How 80 People Tested our Cookbook Recipes for Free

Jan 142014
 
Melt_Turkey and Robusto

Every recipe in Melt was tested four times by our band of recipe testers, including this one for Turkey and Robusto Mac and Cheeselets.

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.

Melt

Our cookbook’s Acknowledgements page included a long paragraph thanking our 75+ recipe testers, whom I managed with the help of an Excel spreadsheet.

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.

Melt_pumpkin

One of our recipes: Pumpkin stuffed with Fontina, Italian Sausage, and Macaroni

 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.

Garrett McCord is the co-author of Melt and the voice behind the Vanilla Garlic food blog. Got a question or a comment for him? Leave one below.

(Photos by Matt Armendariz. Disclosure: Co-author Stephanie is a former student, and I coached her on cookbook proposals.)

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  32 Responses to “How 80 People Tested our Cookbook Recipes for Free”

  1. Oy. Herding cats with food allergies is right!

  2. Gotta love this creative approach. I guess I would wonder if the feedback was all like “This was yummy!!” (we’re talking about melted cheese, after all…!). Or was genuinely helpful and made you question a method, or alternatively, confirmed a flavor combination?

    It was an interesting read, especially as this is something I am smack-dab in the middle of. Thanks.

  3. Testing was a blast and your feedback forms directed the comments very usefully. I’d love to test again sometime, as I know there are more great cookbooks in your future!

  4. Very interesting and I love the meticulous approach (even if it doesn’t always result in constructive feedback). As a budding recipe writer who is currently helping test some recipes I can highly recommend getting involved in testing recipes for a cookbook – putting yourself in the shoes of a recipe reader has really opened my eyes to where my own instructions probably haven’t always been perfectly clear!

  5. Great and valuable information here. I use an informally prepared survey monkey intended to be filled out anonymously with questions regarding a recipe (for testing for my cooking classes). Luckily, cooking classes have been a great way for me to test recipes as well, but I only use them in classes after I’ve developed and tested at home.

    I wondered if you ran into a lot of testers who weren’t open to finding obscure ingredients? Or were most of them willing to try and find them?

    You made a great point in why testers would want to do this without compensation. I didn’t even think about the fact that the testers could benefit in other ways!

    • Shef, for obscure ingredients most were pretty willing and we told them they could contact us in case they needed substitutions. If they couldn’t find certain ingredients at all then we gave them another recipe to try. The cheeses used were more expensive than a regular block cheddar so most knew what sort of ingredients they were buying and where they would have to purchase them.

  6. I love this post, I am not near writing my own book yet because I just started my blog not long ago but it’s good advice for my future. Thank you so much, as it’s important to know that just because others may not be able to follow your recipe doesn’t mean that it is bad but that perhaps it just works for you.

  7. As a newbie to the world of recipe writing and testing for cookbooks, I am building a greater appreciation for those who do this work regularly. So much work goes in to ensuring that recipes work for everyone. My knowledge of cooking and ingredients is better than the average home cook, and it is easy to gloss over certain basics that everyone will benefit from. What a great article!

  8. So interesting! And so much to learn from this success story.

    Indeed, in my experience of using online recipes from bloggers, I often ask myself about what cheese to use if I do not have the one the recipe specifies. Such information is priceless, if the author provides it as part of the recipe specification.

  9. I hope you are planning to give each tester a free copy of the book when it comes out…you mentioned your counting on sales that the testers are already going to purchase the book as well donating their time and money to be listed as a contributor in the acknowledgements. whether paid or not, ALWAYS acknowledge in writing every person who contributes to a book in progress,no matter how small or significant.
    I have had many variables on the paying or not paying of testers since I began cookbook writing in 1985. I was a teacher before that and the recipes were extra tested in the classroom, as each pair of hands will get a slightly different result and most certainly have unique input. you also need to specify not to change the recipe when testing if that is what you want. I have always paid for ingredients if a tester asked as some people are not in the position to be able to afford expensive ingredients such as special cheeses, sausages, etc. (It can be embarassing to admit you do not have the financial resources to buy ingredients.) But of course, these bloggers on your site knew they would not be compensated and volunteered. It is easy if the recipes are simple, in my case breads, and it is just easy to find flours, yeast, water or milk, and salt for most part. The costs are nominal. Others offer and it is not an issue.
    Not circulating the recipes is a surprisingly important step as I had a tester submit the recipe to a baking contest prepub…and won but certainly did not offer to split the monetary prize with me. I had to write the judge since the recipe was being printed in a booklet from the contest. It affected the friendship to say the least.
    testing is invaluable when it is diversely regional, seasonal (a whole pumpkin) and across economic lines, as many people will not make a certain recipe due to the cost. There will always be failures. that is why you test…to see where the pitfalls are for an average or beginning cook.
    I will note that while this is logical and clever to use bloggers for free, some publishers will use this now to offer lower advances since technically advances are put towards testing as a production cost. they will be very excited and say one has to get free testers by using the internet resources. you could not do all the testing for the book without compensation yourself, correct? or did you pay out of pocket for the 75+ recipes yourself? some publishers expect you to pay out of pocket yourself once your advance is used up.

    • Ebeth, the book came out back in October. As stated in the article we were not able to give each reader a free copy since we didn’t have the money and the testers were mentioned in the book. Testers were fully informed of all aspects of this process and volunteered willingly (you can click on the links to see the call for testers we put out if you need more information). You can also pick up a copy of the book to see how we thanked them within.

  10. Thank you so much for your description of the recipe testing process. One of my hats is the cookbook taskforce chairman for a non-profit organization’s cookbook. One of the challenges is how to set up a process for testing all the recipes that will be submitted by our members. Would you share the questions that you asked the testers? Were their responses written out or checks from a lists of options? You had a starting point (your own recipe) which the testers used as a base. We will be testing recipes from home cooks. I will look for your cookbook and definitely try it. Thanks.

  11. Of the imitrex back pain custom of filling.

    I think food 52 does this, too, No? Excellent process and standing ovation to you!
    :)
    V

  12. I’m working with an agent to wrap up a proposal for a cookbook, so this idea comes at a perfect time for me. I’d been thinking about doing something similar, but hadn’t really wrapped my brain around it yet. Thanks much for so generously sharing your idea!!

  13. I’m really impressed by the dedication and organization they had to make sure the recipes worked for the home cook. I’m sure the results are fabulous and they feel good about putting it out in the world after so much testing!

  14. Thank you for posting this. It’s wonderfully clear and just what I need right now as I embark on another book.

    You might have used far more testers than I hope to gather. I can’t even imagine managing that many people.

    Congrats to you and Steph.

  15. did you remove my feedback? so you are invested in only having a certain type of feedback not an overall input? if someone doesnt love what you did, then you wont post it? how can people learn and choose? I now think perhaps you took advantage of the bloggers…I am disappointed and will certainly not buy your book.

    • Ebeth, your feedback is still posted on Dianne’s blog as far as I can see. If you mean feedback from the testers we used all of it – that’s partly what this article is about. The testers were very informed every step of the way. If you feel otherwise, then perhaps you need to re-read the post and the call for testers.

  16. I found my self nodding all the way through your advice. I do most all that recommend but I don’t provide a feed back and a waiver form . I think is a great Idea. :-)

    • It’s a nice piece of protection to have and it really guides the feedback away from “This was yummy!” territory into being more clear and helpful. =)

  17. Thanks for the fascinating story! I’m an enthusiastic home cook and would love to participate as a tester for a cookbook at some point. Reading this not only taught me about the process, but also what sort of feedback is useful (and not). I recognize the name of your cookbook – I remember reading it very recently in either a magazine or online article about good new cookbooks. This gives me additional motivation to order it. :)

  18. Great post and tips Garrett. Thank you for sharing from your wisdom and experience for us all to benefit from. I know I will be referring to this post in the future. I did not have to manage the recipe testing for the cookbook I co-authored (that just released). I eagerly awaited the feedback forms from the testers as like any recipe developer, chef or food writer you want to insure that everyone can make your recipe. And the challenge is there are so many variables in kitchens, skill levels, tools, etc. What you did for Melt was fantastic and it’s a terrific book you and Stephanie should be proud of!

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