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The Truth Behind Cookbook Recipes

Julia Bainbridge

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.

Molly Watson, author of Chronicle Books’ upcoming Greens + Grains, says the best approach is akin to the one she used as an editor at Sunset Magazine.

“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.”

She doesn’t do that, of course. “The idea that someone would cook a recipe that I’ve put out in the world and end up with something that didn’t turn out right is pretty heartbreaking for me, honestly,” she said. “People are spending money and time doing this—and they’re serving it to other people. You don’t want dinner to be gross.”

Author Andrea Nguyen’s Ten Speed contract does require that every recipe be tested by a third party. She does not pay professional testers—“They’re not going to come at it with a truly blank slate; they’re not my audience”—but instead relies on a team of home cooks. As she approved of each member, she handed him or her a survey. The number one question? “What kind of stove do you have?”

“One of my girlfriends in the food world has a racecar stove, and that’s just not going to work,” she told us. “Most people don’t have Wolf ranges!”

Nguyen’s first editor, Aaron Wehner, who now oversees three imprints at Random House, paraphrased the company’s requirements for us:

“The author guarantees that the recipes will be tested and adapted for the home kitchen, and the author will share with the publisher the process for testing,” he said. “Basically, there’s a conversation at the very beginning, the author details the approach, and we judge whether it’s satisfactory or not.” Once the first batch of recipes comes in, the editor will test a few as a spot check.

Recipe testing is especially difficult, said Wehner, when it comes to chefs. Their busy schedules makes a battery of testing impossible. “More often than not in books like that, there tends to be one tester who is experienced at adapting recipes.” For David Kinch’s “Manresa,” for example, not only did co-author Christine Muhlke take a pass at recipes, but also “Kinch hired a seasoned cook who had worked in the Williams-Sonoma test kitchen.”

Even when a recipe’s been tested five times over, though, there’s no telling what might happen at home. “I’ve seen people struggle with recipes that I’ve made myself that I know work,” said Wehner. There may be different ambient conditions, the cook might be using a different weight measure—there are so many variables that could send a good recipe veering off-course.

“I see recipes as driving directions of some sort,” said Nyugen. “I can help cooks arrive at a destination and give them verbal, tactile, and taste cues. I’m totally fine with them getting lost on the way, but I want them to arrive somewhere close to the destination that I envisioned for them.”