The decline of recipe testing

recipe creation

In the heyday of print media, most major newspapers boasted a full test kitchen complete with a kitchen director. Prominent cookbook authors hired independent testers to make sure their recipes would work in home kitchens. But with declining revenues and tightening budgets, these resources are quickly vanishing, reports The Los Angeles Times  

While food magazines like Bon Appetit, Saveur, and Cook's Illustrated still have large and busy test kitchens, only one US newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, currently has a full test kitchen staffed with a full-time director. The director, Noelle Carter, writes articles and oversees recipe testing.                                                                    

Other newspapers like The San Francisco Chronicle and Chicago Tribune still have and use test kitchens, but don't employ staff dedicated to recipe testing. Tribune Food Editor Joe Gray says staff writers make good use of the test kitchen. "Reports of our test kitchen's death have been greatly exaggerated," he says. "We still use it and rely on it heavily."

Newspapers without test kitchens, like The New York Times, frequently employ independent recipe testers, once the province of cookbook authors. Due to the decline in cookbook advances, those authors have to scramble to find help to test their recipes. Many online publications forego testing altogether, leading Russ Parsons to lament that recipe "reliability has gone into the basement."  (Yet another reason to use EYB to find the best recipes on the web.)

8 Comments

  • KarinaFrancis  on  7/8/2015 at 8:46 PM

    Australian Women's Weekly used to boast that its recipes are "triple tested", I wonder if that's still the case. Having had very few failures (only 1 springs to mind) with an AWW recipe, I'd have to say that's a real selling point

  • Foodycat  on  7/9/2015 at 5:22 AM

    I helped out on a cookbook shoot a few years ago, making the dishes to be shot. Many of the recipes did not work, and weren't going to be tested further before publication.

  • TrishaCP  on  7/9/2015 at 7:26 AM

    @Foodycat- well, that is beyond depressing, yet not too surprising. What happens when the recipe doesn't work but you still need a photo? Is that when we end up with the photo not matching the ingredients/instructions of the recipe? PS- how cool that you got to make the food for the photos!....even if the recipes weren't working out.

  • Foodycat  on  7/9/2015 at 4:09 PM

    @TrishaCP there was some trickery involved! Black paint got involved in one recipe. Painting on appetising grill marks happened with another.

  • mfto  on  7/9/2015 at 6:39 PM

    I live in the DC area and questioned the Washington Post on their recipe testing. I immediately received the following reply from Bonnie S. Benwick, Deputy Food editor/Recipe editor: "We test every recipe that runs in The Post (paperwide, including Local Living, KidsPost, Style and Book World sections). I probably test 30 percent myself; it’s true that we don’t have test kitchen in the building but we will have one when we move in December. (How thrilling is that?) Our volunteer testers – at this point, prob 40 total – get recipes on a first come, first served basis via email. They bring in samples with notes, and we reimburse for ingredients. Our Food team staffers also test recipes for stories they write. We began identifying names of testers in print and online in 2006; we receive those emails and respond to everybody. Our testers represent a range of skill levels; I’ve gotten to know what different testers like to/can handle, so that’s helpful in assigning or steering them toward certain recipes. They agree to FOLLOW the recipe as written, but offer notes and be prepared to retest as required. Lots of times, we are actually shooting the food that the testers bring in; they are careful to pack the food in such a way as to keep it in good shape. Also, we have a countertop convection oven and induction burner in the photo studio, for dishes that have to be done a la minute. (So I guess in a way that might be testing in the building!)"

  • nicolepellegrini  on  7/13/2015 at 11:18 AM

    This is why I'm wary of a lot of "Celebrity Chef" cookbooks, especially those by restaurant chefs. It seems so often that they haven't tested or figured out how to properly adjust cooktimes and techniques for the home kitchen instead of an industrial/restaurant one, especially these days. (See for instance a lot of the criticism of Bryan Voltaggio's recent book).

  • TrishaCP  on  7/14/2015 at 6:51 AM

    @Foodycat- black paint? Lol. So interesting about the Post- would be so fun to be a recipe tester for them!

  • sadiebrooklyn  on  7/25/2015 at 5:12 AM

    I went to a book signing last year for Ina Garten's latest book and she described her testing process. If I recall between her and her staff she triple tests all her recipes - and in my experience her cookbooks are pretty much foolproof.

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