The Los Angeles Times test kitchen: The paper has a long tradition of recipe… (Kirk McKoy/LOS ANGELES…)
The story out of Chile was enough to make a publisher’s blood turn colder than a liquid nitrogen milkshake. In late December, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the newspaper La Tercera had to shell out more than $160,000 to 13 victims who were burned while trying to fry churros in hot oil.
The readers had been following a recipe, published in the paper in 2004, that apparently called for the oil to be heated to 482 degrees, well above the smoke point for most fats. When handing down its decision, the Supreme Court said, according to published accounts, that La Tercera had failed to fully test the recipe, causing the rolls of dough to become, essentially, projectile objects.
The story tends to makes people snicker, but the account underlines a potential vulnerability in the world of newspapers as the industry continues to shrink: Can food editors — and the managers who control their budgets — still afford to test recipes with the same rigor as in the past?
The question is important not only to avoid judicial judgments such as the one in Chile, but also to maintain journalistic standards that readers rely uponas the Internet becomes more bloated with recipes, their provenance often unknown and their accuracy questionable.
The money required to test recipes is probably not going to drain a paper’s budget. The food editors who were willing to share their figures — even ballpark ones — threw out numbers ranging from about $1,500 a month (San Francisco Chronicle) to $200 to $700 a week in groceries (Associated Press). The Washington Post spends more than $15,000 annually on testing for the entire paper; Food section policy is to test every recipe (save for those in syndicated columns in other sections) at least once, which is done in home kitchens by Food staffers, certain Food columnists and volunteer testers.
Perhaps surprising, many of the editors contacted for this story said their recipe-testing budgets have not been targeted for reduction or elimination — at least to their knowledge. What might be more surprising, however, is that some of them had to persuade their bosses to institute recipe testing in the first place. It would seem that the era of recipe testing at newspapers is a more recent invention; old timers recall when food editors in the 1980s published recipes straight from publicists and major food manufacturers, no questions asked.
San Francisco Chronicle Food and Wine editor Michael Bauer remembers trying to persuade his supervisors at the Kansas City Star in 1980, when he became food editor there, to start testing recipes. He recalls attempting to appeal to their sense of journalistic integrity.
“As a journalist, you always go to the source, and testing recipes is a source,” Bauer remembers arguing to his superiors. “Not testing them is taking second- and third-hand opinions.” He didn’t win the argument and had to foot the bill for recipe testing himself.
In 1986, Bauer landed at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he and his colleagues have built a test kitchen and culinary complex that is an envy of the newspaper industry. “It was just something I was able to get through the years,” says Bauer. “It was always done through the back door, one small step at a time.”
The Chronicle’s food and wine section is housed in a separate space behind the paper’s main building. Bauer has a wine cellar, a cookbook library and even a rooftop garden (complete with apiary). Next to Bauer’s office is the spacious test kitchen, where every one of the seven to 10 recipes published weekly is tested at least once, if only to prepare the dish for a photo shoot.
“I think, over the years, we’ve become more stringent in recipe testing,” Bauer says. “It’s kind of a way to distinguished yourself, with the Internet and everything.”
In contrast to Bauer, Russ Parsons, veteran food editor at the Los Angeles Times, joined a paper with a long tradition of recipe testing, dating to the early 20th century. These days, the Times has a sprawling test kitchen overseen by manager Noelle Carter, a professionally trained chef. The kitchen is used not only for recipe testing (most recipes are tested about three times) but also for online videos and cooking segments for a sister television station.
“In the grand scale of things, it’s expensive, but you only lose a reader once,” says Parsons, who declined to provide his budget numbers. “My argument is, we still fact-check addresses and phone numbers, and that’s expensive, too,” in terms of staff hours.