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Ask the Test Cooks
Ask Matthew: How Do You Test Cooks and Editors Decide What to Call Your Recipes?
This series answers all your cooking questions. And yes, by all we mean the wild, silly, and "stupid" ones, too.
11-16-2018
Matthew Fairman

Before Matthew Fairman joined Cook's Country as a test cook, he cooked in many restaurants and taught college literature and writing. When he’s not pitching a new take on fried rice to his editors or whispering to his slow cookers, Matthew is usually scaling plastic mountains at the climbing gym or running food experiments on his wife, Lauren, and cat, Daisy. One day, he hopes to pay for climbing trips by selling fried rice from a food truck to hungry people stumbling out of bars after last call.

Have a food-related question? Fill out this form or shoot Matthew a message at askthetestcooks@americastestkitchen.com

How do you test cooks and editors decide what to call your recipes? I've always wondered what goes into that decision.

— Anonymous, Recipe: All

Dear Home Cook,

The Bard famously wrote that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But, in the words of The Bart (Simpson): “Not if you called it a stench blossom.” I have to side with Bart on this one, at least when it comes to food. An unappealing name can make even a delicious recipe, well, unappealing. For instance, what if the first person to serve sushi in America thought the Japanese name was too unusual and simply printed this menu description:“cold raw fish and rice, fermented wheat brew, green horseradish”? Nowadays, that might fly if it were printed on a $300 chef’s tasting menu at a Michelin-starred restaurant, but I’m not sure the average home cook would be clamoring to make it.

Clearly, you can kill a recipe by calling it the wrong thing. But can you do the opposite? Can you make a recipe taste better just by giving it a cool name? I submit to you the following three recipe names as evidence: Jucy Lucy Burgers, Boogaloo Wonderland Sandwiches, and Lazy Strawberry Sonker. These recipe names sound so good, I’d make them without knowing anything about the actual ingredients. (Spoiler: They’re delicious, and you should make them all this week.)

So, what does go into a good recipe name, and how do you come up with one? I must confess that I struggle to come up with appealing names for my recipes. So allow me to defer to an expert: editor in chief of Cook’s Country (and genuinely great writer) Tucker Shaw.

Here’s what he had to say when asked what makes a good recipe name:

“Clarity. [There was a long pause here.] You want a clear expectation of what you’re getting. And of course, any added descriptors should build up-front appeal or, again, add clarity, as in the case of Easy Steak Frites or Extra-Spicy, Extra-Crunchy Fried Chicken. The name should roll off the tongue and should be easy to remember, so you can come back to Cook's Country’s website and find it again.”

Looking back—with Tucker’s advice in mind—I can think of at least one recipe of ours that I’d rename. I’ve sometimes wondered whether our Hot Chicken Salad recipe would’ve been more popular if we had called it “Cheesy Chicken Casserole.” One thing’s for sure: If we had called it “Hot Mayonnaise Chicken,” people wouldn’t be likely to drool in anticipation of trying it. The thing is, it’s out-of-this-world delicious.

Fundamentally, I guess a recipe name should create a clear desire for delicious food that the finished dish will fulfill. It should say, “You’re going to be happy you made this.” And I’ll just say that you’ll be happy if you make any of the recipes I’ve mentioned above.

TAKEAWAY: A recipe name should always provide clarity about the actual dish you plan to enjoy. If its catchy enough to be easily remembered (so that home cooks can go online and browse for it again), thats even better.

Good night (and good luck),

  • Matthew Fairman
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Have a food-related question? Fill out this form or shoot Matthew a direct message at askthetestcooks@americastestkitchen.com

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