Cooking vs. recipe testing

March 10, 2008

recipe calculatorI went to chef school originally because I really love to cook. And after all these years, I have to say that I still truly enjoy my time in the kitchen. People are often surprised when they hear my test kitchen colleagues and I say that we enjoy cooking at home. In their minds, cooking all day at work would be more than enough to take the edge off the thrill. What these folks don’t realize is that recipe testing and cooking are similar but quite different activities.

Recipe testing is much slower than regular cooking and more constrained. When you test a recipe, you’re basically doing a science experiment that measures the limits of the chemical reactions and flavour results created by combining specific amounts of particular ingredients. A big part of recipe testing is evaluating each word (especially the verbs!) in a recipe method to ensure that anyone who can read will be able to follow the directions and have very similar results.

Cooking, by comparison, is free and easy! You can make substitutions, you don’t have to measure everything by volume and weight and angst about whether it would be better to call for ‘8 pickle slices’ or ‘1/2 jar sliced sandwich style pickles.’ No, when you cook you just get to create. That’s why after a day of thinking about, handling and tasting food, it’s still fun to cook at home. I can imagine that bus drivers get a similar thrill when they drive down the street without having to pull over at every block.

Then there’s recipe evaluation. That’s what sites like Leite’s Culinaria call recipe testing. In this case, people try published, presumably fully-tested recipes and recommend them (or not) to other readers. Unlike true recipe testing, this task is almost as simple (and fun) as cooking. You’re really just making sure that the recipe fulfills the promise of its title, makes the noted number of servings and tastes good. Great work if you can get it! If the recipe testing was done well, then the evaluations will always be good.

If you’re a cook who would like to dabble in recipe testing to transform your personal recipes into instructions that anyone can follow, you’ll need some basic tools to get started. Top on your list will be:

• Liquid and dry measuring cups and spoons

• A good scale (my favourite is electronic)

• A ruler and a flexible dressmaker’s tape measure

• A digital timer that counts up as well as down

We recently purchased a recipe calculator as well (it’s in the picture above) for the test kitchen. It’s a great tool for doing conversions between metric and imperial measures and a wonderful help when scaling up recipes.