A guest post by Christine Gallary
I live and breathe recipe development all day long, creating them in my home kitchen for clients or working on other people’s recipes. I’m not kidding when I say that I’ve edited thousands of recipes.
I owe this recipe development career of mine, which I absolutely love and adore, to my stint at Cook’s Illustrated (CI) over 10 years ago. It was the best bootcamp experience ever on learning how to develop good, solid, replicable recipes. I started out as a naive intern who had just graduated from culinary school, but soon, recipe development became my full-time profession.
Here are the 5 things I learned from Cook’s Illustrated about recipe development and testing:
1. Your ability to describe food is essential.
When I first started testing, it was hard for me to explain how the recipe tasted. The experienced test cooks at Cook’s Illustrated taught me to verbalize it. Listening to them talk about texture, seasoning, acidity, salt levels, and sweetness, among other things, helped me to accurately analyze and describe food, and to train my palate. It also helped dissect what needed to be reworked in the next test to make the recipe better.
If you don’t have the opportunity to work in a restaurant or test kitchen, ask pointed questions when others taste your food. Ask things like, “Is it too salty?” or “Can you actually taste the garlic?” That way, you get a more useful critique from family and friends than, “It tastes great!” Also, go out and taste as much food as you can to really get your palate trained and educated.
2. Recipe development is more scientific than creative.
The CI test cooks measured, weighed, and timed every single recipe with scary precision. I learned the importance of having a good scale, a ruler, measuring cups and spoons, and a timer that could count both up and down so that I could accurately track how long each step took.
Recipe development is applying the scientific method to cooking. A good recipe developer has to enjoy this part of the job. It’s not a good fit if you like to cook on the fly. Your job is to make a recipe that someone else can replicate, and that requires lots of measuring.
3. Research, research, research.
I’m not sure how the process goes now at CI, but when I was there, every new recipe started out with lots of research in their extensive cookbook library. Today, it might be tempting to just do a Google search, but there are too many bad recipes, copycat recipes, and untested recipes out there to weed through. Cookbooks and magazines usually have better tested and edited recipes. So before you start testing your own version, make sure you’re know what already exists. That way, you can put your own spin or improvements on a dish and not waste time with bad recipes.
A great research tool is Eat Your Books, which catalogs the recipes found in cookbooks, magazines, and some online publications. If you’re a member, you can catalog the books and magazines you own to create your own online bookshelf. When doing recipe research, all you have to do is type in a recipe name or ingredient(s), and a list will pop up showing you which recipes match and which publication they’re in, sometimes even with the specific page number. You don’t have to guess which books might have relevant recipes and waste time looking through their indexes.
4. Do side-by-side comparisons when possible.
After we completed the research portion at CI, we selected five recipes for a side-by-side tasting. We’d make five different lemon meringue pies and then do a thorough dissection and tasting of each one. Having them side by side gave us a direct comparison of how they were different. We knew what we liked or didn’t like about each one. This helped inform ingredients and techniques that went into the first test of our own version.
This elaborate kind of testing is not something most recipe developers can do. It’s time and labor intensive, not to mention expensive. However, you can still apply this principle if you’re at a crossroads on what to do next for a recipe. For example, if you’re developing a salad, make two versions of the dressing (do a half batch of each), and toss half of the greens with each dressing. Taste them side by side and you’ll quickly see which one is better.
5. Don’t take it personally.
It can be upsetting when you get a negative critique of your recipe. That’s especially true when it’s from a client or from someone who has more experience than you do. Take a deep breath and really listen to what they have to say.
I’ve seen too many interns and new recipe developers get upset or defensive when clients ask to fix or change things. Unfortunately, this just doesn’t fly, especially when you’re working for a client who will be paying you. Ultimately, you and the client have to work together to make the best recipe possible that makes you both happy.
That being said, don’t be afraid to speak up and defend something. But only do it if you truly have a reason why you think your way is the best way. Just make sure it’s not because you’re emotional about it, such as, “That’s the way my grandmother always made it!” Develop a thick skin and be flexible. I promise more recipe development opportunities will come your way if you have a good reputation of being easy to work with.
At Cook’s Illustrated, there were long, hard days. I had to taste so much food that I wanted to brush my teeth before heading home. But fortunately, I got the best possible recipe development and testing education I could ever hope for.
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Christine Gallary is a the food editor at large at Kitchn, where she edits and develops recipes. She is also an instructor at San Francisco Cooking School and develops recipes for retail products with companies like Del Monte Foods. She lives in San Francisco and loves documenting her food adventures on Instagram.