How the recipe on the back of the box was born

potato casserole with cheese

Photo: Brent Hofacker (Shutterstock)

The next time you are walk the aisles at the grocery store, take a look at the back of each box. Chances are you’ll come across a gold mine of recipes and dinner ideas in very small print. Each has a good chance of being both delicious and adaptable, tailored specifically to the buyer – that’s you – thanks to a corporate test kitchen.

Many of the recipes that have become iconic American dishes were first devised by the brands that sell you the ingredients, only to later evolve into multi-generational mainstays. It’s what food writer Cathy Erway calls “brandma made“: the idea that certain commercially developed recipes have finally found their way into family cookbooks, passed down over the decades.

As all of this unfolded, brands kept a lid on their recipe developers. During this time, the companies have grown exponentially and globally, and the resulting dishes (shown on the back of the box) have come to define America. kitchen. Who these chefs are and how they made their way into the test kitchens of mainstream brands is an important part of our culinary history.

How Corporate Test Kitchens Came to Be

According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the idea of ​​”ready mealsrose to prominence in the 1940s. With growing consumer demand for shelf-stable pantry foods, companies such as Campbell’s began to seek opportunities to meet this demand. Campbell’s test kitchen was established in 1941 and domestic economists have been hired to test the soups.

Betty Crocker, a General Mills brand, took a slower, more cautious approach. Two decades earlier, the company launched a radio show called “The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air”, which according to its website became one of the longest-running radio shows in history. Consumer interest prompted the company to open its first test kitchen in 1946, and like Campbell’s, he hired domestic economists to fuel the operation.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the test kitchens became the department of “consumer science”. Eventually they evolved into culinary kitchens, extending beyond recipes built primarily on the notions of practicality and efficiency.

Culinary kitchens, such as The Conagra team, employ a variety of industry professionals who are not only passionate about food, but have a particular pedigree. Many have college degrees in nutritional science or professional chef certifications, as well as experience in other fields such as food photography, food styling, and restaurant management.

The invisible sides of recipe development

Chef Helen Roberts has worked at Kikkoman for almost four decades. During her time with the company, she developed many recipes, sometimes five a day. But many do not know that it was she who created the popular turkey brine recipe who boldly uses a whole bottle of soy sauce.

Roberts joined Kikkoman three decades after the company opened its U.S. subsidiary in 1957, a time when many Americans were unaware of soy sauce, or at least how useful it could be in their cooking. Although the recipe does not bear his nameit helped consumers see the product differently and see it as a more versatile ingredient than they thought.

Jane Freiman, founder of Smart Kitchen Analysis Group, is another veteran of the test kitchen world. She spent 27 years at Campbell’s Consumer Test Kitchen and helped develop many recipes, such as the popular single dish Chicken and rice in the oven. Campbell’s cooking, of course, brought many recipes into the American mainstream: the late Dorcas Reilly is credited with creating the Green bean casserole in 1955, a dish that has become shorthand for domesticity.

It’s not just century-old brands and mega-corporations that have robust test kitchens. Independent specialty food producer Stonewall Kitchen and its Urban Accents line of seasonings and spices put a lot of emphasis on that work. Sarah Beth TannerHead of Creative Development for Urban Accents, is credited with creating over 200 recipes in her five years with the company.

The future of recipe development

Many recipes created in company test kitchens were originally created to sell more products. The idea was simple: provide consumers with a guide on how to use the item. The better the recipe, the more likely the consumer is to buy the product again. But the past few years have presented new opportunities and new challenges. Consumers have become more health conscious and companies like Kraft-Heinz pay attention.

The brand’s main research and development center, located in suburban Chicago, is run by Robin Ross, a 25-year Kraft veteran. Ross thinks the biggest barrier that keeps people from trying a new recipe is that they don’t have the right ingredients. His team’s job is to constantly change that or innovate, revising old classics to meet current trends or creating new recipes.

These days, recipe developers not only work collaboratively with other departments, including marketing, strategy, and consumer insights teams, but also with each other. Several rounds of testing are performed to ensure a recipe is foolproof, and certain rules must be followed before a recipe is deemed suitable for the company’s website and package labels. Online customer reviews are also read and valued, according to Tanner. (That’s a good reason to keep your criticisms constructive.)

The ingenuity of the ready-to-use recipe has stood the test of time, turning into a massive collection of recipes on each company’s website and social media pages. And the unsung heroes who have spent hours in their test kitchens know how important it is to create recipes that complement consumers’ lifestyles. But while we never see the names of these chefs on the packaging, many note that they’re not here for the fame. For them, satisfaction comes from simply knowing that people are building memories, one recipe at a time.

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