Liveblog: Professional-Grade Recipe Development


Welcome to the BlogHer Food '11 liveblog of the Professional-Grade Recipe Development panel.

Panelists: Alison Lewis, Katie Webster and Madge Perry

Alison Lewis:
Who is this recipe for?

This fits for magazine, blog or anything you're writing for?

Why are you sharing your recipe?

What constraints are there? Gluten-free, low-budget, alcohol free?

Think that through before I even put an idea or a recipe concept together

Katie Webster:

Play devil's advocate b/c ultimately your goal is for your readers to have cooking success.

Tell me why we should test recipes?

You want to make sure it actually works.

Marge Perry:
You don't want to guess
I received a recipe for 4 people that used 1/2 C of fish sauce. I don't think he tested that one.

Katie: As a recipe developer, I don't let it leave my kitchen, 3 is a minimum (number of tests of a recipe).

Testing begins in the grocery store. Do they actually have a 14 oz. can of beans, or does it only come in 15 oz.?

You have to be specific. If you want kosher salt. You have to say kosher salt.

Another element you want to consider is your prep. That can affect your outcome. Having that done ahead of time will affect that.

Another element is measurements. Dry measuring cup vs. liquid measuring cup?

Audience: Dry is skinnier more narrow and wet is more room for error.

Katie: Liquid has a spout and measurements down the side. Dry you level ingredients on the top.

Madge: If you can pour it you use liquid. If you can smooth the top, you use dry. I hold them up and say, 'sour cream.' The answer is dry, because you can smooth it off the top. About 25% of my students get it wrong.
Don't develop for mistakes, but understand when you get a comment on your blog that this recipe doesn't work, that's one of the things you can answer as a possibility.

Katie: Flour is a different amount of weight depending on how you scoop it. Explain how you do it and relay that in the recipe. I weigh everything. I think when you're writing out your ingredients list, offer 1 eggplant and also the weight. Or to do a cut measurement and a weight. That really helps. I also keep a ruler in my kitchen to be able to say how big I'm REALLY cutting my pieces.

You have to be really careful with your tools. Example: An insulated baking dish versus a non-insulated one. It may burn in the non-insulated dish. Test it. Just because you think it will work in another tool, it may not. Measure the size of your tool (the inside dimension).

Madge: You're supposed to measure the skillet across the bottom. You can also call for capacity. You can talk about depth. Or, you can say, kindly, a medium skillet. But you can't really do that in baking.

Katie: Timing is something that's going to get your readers results. When you're cooking in the kitchen it's important that you have a test report form. We have a sample test report form on the live blog. When you're doing any cooking, you need to have a system to organize yourself. The last element is timing, so you want to find a visual indicator for doneness. Write it down, check the timing and create a range. Make sure it's big because you want all different people with all different quality of tools to have success.

At Eating Well, we cross test on electric and gas ranges. At home I have different size burners. I've started testing on different burners and that's really helped with developing my range.

Madge: Also give visual cues, not just a range. Give the visual cue first whenever possible: until browned, about 5 to 10 minutes.

Q: I started preheating the oven a lot earlier now. Like a half hour. But I think maybe my readers are more like my old self, so I pad the time.

Katie: I go to the low end of that range and I play the devil's advocate and adjust the time. You can't test for mistakes. You're doing the right thing by testing at the right temperature.

Q: Do test kitchens test the recipes of the freelance writers? Do we need to bother using photography?

Madge: They're not going to use your photos, those are just good to send to know what your recipe is.

Katie: Use your iphone really, that's all they care about

Madge: But don't send ugly photos. They'll knock out the recipes with the ugly photos early.

Q: Speak about why you want to test recipes. A lot of what I've seen on blogs is a much more casual attitude toward the recipes and some of the other content they're creating.

Katie: When you go through all of this and you actually test the heck out of those recipes and you know they work, you know the readers are going to be successful and your readers are going to trust you. You're putting yourself out there. This is your work and they're going to keep coming back to you if they can trust that it's going to be good work.

Q: Is there value in having non-professional cooks test your recipes?

Katie: They can make the mistakes before you readers do if something isn't clear.

Madge: I had a recipe I did for a swirl cheesecake for Parenting Magazine. I've explained swirls before and they had the intern test it and it didn't come out right. If she can't make it, then maybe some of the readers can't make it and it doesn't matter that everyone in the test kitchen can make it.

Q: Does that replace the test kitchen?

Katie: That's more of a cross-test.

Madge: It's not to help in the development of the recipe, but to find out what's unclear.

Alison: The recipe testing sheet online might be something you could send to readers for testing.

Alison: At Southern Living they had rating systems. It's good as a blogger to come up with your own rating system for recipes. [Gave an example of a 1-3 rating system, with 3 being the best.] Try to keep a note, this is just a 2, well, how can I get it better?

Alison: I go into the kitchen with a recipe written out with blanks for amounts or different things. It gives me something to work with.

Katie: Always test with a clean copy. Always make your edits and then go back or it can get really messy.

Alison: We tested once and marked changes in red and then marked the second round of changes in green. You can really see the process.

Katie: I learned this from Eating Well and do it at home. I do a separate E-copy and edit copy so you have a history of changes. You can avoid typos becoming legacies. Or if you make the E3 and it doesn't work, you can go back to E2 and work from that.

Make notes with a critical eye. Channel your inner Alton Brown and try to figure out what the interactions are. Is this sequence logical? Make notes on that.

Cooks Illustrated, from one test to the next, they only change one variable. There's also ingredients that have multiple functions. Eggs cause browning, hold things together, leavening. So if you're changing that and baking soda at the same time, you don't know what is making the changes.

Just take notes of where you can be more clear/more specific. Note down 'Did I use Barelski's brand this time or did I use La Panceta?'

Alison: We're going to now go to recipe writing.

Madge: You made this great cake and now you want to write it up. It's sort of a craft and an art.

For instance, one cup of chopped parsley is different than one cup of parsley, chopped.

The volume is easily double. That's a significant thing to keep in mind.

I think one is kinder. If I say to my reader, one cup of chopped parsley, they have to chop and measure and chop and measure again.

What's a small onion look like? It's not fair, I don't think to call for a small onion, chopped. So then, you have to call for a certain amount of cups of chopped onion.

Q: When you create a recipe, you'll want to create a shopping list.

Madge: That's why I think it is ALMOST always kinder to call for the whole ingredient. Not the onion.

Katie: You could say 2 cups diced onions (about 1 large), if it's important.

Alison: If you aspire to write for magazines, they will love you even more if they don't have to come back to you for clarification.

Madge: Find a happy medium, too many alternatives is dizzying.

Madge: The components of a recipe, you start with the name of the recipe. There are good names and not such good names and those are overwrought names, too. For blogs it is different than a magazine in some ways. If I say Greek Frittata, you're conjuring up some flavors in your mind. If I lay out all the ingredients, you're getting exhausted. Come up with a happy medium where you're not necessarily getting all the ingredients, but you're conjuring the (mood) of the recipe.
You want it to have life and presence, but also be descriptive.

A headnote should give a tip about cooking it or set an environment (e.g. I first had this sitting in Portugal as the sun set). You can use it for history, you can use it for a lot of things but I don't like to waste it on fluff. Give something to your reader with that headnote. That's your chance as a recipe writer to have voice, to be writerly.

If you're doing it for publication, you probably do want a headnote.

It can also sell the dish.

Alison: Also maybe personal experience, like if you have kids, can sell the dish.

Madge: Now we're going to get back to the all-important ingredients list.
It MUST be in the order in which you use the ingredients. If I add three ingredients at the same time to the skillet, it is a style issue and it varies by magazine or publication how I order those three. Some go to largest quantity to smallest, there are all kinds of ways. Just be consistent.

Katie: If you're calling for an orange zest and juice, I call for the zest first. If you're calling for canola oil and molasses, I call for the oil first and then the molasses so the measuring cup is coated.

Madge: Be consistent on your measurements (teaspoon or tsp., be consistent, always).

Call for a 14 oz. can and, drained and rinsed, if that's what you're doing.

Q: What's your thought on adding water to the ingredient list?

Madge: Some people feel this way about salt and pepper. That really is a style decision. I always give an amount for salt and pepper, but that's because I give nutritional information.
If I'm adding water to the sauce, I would put that in the ingredients, but if I'm boiling it in water, I don't list that.

Katie: Our style is to measure salt and pepper unless we say, to taste. We do not call for water or cooking spray.

We're talking about style. At Eating Well we have this big 3-ring binder that is the Eating Well Style Book. When we have contributors send recipes, we encourage them to put their recipes in our style. If they don't put them in our style, we put it there.

Madge: Ask if they have a style book could they send it to you.

Alison: If you stay consistent with what they're doing, it really doesn't matter what you choose.

Q: Divided use.

Madge: Two basic ways of handling this. One is if you have a cake and frosting, your list might say Frosting, then list, Cake and then list. Butter might be in both, but you have two separate amounts.

The other way is to call for 1/2 cup of butter, divided. It appears in the list at the first use. When you write your instructions, mix four tablespoons of the butter. That language is an alert signal. Every place else it says add sugar, flour, blah blah, but here it says of the. The second use, again an alert, says use the REMAINING 2 tablespoons. When you have a divided ingredient, it's signaled in the ingredient list and the instructions.

Q: Say butter melted and regular, what then?

Madge: Generally, call for full amount, then you would melt 4 tablespoons of the butter.

Katie: You could also address it in the ingredients list.

Madge: I want the ingredients list short. I don't mind the extra sentence in the directions as much as I do in the ingredients list.

Q: Split out a spice list in a separate recipe?

Madge: Different publications have different styles. It really is a style variation. But separating it out makes it longer.

Q: I think the best thing for developing a recipe is to do what makes sense to you. I wouldn't get too hung up about that, because they're gonna edit it exactly how they want it. I want to know that the recipe works and tastes good and you've tested it. Style-wise, I don't think anybody's gonna worry about the style.

Madge: You have the ingredient itself and some level of preparation. The parentheses are a kindness to your reader--1 pound (about 2 cups) it starts with whatever's more important. But you want to be careful about more instructing. Indicate if it's not self-evident peeled and seeded.

Q: Concept of chopped, minced, diced are different

Madge: has images of chopped, minced, diced, a guide.

Q: Do you post a second recipe or make substitution notes.

Katie: Use an ingredient note. Gluten-free substitution: Substitute rice flour.

Alison: You could also note it in your headnote.

Madge: If it would really change your directions, that's the point I would do a second recipe.

Q: How did you break into recipe development?

Katie: I live in Vermont and we have one cooking magazine there and I graduated from culinary school and I was personal chefing, so I needed to find something to fill in the gaps. I had a friend who had a connection there. I gradually worked my way up.

Madge: If you want to work for a specific magazine or have an idea for a collection of recipes that tell a story, you need to pitch that magazine. If you want to break into a magazine, you need to meet editors and talk to them or to pitch them with an email and give a story of recipes.

Katie: has a membership, there's a whole section on how to pitch.

Q: Interviews with Judith Jones--recipe writing is too engineered and not interesting. If I know the conventions, at what point do you also think it expresses something interesting.

Madge: Voice is enormously important in your blog and your own cookbook, but not so much in a magazine. In your blog, the way you make decisions about how chatty or how full or rich it is.

Don't distract from the recipe, but I have my opportunity to be the big authoritarian writer or the friend in the kitchen. The headnote and instructions are where you have the opportunity. Your voice can be straightforward and helpful and no nonsense, or lush and rich and evocative.

Kristi @
Veggie Converter


Handout - Vocation - Professional-Grade Recipe Development – Recipe Template.pdf6.49 KB
Handout - Vocation - Professional-Grade Recipe Development - Recipe Test.pdf8.14 KB