How well are cookbook recipes tested?

Cookbooks

Purchasing a new cookbook makes some of us almost giddy. We open the book and pore over it like it's a novel, marking recipes that we can't wait to try. Sometimes those recipes are pure perfection, but other times we are left scratching our heads, wondering what we did wrong. Perhaps it's not us, however, as Julia Bainbridge notes in a story on the truth behind the testing of cookbook recipes.

We expect that a cookbook's recipes have been thoroughly tested to work in a home kitchen, but that is not always the case, even with big name authors and publishers. How cookbook recipes are tested, "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," says Bainbridge.

One condition that affects the method of recipe testing is, not surprisingly, budget. Publishers often give authors a strict budget which has to cover everything from design to photography to recipe testing. There are few, if any, restrictions on how the testing is conducted. This can lead to very different approaches. Some authors solicit volunteers via social media, some hire professional testers, and others rely on friends. Tight deadlines also affect recipe testing. There may not be time for multiple rounds of testing.

Some publishers don't even require authors to test recipes. While recipe testing is written into many contracts, some publishing houses don't put it in the contracts at all. Still, most authors test anyway because their reputations are on the line and because they care about the results readers will achieve. Says Molly Watson, former editor of Sunset magazine, "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."

Do you think most cookbook recipes are adequately tested? Which authors do you think do the best job of testing?

 

11 Comments

  • Cubangirl  on  9/5/2014 at 8:18 PM

    I think Ina Garten does a good job testing. The recipes I've tried have all turned out as expected. Sometimes there is something left out perhaps in conversions from weight to volume (Keller comes to mind) Joanne Chang is another that seems to have tested for home results and even gives explanations as to what could go wrong. Barbara Lynch does as well. OTOH, there was a cookbook about cooking in a DO can't remember the author that I felt had not been tested. It's not so bad for savory recipes, since one can usually adjust, but pretty nasty in baking. An experienced cook can look at a batter, dough, or even just the recipe and know something is off, but many can not. I can do it for cakes and cookies, but not pies for example.

  • jlg84  on  9/5/2014 at 9:27 PM

    It is definitely noticeable that some cookbooks are well tested and others not so much. My experience is that, among the more famous authors, Martha Stewart's books are among the least-well tested, and Yotam Ottolenghi's and David Lebovitz's among the best.

  • Foodycat  on  9/7/2014 at 11:24 AM

    I helped out on a cookbook shoot last year where the recipes hadn't been tested at all. There were quite a lot of calls to the author (he didn't bless us with his presence) and quite a lot of "yeah, that doesn't work. Do this to make it look like it worked". Unsurprisingly, I would steer clear of that publisher's books in future!

  • sir_ken_g  on  9/7/2014 at 1:47 PM

    Look for authors who you know are passionate about cooking. Cooks first. One would be Fuchsia Dunlop who writes the best Chinese cookbooks out there. Another Naomi Duguid.| A third is Leela Punyaratabandhu who wrote a very personal Thai book. One can over do the testing. I find Cooks Illustrated books way to fussy.

  • Kirstin_the_Kiwi  on  9/7/2014 at 6:35 PM

    I tried a recipe recently where the salmon was placed in a dish full of water and cooked in the oven. I figured the cooking time was way out because our fish had to go back in the oven for twice the length of time in the book.

  • wester  on  9/8/2014 at 2:10 AM

    I recently made a chocolate cake that needed at least twice as long as the recipe said (at some time I stopped counting how long it had been in the oven). I had the vague impression that I had seen a review of a similar recipe with the same problems, but as it was in a book that I don't own myself, it took a bit of time to locate it. In the end I did find it here on EYB: two chocolate cakes, by the same (known and respected) author but in different cookbooks, both needing more than twice as long in the oven. (Compare the reviews if you want to: http://www.eatyourbooks.com/library/recipes/440710/espresso-and-hazelnut-chocolate-cake#notes http://www.eatyourbooks.com/library/recipes/296746/chocolate-nemesis#notes ). You'd think that after writing one cookbook they should have noticed something was wrong...

  • Jane  on  9/8/2014 at 12:18 PM

    That chocolate nemesis recipe is notorious as one that many home cooks could never replicate at home. I have made it myself several times for parties in the '90s - it definitely needs far longer baking time than directed. Also it needs a loose bottom tin as it impossible to get out and serve otherwise. I remember there were a lot of articles about it when The River Cafe Cookbook first came out - here's one by Marian Burros from the NY Times in 1997 http://www.nytimes.com/1997/09/17/dining/cookbook-follies-recipes-that-fail.html This is a good article to read about recipe fails.

  • KarinaFrancis  on  9/8/2014 at 5:46 PM

    When it comes to testing nobody beats the Australian woman's weekly. This is one of the great things about this site, seeing notes from others, you soon get a view on who is reliable

  • StaceyR  on  9/24/2014 at 11:38 PM

    I have had good luck with Rose Levy Beranbaum's books. And, she discloses any errata on her website.

  • pensky  on  9/27/2014 at 1:55 AM

    I attempted a brioche from one of Gordon Ramsay's books and the batter was like liquid. The great man himself had nothing to do with the writing of the recipe. i discovered this fact when i wrote a letter to him pointing out the error. I received a reply from the actual recipe writer, Roz Denny, who blithely admitted to the mistake saying that she had forgotten to double up on the flour. No word of apology for wasting all that fine butter and eggs. This was sufficient to deter me from buying any more of his books. As with his restaurants, he spreads himself far too thinly.

  • Jane  on  9/27/2014 at 5:06 PM

    That's horrible pensky. Have you added a Note to that recipe listing on EYB so other members don't have the same experience? The more our members share their recipe experiences - both good and bad - the better off we all are.

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