No culinary degree required.
The beauty of being a recipe tester—beyond the obvious benefit of eating some of the best recipes in a given cookbook or chef’s repertoire—is the fact that you don’t have to have any formal culinary training to do it. If you are an accurate cook with a knack for note taking and a sense of keen observation, you can be a recipe tester—no culinary degree required.
Take Emily Teel: Though she worked in restaurants from the time she was a teen, the Philadelphia-based Food Editor for Spoonful Magazine, food writer recipe editor, tester and developer never graduated culinary school. But that didn’t keep her from becoming a top recipe tester for local chefs and national brands. In fact, it could even work to your advantage that you're not professionally trained, because you're the target reader. “Most recipes are written for home cooks—for people who aren’t using high-tech equipment,” Teel points out.
So if you’re ready to put your skillet and slow cooker to good use—beyond their normal Monday night dinner duties, that is—read on for Teel’s tips on how you can become a recipe tester from the comfort of your kitchen.
1. Consider taking a restaurant job.
While Teel insists you don’t have to hold a culinary degree to become a recipe tester, she does encourage wannabes to work in kitchens other than their own. “Having kinetic knowledge—having experience with a broad range of cooking styles—is important,” she says. Think about it: as a recipe tester, you likely won’t specialize in one type of cuisine. Rather, “you might be asked to make a salad on Monday and to stuff sausage on Tuesday,” says Teel. “Having a broad base of knowledge, from restaurant kitchens or even cookbooks you’ve borrowed from your library, is important.”
2. Sharpen your observation skills.
Recipe testing is a field, Teel says, “where it’s less about being a really good cook and more about being a really thorough observer.” In fact, part of your job as a recipe tester is to put aside your own culinary creativity. As Teel says, “when recipes don’t work, I have to remind myself it’s not my job to write the ultimate pancake recipe—my job is to make this pancake recipe and evaluate it.” To do that, recipe testers must be keen observers of their creations and copious note takers. Your eyes and your notepad will be as essential of tools as your timers and thermometers, Teel promises.
For example, if a recipe instructs the cook to sweat onions in a pan for eight to 10 minutes, it’s your job as a recipe tester to look for visual cues and ask yourself, “what do they really look like after eight minutes? Should it be eight? Or should it really be 10?” Teel explains. “I also look to see how a recipe holds up in a fridge overnight, or how long something such as biscuits can be kept on my countertop. I cross the Ts and dot the Is before a send my notes.”
3. Don’t trust your appetite.
You might be able to work in a way that suits your normal eating schedule—or, as Teel knows from firsthand experience, you may just find yourself making chicken dumplings as you sip your morning coffee. “There may be times when my appetite doesn’t match up to what I am working on,” she warns. If a client has five recipes that need to be tested in two weeks’ time, “divide them up one by one,” Teel says, and add them to your own meal-planning. But if a client comes to you with a time-sensitive case, Teel says, you may just need to adjust your own eating schedule—as wonky as it may be.
4. Build a portfolio.
Before you approach big-time clients, you’ll want to build a portfolio of recipes you’ve tested. One place to start, Teel says, is with America’s Test Kitchen, which actively seeks home cooks to test up to three recipes a week. (It’s an unpaid gig, Teel warns, but one that will help you hone your skills.) Then, consider approaching your food blog idol or an indie cookbook author—someone with a bevy of recipes he or she will need to test but who likely doesn’t have a staff to do it—and ask if you can lend a hand. “Those testers—if they do a good job and treat it like a real project—are indispensable to bloggers and authors, and could find themselves in the acknowledgments section of a cookbook.”
5. Find paying clients.
Like it or not, recipe testing may be one career that forces you to work for free—at least at first. “But the minute something crosses over from the territory of doing a favor for a friend—and that friend can be a food blogger or a local artisanal baker—into a client asking for several recipes tested within a short time frame,” then you must begin to charge for your skills and expertise, Teel says. “Recipe testing has value.”
6. Prepare for failure, and learn to celebrate success.
“There will be recipes that will not work as written,” Teel warns. “The thing I love least about it [recipe testing] is that moment when you hit the wall on a recipe; you might be on your third or fourth try, and it may not work the way the recipe says it should, and you have ingredient fatigue—you’re sick of the way it smells, you’ve got stacks of the recipe in your fridge.” That failure is something you must prepare for, Teel says. But at the same time, recipe testers can truly feel joy in when a recipe goes well. “When a recipe works—especially one that feels a little bit out there—it can give a very seasoned cook a huge thrill of discovery,” Teel says. “It’s that thrill of, ‘I can’t believe I made this.’” That thrill, Teel says, is another beautiful thing about recipe testing.