Our chef instructors teach cooking classes in over 50 stores around the country nearly every single day. During the week in our Seattle headquarters, a small team of chefs creates, tests and adjusts the recipes used in those classes — which is awesome for us here in the office because there’s always something tasty to try. Not so awesome? The phenomenon we’ve come to call the “SLT 15.”
So to get a feel for what a day in the test kitchen is like, I spent an afternoon with Kristina Micallef, our culinary content program manager and recipe developer extraordinaire, as she worked on a few summer jams (of the stone fruit and berry variety — not earworms).
Kristina had a few pots of boiling water going on the stove as she sterilized jars, and small piles of produce were scattered all over the counter: nectarines and peaches that felt soft and heavy in your hand; shiny, dark blackberries; the most incredible-smelling bunches of fresh basil and lemons. A jar of pickled squash was already cooling on a towel.
“Our job when we’re testing a recipe,” she explained, “is really pretty simple. We need to make sure that every step of the recipe works in real time. That way there aren’t any surprises for our instructors and students out in the field.”
“Today, I’m working on a peach and nectarine jam, blackberry and basil jam, plum chutney and cumin-scented pickled summer squash. We test about 30 recipes a week, and they range from all over the globe. Aside from these, I’m testing some French and Indian dishes, too.”
As we chatted, she was cooking the fruit jams simultaneously, pressing down on the fruit with silicone spoons and a cocktail muddler because she couldn’t find the potato masher she was hoping to use for this step. It cracks me up to be reminded that even a pro chef working for a national kitchen store has to improvise now and again because, well, sometimes tools just straight up hide from you when you need them.
“I’ll make a few recipes, then call my team in to taste. When it comes to things like spice or sweetness, we aim for the middle ground so that the recipes appeal to the most people. But we encourage people to feel comfortable playing with seasonings, to make the dish the way they like when they get home.
“With jam, I think there’s a misconception that it needs to be really sweet. I don’t agree. A good jam should really be the most concentrated expression of the fruit’s natural flavors. You’re trying to preserve the true flavor of the fruit, so it doesn’t need to be over-the-top-sweet. It can be, if that’s what you like, but I’ve designed these recipes to use less sugar than what I think most people would expect.
“That’s what so great about making your own jams at home. You can use as much or as little sugar as you like, get it to the consistency — from runny to really thick — that you want. And sometimes you like your jam one way, then the next time you want to try it a different way.”
“A good cook should be flexible. I think people can get so caught up in following a recipe to the letter that they forget to trust their instincts.”
As she was saying this, she tasted the peach-nectarine jam and decided it was too sweet. She squeezed in more lemon juice, gave it a stir and another taste. She nodded: it was ready. She handed me a spoon. It tasted like a more intense version of the best nectarine I can remember.
“We’re constantly tweaking the recipes. We want to be sure that when you take one of our classes, you leave with recipes that you can use confidently. We work hard in here to get them perfect, hoping that you’ll take them home and change them up!”
You can try our recipes at home in your own test kitchen: