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Jan 10, 2009 03:49 PM

What is your "test kitchen" process for new recipes?

While using a tiny bit of crab to make three small crabcakes using ingredients from two recipes (I cherry-picked ingredients I liked) and cooking one with Panko crust and the other two bare to compare, it occured to me that I clearly have a process for testing out new recipes (whether self created or from somewhere else) before launching them for groups of larger than three people.

It starts when I decide to make something, i.e. crabcakes. I browse CH and other sites, I flip through dozens of cookbooks and think about what combo of tastes and textures I'm going for, then creating my own recipe. Or sometimes I just pick one recipe and stay true to that, depends on my level of adventure on the dish.

I then make a very small portion with the "essence" of the recipe, just for myself and no one else. I eat it, make mental notes, and decide how to improve for the next time. Or sometimes I pick a cooking style, i.e. "roasting" and I cook a small portion of a different food each day for a week using the method (just for me) making notes on likes/dislikes, and changes for the future.

Next, I ring up members of my "tasting panel" - a couple of my Dear Friends (DF's) - and call a get-together to sip wine and hang out. I casually mention that I'm trying out a new recipe, and would they like to try it? Now these aren't casual friends, these are the ones - like my friend who is a counselor for a living - who will give direct, honest feedback, couched in kindness. Friends who say "it does taste a little peppery, my tongue is burning a bit". (Note to self, lay back on the pepper flakes next time...)

I take their feedback and return to my kitchen - implementing the recipe again with adjustments - to make the dish once more, usually with another small group of (different) DF's. This time I don't mention that the dish is a new one, I just lay it out and see how much gets eaten and if there is any feedback. If no one says anything (which I can't remember ever happening), I ask casual, yet probing questions, i.e. "I tried out using a bit of chipotle pepper flakes in this to give it a smoky taste... do you think I should use more next time, less, or keep it the same?".

Based on responses, I further tweak the recipe one more time with myself alone, then if happy with the outcome, I launch it at a formal cocktail or dinner party with a larger (4-10 people) group.

Am wondering how other CH'ers test out and refine their new culinary concoctions. What is your "test kitchen" process (and who's in your "tasting panel")?

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  1. ahh....i test-ran several cheesecakes prior to finalizing my recipes and selling co-workers and friends were typically my guinea pigs. I took any feedback and tweaked if necessary.

    2 Replies
    1. re: im_nomad

      Im_nomad, what a great way to come up with a killer "secret recipes" for your cheesecakes! Were you formal about working with your "guinea pigs" :-) or did you just pull out a cheesecake when folks were around and compile all comments to use to fine-tune your creations?

      1. re: ideabaker

        it was a small group at the time.....they typically knew I was working on something new, and besides which were always asking me when I was bringing one in anyway !

    2. A member of the household works a a college. All baked good trails are sent to work with them.

      This not only reduces temptation at home but it also means nothing goes to waste.

      1 Reply
      1. re: frittering_away

        Frittering_away, so you try out a new recipe then give it all away? How do you use the knowledge you gained about the recipe (do you make more at a later time, i.e. the holidays)?

      2. There is a great chapter on recipe testing in "The Recipe Writer's Handbook." While this is aimed more at communicating the recipe to an audience, it is full of brilliant tips and the authors even provide a couple of testing worksheets.

        1 Reply
        1. re: BostonZest

          Just nabbed a used copy online for five bucks, am looking forward to reading that chapter (the whole book, actually, sounds interesting), from a "recipe writing" standpoint (because I haven't been writing things down and in the past have wished I did, particularly since some of the best recipes I've presented were created with glass of wine in hand... resulting in forgetting the exact ingredients and steps used.. arggghhh!).

          How do you test out your new recipes?

        2. Well, IE7 swallowed up my first reply and disappeared, but I will try again. I mostly test new recipes on myself and my mom. She is unfailingly honest with me, in Midwestern speak. (This means that "pretty good' means a recipe's a keeper.) I tell her what I did, and ask about particular ingredients, etc. She will make suggestions or kind critique if she thinks its deserved, and I value her opinion.

          I usually peruse several recipes and/or authors for appealing flavors and techniques, especially with proteins with which I am not so experienced. I'll often put a couple or more recipes together. I've been known to pile the open cookbooks on the kitchen counter, using ingredients from one but a cooking technique from another. I don't usually try out new recipes on friends, after having a few bad experiences when I was in college. My friends were supportive and undestanding, but it's no fun for anyone involved. Well, maybe a bonding experience of sorts! At any rate, I save experiments for family, for the most part, these days.

          4 Replies
          1. re: amyzan

            Amyzan, you are lucky to live near family! My closest relative is a couple thousand miles away (at least, that's when I'm not traveling),so I rely on my DF's who are wherever I happen to be. Your mom sounds especially great as she takes the process seriously and gives meaningful feedback.

            I chuckled a little when you mentioned the stacks of cookbooks. At present I have five open on my computer desk as I am researching a new dish I'm coming up with! That coupled with the many vials and bottles of ingredients/spices on the desk (researching them on the internet) make it look like the laboratory of a mad scientist, lol! Thanks for sharing your testing process!

            1. re: ideabaker

              Yeah, I am lucky! I forgot to mention that I use a lot of post it notes. My cookbooks are full of them, as I've written down amendments or additions to recipes I liked.

              1. re: amyzan

                I just write them in the cookbook. Mine all have lots of little notes. A friend was here for dinner and I had a cookbook out and he almost had a heart attack because I had written in the cookbook.

                1. re: pepperqueen

                  Ha ha, Pepperqueen, yes, some folks' hair catches on fire when they see writing in a book! I was cooking for friends last night and one couple said they always write in their cookbooks to remember their notes, so to each his own- if it works for you that is terrific.

                  I don't write in books as a rule (someday when I am an author I'll sign the empty page at the front :-) ). Guess I'm afraid I might want to donate or sell the book later and it will have markings in it. I really do need to get a system in place (I tried Post-its in the books but they lose their stickiness over time and fall out...).

          2. First, I test them on my favorite eater, my husband. While most of what I do starts off as adlib, I do tend to make notes when I'm seriously working on something.

            We have some great friends that we love to cook and eat with so they are my "experienced cooks who can add a new touch or figure out what's wrong testers."

            And, I have a group of friends around the country who are wonderful testers. They're the ones who will warn me on ingredients that are easy for me to find in Boston but hard or very expensive in other areas. They have wide ranging tastes and skill levels so their reactions are extremely helpful.

            And, they care about me and are supportive of my work, so they tell me the truth. I often write as if I was writing specifically to them.

            We're both lucky to have this type of tester available to us.

            I've just started to study the book so I expect my recipe writing to improve in the months ahead.

            2 Replies
            1. re: BostonZest

              BostonZest, I sincerely wish I had taken any notes on so many meals I've prepared in the past. All those blank, beautiful journals/notebooks at T.J. Maxx and Marshall's could be a start.
              Is there a certain place, or format that you use in organizing your records? (Don't worry, I'm not changing the focus of the thread..."What is your "test kitchen" process for new recipes?"), just wondering. :-}

              1. re: ideabaker

                Nothing fancy, I'm afraid. If I'm adapting a recipe I scribble all over a photocopy of the recipe that inspired me. If it's something I'm creating, I use scrap paper and tuck the notes into a plastic sleeve in a three ring binder until I input and print a version. Then I scribble all over that version until print a new one.

                Sticky notes come into play from time to time. Nothing terribly organized. You'll find far more direction in the book.

                I don't use any recipe software-- just a word processing program.