Test Kitchen Community
How a Test Cook Keeps a Food Diary
Please don't feed the test cooks—they've had enough to eat.
12-27-2016
Lawman Johnson

No two days—or meals—are the same when you're developing recipes for America's Test Kitchen's book program. In the past several months, we've published books about the paleo diet, the gluten-free diet, the Mediterranean diet, and books dedicated to baking with less sugar. (To see more titles, visit our bookstore.) Publishing that many books means we're constantly testing and retesting recipes till we get them right in the test kitchen—which means we're also constantly eating. 

I decided to keep a week long diary of everything I ate—in the test kitchen and in the outside world. The results of that diary are below. 

Monday

I started my feeding frenzy with a sensible bowl of oatmeal around 8:45 a.m. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, after all. The morning was pretty slow until about noon, when a co-worker called the first tasting of the day. It was huli-huli chicken for the upcoming Complete Slow Cooker book. It wasn’t our first time tasting it, so we discussed the changes that were made involving taste, texture, and timing. After eating huli-huli, we immediately tasted some chicken tikka masala for the same book. After, I swung by the end of a tasting for the upcoming Complete Make-Ahead Cookbook and grabbed some baked ziti with sausage, broccoli rabe, and lemon for a snack.

I called the next tasting: Buffalo wings for the Slow Cooker book. We discussed the flavor of the sauce and the texture of the chicken. The sauce was great, but the chicken was flabby and uninspired. The remaining time was spent brainstorming ideas on how to achieve the right texture for the chicken and when to add the Buffalo sauce.

There is no rest for the weary in the test kitchen, especially when you’re working on more than one book at a time. As the day wound down, two more tastings required my attention. For the upcoming Food Processor Perfection book, we conducted a side-by-side test of fluffy biscuits where we examined results from different methods of combining ingredients. This was followed by a tasting for flavor variations in different samples of pureed butternut squash for the same book. After all that, I decided to have a hamburger and French fries for dinner.

Examining some baked mushrooms.

Tuesday

My day began with an egg and cheese sandwich on a biscuit, followed by a cappuccino, which provided a little pick–me–up. Since nothing was ready on the Slow Cooker front and it was lunchtime, I commandeered some leftover ropa vieja from a tasting the Cook’s Country team was conducting. My baked brie tasting was the first Slow Cooker tasting of the day. Because it was my first time making the recipe, there was plenty to discuss (cook time, flavor profile, texture, and quantity). Another baked brie tasting was definitely in our immediate future.

After taking into consideration the notes I took from the previous day’s Buffalo wing tasting (my coworkers suggested I broil both sides of the wings—sans sauce—until the skin crisped before tossing them with sauce), it was time to taste them again. This time, we were satisfied.

Next, it was time to taste some more chicken. We tasted recipes for curry chicken, and lemony chicken with spinach and feta—both recipes for Slow Cooker—and discussed each at length. The major concerns with the curry chicken were the doneness of the vegetables, the amount of coconut milk, the amount of chicken, and the strength of the curry flavor. As for the other chicken dish, we focused on the amount of feta, when to add it, how to prepare the chicken (Cut it or shred it?), how much lemon to use, and how long to cook the rice.

I ended the work day with a Back to the Future moment—more baked brie. This version fared better than the last, but it was still in need of some minor flavor profile tweaks.

Later that night, I enjoyed a corned beef sandwich on pumpernickel with potato chips for dinner. No analyzing necessary.  

There is no rest for the weary in the test kitchen, especially when you’re working on more than one book at a time.

Wednesday

Hump day started with a toasted bagel and cream cheese. Then I helped myself to some steak fajitas that were left in the kitchen after a Cook’s Country tasting. An apple made a nice snack before the tastings I needed to attend started for the day.

Halfway through the day, I swung by a Make-Ahead tasting for tomato bulgur soup. I followed this up with some fried chicken made by the Cook’s Country team, who were testing recipes for the 2017 season of Cook’s Country TV. My opinion wasn’t necessary for either one of these dishes, but constructive opinions are always welcome in the test kitchen.

The end of the day brought four Slow Cooker tastings and a tasting for vegan brownies for our upcoming book, Vegan for Everybody. Chicken noodle soup was first. We were examining the overall chicken flavor of the broth and texture of the noodles. Next was our second time tasting curry chicken. Significant changes were made to the recipe, but we still felt the sauce needed to be thicker.

Korean wings and baked brie—both recipes I’m developing—made up the last tastings of the day. Since the cooking method for the Buffalo wings was solid and the Korean wings sauce was adapted from another one of our recipes, the tasting was just a matter of determining the right amount of sauce for four pounds of chicken. It was unanimously decided that the baked brie (version 3.0) had great flavor and texture, but that the cheese wasn’t warmed completely through. An easy fix—I just needed to extend the cooking time.

Working on some scrambled eggs for Cook It In Cast Iron.

Thursday

I always start the day off with breakfast, and on this day it consisted of an English muffin and a granola bar. You don’t ever want to head to a tasting ravenous, because it will significantly affect your opinion. This was a relatively slow day in the kitchen, but I had plenty of desk work—writing and research—to occupy myself.

The first tasting of the day didn’t come for five or six hours. Three variations of chicken wings for the Slow Cooker book: mango curry wings, BBQ wings, and honey mustard wings. The first two variations were spot on, with mango curry edging out Buffalo as the favorite. The honey mustard wings weren’t as successful in their first go around—tasters felt that the sauce was too sweet and gloppy.

A chicken noodle soup tasting for the Slow Cooker book came a few minutes after the wings. One of the original tests for this soup was to determine whether or not uncooked egg noodles could be placed in the slow cooker with the rest of the ingredients and allowed to cook until done. In our initial test, the pasta was gummy and unappetizing. We decided we’d need to cook the noodles separately and stir them in at the end, or use a different type of noodle altogether.

Having had too much chicken at this point, I decided to try some of the smoked brisket being developed by one of the members of the Cook’s Country team. Before ending the day, we had another Slow Cooker tasting: more chicken. This time it was a revision of lemony chicken with spinach and feta. In this iteration, the chicken thighs were kept whole so they could be served alongside the rice, spinach, and feta mixture. Tasters liked this version better because it didn’t appear as much like a casserole or leftovers thrown together, but rather like a composed meal.

At the end of the day, I rewarded myself (for having to eat all that chicken) with a vegan chocolate chip cookie.  

Experimenting with natural sweeteners for our recent publication, Naturally Sweet.

Friday

TGIF: the food fatigue is real. More often than not, Friday isn’t a very busy day in the test kitchen (unless there’s a pressing deadline). An English muffin for breakfast had to tide me over until I was able to procure some spaghetti with a fresh rustic tomato sauce for lunch from a Cook’s Country tasting. With the kitchen activity still slow in comparison to most days, I ate a couple Nutella truffles made for a shoot by our photography team for the Food Processor book.

The last tasting of the day for the Slow Cooker book was a nice treat: instead of chicken, we tasted spiced nuts. I’d been developing the recipe for a while, and we gave it a “final recipe test” to determine whether or not it was foolproof. It was. 

All in all, a successful—and delicious—week in the test kitchen. 

Food Diary

What Does a Test Cook Eat All Day Anyway?

"Curious to know just how much I eat at work, I decided to keep a food diary for a week. The answer was—unsurprisingly—a ton."

 

-Russell Selander, Associate Editor of Books 

 

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