Behind the Scenes at Good Housekeeping’s Test Kitchen
The Good Housekeeping Institute has been operating for longer than even the most seasoned editor has been on the job—over 100 years—and in that time it has established itself as a trusted source when it comes to evaluating consumer goods. The Institute carefully tests and reviews just about everything, from cleaning products to the hottest Christmas toys of the year. However, one of it’s fundamental pillars is its test kitchen, where recipes are triple-checked to ensure they not only taste good, but can be consistently produced by readers, no matter the ingredients or equipment.
Spearheading the kitchen is food director Susan Westmoreland, who has been working to perfect recipes since 1995. Here, min chats with Westmoreland to get a behind-the-scenes perspective of exactly what happens in the kitchen and what has changed during her tenure.
min: Tell us what a typical day is like for you and your team in the GH kitchen?
Susan Westmoreland: What I love about my job is that there is not a typical day. My ritual starts about 8:15 am, opening the kitchen doors and pausing to look at Central Park. After 10 years of this view it’s still inspiring. I make coffee for my team and then I’m in my office writing, editing and emailing. By mid-morning, someone on the food team loudly proclaims: “TASTING!” Most days, we have recipe tastings a few times a day. The food team sits, the test cook explains what she’s presenting and we comment. I take notes on an evaluation form, noting flavors, yields, watch points [temperature and doneness] and changes for the next test. I’m up and down a lot after that, for meetings, tastings, brainstorming sessions, photo shoots, videos and greeting some of the many visitors who tour the Institute.
min: What separates your test kitchen from the many other out there?
Westmoreland: Testing, testing, testing! The kitchen is part of the Good Housekeeping Institute, which consists of six other labs on the 29th floor of Hearst Tower—and for each lab it’s all about testing. In the Test Kitchen we have the luxury of doing “tested until perfect” recipes. We test each recipe we run on both gas and electric ranges, with different brands of cookware and appliances. For example, for a cake, we use a KitchenAid mixer to develop a recipe, then retest with a less expensive hand-held mixer, and various brands of nationally available ingredients. We taste and evaluate at every stage, tweaking not only flavors, but also workflow and timings. By the time our reader makes the recipe at home it will work with whatever ingredients, range and other equipment she has.
min: How have things changed inside the kitchen since you joined the brand in 1995?
Westmoreland: How long do you have? Back then the food pages had one very long feature each month, with titles like “Let’s Eat Italian” or “The Big Vegetable Cookbook.” It was all recipe content, no tests of kitchen products or kitchen tools. There was no cookbook program, no unique web content, no video, and no Facebook Live. The team cooked all the food again to present to the editors and Art department just to make choices of what would be photographed.
Ellen Levine, my mentor, had recently taken over as editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping and hired me to overhaul the section. So we divided the section into two or three smaller features, adding many more photographs, single pages for food news, a Q&A and, most importantly, we showcased the talent and resources of the Institute within the pages of the magazine.
We started doing tests on the best slow cookers for one feature, testing how much salt pasta retains after cooking (only about 11 percent!), and doing taste tests of various brands of pantry ingredients that were germane to a feature. Not revolutionary, but big enough for the reader to notice.
As this was developing, Ann Bramson, who was then at William Morrow, arrived, and said: “We need to start doing cookbooks.” What a gift to learn about building books from her! Good Housekeeping has since produced over 3 dozen cookbooks.
For seven or eight years we did a syndicated TV monthly video news release series featuring GHI product and taste tests. These days we’re doing it for the web.
min: How do you select the recipes you feature? Is it based on trends, seasonality, partnerships or other factors?
Westmoreland: Trends and seasons certainly factor. Eating out is an inspiration, whether it’s a flavor combination presentation or just a yummy riff on something we love. We’re always looking at new cookbooks, food blogs, and Pinterest. I love Instagram for food inspiration. For our weeknight section, we have a pretty strict set of guidelines and no more than 20 minutes of active prep time. We occasionally do in-book partnerships and we put our Good Housekeeping spin and testing on whatever brand we are working with.
min: How do you work with partners to feature their products while maintaining the integrity of the Good Housekeeping Institute?
Westmoreland: Everything that goes into the pages of the magazine has to be vetted by the Good Housekeeping Institute. What this means is they have to pass the testing process of the engineers, chemists, scientists and food experts—so whether we are creating or vetting products and recipes they must pass our specific tests. We also work with our advertising team so anything that is associated with Good Housekeeping—advertorials, for instance—are aligned with our brand identity and standards.
min: What’s got you excited in 2016?
Westmoreland: I’ve been working closely with Innit, a company that’s developing software and sensors for appliances to track food inventory and freshness. [We are] providing recipes and content for a platform that will help America’s major food waste problem.
Facebook Live is really energizing for me. We’ve been inviting authors, actors and other food-related folks to come and cook with us, as well as launching a series on testing social media phenomena like putting whole lemons in the blender to make lemonade (Does it work? Sort of. Does it taste good? If you like furniture polish.)