What Happens When You Don't Test Recipes? Lost Readers, Even Lawsuits

Categories: Talking Points
Andrew Huff/Flickr
The Chicago Tribune's test kitchen: It doesn't need to be big to be effective.
​Last month, a Chilean court ruled that a major newspaper there had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to readers who'd made a recipe for churros that it had published. Why? Well, the recipe had called for the oil to be heated well past its flash point, and the moment the cooks had dropped batter into the pan, it had exploded. 

That may be the most dramatic failure a newspaper food section has experienced, the Washington Post writes, but the incident underscores the importance of recipe testing. Reporter Tim Carman interviewed the editors of newspapers such as the LA Times and SF Chronicle, who test all recipes. The editors reported that running a test kitchen costs relatively little in terms of materials. Staff time, however, is the big expense, especially when you're testing a recipe three to 15 times and running seven to twelve recipes a week. "We still fact-check addresses and phone numbers, and that's expensive, too," LA Times food editor Russ Parson says. 

Even if you don't make their kitchens explode, readers quickly figure out when a publication or website isn't testing its recipes enough. SFoodie, for one, learned long ago that some cookbooks were more reliable than others. As a kid, we cooked recipe after recipe from Frugal Gourmet books (this was before he was discredited for other reasons, mind you), and they never tasted quite right. First we blamed ourselves. As our cooking grew more assured, we began to blame him. 

These days, when we're searching for recipes online, SFoodie relies most on Epicurious, whose recipes originated in magazines with test kitchens. Newspapers like the LA Times and the Chron are a good source, too, and Web magazines like Serious Eats, Food52, and Chow.com have made a name for themselves because of the reliability of their recipes. We find dishes to make on individual blogs, too -- but if the food doesn't turn out right the first time, we don't go back to the site. Recipe test: failed.

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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