The Making of a Cookbook: Recipe Testing

How cookbook recipes are tested, including the number of times cookbook recipes are tested, recipe failure, grocery shopping and more from food blogger and cookbook author Erin Clarke

Send all the wine and coffee. I’m in the final push to submit the manuscript (including all completed recipes, recipe intros, chapter intros, photos, everything) for my upcoming cookbook in just a few weeks (!!). It’s been a long, difficult, and rewarding journey getting all 125+ NEW recipes (as in recipes you can’t find on my blog or anywhere else) to this point.

While each phase of the book-writing process has its own unique challenges, unquestionably the largest, hardest, and most important part of them all 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’ll wait…

…Hi! Welcome back. Now that you’re all recipe development savvy, let’s talk about cookbook recipe testing.

This topic covers everything from how many times I test my cookbook recipes, to recipe fails, to how I grocery shop, to what happens 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.

Let’s get to it!


Number of Times I Test a Recipe + Recipe Fails

HOW MANY TIMES DO YOU TEST YOUR RECIPES?

Three is my minimum, not counting the final test, which occurs when I cook the food for it to be photographed. Each recipe also is tested by two independent testers, bringing all of the recipes to a total of six tests per recipe, minimum.

In reality, most of these recipes I’ve tested far more than three times. I just wrapped up round six with a particularly stubborn layer cake, and a certain batch of cookies took 11 tries to get just right.

Once I’ve finished testing a recipe to where I think it is 100% ready, it goes through two rounds of independent reader testing. Each test involves a survey that the tester completes afterwards. I track all of the results in a giant detailed spreadsheet, then update and retest the recipes as needed.

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 isn’t an all-out fail, I still test it again to make sure that the recipe isn’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 have tested for me tirelessly. Their candid feedback has been 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!


Nerdy, Important Stuff: How I Keep Track of the HUNDREDS of Recipe Versions

HOW DO YOU FORMAT/PRINT/SAVE RECIPES DURING TESTING?

Every recipe goes through a few stages:

  1. I type it into a Word document, then print a hard copy. This I’ll use when I cook.
  2. I copy/paste the recipe from Word into Evernote (an online platform) and include the recipe testing date and test version (version 1, version 4, etc). I save and label every single test version a recipe goes through. This helps me track the different testing iterations so I can remember what I did last time. Also, it’s a BACK UP copy, which as you might suspect, I’m pretty obsessive about having.
  3. I plan out all of the recipes I want to test on a given day, then go on a massive grocery shopping trip.
  4. I test each recipe, working from the printed Word document. I look for errors and make notes as I adjust things. The paper gets VERY messy. Then, once I’ve completed my notes, I…
  5. Update Word doc with test results and changes for next time.
  6. Update Evernote with test results.
  7. Write the new test version for how I plan to make recipe next time (and record it in Word and in Evernote).
  8. Print a hard copy. Grocery shop. Repeat. Then repeat again.
  9. When I feel the recipe is 100% ready, I upload it to a completely separate Google document (which is stored in the cloud). This is the version I send to outside recipe testers, along with the survey.

BTW, I have a whole cabinet full of the original printed hard copies complete with food splatters and my messy notes just in case.


Real Talk: Groceries, Leftovers, and Dishes

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, a year later, I can’t imagine having written this book without her help.

On recipe testing days, Maggie comes over and we bust 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 has been vital to their success and my mental health.

WHAT DO YOU DO WITH ALL THE LEFTOVERS?

Recipe testing days = A LOT of leftovers. Maggie takes a good amount of them home to her family. I also plan 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) alleviates the supply of leftovers and b) provides additional, valuable feedback on how the recipes taste. I’ve received so much insight this way!

HOW DO YOU KEEP UP WITH GROCERY SHOPPING?

Intense planning. I use my hard copies of the week’s recipes to make a massive shopping list, which I inevitably leave somewhere in the grocery store mid-trip and have to track back down. I try to limit my grocery shopping to two well-planned trips each week.

Each grocery trip, I have two separate transactions. The first is 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 is 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.


Health

HOW DO YOU STAY SO SKINNY?

On weeks when I’m testing a lot of recipes, especially dessert-heavy weeks that involve testing three batches of cheesecake in one afternoon (this was a very long day), I make sure to balance out the testing days by eating salads for lunch on the off days.

I also make exercise a priority (admittedly sometimes at the cost of sleep). I exercise an average of 5x per week. My workouts are a mix of HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and weight lifting.

Exercise has helped me keep the cookbook pounds at bay, and it is also an enormous stress reliever.

HOW ARE YOU ALIVE RIGHT NOW?

^^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 supporter #1), my friends, and my family have afforded me this year has been to my mental and physical health. I could not do this without their support. I also could not keep my blog running without the help of my communications manager, Caitlin, who in addition to dealing with my general stress level (no small task), keeps me, my blog posts, and my social media accurate and on schedule.

I also built in a few travel breaks this year when I didn’t work on my book at all (see: SeattleItaly), 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!!


Thank U, Next

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER A RECIPE IS FULLY TESTED?

Once the recipe is tested and 110% good to go, we move onto the PHOTOGRAPHY, which is a whole new beast! I’ll be covering that in a future post.

To make sure you don’t miss details about my upcoming cookbook, sign up to receive new blog posts in your inbox here. It’s completely free, and I’ll send you a free e-cookbook with 10 of my favorite easy, healthy weeknight meals as a thank-you!


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.

Thanks for following along, and stay tuned for more details about my cookbook’s release, slated for Spring 2020!

This post contains some affiliate links, which means that I make a small commission off items you purchase at no additional cost to you.

About Erin Clarke

I’m fearlessly dedicated to making healthy food taste incredible. Wearer of plaid, travel enthusiast, and firmly convinced that sweets and veggies both deserve a place at the table. MORE ABOUT ERIN…

38 comments

  1. I am so excited for this cookbook! I’m certain it’s going to be amazing!

  2. I’m absolute;y amazed that anybody would even bother to write a cookbook with all the work that’s involved. HOWEVER, those of us who love to cook are eternally grateful for all the effort, caring, and love put into this daunting project. So looking forward to what I’m sure will be a lovely cookbook to add to my collection…thank you in advance.

    • Chris, even though it’s been really difficult I know that it’s going to be totally worth it! I love the idea of you having a permanent collection of recipes in your collection❤️. Thank you so, so much for your support!

  3. Yikes, I was overwhelmed by all of that. And I know that is such a fraction of what needs to get done. I don’t know how or when you would have time to sleep with all of that going on. I am amazed in the digital age you don’t have your groceries delivered on a day where you already have SO much going on. I have little notebook I bring with me so its harder for me to lose. :-) I always love these posts so much. It really makes me appreciate a cookbook so much more. Will your cookbook have nutrition info in it like your blog does? I love when recipes have that because of the diabetics in my life and the carb count is super important. Thank you for sharing the journey with us.

    • Hi Courtney! I’m just starting to explore grocery delivery (I’m pretty particular about produce, so it’s hard to imagine not being there to select it myself!), but I think that could be a game changer. We’re still exploring nutritional info, so stay tuned for more on that. I really appreciate your support. THANK YOU!

  4. WOW!! Thanks for being real and letting us all see the cookbook journey. It definitely makes for a better experience when I have cooking “fails”. My girls and I have enjoyed your recipes and look forward to your cookbook :)

  5. I burst right out laughing with the leaving your list somewhere in the grocery store and having to backtrack..I do that ALL the time and it’s nice to know I’m not alone!

    I’ve shared your recipes with friends, co-workers in Virtual strangers. My son and I tried so many of them, and have never been disappointed you have saved us from the boredom of cooking the same thing over and over again because at age 59, my brain is dead as far as coming up with ideas. Truthfully, I don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t discover your blog. I’ve been to others, but they just can’t compare. My father used to say the hardest part cooking was not for cooking. It was trying to come up with what to cook!

    We cannot wait for your book to come out!

    • Cat, I am overjoyed that you found my blog and so grateful to you for passing it along to so many. THANK YOU for your support and these kind words! (And yes, losing the list is the worst, lol!)

  6. This was a really interesting post and I appreciate the details you provided. It sounds exhausting but exciting and your attention to detail will pay off!

  7. Keep going, Erin! I love this behind-the-scenes look at the making of a cookbook. I have been following you ever since your S’mores Brownie Bites post, and I can’t wait to have your cookbook in my collection. When the time comes, perhaps you will tell us how to secure an autographed copy :)

  8. Thanks for sharing all this Erin! I make at least one of your recipes a week and can’t wait for your cookbook :)

  9. I can’t wait for your cookbook! I have a ton of cookbooks and I’ll admit I never use any of them. Mostly because I’m too lazy to read thru them looking for a new recipe worth trying. But since I’ve found your blog I find myself looking thru your recipes at least once a day if not more. Whether I’m bored, looking for dinner ideas or reading your newest post I always find something that peaks my interest. Not to mention my hubby has also loved all the new recipes I’ve added to our weekly menus. I can honestly say I might cook my way thru your new cookbook from front to back (just like the movie Julie & Julia).  💜

  10. When can we preorder your cookbook?! I’m SO excited!

  11. I’m almost 68, and you have brought the joy of cooking back to me! Now that I’m retired, I can really try your wonderful recipes! I light up when I see an email from you! My husband always compliments the food, so I really appreciate all the effort that goes into your recipes. I live at high altitude, and so far, everything has turned out well. Cannot wait for your cookbook to come out!!!

  12. Wow, Erin, I’m totally in awe (and exhausted lol) reading about the time, thought process, energy and dedication it takes for you to perfect a recipe! It’s a wonder you can get any sleep, exercise or even any few moments of peace and solitude to yourself. You’re truly dedicated and passionate and we appreciate your tireless and endless hours! I’m so excited to get your cookbook soon… all of your hard work will be so very satisfying when you’re holding your cookbook in your hands! 

  13. I am so thankful and excited about your cookbook, as a grandma I appreciate the yummy kid-adult friendly recipes. Will your cookbook include include tips on how to make ahead and freeze recipes? Thank you for all your hard work.

  14. Every wellplated recipe I have tried has been amazing. I’ve never been disappointed at how easy the instructions are to follow or how delicious the food is. I eagerly await your cookbook!

  15. Erin!! I’m SO EXCITED for the cookbook and so excited to support your passion. I love trying out your recipes and so many have become staples in mine and my fiancé’s kitchen. So happy for you! 💛💚💙

  16.  Can’t wait to buy your cookbook! With all the work you’ve put into it it sounds like it will be fabulous !!!

  17. The way you cook speaks to me, mainly because I am A) constantly thinking about food and B) constantly wishing I could easily and more healthily recreate the meals I had growing up (in the South — if you find a way to recreate fried chicken, let me know!). Instant Pot Beef Stroganoff is one of our favorites for this very reason. I don’t remember how I found your blog, but I am SO glad that I did. I’ve shared it with everyone I know and I CAN’T WAIT to buy your cookbook!
    Also – I second what Deborah L. said about getting an autographed copy! :)

  18. I’m just in awe of you and all of your hard work. So looking forward to your cookbook!!

  19. It is wonderful that you have had Maggie by your side on recipe testing days. I would imagine that your friends who are invited to taste the results are happy to be there as well. It sounds like an exhaustive undertaking to create a cookbook, but it will be fun to see it completed. Perhaps this is just the start! Maybe someday we will see you on the Food Network.

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