy.

      Interesting that you stop using a cookbook if you find the first recipe didn’t work.

  4. It is indeed good to know that there are cookbook authors out there who are conscientious and serious about recipe testing. I shouldn’t mention any names but (oops, here goes!) I’ve had some bad baking experiences with a few of Martha Stewart’s published recipes. I can’t believe that thorough testing has always gone on with all of her books, much to my frustration. Her books are visually beautiful but I simply cannot approach some of the recipes, as a home cook, with a complete sense of trust.

    • That’s too bad, considering the success of her books. I’m sure she must have thorough testing. I wonder what goes wrong.

  5. I am always satisfied with the result of preparing one of Ina’s recipes. Her recipes are clear on ingredients, cooking preparation and always flavorful.
    Her homework in testing her recipes definitely pays off with her cookbook success as well as her “Barefoot Contessa” cooking program. She has a way of putting people at ease in the kitchen and offers stress-free entertaining tips.

    The Souper

    • I noticed that too, that she has a way of putting people at ease. It’s beautifully written in that way. I like that she admits, in the introduction to this book, that she isn’t interested in time-consuming recipes when she entertains, and she’s not above serving cheese instead of dessert.

      • Ina’s books are all well written, the recipes are easy to make and not fussy, beautifully photographed, and always trust-able. I’m a big fan of hers. Would love to meet her one day. I have most of her cookbooks and appreciate her voice and style. After blogging now for a year and a half, I am still searching for my focus, my differentiator, amongst the sea of food and cooking blogs. Ina’s audience could be my target audience as well, but with a bit more of a healthy approach and my love of fun ingredients. We’ll have to talk about that DIanne!

        • Yes we will. If you plan to write a book, it would be tough going to compare your book to Ina Garten’s, since her name is so much more recognizeable.

  6. I worked for Ina back in the late 1980s. I worked at Barefoot Contessa in Westhampton Beach during the summers between college. It doesn’t surprise me that Ina thinks about her readers because when she ran Barefoot back then, she ALWAYS thought about her customers. One of the first lessons she taught was that the customer was always right! She liked her customers back then and clearly she likes her readers now.
    Melissa Trainer

    • What an amazing opportunity, Melissa. I like her philosophy of treating readers as customers. Other cookbook authors could use an approach like that.

  7. Good to know what goes on behind the scenes with Ina’s cookbooks, and it shows. I feel like without saying, you can usually tell which books have a dogged approach to recipe testing because those are the ones where the recipes turn out flawlessly everytime, where the directions are clear, and little is left up to the imagination. This is always what scares me a bit about writing a blog. I’d love to bring that same attention to recipe testing, but in all honesty, I just don’t. My biggest fear is that things will not turn out well in others’ kitchens. I’d be curious to know how other bloggers do it and whether they have others test their recipes before they post. In some ways, it’s become more living for me. I’ll look for responses in the comments to see if things turned out or any tweaks were made, and will update accordingly. In a way, the readers become like my testers.

    • You’re bringing up a good point. Bloggers don’t test to anywhere near this level, and I think some don’t test at all. They figure if they made it once, it works. And yes, readers end up become testers. The good news is that bloggers can correct immediately, whereas the writer of a publish book can’t. As a reader of blogs, though, I am pretty choosy about whose recipes I print and make. I don’t want to be a tester for someone — I want a dish that works!

  8. I enjoy this classy lady’s show and recipes

  9. She strikes me as a very thorough lady. In this situation, not being professionally trained could be an advantage, as she doesn’t make assumptions about conditions in her reader’s home kitchen. I am tired of cookbooks that assume you have a staff of 20 to make a dish, with five major intricate components. I don’t mind being challenged but sometimes it’s too much of a good thing. Or cookbooks that get the measurements or cooking times wrong. I’ve discovered that in a cookbook by some major chefs, who shall remain nameless. Obviously no one has tested the recipes or maybe the recipe wasn’t even created by the chef whose name is on the cookbook.

    I used to work as a technical writer and testing software documentation was a given. I like that Ina oversees someone else making the recipe. That’s taking it to the “enduser” level, and it’s vital to the success of a cookbook.

    Thanks for posting, Diane! Very interesting!

    • Thanks. It’s true that with famous chefs and celebrities, the ghostwriter of the book probably makes all the recipes, or at leasts tests the recipes developed by the main author. It would be interesting to apply software documentation to developing recipes. I wrote about that a little in the recipe chapter of Will Write for Food.

      • Really? I’ll look for it in my copy, I’m finishing it now. That’s the great thing about Michael Ruhlman, he’s helped write the cookbooks of so many famous chefs but is a great chef himself. I’ve made a couple of recipes from “Bouchon,” and while the expectations are high, the dishes turned out very well!

  10. As a cooking instructor for several years, I have used Garten’s recipes (or an adaption) many times and found them spot-on. It’s amazing how many recipes out there aren’t thoroughly tested and/or not well written. As a professional, glaring “errors” in directions or how the ingredients are written (1 cup chopped parsley v. 1 cup parsley, chopped), jump out at me. But to a non-professional, I would guess that’s one reason that recipes don’t turn out right. I rewrite at least 85% of the recipes I use to make them clearer and more exact. Kudos to Ina for recognizing who her audience is and putting the recipes to the test.

    • Here’s confirmation that her recipes work, Carol. I haven’t made anything out of the book yet, but have read lots of reviews where readers have put her recipes to the test and seem satisfied.

      I like that you rewrite recipes for your students to make them more exact. You need them to have faith in the process!

  11. Certainty about recipes is one of the reasons I love epicurious.com as a recipe source. As a cookbook author, I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but you never really know how tested the recipes are in a book (not mine, of course – I make them several times myself, then my recipe testers who have at ‘em!). Having created recipes for Bon Appetit, I know that nothing makes it into the magazine, and therefore onto the site, without it being made independently in their test kitchen and tasted by their staff. It’s nice insurance that it worked outside of the recipe developer’s kitchen.

    • Yes, so true. But you have to admit, it’s a lot of work to make a recipe several times, then have your testers make them. It’s one thing to do so for a freelance article and another to do so for an entire cookbook. I’m sure there are many authors who are not willing to invest that much time — and it shows.

      I wrote recipes for Sunset that went through testing. It was kind of a nail-biting experience at first, but since 95 percent passed without comment, I finally got relaxed about it.

      • Yeah – I TOTALLY admit that it’s a lot of work to test several times, then wrangle others to do the same – but without doing all that, there’d be no integrity to my books/recipes, and that lack of integrity in one’s life wreaks waaay more havoc than recipe testing!

        And I can relate to the nail-biting – but it’s also a nice litmus test. When 95% of your recipes pass without comment, you know that your taste buds are pretty well calibrated!

  12. Great read, her recipes are renowned for working well and I truly believe that is why her cookbooks succeed. She isn’t doing anything innovative, but she has such a good level of trust with her readership. One of my favorites tv personalities.

    In contrast one of my other favorite tv personalities, is actually the opposite. I love Jamie Oliver and have been cooking his recipes since, well, since I couldn’t cook. Some of them don’t work if you follow them exactly (maybe this has changed). I am not sure if this is because of conversion issues or poor testing, but I have learned to find inspiration rather then methodically following his recipes and if done like that they are lovely.

    …Though maybe not something to aim for?

    • That is a great point, Katerina, about how much trust Garten has with her devoted readership and viewers. She has worked hard to attain it.

      Okay, let me try to find the positive in this. Maybe, because you can cook now, you look to recipes more for inspiration? Or maybe, whoever did the American translation didn’t do a good enough job? But you’re right, those are still not good reasons for why a recipe doesn’t work.

      • You are right, I now find it quite challenging to follow a recipe exactly unless I am trying something very new. Usually I am looking for “inspiration”.

  13. What an interesting insight. My day job is a VP for Product Management at a company that develops educational software. One of our favorite things to do is to just get in a room and watch kids and teachers ‘find their way’ around our program using nothing but the user manual. If they can’t, we haven’t done a very good job either on the interface or on the documentation!
    Recipe testing is much the same. Sure, I can re-make my recipes again and again, but it’s really important to see if others can achieve the same results using just my written instructions.
    Great topic. Thanks!

    • An erection only when buy cialis au he.

      You’re welcome, Rivki. It’s interesting to me that in your day job, watching people use your product is a given part of the process. We need more of that in recipe development!

  14. Road testing is essential. Flo Fabricant has called it “abuse testing,” because what other cooks do can stretch and even ignore a recipe’s directions.

    • What if they do, as you say, stretch the recipe or ignore directions? I’d like to know how you would account for that in a recipe.

  15. Dianne, this subject matter is of great interest to me and I’m glad you posted about it. I have dozens of cookbooks, and I use most of them. As someone said before, it’s hard for me to come back to a book if the first time I try a recipe from it, the recipe fails. So I take my work very seriously as a cooking instructor and recipe/food blogger (though I’m new at that one). I really like the idea of watching someone make my dish. I will most definitely be doing that from now on whenever I can! How do you think most people test recipes on friends? I worry that people will be afraid to be honest in their critiques.

    • I usually don’t suggest that friends or relatives test your recipe, because I think you’re right, they won’t tell you the truth. You need to find someone you know only slightly, who would be willing to critique it.

  16. How great to have an assistant or friendly feedback during recipe testing. I (very) occasionally have had complaints that a recipe in one of my books doesn’t “work.” Like a Galician almond torte, baked in a 10-inch springform pan. What happens is that nobody has a 10-in pan, so they use a smaller one and the torte doesn’t bake in the specified time. Had I realized, I would have developed the recipe for a smaller pan.

    • Hmm. That is a great example, Janet. At the time you made the recipe, you didn’t realize it was an uncommon pan size for your target reader. It reminds me of the never-ending debate about using scales. It’s hard to convince home cooks to buy and use one.

  17. Glad to know that Ina Garten tests her recipes. I cringe whenever I come across an untested recipe from some big celebrity or some expert’s book. I’d expect a perfect book after all they’re the “experts” but sadly, most of the time these books aren’t even close to perfect. And this reminds me why food bloggers are invaluable — food bloggers are the recipe testers! Pointing out the flaws, highlighting what works and what doesn’t.

    • Yes, it’s always a disappointment. But they are rarely the ones who do the testing. The celebrities usually hand off their books to a ghostwriter who does it all.

      Re food bloggers using their readers as testers — is that what you mean? I wouldn’t want that job, as a reader. On the other hand, at least with a blog, someone who has made your recipe can comment about what didn’t work and you can fix it. With a published book, that’s not possible.

      • “Re food bloggers using their readers as testers — is that what you mean?” Oh no, not at all. What I meant was we, bloggers, have become recipe testers for published cookbook authors through our blogs. By using recipes from cookbooks and documenting the experience, we are actually testing recipes in behalf of our readers.

  18. My respect for Ina Garten just increased exponentially.

    I was amazed when I started getting feedback from testers for my first cookbook–recipes that I thought were crystal clear, weren’t. More importantly, I realized very quickly that home cooks will not always use the same pans, utensils, measuring methods, and so on that an author just assumes are fixed in a recipe. After I read enough “I didn’t have a square pan, so I used a loaf pan” or “I had no walnuts, so I used almonds” or “I can’t get barley flour where I am, so I used all-purpose,” I began to understand that a “good” recipe needs to be fairly flexible and still work even when the cook makes slight changes. It was a real eye opener, and I now try to build in at least one or two options for ingredients that might be hard to find, or for pots and pans that home cooks may not all possess (such as a tart pan with a removable bottom). We who work with food every day, who love food and love to cook and create recipes, sometimes forget that the average homemaker doesn’t spend hours perusing cooking supply shelves or seeking out the perfect zester. ;)

    • Yes, that is an excellent point, Ricki, and one made by Dana Jacobi below. We love our specialty equipment that makes our jobs easier, and the more exotic ingredients like barley flour, but if your target reader doesn’t have a kitchen or pantry like yours, you have to adjust.

      I have also tested recipes for people using expensive ingredients, and either it bugged me to buy them to use such a small amount, or I asked them to make a substitution of something more ordinary.

  19. As a blogger, I find it challenging to write a recipe that’s simple when I can foresee the inevitable questions. I find myself wanting to explain why each ingredient or process is important and before long I’ve got a recipe that sounds complicated and involved even though it isn’t.

    • That is a big challenge! It’s always a struggle to try to keep a recipe short while at the same time explaining everything a reader needs to know. I suppose part of it is understanding the level of your readers’ cooking skill.

  20. It’s great to see such thought put into recipe testing. I am quite sure that a lot of cookbooks aren’t tested anywhere near adequately – and I’ve got some of them! I once contacted an appliance distributor to query how well the recipes were tested in their (totally over-priced) cookbook. She cheerfully informed me that they were all tested by the sales consultants who had sent them in to her!

    • Hah. I am not sure it’s very different for many bloggers. I wonder how many make their recipes more than once.

      • I’m probably among the guilty there (at least in some instances), but my blog is free to access and my readers can contact me to air any grievances – unlike a cookbook. Once you’ve paid for it, you are unlikely to get a refund because of failed recipes.

        • That’s a good point. I’ve never heard of a store taking back a book because the recipes don’t work.

  21. I, too, used to think I was a bad cook when I followed recipes to the letter and they didn’t turn out. I wrote my very first blog post about this topic. I have several of Ina’s cookbooks and rely on them because I know the recipes will turn out.

    As a blogger, I mostly adapt others’ recipes and write about my experience cooking them. I might add some extra details or explain other necessary considerations that came up for me. What gets my goat is when people write in telling me all the substitutions and changes they made in a recipe and then complain that it didn’t turn out. What did they expect?!

    • I guess they figure you’d be interested in how they changed the recipe, but then, they shouldn’t complain that it didn’t work. I’m with you on that one. On the other hand, experienced cooks rarely follow recipes exactly, so if that’s who’s reading your blog, you should be flattered!

  22. I am just about to send some sample recipes for my next book out to home testers to see how they feel about them. (They have been tested multiple times by me and my helpers already.) I always ask home testers to grade hard and tell me exactly what they think. I’d rather hear about problems directly from them, than read about them on Amazon.com!

    I’m not sure that most celebrity chefs go to as much trouble as Ina. Good for her!

    • Wow, that is thorough, Nancy. I get the impression that these home testers are not girlfriends and aunties. They’re not likely to be honest — you already know that. Good to head any problems off at the pass, rather than entombed forever on Amazon, that’s for sure.

  23. Terrific post. I like how she not only has someone else test the recipes, but actually watches them as they test them. Great idea for anyone writing a “how to” post.

    Cynthia
    http://coffeeonthepatio.com
    http://www.cynthiasblog.com

    • Thanks Cynthia. I don’t think every recipe writer has this luxury, but it’s a good example of someone who goes to a lot of effort to get it right.

  24. Barbara & Ina have a very good working professional relationship & friendship.
    Barbara is honest to a fault, which is prob. one reason Ina hired her. :)

    (Barbara’s cousin)

  25. This helps explain why I love Ina’s cookbooks so much. And I rarely follow a recipe as written unless baking, so even after adapting I usually find success in Ina’s recipes.

    I think this is one of the areas in which food bloggers struggle, since we don’t have hired “testers.” I’m serving as my own tester for recipes that I’ve made for twenty years that don’t actually have recipes. Trying to figure out exact amounts as opposed to “what looks right” can really change the results.

    • Yeah, most food bloggers are not in a position to hire testers. I also am not sure they work far enough in advance to have people test recipes anyway.

  26. [...] make the same dish over and over and over… and over. Ina Garten, the barefoot contessa is a devoted recipe tester, as are almost all chefs. It’s never perfect the first time, and if it is, you got [...]

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