The Making of a Cookbook: Recipe Testing
In exactly six weeks, my cookbook will finally be out in the world! In case you missed it, if you preorder a copy, I’ll send you a collection of EXCLUSIVE BONUS RECIPES that aren’t in the cookbook, or on my blog (more details here). You can preorder from anywhere books are sold. Below are a few links for easy reference:
This book has been nearly four years in the making, though I’ve had ideas for it rolling around in the back of my brain for much longer. I spent more than a year working on a proposal for the book (that’s a long document that includes a full description of the book concept, table of contents, sample recipes, and more), finding a literary agent, and (with my agent’s help) finding the right publisher.
- In Spring 2018, I formally accepted a publishing offer from Avery, a part of Penguin Random House. I love my team! You can read a bit about them in my original announcement post.
From that moment on, I’ve lived and breathed this book in one way or another.
- The first year after my deal was signed was the most intense. That’s when I finished developing the recipes (a process I shared here), fully tested the recipes (that’s what this post is about—and WHOA), wrote the manuscript, and we photographed the book.
- I submitted my manuscript, which included all of the final recipes and photos in Spring 2019.
- From there, I moved on to EDITS! This process took another year and was extremely challenging, in part due to my own perfectionism. This phase was so surprising, I wrote a blog post about it that you can read here.
To put it mildly, writing this cookbook has been a long, difficult, and rewarding journey. Now that I’ve held my book (and am cooking from it every day!), I can tell you it was 100% worth it.
^^those are the World’s Best Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies. The recipe is in my book♥.
While each phase of the book-writing process has its own unique challenges, unquestionably the largest, hardest, and most important part of cookbook writing is testing and perfecting the recipes. Put simply, recipes make a cookbook, and without a doubt, my cookbook has the best recipes I have ever created. Creating recipes for a cookbook breaks down into a few phases.
- The first is recipe development—how I come up with ideas for recipes and turn those ideas into instructions, ingredients, and notes so that you can recreate them at home.
- I cover recipe development in this post, so if you haven’t read it yet, take a few minutes to pop on over and get up to speed. I bet you’ll read at least one thing that will surprise you.
From there, we move on to cookbook recipe testing, which this post covers. You’ll find out:
- How many times I tested my cookbook recipes
- All about recipe fails
- Who else tested the recipes
- How I grocery shopped
- What happened to the leftovers
- And more!
I collected your questions on Instagram (you had a lot, including some that never occurred to me!), so I’ll be covering those here, along with my overall recipe testing process.
^^If this kitchen doesn’t look familiar, that’s because we’ve moved homes; I’ll always have a soft spot for our old kitchen as the place where my book recipes came to life.
HOW MANY TIMES DO YOU TEST YOUR RECIPES?
Every recipe in this book was tested a minimum of six times, though most were tested more than this.
- The first three (or however many tries it took) tests were done by me.
- The next two tests were done by two independent testers, each of whom submitted a detailed feedback form afterwards.
- The final unofficial (though still important) test occurred when I cooked the food for it to be photographed.
In reality, most of the recipes were tested far more than this. I tested a particularly stubborn layer cake six times before I allowed my recipe testers to have a hand at it. A certain batch of cookies took 11 tries to get just right. Once I believed a recipe was 100% ready, that’s when I sent it to my independent testers. Each test involved a survey that the tester completed afterwards. I tracked all of the results in a giant detailed spreadsheet, then updated and retested the recipes as needed. CONCLUSION: If you are looking for a book with well-tested recipes THAT WORK, this is the one.
DO YOU HAVE ANY RECIPE FAILS?
OMG YES. There was the cake that overflowed its pan (twice). The rice that was crunchy at first, then digressed to mushy, then to even mushier. The pasta salad that I thought would taste genius with diced pickles (it didn’t). The burger patties that refused to hold together no matter what I tried. My sister once watched me weep bitter, frustrated tears into a pan of failed brownies.
HOW OFTEN DO RECIPES FAIL?
It totally and completely depends. Many I’m fairly happy with on the first try (thanks to all the time I spend developing the recipe), but I still make them a few more times to make sure that a) the result isn’t a fluke, and b) I’m still as in love with it on the second, third, and fourth time as I was on the first.
HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH THE FAILURES?
I cry…sometimes (remember the brownies I mentioned above?). As time has gone on, instead of being demoralized, I’ve learned to accept failure as a part of the process. The flops need to happen to me so that they never ever happen when the book gets to you. I learn something new every time too. Often a simple tweak or two will fix the issue, and I’m smitten. Even when something wasn’t an all-out fail, I still tested it again to make sure that the recipes in the book aren’t merely good. The recipes need to be FABULOUS!
DO OTHER PEOPLE TEST YOUR RECIPES?
Yes! A willing, loving group of friends (mostly from college and a few blogger friends and high school friends), readers, and my two younger sisters all signed up to help test recipes. My two younger sisters and a few close friends tested for me tirelessly. Their candid feedback was vital to making these recipes their very best.
IS ALL THAT TESTING WORTH IT?
ALWAYS. I seriously cannot wait for you guys to try these recipes, because I know they are perfect!
HOW DO YOU FORMAT/PRINT/SAVE RECIPES DURING TESTING?
Here’s how a recipe progressed as I wrote the book:
- I typed it into a Word document, then printed a hard copy. This is what I had with me in the kitchen while I cooked.
- As a backup, I copied the recipe from Word into Evernote (an online platform) and included the recipe testing date and test version (version 1, version 4, etc). I recorded and labeled every single version of a recipe I tested. This helped me track the different testing iterations so I could remember what I did last time. Also, it’s a BACKUP copy, which as you might suspect, I was pretty obsessive about having.
- I mapped out all of the recipes I want to test on a given day, then went on a massive grocery shopping trip.
- I tested each recipe, working from the printed Word document. I looked for errors and made notes as I adjusted things. The paper gets VERY messy. Then, once I completed my notes, I…
- Updated the Word doc with test results and changes for next time.
- Updated Evernote with the test results (BACKUP).
- Wrote the new test version for how I planned to make the recipe next time (and recorded it in Word and in Evernote).
- Printed a hard copy.
- Grocery shop. Repeat. Then repeat again.
- When I felt the recipe was 100% ready, I uploaded it to a completely separate Google document (which is stored in the cloud). This is the version I sent to outside recipe testers, along with the survey.
BTW, I still have a whole cabinet full of the original printed recipe hard copies, complete with food splatters and my messy notes. I used to keep them just in case. Now, I simply can’t bear to part with them.
HOW DO YOU COOK THAT MUCH FOOD (AND THUS, WASH THAT MANY DISHES)?
I have help. I could not have gotten through all this testing without the support of someone I call my “kitchen assistant” but whom I should really call my sanity manager/counselor/recipe whisperer, my dear friend Maggie. When I was first starting on my cookbook, I posted on Facebook that I was looking for help with recipe testing. Maggie happened to see that post, reached out to me for the job, and now, two years later, I can’t imagine having written this book without her help. On recipe testing days, Maggie came over and we busted through an average of 10 recipes in one day. It’s long and exhausting but fun too. Maggie is a fabulous cook, so having her approval on the recipes was vital to their success and my mental health.
WHAT DO YOU DO WITH ALL THE LEFTOVERS?
Recipe testing days = A LOT of leftovers. Maggie took a good amount of them home to her family. I also planned for friends to come over for dinner (good friends who don’t mind the food stains on my shirt and the mess in the kitchen). This a) alleviated the supply of leftovers and b) provided additional, valuable feedback on how the recipes tasted. I’ve received so much insight this way!
HOW DO YOU KEEP UP WITH GROCERY SHOPPING?
Intense planning. I used my hard copies of the week’s recipes to make a massive shopping list, which I’d inevitably leave somewhere in the grocery store mid-trip and have to track back down. I limited my grocery shopping to two well-planned trips each week. Each grocery trip, I had two separate transactions. The first was for my cookbook and blog groceries (yep, remember that during all of this, I’m still testing and cooking recipes for my blog too!). The second was for personal, “non-business” groceries like coffee, basic things we eat for breakfast and lunch, or the rare non-leftover item we might eat for dinner.
HOW DO YOU STAY THIN?
On weeks when I’d be testing a lot of recipes, especially dessert-heavy weeks that involved testing three batches of cheesecake in one afternoon (this was a very long day), I made sure to balance out the testing days by eating salads for lunch on the off days. I also made exercise a priority (admittedly sometimes at the cost of sleep). Then and now, I exercise an average of 5x per week. My workouts are a mix of HIIT (high-intensity interval training), running, and weight lifting, with the occasional day of stretching to support my joints. Exercise both helped me keep the cookbook pounds at bay, and it was an enormous stress reliever.
HOW DO YOU STAY SANE?
^^I legitimately received this question, and it’s one I’ve asked myself. Writing a cookbook is a more than full-time job. So is blogging. Add in other details like finding time to work out, open the mail, spend time with friends/family/Ben, and remembering to cut my fingernails, and it makes for a less-than-ideal work/life situation. In addition to staying active (see above), I can’t overstate how critical the patience and grace that Ben (my #1 supporter), my friends, and my family afforded me was to my mental and physical health. I could not have done this without their support. I also built in a few travel breaks throughout the year when I wasn’t working on my book at all (see: Seattle, Italy), and a few where I could work on it in a more fun environment (see: Mexico). YOUR encouragement has also been vital. Every time I start to wonder why the heck I took on this crazy thing, I’ll receive a note or comment from one of you about how excited you are for my book or how much you enjoy my recipes. Your continual visits to my blog are why I can support myself and why this book is even possible. THANK YOU. I promise you will love it and the wait will be worth it!!
HOW DO I GET THESE INCREDIBLE, METICULOUSLY TESTED RECIPES?
PREORDER A COPY! Preordering is basically ordering a copy of the book early. You buy now, then it ships to you on publication day (August 25). Think of it as a present you are giving your future self! Preorders are vital for authors, something I didn’t fully realize until I became one myself. They can dictate a lot about how successful a book will be. As a thank you to anyone who preorders, I’m giving away FREE recipes. They went through this same rigorous testing process that you just read about above. These recipes are GOOD. You can learn more about the preorder bonus here. If you already preordered, thank you! You are 100% eligible to receive the bonus too.
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MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT MY COOKBOOK? Feel free to leave them in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to address them in a future post.
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