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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Testing Recipes

Posted Aug 07 2013 4:47pm

I’ve mentioned before that we test recipes for Cook’s Illustrated.  It’s not as glamorous as it sounds – totally voluntary, no payment or glory or anything.  I just thought it sounded like fun; it would give me a chance to maybe learn some new cooking techniques and try some new ingredients, since I’m trying to reform my picky-eating ways.

It was fairly easy to join; I just watched their Twitter feed until they announced they were looking for new recipe testers, and I applied via the link they provided.  Within a couple days they were welcoming me to the team.

Every now and then, they send me an email with a recipe to test.  There’s a link to a survey that you fill out after you test the recipe, as well as a link to the recipe itself.  They ask that you not share the recipe when it’s in the testing phase, although once it’s been published you can share as long as you give them credit.  They ask you not to test the recipe if it’s something you normally wouldn’t like (and I avoid anything with fish, since Dave is allergic to it).  They give you a deadline, usually 2 or 3 weeks away, and ask that you test the recipe and fill out the survey before that date.

So that’s how it works.  Pretty simple!  So far I’ve probably tested 2/3 of the recipes they send me.  I learned the hard way to take a pass on recipes that are loaded with unusual ingredients.  At first I was drawn to them, since one of my goals is to broaden my culinary horizons.  After a couple recipes that cost me around $20 in ingredients that are now languishing in my pantry, I’m now more discerning in the recipes I test.

Sometimes the ingredients are new-to-me but not expensive and/or hard to find, like the bean dip that used pink beans.  I’d never heard of them, but there they were, cheap and easy to find, right there with the canned pinto and navy beans.  (The recipe also called for frozen lima beans, which I HATE; they were great in the dip (mashed up, thankfully) but the rest of the bag hung out in the freezer until The Great Derecho/Almost-Four-Day Power Outage/Heatwave of 2012, when we lost everything in our fridge and freezer.  I was not sad to see them go.)

Usually what happens is the recipe will call for a miniscule amount of a really expensive ingredient that you can only get in a big size.  Or a miniscule amount of an ingredient that I can’t figure out what to use in anything else.  Perfect example:  I have a bag of cracked wheat, sitting in my pantry for over a year, from a really horrible vegetarian chili that we tested.  The chili was so bad that I’m scared to even look up ways to use cracked wheat in other recipes.

Sometimes I just can’t find the ingredient they’re calling for.  Off the top of my head, I can remember this happening with a specific type of vinegar and also French green lentils.  We shop at an international produce/grocery store that has just about everything, but I could not find either of those things.  I’m not willing to drive 40 minutes to Whole Foods, so I crossed those recipes off my list.

Normally I would just substitute that ingredient for something similar that I could get my hands on.  When I’m testing a recipe, though, I follow it religiously:  no ingredient substitutions; I time all the steps to see if they match what the recipe says; and I make sure the pans and skillets and such are all the same size and type called for in the recipe.  (Case in point:  I just got a cheese soufflé recipe to test that I had to pass on because we don’t have a soufflé pan.  Plus, the cheeses were Parmesan and Gruyere, and I absolutely detest both of them.)

Usually we like the recipes we test, and we’ve kept quite a few.  I tested an amazing filled peanut butter cookie and delicious Italian Florentine cookie, the aforementioned bean dip, pan roasted potatoes, berry trifle, steak and, oh, the cauliflower soup with little vinegar-soaked roasted cauliflower pieces as a garnish.  I really went out on a limb with that one, because although I’m fine with vinegar as an ingredient, I don’t eat it ‘raw’ (as in a salad dressing, for example).  The smell just gags me, and I can’t get past it.  But I really wanted to do the whole recipe, including the garnish, so I started out with just two little florets floating on top of my soup.  The vinegar smell was overpowering and I was afraid it would make me hate the soup, so I ate the florets first to get them out of the way.  And I loved them!  (And went back for more).  I couldn’t believe it.  Why does vinegar have to smell so bad?!  I would probably eat it more if it smelled better.

We tested a few recipes that were good but just such a hassle that we would never make them again.  One of those was for turkey burgers, which required us to buy a turkey leg and cut it into pieces and then put them in the food processor with butter to make the ‘ground turkey.’  The butter completely coated the food processor, it took Dave 30-45 minutes to cut up the damn turkey leg, and the other ingredients I had to mix in just didn’t want to mix – the butter repelled them.  We finally got the burgers made and they were delicious, but I had to report that I’d never make it again (and why).

By the way, when that recipe finally got published, it was nothing like the recipe I tested.  I noticed right away that the butter was gone (I can’t remember what they ended up using in the final recipe, maybe gelatin).  I don’t always see the final, published version of the recipes I test, but all of the ones I’ve seen have been changed in some way from the version that I had.  Even the ones that I gave rave reviews – which makes me wonder if other people complained about things that I thought were perfectly yummy.

Now, some of these recipes are duds.  It happens rarely, but for some reason, the vegetarian recipes I’ve tested have not been good.  It seems like they really want to make it seem NOT vegetarian (the cracked wheat was supposed to simulate the mouthfeel of ground beef, for instance) and it ends up being too convoluted.  After we worked all afternoon on the vegetarian chili recipe (and had a huge vat of it to show for our efforts), Dave took one taste, made a face and spit in the garbage.  I tasted it and thought it was pretty icky but not necessarily inedible.  Dave, however, was grievously offended…and he’s not even the picky eater in the family!  He’s like Mikey…he’ll eat anything.  We decided to toss it; there was no way it was all going to be eaten.

And then a couple nights ago, I tested a vegetarian bean enchilada recipe.  We have a couple of bean burrito recipes that we really like, so I thought it sounded promising.  I showed the recipe to Dave, and he immediately agreed that we should test it; he especially liked the ‘mole-type sauce’ that we were going to make to go with it, since he’s never had mole sauce.  (Neither have I.)

I should have known, just by reading the ingredients and the recipe steps, that I wasn’t going to like it.  There were some unusual ingredients that we don’t normally keep on hand (pumpkin seeds, guajillo chiles, canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce) but that didn’t deter me because I can think of lots of other things I would use those (leftover) ingredients in.  Mainly the enchilada consisted of the sauce (pureed smooth in a blender) and a can of pinto beans.  There was nothing else inside – no fresh veggies, no cheese (other than what was blended into the sauce).  As we cooked the beans and sauce together, most of the beans smushed and it was just a brown puree-type filling with no other texture.  Because of the bittersweet chocolate in the sauce, it was an unappealing dark brown color and it truly looked like we were smearing the contents of a baby diaper on the corn tortillas.  But we kept on, following the recipe exactly, baking the enchiladas in a bath of the nasty brown sauce.  We pulled them out and topped them with a chopped scallion from our garden (finally, a fresh vegetable, and some COLOR!) and some crumbled queso fresco, which was a new cheese for both of us.  (We loved it, thankfully – this was one good outcome from the recipe, since we now have a new cheese to enjoy.)

We sat down to eat, and I wasn’t optimistic but I tried to hide it.  I jokingly said, “Hopefully they’ll taste better than they look!”  I took a bite, chewed, and contemplated the flavor:  muddy and murky were the two words that came to mind.  There was no texture (beyond a slight crunch from the ends of the corn tortilla, although most of it was soggy from the sauce on top and bottom).  The flavor was bitter and just flat-out horrible.  I looked at Dave and said, “You try it.  If you like them, I’ll finish mine.  But otherwise I’m going to recommend that we order a pizza for dinner.”

Dave took a bite and started chewing.  And chewing.  And chewing.  After he finally swallowed that bite with a big gulp, he said, “Um, yeah…let’s order a pizza.  These are terrible.”

It was a wasted hour in the kitchen, meticulously testing each step of this recipe, but that’s what we signed up for so we were just bemused.  I gave this recipe the worst review I’ve ever bestowed, and recommended that they ditch the sauce altogether and just use fresh vegetables with the beans.  (Of course, that makes it a burrito and not an enchilada, but whew, the sauce was bad!)  I’m kind of hoping I get to see the final recipe when it’s published; I’d love to see if there are big changes.  I have to wonder if I’m the only one who had such a bad result.

Now I’m eyeing the zucchini lining my counter, thanks to our bountiful garden.  Hopefully they’ll be sending some tester zucchini recipes my way soon…


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