The basics of recipe testingWhen I first began testing recipes I was working on cookbooks, and I wasn't expected to edit the recipes. I wrote a critique of each one, commenting on the ingredients (hard or easy to find, where they are available), method (can one person prepare the recipe alone, do the steps follow in a reasonable sequence), quantity (does the amount seem to be correct, does the recipe really make 3 dozen cookies, will the stew really serve 10, is the recipe and quantity more appropriate for brunch, lunch or dinner...), equipment (is a mandoline absolutely necessary, must the bowl be stainless steel, what if we don't have a convection oven), flavor (is it supposed to be that sour, have that much salt), texture (should it be granular or smooth, is it supposed to be wilted), color (bake until light brown, golden or dark..)...You get the idea.
When I began to work for the New york Times, I was surprised to learn that I was expected to edit the recipes as well. This makes sense and wasn't difficult for me to learn to do since I was accustomed to making notes about the recipes as I tested them. All I had to do was put them in the correct format. But this is the tricky and most difficult part of recipe testing, because it is in the editing of a recipe that there is communication between the chef and the reader of the published recipe. It is the job of the recipe tester, who may not have eaten the food in question, to understand what the chef intended and convey that accurately and succinctly to the reader. It's not the function of a single recipe to give a course in baking or pasta or roasting, yet a good recipe will allow the average cook to achieve the same (or close) results that will be had by a professional chef.
Recipes in cookbooks, magazines and newspapers all have different requirements and styles. A cookbook has room for longer recipes with headnotes, footnotes, sidebars, photos, diagrams, and whatever else might strike the fancy of the writer and publisher. Magazines are, for obvious reasons, more limited. And newspapers require brevity. I enjoy the challenge of cutting a recipe to its essence. I often have to deconstruct the steps of a recipe and rewrite the whole thing so that it says the same thing in different words, and considerably shortened.
I usually test a recipe once even when I spot an error. But it's not unusual for me to test a problematic or questionable recipe two or three times. I'll address the kinds of problems I find a little later on.