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.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
voices
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

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam