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Joined Jul 3, 2002
Hi Denise,
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions.

Would you please explain the basics of recipe-testing?

1. Is there a difference between the testing you did for the publisher and what you've done for The New York Times?
2. What does testing entail other than following the written recipe?
3. How many times are recipes re-tested?
4. What are the problems you most often find?
Joined Feb 10, 2006
When I first began testing recipes I was working on cookbooks, and I wasn't expected to edit the recipes. I wrote a critique of each one, commenting on the ingredients (hard or easy to find, where they are available), method (can one person prepare the recipe alone, do the steps follow in a reasonable sequence), quantity (does the amount seem to be correct, does the recipe really make 3 dozen cookies, will the stew really serve 10, is the recipe and quantity more appropriate for brunch, lunch or dinner...), equipment (is a mandoline absolutely necessary, must the bowl be stainless steel, what if we don't have a convection oven), flavor (is it supposed to be that sour, have that much salt), texture (should it be granular or smooth, is it supposed to be wilted), color (bake until light brown, golden or dark..)...You get the idea.

When I began to work for the New york Times, I was surprised to learn that I was expected to edit the recipes as well. This makes sense and wasn't difficult for me to learn to do since I was accustomed to making notes about the recipes as I tested them. All I had to do was put them in the correct format. But this is the tricky and most difficult part of recipe testing, because it is in the editing of a recipe that there is communication between the chef and the reader of the published recipe. It is the job of the recipe tester, who may not have eaten the food in question, to understand what the chef intended and convey that accurately and succinctly to the reader. It's not the function of a single recipe to give a course in baking or pasta or roasting, yet a good recipe will allow the average cook to achieve the same (or close) results that will be had by a professional chef.

Recipes in cookbooks, magazines and newspapers all have different requirements and styles. A cookbook has room for longer recipes with headnotes, footnotes, sidebars, photos, diagrams, and whatever else might strike the fancy of the writer and publisher. Magazines are, for obvious reasons, more limited. And newspapers require brevity. I enjoy the challenge of cutting a recipe to its essence. I often have to deconstruct the steps of a recipe and rewrite the whole thing so that it says the same thing in different words, and considerably shortened.

I usually test a recipe once even when I spot an error. But it's not unusual for me to test a problematic or questionable recipe two or three times. I'll address the kinds of problems I find a little later on.
Joined May 16, 2003

Welcome to Cheftalk and thank you for spending time with us.

I edited a cookbook last year, (Summer in New York by Alan Batt, a.k.a. Battman) and one of the things I found challenging was determining what level of expertise to gear the recipes toward.

If you spell out each and every technique, for example searing, (heat the pan first, add the oil, wait till it starts to smoke, etc.) you bore advanced and professional cooks to death. But if you don't you alienate the amateurs.

What are your thoughts?

Thank you.

Joined Mar 4, 2000
How many recipes will you test in one day, and do you also cook in your own free time, or are these recipes essentially your meals for the day?
Joined Feb 10, 2006
The flow of work I receive can be quite erratic, which can make for exciting times. Some work comes from the New York Times on a regular basis. Whether I receive additional work depends on the articles that are going to be published, whether they include recipes, whether the author of an article is also a dependable recipe tester (some authors test and edit their own recipes) and whether the editors feel additional testing is desirable. I also test recipes for cookbook manuscripts (portions of books or whole books). It all averages to several recipes a day, but there can be dry spells or a deluge. Last spring I tested 159 recipes in three weeks. I hired three assistants, shopped for two hours every morning before they arrived, and worked until about 9 every night. It was grueling.

When possible, my meals consist of the recipes I am testing. But I can't wait until dinnertime to start testing the recipes for the day, and the food often wouldn't be appropriate or even edible. It takes much longer to test a recipe than to cook an edited recipe. Many recipes require adjustments -- the food may come out over-salted, underdone, overdone, or unappetizing for other reasons. For that reason I have a compost bin, and I use it! But if testing yields dinner, that's a lovely bonus. One thing I NEVER do is test recipes for guests. When I'm testing I'm working and don't want any distractions.

I do cook in my free time! I really love to cook and I love looking through my cookbooks trying to decide what I want to eat. However, just like everybody else, sometimes I want somebody else to cook for me. I like going to other people's homes to eat and I like restaurants. And I love it when my family members cook for me. My sons are both great cooks.
Joined Feb 10, 2006
To answer MarkV's question about how to determine the level of expertise of one's audience:

To put it very simply, who do you hope will buy your book? I love cookbooks and own about 1500 of them. (My excuse is that I can use them for reference in my work, but the truth is, I just like cookbooks.) And it's safe to say I am a sophisticated reader -- I know all the terms and I can follow any recipe that's thrown at me. But when I pick up cookbooks in the store I am not looking for the words "flambe" or "chinoise" or "brunoise." I'm looking for appealing food. I want good ideas, inspiration, and recipes that look like they will work.

I talk about food all the time, everywhere, wherever I go. And it has been my observation that most people who are not in the food business have, at most, a moderate amount of culinary knowledge. This includes people who go to fine restaurants, the well-traveled, the affluent, and people who like to cook. I have a friend who is a lawyer who called me to say that she had decided to make onion soup (without a recipe) and had been boiling a pot of onions for hours and how come it still had no flavor?

When I test recipes for the New York Times, I go by the following rule: Culinary terms can be used if it is clear what they mean, even if the reader may not be familiar with them. For example, if the first step of a recipe begins "Prepare the tapenade" followed by instructions for the preparation, later in the recipe I will refer to "tapenade." Equipment can be called by its name no matter what it is, because that's what people will ask for when they go to buy it.

Even so, it is reasonable to expect readers of recipes to know some basic cooking terms. These include "sear," "saute," "mince," and "julienne" among others. I think even professional cooks appreciate clear, straightforward language and instructions. But in the end, what makes a recipe wonderful isn't the way it's written, it's what shows up on the plate.

If you would like to post a short excerpt from a recipe for me to critique, I'll be happy to do so.
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