from one generation to the next
Guilty of criticising cookbook writers whose recipes fail or disappoint, I recently read with growing disillusionment a post on the blog pages of Eat Your Books entitled “How Well Are Cookbook Recipes Tested?”
I was surprised to learn that no industry standard exists to test and refine recipes for cookbooks. Publishing house contracts vary, and rarely do they stipulate that recipes be tested, leaving it entirely up to the author to organize an independent evaluation of their work. Because these costs have to be covered by the publisher’s advance, this important step is often compromised.
Recipe development is the job of the cookbook writer. Recipe testing is a completely separate field.
In an ideal world a recipe tester would be an independent home cook with an average domestic kitchen and an editor’s eye. Their role would first entail procuring ingredients to gauge ready availability. The preparation and cooking of the recipe exactly as written by the author would be the next step, refining the clarity of the instructions for the method as she progressed. Finally, an objective assessment of the result would be made, assessing the ingredient list, equipment choices, cooking times, seasoning, texture, balance and general appeal. Depending on the tester’s findings, the recipe may be returned to the developer for further work. It is not within the realms of the recipe tester to make changes only recommendations.
As a cookbook consumer I believe that testing should be carried out not once but at least twice by different people with different skills in different kitchens, but approaching the Facebook community to fill this role, as one author did recently, seems to lack serious intent.
Recipe testing is ideally a controlled process. “The Cook’s Cook,” a recipe tester and blogger explains over several posts her exacting role. She has to put aside her creativity, experience and judgement and just cook like a beginner, following the written recipe verbatim. She then submits an assessment sheet to to the author.
New cookbooks hit the book shelves daily. I’ve learned the hard way that a book full of gorgeous glossy photos serve as a warning that I need to exercise caution, that I need to taste and use my personal judgement when it comes to seasonings and cooking times. To me it’s photographically obvious where the budget has been spent! I’m also wary of cookbooks bearing the names of cult status chefs. Recipes developed using specialist equipment with artisan products to be served in restaurants rarely translate to the home kitchen for the average family cook to prepare after a busy day at work.
I love my cookbooks. They are a valuable resource to inspire, provide guidance and educate. Their contents are like roadmaps providing one single route to a finished dish. I can choose to slavishly follow the written recipe and find myself disappointed, or I can take the scenic route and explore as I go, apply what I know, what my experience has taught me, what my instincts tell me and enjoy the journey and the finished dish.
I let my palate and common sense be the guide, you should too.
Cookbook users, be aware.