Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Secret Life of a Recipe Tester

Liz Baer in the kitchen.

Liz Baer earns her paycheck teaching Latin, but she’s been moonlighting for a little more than a year testing recipes for the forthcoming Berkshires Farm Table Cookbook by Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner. Perhaps it hasn’t crossed your mind that cookbooks need recipe testers, but they do, in the same way that all books need copy editors – or perhaps more urgently, because readers aren’t generally required to eat typos. (For an exception to that rule, keep reading to the end.) For The Berkshires Farm Table Cookbook, Baer didn’t test every single recipe herself, but each one was tested more than once. Two authors and two independent testers meant a total of four people who checked and double-checked (and sometimes triple-checked and quadruple-checked) every single recipe.

Bildner and Spungen Bildner, she tells me, have always been interested in small local farms and in promoting farmers from the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, so this cookbook includes profiles of area farmers and their recipes. It also includes recipes developed by Brian Alberg to showcase regional farm products; and recipes donated by area chefs from the menus of their restaurants. Farmers and professional chefs don’t always record recipes in ways that home cooks can follow easily: they might list an ingredient and then leave it out of the instructions, or mention it in the instructions but leave it out of the ingredients list. Chefs might not give time indications, because they’re mixing or whipping or baking their concoctions “until they look (or smell or sound) right.” (I’m quoting my grandmother, there. Her many variations on that phrase are the main reason why my mother, an attorney, was never able to reproduce her extraordinary dishes.)

Chefs do a lot by intuition, Baer explains. And in her everyday life, when she’s not moonlighting as a recipe tester, Baer does too. So the real challenge for her when she started testing was to put herself in the shoes of a home cook who doesn’t necessarily have that sort of experience to rely on. That meant she had to follow the recipe exactly, and resist the temptation to substitute ingredients with whatever she had on hand. She also had to measure ingredients many times over and in different ways. For example, she would purchase vegetables by weight, then dice them and deposit them into measuring cups to check their volume. That’s not the sort of thing most of us bother to do when we’re just making dinner for family or friends. Baer also purchased chicken broth and frozen corn from the store, because most home cooks don’t have the time or inclination to make their own broth or to freeze summer corn for use throughout the year – both of which she likes to do.

Beet pasta dough.

The recipe tester’s directive, empathize with the home cook, even extends to matters of taste. Sometimes, it turns out, testers or their loved ones just don’t like the dish they’re making, even though there’s nothing particularly wrong with it. So Baer has to take personal preferences into account when she decides whether a recipe works or not: her husband doesn’t care for chicken cacciatore, she says, but she still needs to be able to figure out whether that recipe works for somebody who does.

I ask Baer what we might not be imagining when we envision recipe testers at work, and she mentions the ridiculous scads of leftovers: she brought a lot of food to work while she was testing for the cookbook. Fortunately, when there’s food on offer, teachers turn out to be willing human subjects experiments. Baer says that the excessive leftovers can be pretty weird, though. What are you supposed to do with the six lemons sitting in the fridge that you flayed just to get the zest? (A thought: sidecars for everyone!)

Baer now has a brand new blog, Culinursa. (“Ursa” is the Latin word for “bear.”) Culinursa offers tasty recipes and quirky food discoveries. The tasty recipes include one for General Tso’s chicken and another for The Second Best Brownies Ever. (As a teacher myself, I learned long ago that one surefire way to make your students curious is to label something “The Second Best Ever.” You just checked out that blog out, didn’t you? Because you actually wanted to find out what The Best Brownie ever was? I’m so sorry for your broken heart.) For the quirky discoveries, she writes about a gas station in Maine that serves fantastic lobster salad, a.k.a. lobster rolls without the roll, which Baer prefers to eat – without any obvious irony – on toasted challah.

Culinursa is also about recipe testing and copy editing, two of Baer’s special superpowers. She has a great deal of experience with the latter, going back to a stint with the American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd edition. The way she talks about recipe testing and copy editing it’s clear that, for her at least, the two skills have a lot in common. In fact, there are moments when they become one and the same, like the time when she made and remade and remade and remade again a blueberry crisp that just wouldn’t work out right, until she figured out that the two quarts of blueberries were supposed to be two pints – a mistake that, with perfect hindsight, was surprisingly easy to make because there’s only a one-letter difference between “qts.” and “pts.” So, at least in this one case, Baer was forced to eat the typo – over and over again – until she finally figured out that it was a typo.

Ellen Perry eats, cooks, and keeps bees in central Massachusetts. She teaches classical archaeology at the College of the Holy Cross and is the author of The Aesthetics of Emulation in the Visual Arts of Ancient Rome, the co-editor of Roman Artists, Patrons, and Public Consumption, and has written a number of articles on Roman art and architectural space.

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