The Truth Behind Cookbook Recipes
Photo credit: Yahoo Food/Instagram
Just because a recipe appears in print doesn’t mean it works.
That’s why recipes are tested, but how—and by whom, and how many times—differs from publishing house to publishing house, author to author. Unlike magazine brands, most of which set practices for developing, testing, and cross-testing recipes no matter who submits them, approaches to editing cookbook recipes vary. A lot.
Crowd-sourcing recipe testers has become one trendy approach. Below is a Facebook post from Kristin Donnelly, who is working on a book called “The Modern Potluck” for Clarkson Potter.
“Hey, friends! In the next few months, I’m going to be looking for volunteer recipe testers for my cookbook. If [you] don’t mind following recipes exactly as written, snapping photos of the results and sharing some feedback with me, message me! As a thank you, I’ll include your name in the book and send you a free copy, of course. You just have to wait until 2016.”
Because of her experience as an editor at Food & Wine magazine, Donnelly and many of her friends are seasoned cooks. That works in her favor, here. “Part of it is budget,” she told us. “I am going to be putting a lot of money into the photography.” Per her contract with Clarkson Potter, she can decide where to allocate her advance, so much of it will go into making the book beautiful. The recipe testing, on the other hand, will be done on a volunteer basis; the testers will pay for the ingredients involved in their assigned recipes and, in return, will receive acknowledgements in the pages of the finished product as well as a copy of the book, as promised on Facebook.
“I was overwhelmed with the response,” said Donnelly of the large number of people who jumped at the chance. “My friend said, ‘Kristin, you’re basically telling them they’re going to get a free book to do what they’re doing already: making dinner.’ But it’s not dinner. It’s work.”
Important work, too. With the foodie-ization of our great nation has come wine made by rappers and cookbooks made by pop stars. In other words, everyone wants in. All the more reason to test recipes again and again and again until they’re foolproof. But that doesn’t always happen.
“After the editor who developed the recipe cooked it until it was way we all wanted, it would go into re-testing process,” she told us. “We had a staff of re-testers who were not trained cooks, but home cooks, and they had to follow the recipes exactly. It would be cooked at least twice by one of those cooks in our kitchen, so we could taste and see the results at every stage.” The theory behind this was that the people purchasing—and cooking from—the magazine didn’t have culinary degrees, either.
Watson is all too aware that this is an ideal practice, one that can’t usually be put into place due to tight deadlines and budgets. For her own books, Watson uses cross-testers for trickier recipes but not for straightforward ones such as salad dressings.
She stressed the difference between recipe development and recipe testing, though. “If you’re cooking your own recipe, it’s not testing,” she told us. “Contracts don’t usually stipulate that things be tested by a third party.” Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. In other words, “When it comes to cookbooks, there’s no single method or standard going on. It’s up to the cookbook author if and how the testing takes place. Theoretically I could write a whole cookbook without cooking through it.”