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Notes from the Test Kitchen interns: Recipe testing

May 18, 2010 | 12:22 pm

About a week ago, I introduced Michael Osborne, one of our Test Kitchen interns. Probably the most important thing we teach our interns is how to read a recipe from a recipe tester's standpoint. Unlike the latitude we might take when we tackle a recipe at home, formally testing a recipe in a test kitchen is a whole different thing. We follow a recipe step by step, ruler and timer in hand, making notes on everything from what size saucepan we use to what the consistency for a finished sauce might be and how many minutes it takes to get there. Any questions we might have go through the chef or restaurant; we make no assumptions.

Michael worked a lot on our most recent Culinary SOS, our weekly column where we adapt readers' favorite restaurant and bakery recipes for the home. He tested and retested the recipe, double-checking ratios and making sure every step worked -- literally -- as it was written. Here are his notes. -- Noelle Carter

A reader loves the caramel banana bread pudding from a hotel in Phoenix, and we just got the recipe from the chef. It's a potential Culinary SOS, but will need to be tested before we can run it.

The recipe looks a little complicated. As we read through the ingredients and steps, we quickly note that the recipe will have to be scaled down -- a home cook doesn't need three gallons of custard to make a bread pudding for a family of four. Calculator and red pen in hand, we quickly adjust the recipe proportions and reduce the amounts to a manageable size. Simple math. The directions look a little nebulous: What are the visual cues? And what does the chef mean by "overripe bananas?" Do we toast or dry the cubed croissants -- and how big are the cubes? Time to get the chef on the horn and break out the ruler.

In the Test Kitchen, our normal M.O. is to take the recipe quite literally the first time we make it....

Many recipes come to us from busy chefs who have been making the dish for so long they can do it in their sleep. Measuring and quantifying don't enter into the equation. Often, they rely on "Chef Spidey-Sense": visual cues, feel, texture, taste and aroma. It's not easy to translate a method into a recipe.

Our readers, on the other hand, often rely on recipes -- word for word. The information and instruction we provide must be accurate and absolutely gin-clear.

So, as the testing begins, we follow the oft-times nebulous instructions as closely as possible and try to figure out what the recipe originator really intended. We play lots of telephone tag in the quest for clarity and then we note changes, try again, and try to learn from our mistakes. It's a lot like reverse engineering combined with cooking ESP.

The L.A. Times Test Kitchen is the place where recipe mistakes are supposed to happen. Recipes to be tested arrive from varied sources -- writers, cookbooks, chefs, bakeries and restaurants. It's our job to ferret out potential problems, scrutinize methods and procedures, and be analytical enough to ask the kinds of questions we think you would, questions like, "What size cubes should I cut for this bread pudding?"

If at first, second or seventh attempt we haven't succeeded, we don't print the recipe. Not until we get it right. Sometimes it even means a personal visit to the restaurant for some face time with the chef.

We tested this bread pudding several times before we felt fit to print it. In the Test Kitchen, it's our job to botch things up so the reader doesn't have to.

-- Michael Osborne

Photo: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times