The Cookbook Author’s Ultimate Guide to Managing 50+ Recipe Testers

Eat This Poem Cookbook

Three very important things happened in October 2015.

First, I signed with a literary agency. A few days later, I was offered a book contract, and in between those two milestones, I gave birth to my son. Suddenly, I had a newborn in my arms and a deadline for my manuscript.

The timing couldn’t have been better. I’d spent the past two years writing, so the book was finished … I just needed to test the recipes in home kitchens. Being on maternity leave until February 2016 meant I was in the fortunate position of not having to think about work, and dedicated all my remaining energy to embracing the final stretch of my cookbook journey which involved some generous volunteers, and a spreadsheet or two.

Whenever my son slept, I was in the kitchen making last minute tweaks, emailing testers, or following up on non-disclosure agreements. Six weeks later, each of my 75 recipes had been tested at least twice—sometimes three or four times—by home cooks.

Recipe testing is a big undertaking for any cookbook author, but the entire thing can be managed fairly seamlessly (and even within a brief window of time) if you’re organized and have systems in place to support you.

In this post, I’m sharing what worked for me, including the five distinct recipe testing phases that emerged over the course of two months when recipe testing became my main priority (well, after taking care of the baby, of course).

The 5 Phases of Recipe Testing via Eat This Poem

Phase 1: Prep

Before reaching out to testers and assigning recipes, start by preparing your spreadsheets, documents, and emails so everything is ready to go.

  1. Create a recipe tracking spreadsheet. List your recipe titles in one column, and title subsequent columns “Tester 1, “Tester 2,” and so on. Next to each name, add a date column (to mark when you sent them materials) and an 'X' column (to mark when they submitted feedback). You’ll begin filling this in once you start the outreach process.

  2. Design a recipe testing signup form on your website. Be sure to include any dietary considerations, or special equipment needs. Knowing someone is gluten-free, or loves baking, for example, will save you a lot of back and forth when you’re assigning recipes. (Here's mine if you'd like to take a look.)

  3. Write an email template. Draft the emails you’ll send to your testers. This can be a copy and paste template you can customize for each person. (See below for what to include!)

  4. Prepare a non-disclosure agreement. NDA’s help protect you and your recipes. It shows your testers you mean business, prevents them from posting photos and videos of the testing process online, or sharing the recipe with others.

Phase 2: Outreach

This is your “shout it from the rooftops” phase when you get to tell everyone about the opportunity. You can either keep it within your mailing list (like I did) or use social media to increase your reach.

If you’re reaching out to a wider pool than just close friends and family, you’ll want to create a landing page on your website with all the details (see #2 above), and create a form to capture all the information you need to distribute recipes efficiently. (Here’s mine.)

The form is really important if you want to save yourself some time. By asking a few strategic questions, you can save yourself from emailing back and forth with people, and help stick to your timeline.

The questions will vary slightly depending on the type of recipes in your book, but in general, you’ll want to get a sense of any allergies/dietary preferences, and if they have any essential equipment. Otherwise you might send a bundt cake recipe to a tester, only to find out a week later they don’t actually have a bundt pan.

Outreach Tips

  • Set a closing date for signing up, and stick to it

  • Explain exactly what you need from testers, what your timeline is, and the benefits of helping you test recipes

  • Request that people only apply if they’re able to commit to the deadline

  • Ask how many recipes they’re willing to make (1, 2, 3+)

  • Gather any dietary restrictions

  • Ask if they’re willing to make something more elaborate (like a triple layer cake or curry paste)

  • Ask if they have special equipment (like a food mill, pizza stone, or stand mixer)

Eat This Poem Cookbook

Phase 3: Assignments

Once you have your testers, it’s time to start making assignments. Start with anyone who listed dietary restrictions or was enthusiastic about trying something more difficult. Try to be mindful about ingredients. If you’re assigning two or more recipes, see if some of the ingredients can overlap so a tester doesn’t have to buy buy too many things.

You already have your email template, so it’s time to start sending them out. I created a new PDF for each recipe and saved it as “TESTER NAME_NAME OF BOOK RECIPES” to make it easy to find. This also personalizes the experience even more.

And just to be safe, assign the deadline for a week or two before you really need the feedback. Most people will be prompt, but there are always stragglers.

After all the emails go out, you can take a short breather as testing gets underway. Expect a few questions to come in (I can’t find dried blueberries! Can I use something else?), and respond as quickly as you can.

What to put in each email:

  • Customized template with recipe names, instructions, and important dates

  • Attached recipes

  • Attached feedback form

  • Attached NDA agreement

Phase 4: Feedback

As responses start pouring in, save feedback forms in a folder. I tried to read through the notes as soon as I received them and made any straightforward changes, like adding a bit more detail in a direction. Also, update your spreadsheet accordingly!

If you get mixed feedback from two testers, send it to a third, or even a fourth, before deciding how to proceed. Some of the feedback will force you to make a judgement call. Everyone’s palate is a little bit different, so just because someone didn’t absolutely love your chicken pot pie or the method you used, doesn’t mean it’s a bad recipe. With multiple testers, it’s easier to discern which issue is a personal preference, and which may be an fault with how the recipe was written.

At the very end, you might have a handful of recipes that need to be retested (I had about 10), so I put out a call for “last minute testing” asking for anyone who could turn it around within a few days, and also listed the recipes I needed help with so people could choose what sounded good to them.

Eat This Poem Cookbook

Phase 5: Final Touches

These details aren’t essential, but they do add an extra special touch to the experience! After the process was over, I emailed everyone with notes for how to add this experience to their resume.

Here's what I said:

Hi testers!
Just a quick little note to say thank you again for testing recipes for Eat This Poem. I turned in my manuscript on time today, and couldn’t have done it without your help. Recipe testing requires you to be detail oriented, follow instructions, and provide concise feedback—skills worth adding to your resume, I think! 

Here’s some language to copy and paste to your LinkedIn profile, if you’d like to use it.

Recipe Tester, Eat This Poem Cookbook (February 2016). Followed detailed recipe instructions as written and provided feedback on results including taste, recipe clarity, and baking times.

I also sent handwritten thank you notes to every single tester. (Just check their NDA form for addresses, or make a spreadsheet ahead of time so you’re ready to go.)

In general, I found organization (thank you, Google Sheets) and gratitude went a long way. As with everything that’s volunteer-based, be prepared for drop offs. Most of my testers were up for the task and very responsive, but a few I never heard from again, even after sending recipes their way. Others let me know closer to the deadline that they just didn’t have the capacity to do it.

Life happens. Be gracious, but quick to pass along the recipes to someone else so you can meet your all-important manuscript deadline and finally see your cookbook come to life!

Notes from Brooklyn

Bien Cuit, Brooklyn

October 2013 was the last time I was in New York. It was a work trip (a stressful one at that), and I spent most of my time in Manhattan. Four years later, life looks a bit different than when I turned left out of the Waldorf-Astoria and kept walking until I arrived at NYU. 

On Eat This Poem's book tour, my latest stop was Brooklyn. I recorded an episode of The Food Seen podcast, and had an amazing bookstore event at WORD Books where I was joined with Erin Boyle from Reading My Tea Leaves. In between, I did a lot of walking. I even spent three uninterrupted hours in a coffee shop, which was pure bliss. Here are the places I visited and loved!

Books Are Magic, Brooklun

6 Places to Visit in Brooklyn

Devocion | This is a bright, open space for Columbian coffee. I loved their iced fruit infusion, and would have stayed longer if it weren't for a dinner reservation nearby. (Williamsburg)

Bien Cuit | Smith Street is a vibrant street with plenty of shops to get lost in. Bien Cuit is one of them. It's a darling place to grab a cup of tea, or even a sandwich to take down to the water (I loved the asparagus baguette). The outdoor patio is relaxing, too. (Brooklyn Heights)

Books Are Magic | Another Smith Street gem, Books Are Magic is the new shop on the block. There's a cozy children's area for reading.

WORD Books | The Greenpoint location was home for my discussion with Erin Boyle. Upstairs is for the books, and downstairs is a spacious event space with a small stage. I heard from the staff they're getting ready to open a children's-only store down the street. (Greenpoint)

Aurora | An Italian restaurant with fresh pastas and a cozy garden in the heart of Williamsburg. (Williamsburg)

Rucola | I headed here for breakfast one morning, and to me, it's the quintessential New York restaurant. It's cozy, rustic, and if you sit facing the dining room, perfect for people watching. (Boerum Hill)

Notes From Seattle

Pike's Place Market, Seattle

I'm fresh off my first out of state book tour stop—Seattle! I flew up to the Emerald City for an event at Book Larder, hosted with my friend and fellow author Megan Gordon (who writes the blog A Sweet Spoonful AND runs an amazing granola company, Marge).

The last time I was on a plane was before my son was born, when we went to Kansas City for a wedding. I hadn't missed the recycled air and modest leg room, but it felt great to get out there again, officially, and do something just for me. I even managed to sleep in until 8:15 one morning. 

During my brief visit I explored downtown and a little bit of Ballard, aided in part by our very own Literary City Guide! Here are some of the other gems I discovered along the way.

9 Places to Visit in Downtown Seattle and Ballard

Ellenos | This stall at Pike's Place Market drew me in as soon as I discovered their homemade, not too tangy, not too sweet Greek yogurt was topped with passion fruit. There were plenty of other flavor options, too, but I hardly noticed. I should have gone back a second time to try them.

Beecher's Handmade Cheese | Just down the street from Ellenos, this was the perfect spot to tuck into during a light drizzle and devour a paper bowl of tomato soup. Be sure to get it with curds and garlic croutons. 

The London Plane | This was a breakfast/brunch/lunch nook recommended by Reading My Tea Leaves, and it didn't disappoint. (Really, how could a spot that's half cafe and half flower shop disappoint?). It's located on the corner of a quiet little square, and the bar is an excellent place to linger and people watch. 

Slate Coffee Roasters | This was a must-stop on our Literary City Guides list, and my husband confirmed it when he was in town for a conference a few weeks ahead of me. I sipped a cup of tea and actually read a book, without interruption, for thirty minutes.

The Dane | I can see why Ballard neighbors love The Dane—you can get coffee, beer, and ice cream all in one spacious, family-friendly location. Also, free wi-fi! I made the mistake of sitting next to the children's bookshelf, which was darling but also a little distracting. Otherwise, it's definitely the kind of place I could easily sit and write in all afternoon. 

Book Larder | This cozy cookbook-only shop is a neighborhood gem. They hosted my author talk, where we ate popcorn, talked about writing and creativity, and were just the most wonderful hosts. Please stop in and buy books if you're in the neighborhood. 

Delancey | My trip to Seattle wouldn't have been complete without a pilgrimage to Delancey for pizza. I enjoyed a glass of rose, a springy salad with fava beans and asparagus, and a flavorful pie with a friend. It doesn't get much better than that! 

Waterfall Garden Park | One of the wonderful things about walking around a new city is you always discover something unexpected. I stumbled into this small garden just off Pioneer square, and it was a tranquil place to sit for a few minutes and just listen to the sound of the water rushing by. 

Seattle Public Library | I made my way inside the doors just as a passing rainstorm started. This 10-story building downtown is a real gem, with lots of places to read and write across multiple floors.