Today marks the beginning of a new series we’re calling “Ask the Test Cooks.” These posts are based off of questions posed by you, our audience, about recipe development and cooking. We take your questions, send them to our test cooks (and editors), and turn them loose to wax poetic (and spill all) about cooking. Today’s prompt: What's the most challenging recipe you've ever worked on (and perfected) while working at America’s Test Kitchen?
Leah Colins: Vegan Creamy Cashew Mac and Cheese
Hands down, this would have to be the Vegan Creamy Cashew Mac and Cheese from the Vegan for Everybody cookbook. Homestyle stovetop mac and cheese is a dish you might think you would have to live without on a vegan diet—the word “cheese” is in the name, after all. But we were determined to make a creamy vegan version.
I made about 45 versions of this recipe over the course of several weeks before it was finished. It was extremely challenging to replicate the rich, cheesy taste and texture of classic macaroni and cheese without using any dairy products. We tested using a range of ingredients for the cream and cheese substitutes, from cannellini beans to squash to potatoes to sunflower seeds.
Ultimately, we decided that the rich fat from cashews and the light, silken texture of cauliflower made for a decadent, pasta-coating sauce. Funky nutritional yeast, when combined with mustard powder for bite, tomato paste for sweetness, and vinegar for tang, gave the dish a remarkable cheesy flavor. I think my fellow test cooks were very happy once this recipe was complete, because it meant they didn’t have to eat loads of vegan mac and cheese in the dead of summer!
Vegan for Everybody
Veganism is going mainstream. The benefits of consuming fewer animal products appear frequently in the news. But eating vegan can seem overwhelming: Will it be flavorful? Satisfying? Easy to make? In Vegan for Everybody, the test kitchen addresses head-on what gives people pause—finding great and filling vegan protein options, cooking without dairy, preparing different whole grains and vegetables, and even baking.
Joseph Gitter: Vegan Pie Dough
Hands down, my Sisyphean task was vegan pie dough. I spent five weeks working on it—to the exclusion of all else—and it almost defeated me. We have such a good stable of existing pie dough recipes, but all rely on butter. I was able to quickly rule out vegetable oil (too crackery and not flaky) and shortening (you learn very quickly what Crisco tastes like during tastings of plain pie dough). That left me with coconut oil, which showed some signs of success during early testing.
Naively I thought I was almost there: I quickly worked out how to compensate for the differences in moisture and fat contents between butter and coconut oil. It took a little longer to work on temperatures for incorporating the fat—coconut oil melts just a couple of degrees warmer than room temperature and becomes unmanageably hard in the fridge. I’d just about got to where I wanted to be—tender, rich, and delicious—but the tasting panel gave me short shrift: It wasn’t flaky enough and had insufficient structure to support a filling.
Hands down, my Sisyphean task was vegan pie dough. I spent five weeks working on it—to the exclusion of all else—and it almost defeated me.
It was at this point that despair set in because I had no other ideas. Salvation came in the form of Andrea Geary, resident pie master for Cook’s Illustrated and undisputed ATK pastry champion. She took me on a deep dive of dough mixing techniques, gluten development, and flake formation. It felt like an Einsteinian thought experiment: visualizing the flour particles and their interactions with water, salt, and fat. It was eye-opening and definitely made me a better pastry cook.
Again I thought I’d finished with the development process. But I’d started to get inconsistent results and some strange speckling would sometimes appear on the crust. It took another five tests to tinker with the oven rack position, oven temperature, and pan setup (lowest rack, 400 degrees, double-stacked baking sheets). This time, I was finally done.
Steph Pixley: Naturally Sweet Chocolate Chip Cookies
Developing recipes is tough work. Seriously. I know eating delicious food all day, playing with interesting ingredients, and developing new recipes sounds like fun, but it can really test your patience, especially when it’s a particularly challenging recipe.
The toughest recipe I’ve developed so far was for chocolate chip cookies in our low sugar baking book, Naturally Sweet. I spent three months developing that recipe and went through 75 different iterations before we were satisfied. Naturally Sweet promised all your favorite sweet recipes with at least a third less sugar and with options for using alternative and natural sugars like date sugar, coconut sugar, and Sucanat.
Cutting back on sugar in baked goods sounds easy enough, but reducing the amount of sugar in our cookie recipe by half did more than just make for a not-so-tasty cookie. It turns out that baked goods get some of their best textural qualities thanks to the presence of a good amount of sugar. Like chewy cookies? Thank sugar. Like moist, fudgy brownies? Thank sugar. Like fine-crumbed, delicate cakes? Thank sugar. In the end, we figured out how to make chewy, sweet, delicious chocolate chip cookies (using coconut sugar, Sucanat, or dark brown sugar) with 10 grams less sugar per cookie than our original, but I couldn’t look at any cookie the same for quite some time.
Lawman Johnson: Paleo Yogurt
Recipe development on any level has its fair share of challenges. When you factor in strict ingredient guidelines (Naturally Sweet, The How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook Volume 2, Vegan for Everybody) or the need for specific equipment (Cook It In Cast Iron, Food Processor Perfection), these challenges can become compounded.
Working on the Paleo Perfected cookbook was full of challenges due to the nature of the diet. Of the many challenges faced during the development process of that book, one recipe in particular comes to mind: paleo yogurt. It seemed simple enough—after all, it’s only yogurt. I wanted to create paleo-friendly yogurt (non-dairy and soy-free) that didn’t sacrifice the creamy texture or tangy flavor that we come to expect when eating yogurt.
My working recipe only required three ingredients: homemade coconut milk (many store-bought versions contain questionable ingredients), active cultures, and a thickening agent. To promote the fermentation required in making yogurt, I used probiotics rather than a typical yogurt starter, which are often sourced from dairy products. Unlike cow’s milk, coconut milk doesn’t contain a sufficient amount of protein to thicken to the right consistency by just introducing bacteria. I needed to introduce a thickening agent to help the process.
Recipe development on any level has its fair share of challenges. When you factor in strict ingredient guidelines or the need for specific equipment, these challenges can become compounded.
Wheat and corn products were off the table (flour and cornstarch are both no-nos in the paleo diet), so I tested tapioca flour. After testing various amounts of tapioca flour, I found that while it initially thickened the coconut milk without any problem, the mixture broke down after the probiotic was added and the fermentation process was allowed to mature. Upon finding tapioca flour was unsuccessful, I tested different amounts of gelatin next. Those tests create yogurt that was acceptable as long as I only used 2 teaspoons of gelatin for the amount of liquid being thickened. With the right amount of gelatin determined and the integrity not compromised during fermentation, we had paleo yogurt—or at least I thought we had paleo yogurt.
My coconut milk yogurt had great flavor, but was missing the smooth, creamy texture I was looking for. In fact, this yogurt had a somewhat grainy texture that broke down in the mouth. I concluded the off texture was the result of solidified coconut fat suspended in the yogurt. To solve this issue, I needed to find another type of non-dairy milk. I replaced the coconut milk with almond milk, which has a mild taste and lower fat content. The switch to almond milk helped create a smoother textured yogurt, but I still wasn’t fully satisfied. Further testing, despite gelatin being a successful thickener, revealed equal amounts of agar agar created both a smoother and creamier yogurt. Finally, perfect paleo yogurt. Paleo parfait, anyone?
Discover 150 kitchen-tested recipes made with fresh, minimally processed ingredients so you can enjoy eating well every day. America’s most trusted test kitchen rebuilt all your favorite recipes from the ground up using paleo-friendly ingredients and reimagined techniques. Along with chapters devoted to appetizers, breakfasts, poultry, meat, seafood, and side dishes, we’ve included a section of pantry basics, such as mayonnaise, mustard, nut milks, wraps, and sandwich rolls.
What’s your biggest challenge and triumph as a home cook? Let us know in the comments! And if you have any questions for our test cooks, ask below. Who knows, we may just choose your question for our next post!