How they really cook the books: Give thanks for the unsung skills of recipe testers

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

 

At 11am in a kitchen in London, six dishes are in various stages of preparation and cooking, the air thick with the smells of browning meat and baking pastry. But the food is not for lunch: this is neither a restaurant nor a party in the making. This cooking is being tested for publication in a cookbook on southern France by the renowned cookery writer Caroline Conran. Conran has enlisted two helpers to test her recipes. One is Beth Coventry, chef-patronne of The Wells gastropub in Hampstead. The other is me. Three days a week, we gather in Caroline's kitchen, aiming to perfect six dishes a day from Caroline's drafts. Those splattered, scribbled sheets vie for space on the kitchen table with chopping boards, measuring cups, electronic scales and piles of ingredients.

Caroline has cooked all these dishes at least once and we follow her drafts exactly. While cooking through the recipe, we consult the boss about anything we think might be done differently – less garlic, more stock, shorter browning – and make a note on the draft. When the dish is done, we stick forks or spoons in and taste together.

Sometimes it works perfectly the first time. Sometimes it needs tweaking to simplify, clarify or expand. Occasionally we decide we need to cook it again. A third attempt is never needed. We make notes as needed on the draft and the recipe is ready. It is a time-consuming process: Caroline's 250 recipes will take us around 20 working weeks. Failed attempts cost more time and more money. And every cookery writer has to steer a course between practical limitations and the need to make sure everything is exactly right. The cookery writer Sue Lawrence estimates that it costs £3,000 to develop 100 recipes and advances are not large in cookery-book publishing outside the small circle of big-selling media stars.

Magazines with a cookery department are well placed for exhaustive testing. Good Housekeeping, for instance, has three in its department and takes pride in triple-testing every recipe (full disclosure: I write for Good Housekeeping). Meike Beck, GH's Cookery Editor, describes the process as follows: "Once we are happy with a recipe we've developed, it is then tested again by another member of the team and then at least once more when we cook and style the food for photoshoots. We always say we triple test our recipes, but in truth it's often many more times than that.

"Testing is quite different to home cooking. You have to follow every step precisely, time everything and measure all the ingredients accurately and you need plenty of theoretical knowledge to help troubleshoot along the way." Such rigorous testing can be done, of course, by a lone cookery writer. The cookery writer Jill Norman, formerly Elizabeth David's editor, says that "from the time we worked together I saw her test recipes several times until she was happy with the outcome. I baked my way through much of the bread book and we compared notes", but the principal testing was done by David on her own.

Solitary working has its disadvantages. For one thing, it's a lot slower. More seriously, without extra eyes to catch slip-ups, the danger of letting through an error looms larger. Miss the full-stop key on your keyboard and 1.5 teaspoons of salt turn into 15 teaspoons. The Indian cookery writer Anjum Anand scaled down a recipe and initially assumed it didn't need testing, but then tested it after all and discovered she hadn't scaled down one crucial ingredient. Someone working less carefully would have let the recipe go out untested and therefore uncorrected. Scaling-down errors are even more crucial and more common in recipes originating in restaurant kitchens. Here the whole recipe can be changed fundamentally when cooked in home-sized quantities and complete retesting is essential.

In theory, an editor should catch mistakes. But it's difficult to do this without cooking the recipe, which is why Olive and BBC Good Food Magazine retest every recipe they consider for publication.

Lulu Grimes, food director for both magazines, says: "Taking book extracts is always an education. Not all recipes are 100 per cent accurate and we then have to either ask to print a different version of the recipe or drop it for another."

Sometimes mistakes creep in because of "typos or heavy-handed editing", she says. Cutting recipes to fit the space is particularly dangerous, as important details can be left out.

But it's often just lack of time and money that causes problems. Sometimes a book gets the green light at the last minute and is needed in six weeks.

Lulu Grimes says: "I think publishers probably don't understand what writing tested recipes involves." That suspicion is borne out by cookery writer Kathryn Hawkins. She tells of being asked by a publisher to test recipes from a TV show, only to discover that they were "a complete shambles in style. I could tell instantly that none of them were going to work and would need massive amounts of rewriting and testing". Recipes from TV chefs may be especially open to doubts about testing. Lulu Grimes says that chefs "who produce a book a year are on a constant treadmill. The ones that have good support staff or a ghost writer are fine, but the others are often all over the place and, as well as plagiarising, don't test". Sometimes recipes are cobbled together from what the cook has done on TV. If an expensive back-up team turns the improvised dish into a polished recipe, there's no problem. But some chefs expect overworked editors to do the recipe entirely on their own. One editor experienced in this kind of work calls certain prominent chefs "a disgrace when it comes to testing their TV recipes".

Jennifer John, managing director of a specialist food PR and marketing agency and a qualified home economist, broadly agrees.

"I have seen some terrible recipes from food writers and well-known chefs – cooking times and temperatures are wrong, or instructions potentially misleading. A successful recipe isn't just about a great idea but about communicating it accurately and clearly."

Has there been a drop in the quality of recipe testing? Judith Hannam of Kyle Books, a leading cookery publisher, doesn't think so.

"There is more competition, and in general the standard is as high if not higher as it was 10 years ago." Jill Norman thinks that if there are more substandard recipes around, it's simply because more recipes are being published – online as well as in print.

The challenges and pitfalls of testing should serve as a warning to wannabe cooks who want to publish their recipes. You don't need a team of testers like Caroline Conran's, but you do have to work meticulously. Don't think that cooking a dish once will necessarily make it a good recipe. Test it again. Watch out for your typing.

And don't be tempted to falsify your results. The Canadian writer Margaret Visser, author of the classic Much Depends on Dinner, quipped that when a cookery writer says: "I like to serve this dish with new potatoes and steamed broccoli," what they really mean is: "The only time I cooked this dish, I served it with new potatoes and steamed broccoli." You might be able to get away with it. But you might not.

Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to full-blooded vitriol, no one on social media attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Automotive Service Advisor - Franchised Main Dealer

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful, family owned m...

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable