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So you want to be a Test Kitchen intern: Meet Stephanie Luu

July 8, 2011 |  6:00 am

Stephanie's photo

So what's it like working in a Test Kitchen? Well, it can definitely be fun. Whether you're testing burgers, cookies, or brownies, you're surrounded by food all day. Literally.

But can there ever be too much of a good thing? I dare say... sometimes. Those burgers? We went through pounds and pounds of beef, pork and turkey during rounds of tests to come up with our favorites in our recent Battle of the Burgers. And cookies? After testing over 50 dozen, we finally found our favorites. And those brownies? Well, more on that in a little bit.

Definitely fun, though all that food can also make you a little woozy at times.

At the L.A. Times, we not only test (and routinely retest) every recipe that runs in the paper, we then re-create and style those recipes for food shoots to appear both online and in print, coordinate and shoot step-by-step demonstrations and videos of various cooking techniques, and prepare for televised recipe demonstrations, which air weekly on KTLA's afternoon news. When we're not actually working with food, we're tracking down reader email requests for the Food section's popular Culinary SOS column.

In addition to our full-time staff, we host interns from culinary schools all over the United States, including international students. These students receive hands-on training as they learn the finer points of recipe testing and development. The students also interact with chefs, writers and food professionals of all kinds.

Over the last few months, I've introduced some of our recent Test Kitchen interns, including Larry Diamond, Jonathan Wing and Annie Rouleau Dean. Here, I introduce Stephanie Luu, on loan from Los Angeles Trade-Technical College's Professional Baking Program.

 -- Noelle Carter

One of my first tasks in the Test Kitchen was contacting restaurants for the Culinary SOS column.  A reader requested the recipe for Clementine's butterscotch brownies. When the recipe came in, another intern and I went about testing it.  This was a memorable recipe for me, not only because the brownies were incredibly delicious and impossible to stop eating, and because I eventually would make it 10 times, but because it really represented what working in a test kitchen is all about: the science of recipe testing.

You might say I was not a born cook, in fact, my first cookbook was a gift from my sister appropriately titled “Clueless in the Kitchen,”  because, after many dinners of undercooked rice, soggy vegetables and chocolate chip cookies that could dent walls, she felt it was time for an intervention. The book was divided into chapters for meat dishes, sides, breakfast, pasta, and desserts. I turned to the section on baking and the recipe for chocolate chip cookies. What better way to start my new project than with everyone’s favorite treat?

I made those cookies many times in the next few months, and each time they came out differently. I had no idea why. Even though I would follow the recipe exactly, my cookies were not consistently soft, chewy, and gooey like I wanted them to be. I began researching baking techniques and tried other chocolate chip cookie recipes from various sources. From there, I was hooked. I began baking all kinds of things, just to see if I could make them successfully and of course, because I also wanted to eat them.

It took many days of watching the Food Network, reading food magazines, talking to random strangers I found on Facebook who were culinary students, and not having any idea what to do with my bachelor’s degree, before I decided my hobby for baking and strong interest in anything food-related could be a career. I enrolled at Los Angeles Trade Technical College’s professional baking program, where I discovered a whole new level of possibility in pastry making. Halfway through my training, I learned about the L.A. Times Test Kitchen internship by reading blog entries of previous interns. Being a devoted reader of the Food Section, I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of it. 

In the first few weeks, I was a bit overwhelmed in the kitchen. While testing recipes, I felt like I had to look at them as if I had no idea what I was doing, which was partly true. Not having much of a background in savory cooking meant I had questions about everything. But each day, I was introduced to a new technique, such as how to skin a squid, revive wilted greens, or properly boil an egg to avoid the “green ring.” When it was my turn to shop for groceries, I also discovered all kinds of ingredients I had never heard of before, like Spanish chorizo, sunchokes, escarole, and mulato chiles. Recipes from various cultures gave me a taste of things I might never find otherwise.

Which brings me back to those brownies. The original recipe was, as I would find out later, much too large a yield for someone to make at home –- this was a commercial recipe for use in a bakery. We made the batter to determine the yield, then poured it into 2 large baking dishes just to see how they baked. Even though I had baked it at the specified time, the crumb seemed too wet, yet the top crust was already dry. Also, the whole thing sank in the middle by the time it had cooled so I didn’t know what the thickness of the brownie was supposed to be. Since I had no pictures to rely on, I played detective and went online to see if anyone had posted pictures of those brownies on any websites. Then I called Annie, the chef and owner of Clementine, to get her feedback on my questions. Turned out that the original yield was enough to fill a hotel pan, more than double the size of the dishes I was using. She suggested scaling down the yield to 1/4 and baking it in an 8-inch square pan. The top would set up looking crackly and crusty, but the crumbs would still be moist and sticky, so the toothpick test wasn’t reliable here. The thickness should be about be an inch and the color would be golden brown. 

After taking down her notes, I set about making them again. I’d also discussed the recipe with Noelle, and she offered her suggestions too. This time, I tried baking them in a metal pan (metal bakes a little cooler than glass, which might help the crust), at a slightly higher temperature (to compensate for the hotter ovens used at the bakery) and for a shorter amount of time (since we were baking in smaller pans). To keep the brownies from sinking, we reduced the amount of baking powder.

I also tried a batch using only all-purpose flour. The original recipe had called for a blend of bread, pastry and cake flours; Annie had mentioned she’d baked them using all-purpose, and we wanted to try this to make the shopping easier for readers. 

By the time the recipe made it to print, I had tested 9 versions, all baked at different times, temperatures, with different amounts of baking powder, flours, and mixing methods. The final result was a perfectly chewy, nutty, salty, sweet butterscotch brownie that no one could stop munching on. 

Working in the Test Kitchen has made me realize how gratifying it is to be a recipe tester. Besides making something that tastes good, it’s very important to me to know why and how it’s made that way. I love learning about the origins of ingredients, the scientific aspect of cooking, the variations in technique that different people use for preparing a dish, and I enjoy sharing this knowledge with others. 

Using the lessons I’ve learned in baking and cooking science, and the skills I’ve acquired in recipe testing, I hope to continue working with food and to make cooking and baking an accessible and welcoming topic for everyone. 

-- Stephanie Luu

Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times