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Notes from the Test Kitchen interns: Fine-tuning a recipe

June 10, 2010 | 10:49 am

Cremebruleekirkmckoy About a week ago,  I introduced Leo Rubin, 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 cook something 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.

Leo has worked a lot helping to test many of our recent recipes for 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

During my time in the test kitchen, I've learned a bunch of techniques that are required to test a recipe. And it can sometimes be a long process, using a trial-and-error approach to achieve the perfect end result.

A perfect example is our recent Culinary SOS recipe for Kona coffee crème brûlée.

Whenever we receive a recipe from a restaurant, we give it an initial run-through, following the exact directions. Often we may have questions for the chef, and he or she may get an earful from us: What size baking pan should we use? Over what heat are we cooking on the stove? Is there a good visual indicator for when the recipe, or a particular step, is done?

After that initial trial, we analyze the results. If a dish is good, we keep the recipe and formally test it for publication. If it's not, we toss it and move on.

Often a recipe needs to be tweaked. Maybe the dough is too soft. Or the soup might need a little seasoning. Perhaps an entire step was left out of the recipe. Of course, we also have to be careful with any changes we make. It's important to remember that this is the restaurant's recipe, and we need to do everything we can to try to stay true to the original.

Some of the biggest challenges adapting recipes are sizing them down and converting from a commercial environment. Many of the recipes we receive are for large portions, and need to be adapted to work in the home kitchen. We also have to keep other things in mind. Many restaurants use convection ovens; because of the air constantly circulating, they typically run 25 degrees hotter than traditional home "still" ovens. This can be a big deal, particularly for a delicate baking recipe. And then there's the issue of commercial equipment and tools that might not be found in a home kitchen. We test and adapt to try to provide alternate methods that still achieve similar results. 

When we tested the crème brûlée for the first time, we loved the flavor but could not get the custard to properly set up. Looking at the recipe, we noted two things. First, the original recipe called for a whole cup of coffee, which seemed to be too much liquid to allow the custard to set. That, and the recipe didn't indicate that the custard should be covered with foil as it baked.

Then we really started testing the recipe. This is the fun part; it's when we get to "tinker" with a recipe until we achieve the best result we can. Depending on the recipe, testing may take as little as one day, or we might spend several weeks fine-tuning until we get it right. In all, we tested this recipe upward of 10 times over a couple of weeks.

Our approach was simple: The custard was a little too loose, so over several tests we gradually reduced the coffee down to a quarter cup, keeping the rich flavor but reducing the overall amount of liquid in the custard base. And we baked the custards loosely covered with foil, allowing the steam to build as they baked, thus cooking them evenly.

It took about four pots of coffee, a gallon of cream and more than four dozen eggs, but we finally nailed the recipe. Voila! Perfect crème brûlées!

-- Leo Rubin

Photo: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times