About recipe testing

I get asked a lot of questions about how I got into recipe testing and what it involves, so I thought I’d do a post about it and my experiences testing.

It started for me quite by chance. Joni was writing a burger book, and I posted a question on the PPK forum about vegan burgers. She asked me if I’d be interested in testing for her book, and since I’d already enjoyed some of things I’d tried from her first book, I went for it. If you’ve been reading my blog a while, you’ll know that Friday night became burger night on our house, and we really enjoyed picking one out each week. (Joni, if you’re reading this, when is it coming out?)

Then I really hit lucky when Isa asked for testers for her new book Vegan Brunch. I was honoured to be chosen, and loved doing all that testing. After that Joni asked if I’d help out with another project with Celine, for a mammoth project, 500 Vegan Recipes. That testing whizzed by; those girls had a really tight deadline and cranked out recipes so quickly that I didn’t test as much I’d have liked. Then came Terry’s Vegan Latina, then Tami’s Vegan American Kitchen, and now Isa’s new Healthy Vegan book. So I’m a busy tester right now! It’s months since I’ve eaten an evening meal which wasn’t a tester.

Here’s some questions I get asked:

1. So how do you actually do it?
The authors have a website, usually a discussion forum but sometimes a blog, that’s password protected for testers. They post a recipe and we go away and work at it. Then we give feedback about how long it took, whether we liked it, how many people it served, how we’d change it etc. Then the recipe either gets tweaked, changed, or after a certain amount of tests, gets closed for testing.

2. Do you get paid?
Ha! No. I get a copy of the book.

3. So why on earth do you do it?
Well, I love cooking, but I don’t really have much inspiration to create my own recipes. I love the idea of feeding into a project. I hate books with mistakes, or when its obvious that the recipes haven’t been tested properly. And I love making friends with the authors and other testers too. I’ve done some great food parcel swaps so that we can all have access to the ingredients we need. And it means we eat something different every single night!

4.Can anyone do it?
Well, anyone in theory could, but here’s a list of things I think you need to bear in mind if offering or planning to test recipes.

  • Flexibility. Recipes sometimes appear in a big rush all at once, and sometimes not for a while. You might need to change your meal plans at the last minute.
  • Cost. It isn’t cheap! You might sometimes need just a spoonful of an ingredient you don’t normally buy, or go to a few different shops to track something down. You’ve got to be cunning with leftovers too or you start to waste stuff.
  • Feedback. You need to be clear in your own mind about the difference between you not liking something and it not actually working. This is really important. Not everyone can love everything and you need to learn to say so, but when to know it’s probably just your tastebuds.
  • Precision. Your oven temperature needs to be right, you need to weigh and measure things properly, you can’t just throw in a load of extra things like you normally might. And you need to think very carefully about making substitutions and how it affects the test. All the authors I’ve tested for are American, so I’ve learnt a lot about different names for UK ingredients! And something which is really difficult for me to get, is very easy for them (say, tempeh, or liquid smoke).
  • Techniques. If I’m just following a recipe from a book I just do it from the instructions. But I’ve noticed that the most common mistake authors make is listing an ingredient then not referring to it, or vice versa. So now I get all the ingredients on the counter first so that I can easily notice if something isn’t used.
  • Chance of failure. Of course if you are testing a recipe, there’s probably more chance of it not working than if you pick one from a book. I made Isa’s omelette from Vegan Brunch at least 4 times before I got it to work, so I had a few meals of broken up omelette type stuff. But you take the rough with the smooth and its great when it eventually does work!

But I love testing, I’ve loved everything I’ve done. It’s made me a better cook, given me access to tonnes of new recipes, has introduced me to loads of great people, made me become a big part of the vegan community and given us lots of new things to eat and discuss at home. I owe a huge thanks to all you authors and co testers who continue to inspire me!

Here’s a few pictures of things I have been testing recently.

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20 thoughts on “About recipe testing

  1. As an author, this is really awesome to read. The omelets were probably the roughest testing I’ve ever experienced but it was a relief to finally get them right. Imagine having sent that recipe out in the world without any testing? It really is the key to a successful book. Thanks for all your work! As an occasional recipe tester myself I know how much work it is.

  2. Tami’s is the first cookbook I’ve tested and it has been so much fun! I’m also testing for Julie Hasson and I went to 6 different grocery stores before I found 2 ingredients I was looking for (that should have been easy to find!). Yes, it does become expensive! But totally worth it!

  3. All the testing you do is super impressive, it sounds challenging but super fun. I’m jealous you get to test for Isa’s new book, I can’t wait for it to come out.

  4. Thanks for this post! Very intersesting and I always wondered what the process was. I can see how even though it’s expensive and time consuming, it would be so fulfilling…really pushing you to cook “outside of the box” and try things you never normally would. As a reader and user of many of the cookbooks you’ve tested for, thanks!

  5. Just wanted to re-iterate that your Broccoli Marmite Pie is awesome! I’m glad you didn’t mind me including measurements. I didn’t want to post your recipe without permission, but I figured folks might wanna know what measurements I used. JohnP from the PPK sent me a Facebook comment about that recipe, and I knew I had to try it….very, very good! Marmite is magic!

  6. I am disappointed that that North American cookery books do not make any concessions to British readers especially if recipes are tested in this country. It would be useful to know what would work as a substitute for ingrediants we cannot get or are unfamiliar with. Many recipes recommend russet potatoes. It would be helpful to know if these are floury or waxy.

    • It’s normally easy to check with google. I don’t think any cookbook author could provide ingredients in every language! Any “baking potato” makes a good sub for russets!

      • I’m just having a bit of a lurk on here, I appreciate it very much. I’m a bit of a vegan cookbook fiend too, I just can’t resist. I’m in Australia so I sympathise with you Brits! I think it’s even harder to substitue in Oz but I’m lucky that I have access to Asian/Indian markets and health food shops or online food sites. Anyway, not sure what you call them but I always use what we call ‘sebago’ potatos for Russets. I would really LOVE it if all American cookbook authors put the celcius temperature in brackets…Isa please? I love your books already but that would be awesome.

  7. Liz, as usual, you are thoughtful, insightful, and full of great information! Having been a tester and now (almost) a writer, I can say that testing with you on other books, as well as having your valuable input on mine, has not only improved my upcoming book, but also made me a better cook.

    Thanks for this awesome post that gives people an idea of what it takes to test.

  8. What a nice post! You make me want to be a tester, too! So far I’m still cooking the (already published) vegan books, and having a great time at it! Love your site!

  9. Pingback: Veganmofo 2009 – Candle Cafe Cookbook « Cooking the Vegan Books

  10. Pingback: Spicy Beef Patty and a note on Testing « Vegan In The Sun

  11. This was a really interesting and honest post and it is so great to have you test for me. You are really an asset to the book.

  12. Pingback: 500 Vegan Recipes « Cooking the Vegan Books

  13. I’ve seriously been looking for quite some time for someone with good honest information about recipe testing. I really enjoyed your post, and appreciate all information and insite you’ve offered.
    I also read the post from “Vegan in the Sun” from the link above, and completely agree and understand with her views on Recipe testers.
    I feel that this would really be something that I could excel at, as I’m very open to trying new things, and have a very open minded opinion about food in general.
    Could you/anyone refer me to some authors/bloggers who might be in need of recipe testers? Doesn’t matter the type, style or kind of food to be tested.

  14. Liz, just to say that this is a super post. I saw it when Taymer linked to it, and it was really helpful to me. Because of it, I got a handle on what proper testing procedure and etiquette is and I am now testing (alongside you) for two cookbooks. I love learning the process. So thank you muchly!

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