A guest post by Garrett McCord, co-author of Melt
One of the greatest fears of cookbook writers is that their readers — the people who have dedicated time, money, and ingredients –- will be unable to successfully execute the recipes. When Stephanie Stiavetti and I started working on Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese, we resolved that recipes would be properly tested and that every single one would work flawlessly.
So how to go about this? Years ago I tested recipes for Jaden Hair’s first cookbook. Stephanie and I discussed the process and decided that the best way to test the book was with our blog readers. We put out a call on our blogs (here’s mine and here’s Steph’s) saying that we needed volunteers to help us with recipes. We couldn’t pay anyone or reimburse ingredients, but said that in return their names would be listed in the finished book, and that their work would count as recipe testing experience, for those looking to beef up their culinary resumes.We were soon overwhelmed with emails. They came from all over the world and from numerous backgrounds: culinary students, stay-at-home moms, lawyers, professional chefs, accountants, and one or two people who just wanted to learn how to cook better. We were thrilled at the diversity of viewpoints and skill levels.
From there it was a lot of emails and paperwork. Translation: a lot of work, more like a second job. There were days I spent four or five hours on email or Excel spreadsheets, but it was worth it. Steph and I had confidence the recipes worked, and we were thrilled to get to know this army of cheese fiends who were so excited about the book. (And they became a mini PR machine once the book was out, an unexpected bonus).
If you plan to write a cookbook and want to work with recipe testers, here are eight pointers:
1. Recipes should work flawlessly in your kitchen: Notice that I said “your kitchen.” Just because a recipe works for you, doesn’t mean it will work for other people. Before you ask someone to test, make sure you’ve done everything you can to create a recipe that works.
2. Ask the testers to sign a confidentiality waiver. We didn’t want a blogger to test a recipe and decide to share it online. Was it likely to happen? No. Could it? Absolutely.
In addition, the waiver spelled out that volunteers would not be compensated financially or reimbursed for ingredients. We were on a budget and couldn’t afford to hire recipe testers. If a tester suddenly become litigious and wanted to go to small claims court, we would be protected. We kept the forms in a binder.
3. Provide testers with feedback forms. We sent out clear feedback forms that didn’t so much ask about the flavor of the recipe (taste is subjective, after all) but how it worked. Questions included:
- Were the instructions clear?
- Were the cheeses for the book easy to find?
- Was any information not provided in the steps or headnotes that would have made the recipe easier to make?
Essentially, we wondered whether testers were able to make the recipe the way we told them to.
4. Respond to feedback. Of course, sometimes testers had problems. Sometimes testers misunderstood a step or made a substitution and didn’t tell us. If more than one tester had a problem and the problems were all similar, then likely something was wrong with the recipe itself. Serious retesting on our side was needed to figure out what went wrong. Once we had an answer and re-wrote the recipe, it would go out again to four more testers (sometimes the same ones, other times different ones depending on each situation).
We asked lots of questions when a recipe didn’t work out. Don’t be bashful about doing so as you’ll need specific answers. It could be anything from a simple misunderstanding or you might have left out an ingredient or step. Also, the tester could have made a reasonable cooking choice that you simply didn’t foresee or consider, but that the recipe allowed.
Some of the feedback led to changes in the book. The recipes asked for specific cheeses, and some testers couldn’t find them. It led us to add alternative cheeses, as well as wine pairings for each cheese and other foods that pair well with them. These additions later became widely praised in reviews.
5. Keep meticulous records. We had 75+ recipes and 80+ testers. We wanted each recipe to be successfully tested at least four times by at least four individuals with a range of access to ingredients, skill sets, and culinary knowledge. It’s like herding cats, all of whom have food allergies.
Our spreadsheet contained contact lists, notes on who got which recipe, and who still needs to get their feedback forms back to us.
These lists made my life so much easier. It’s much easier spending a little time each day updating the records then spending hours pulling together the information all at once. It’s a lot of detail to keep up on, and more than once I would find errors in my system. This would require me to be flexible and adjust how I was tracking things.
Even though I had a co-author, I did most of the record keeping. Having a singular point of contact was much easier for both me and the testers. Stephanie and I quickly learned that when two of us were in the system it was easy to become uninformed or lose information.
6. Get back to testers promptly. The testers will have questions, concerns, and legitimate complaints (and compliments!). Plus, you will get an occasional email from someone who’s right in the middle of your recipe and needs help ASAP.
Steph and I set up an email account solely for dealing with testers. When you get an about 15-100 emails a day, it’s nice to not have it all clogging up your personal email account. It was not uncommon to spend four or five hours some nights replying to emails.
7. Failure happens. You will have a recipe or two that none of your testers can make well. Another recipe will work for you and no one else. Sometimes you can figure out why and fix it, other times you can’t. It’s a part of the process. Apologize to the tester and move on to the next recipe. Some recipes were discarded, other times they were tweaked later for online or web content.
8. Give thanks. Every tester is your cheerleader and will likely purchase your book or purchase it for others. If they’re bloggers, they’ll likely post about it upon publication. We listed every tester in the book, and the most active ones got a free book.
The best thing about testers? I heard so many of their stories. A lot of our recipes found their ways to funerals, birthdays, anniversaries and graduations. When we went on tour it was a privilege to meet so many of these people in person and thank them for their help in making our book a reality.
(Photos by Matt Armendariz. Disclosure: Co-author Stephanie is a former student, and I coached her on cookbook proposals.)