Podcast #3: Demystifying the Science of Recipe Development

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Hello everyone, welcome to the third episode of Life on the Brink!

Today we’re diving into the wonderful, delicious, sometimes tedious world of recipe development. This is something that has intimidated me for quite a while, but today we’re breaking it down and demystifying it, because it’s actually so simple and satisfying! We’ll talk about why it's worth giving a try, and then I'll share 3 simple steps to creating your own repertoire of signature recipes.

I love cooking. When I was about 12 years old, I really fell in love with cooking and baking, and it’s only grown over the second half of my life. And if you’re like me, you might have a few recipes that you like going back to, but notice that you change them a little bit. Or sometimes you just see what’s in the fridge and go for it, Chopped style. I find that cooking is like jazz (I find jazz related to a lot of stuff actually) in that once you learn the framework of the kitchen and know the roles that certain ingredients can play, you’re able to improvise, making new flavors on the spot. And just like practicing an instrument, you can become more and more proficient in making things up and it actually sounding (or tasting) really really good. So first we should ask WHY is recipe development worth doing?

My goal is for this binder to be completely full of recipes I'm proud of.

First and foremost, to make something replicable. Cause if it was delish, you’ll want to make it again.

There’s a technique in jazz called transcription, which is basically just listening over and over to someone’s solo (even your own) that they made up in the moment and writing it down note by note, so you can practice it and, theoretically, recreate that solo. That’s basically how I think about this thing called “recipe development”. You can create an amazing dish once, but working out the exact ingredients, timings and ratios over time can create a recipe, basically a transcription, of that dish so you (and other’s) can experience that same thing over and over.

I’ve always been intimidated with developing my own recipes, especially when it comes to baking. Going through my stack of cookbooks I would be just astounded, like did all these ingredients and techniques and everything come from their BRAIN? Well, yes and no. If you’ve ever watched a season of British Bake-Off, you’ll notice that contestants will sometimes mention the fact that their particular recipe that day is “their Nan’s old recipe”, or is a family favorite, or adapted from someone else’s. But wait, is that cheating?

No, actually, because it turns out that most recipes you’ll find today are somehow adapted from a previous recipe. What makes them original is the process of developing it, adjusting here and there, until it’s exactly the way YOU want it.

So whether you’ve made something cool with the limited ingredients in your quarantine pantry, or you want to find a way to recreate an amazing dessert you had on a vacation, or have had any kind of successful experimentation, why not develop it into a real recipe?

Secondly, aside from making a delicious experience replicable, recipe development also hones our culinary skills, which will only make us even more adept in the kitchen.

And finally, I love the idea of developing a repertoire of signature recipes because it can leave a sort of culinary legacy for posterity. I personally have a dream of creating recipes for lots of signature dishes and being able to make someone feel taken care of, even if I’m not there.

Sound good to you? Are you ready? Great! Here are three simple steps to developing your own recipe:

1. Research:

No matter how the inspiration first came to you, it’s a smart idea to find out what’s already out there. Look at existing recipes and compare them. How do the ratios differ? Is there a common ingredient among all of them? This is where you discover the fundamentals that you can work around. I personally recommend going to sources that you trust. Cookbooks and cooking magazines are great because the recipes have to be tested again and again before they’re published.

One little thing that I’ve found is quite helpful is to check the comments section of any online recipe. It’s not uncommon for people to mention any changes they may have made, whether a substitution due to food allergies or modifications on temperatures and cooking times. It can be a wonderful source of creativity as you plan your recipe.

What alterations seemed to improve it? How do YOU want to change it?

2. Test:

There are basically two paths that you can take when first testing out your recipe. One, you can write down your whole recipe before you start cooking, then edit as you prepare it. Two, you can just go for it and then write down everything you did (this is the one that usually happens for me, I’m winging it). Try to be as specific as you can as you go along; you can also take pictures to help jog your memory later. The point of this step is to come out with something written down.

3. Modify:

This is really the heart of the project, the real development. It’s simply the process of preparing your recipe over and over until it’s exactly the way you want it. I recommend altering things slowly, rather than changing everything at once. If there are too many variables, it can be difficult to know what you need to change.

Another thing to consider when substituting ingredients, whether for dietary, allergic, or preferential needs, is the role of that particular ingredient. If you omit a food that is naturally salty, you may need to compensate with a little extra salt. Of course, you can always go in a different direction (maybe you don’t want it that salty), but it’s important to think about why that ingredient was there, and if that element of the dish is important to you.

Go ahead and take the time to really refine it, making the cooking times and measurements as exact as you can get it. The more specific you can be, the closer someone else will be able to recreate what you’ve made.

This process will take time, so take it easy on yourself. Just remember, Ina Garten tests her recipes 10-20 times before it might make it into her cookbook. It’s not going to be perfect the first time, that’s the point of developing! This is the fun part, so just enjoy the process (It’ll most likely still be yum).

Eventually, through a journey of refining, you’ll end up with a real original recipe! It gives me such a sense of satisfaction to have someone try my own recipe and be able to enjoy it themselves. And most of all, it’s just been FUN!

Only within this past year have I really become fascinated by the idea of actually developing the little recipes I come up with, and it’s only just begun! Who knows where it will lead, but every step is delicious!

Check out these articles about recipe development from people who do it for a living:

Bon Appétit: "How to Develop a Recipe Like a Test Kitchen Editor"

Food52: "I Invent Recipes for a Living—Here’s How"

Hummingbird High: "How To Write A Cookbook: Recipe Development For Weeknight Baking"

One day I hope my croissants can look (and taste) this good.

This Week’s Little Joy: I got to go to the farmer’s market for the first time in over 3 months and it was HEAVEN. Josh and I ate our croissants outside and I gathered the fresh produce for the first pot of this summer’s ratatouille (be on the lookout for a post all about it, it’s a full obsession).

What I’ve Been Listening To: This playlist is perfect to cook to. It’s a curated combination of tracks from three of my favorite movies: Ratatouille, Julie and Julia, and Chocolat. About 30 minutes long, it gives enough time to make a simple meal. Plus the food tastes happy.

Thank you so much for tuning in, friends, your support has meant so much to me. Let me know about your recipe adventures in the comments, and have a lovely week!