Behind The Scenes

I Invent Recipes for a Living—Here’s How

It's not all fun and layer cakes. But honestly, it's mostly that.

October 10, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten

I have my own dream job: I get to develop recipes and write about food for a living. (I pinch myself every single morning.) And while I've only been doing so in a formal capacity for about two months now (I started here at Food52 back in early August), inventing—and testing—recipes is something I've done my whole life, and very seriously for the past decade.

How recipes get developed is a topic with as many answers as there are, well, cooks in the kitchen. There is of course no correct or incorrect way to do it—it's a matter of personal preference and temperament. On top of that, my own methodology is constantly evolving the more I cook and the more I learn from others who cook, or from others who write about food, culture, or anything really (looking at you, Heartburn).

With that said, when the team asked me to share a few observations from my own process, I jumped at the opportunity—and not just because I spend so much time alone in my kitchen that I've named all of the appliances, including my vegetable peeler, Little Tim. (Okay, maybe that is why. You'd have to ask Little Tim.)

Anyway, here's how it's been going down lately:


Inspiration Strikes

For me, the inspiration for a new recipe is often organic. For example:

  • I make something for myself or for others without the intention of developing a recipe (e.g., a quick weekend brunch, or a dinner party app I pull together at the last minute) and happen to love a specific aspect of it—like, the flavor of a salad dressing, or the unique crispiness of stale takeout rice I’ve cooked at a high heat on a sheet pan.
  • A new tool or new ingredient—whether new to me, or just newly in season for the first time this year, etc.—comes into my kitchen, and working with it spurs a recipe idea.
  • I experience a food item out in the world, like in a restaurant, bakery, cookbook, food market, or at someone else’s home, with a certain aspect that I just can’t stop thinking about. (Okay, obsessing about. Sometimes for an unhealthily long period of time.) I'm not-so-subtly describing this "pizza" focaccia:

However, I also try to keep an open mind about developing recipes that don't enter my life organically. On the inorganic front, inspiration for my recipes tends to come from, broadly, listening to what people want—whether that’s through paying attention to our hotline, recipe comments, common timely search terms, or more macro trends in food-land, like the Instant Pot.


I Learn What’s Out There

Before pitching a recipe for Food52, I always research what relevant recipes exist (on the site, or otherwise). If it's a food item that's already well-covered, I ask myself, is my idea adding something meaningful to the discussion, like a new flavor or texture twist, fewer or more accessible ingredients, or an easier methodology with comparable or better results? (This doesn’t mean I won’t still “develop” a recipe for my personal use if it’s in a ubiquitous category, like banana bread—I’d just be less likely to share it with anyone but my mom.) This research phase is also essential to my development for recipes that don’t come about organically in that it allows me to gut check my initial instincts on what techniques and ingredients might work for a first pass.


Then, I Draft, Test, Taste—& Draft, Test, Taste Again! (& Again!)

Whether I've made a prospective new recipe a million times before, or whether it's an idea for a dish I've never attempted, as soon as I've decided to memorialize it on the internet, I write a first draft. I find it critically important to look at my proposed ingredients, their quantities, and the methodology I'm suggesting will work best all in one go, before I begin my formal testing. From here, I do a quick sanity check. At first glance, does anything seem repetitive, or unnecessary? Can I amp up the flavor by using, say, the rind of an orange that I'm already calling for to produce fresh-squeezed juice? Is this something that, if I skimmed it online, I'd actually find interesting or valuable to my own recipe repertoire? (If not, what can I tweak to reposition it so that last one's a "yes"?)

Then, I take a copy of my draft—whether it's all pretty and typed out, or scribbled in shorthand on the back of an envelope I've been meaning to put in the mail—into the kitchen. While I run tests, I make notes. So many notes. By the end, my recipe draft usually looks like it's molting into cake batter. If it's an early test, I'm more likely to be focused on the bigger-picture elements, like how the ingredients' flavors and quantities work together, whether anything is missing or extraneous, and how close to my target textures and other trail-markers I am each step of the way. For my initial runs, I try to test in as small a batch as possible, for the sake of ingredient efficiency—this extends to the process, too. If I'm developing an oven-fried Chicken Parmesan (which I am! Coming to the site soon! No mess, just fun and cheese!), for my first testing rounds, I'll just try to perfect the breading and oven-frying techniques, without wasting sauce or mozzarella on imperfect batches.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I need those olive oil brownies.”
— Eric K.
Comment

If you asked me before I begin testing how many rounds it'll take for me to nail something, I'd get that wrong 100 percent of the time. I'm always surprised by what comes together perfectly in two tests, and what takes weeks to finalize, like these unsuspecting olive-oil brownies (coming soon as well):

In later testing rounds, I'm more focused on the minutiae. If it's a baking recipe, I double-check ingredient weights. I make sure I've recorded any visual, auditory, or olfactory cues that I suspect will be helpful for the final draft. I confirm that the times I've listed for each step are accurate (i.e., if I say "sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, until the onions are translucent," I recheck that time range), and that one could actually complete each step comfortably in the order I've proposed. I also consider flavor and ingredients once more—is there anything I'm overlooking that would take a recipe from very solid to unmissable?

Next, I test taste relative to time and storage. I'll try a recipe as soon as it's ready, and then again after some time has passed, and again, the following day. I experiment with different storage methods so if relevant, I can include the best one and comment on maximum keep-time. (As I read this back, it occurs to me that this step could just be a partial ploy to eat cakes and brownies as many days in a row as possible, but I'm going to brand it as "aiming for thoroughness.")


Finally, I Rewrite the Recipe

My last step is to rewrite the recipe with fresh eyes, and with a focus on both accuracy and tone. I aim for all of the cues I incorporate to be visceral and precise, rather than relying on tropes I've picked up over the years. And most important, I want my recipes to sound like I'm standing there with you in your kitchen, glass of wine in my hand, as you make us dinner—pausing intermittently to refill my glass as you go, please.


A Few of my Current Favorites for Fall

How do you decide what to make next? Let me know in the comments!

3 Comments

Eric K. October 11, 2018
I need those olive oil brownies.
 
Maggie S. October 10, 2018
Ella this was so enlightening! Even though I sit across from you, the ins and outs of recipe development have been cloaked in mystery for me all this time. What a candid and charming tour this was! (P.S. Count myself SO lucky to benefit from your experiments)
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. October 10, 2018
Ha, thank you Maggie! :) So many future experiments, headed your way.