What’s the best chocolate chip cookie? The best answer is, “It depends.” For you, it may be crisp and thin, or it may be thick and chewy. It may even be a combination, with a chewy center and crisp edges.
This is true of almost every classic, familiar dish. What’s the best chocolate cake? The ideal macaroni and cheese? The perfect hash browns? In each case, it depends on your individual preferences. These, in turn, are likely to have been formed by some combination of what you grew up with, what you first learned how to make, and which version they make in your favorite restaurant. But whatever you like best, you are no doubt ready to argue the question with conviction and verve. In fact, in the case of the iconic American dish hash browns, opinions are so diverse and so strongly held that, as Andrea Geary comments in her story, “Hash browns do have the power to unhinge.”
So when we set out to develop a recipe for a familiar dish, our first step is deciding exactly what we’re looking for. That process typically starts with what we call the “five-recipe test.” After scouring cookbooks, food magazines, and culinary websites, the test cook developing the recipe selects several versions—typically five, hence the name of the test—that take different approaches. We then taste them one after the other and write down our likes and dislikes. Very often we prefer, say, the texture of one version, the flavor of another, and the technique used for a third. We then combine those preferred attributes as a start—but just a start—toward developing our own recipe.
What we promise you is that once we have decided on our goals for a dish, we’ll develop a recipe that delivers exactly those qualities. Because once you’re talking about a particular version of a dish with a specific list of attributes, there really is a “best” recipe, a best method of achieving those desired attributes. It may involve an unusual tool for making hash browns, a surprising ingredient in mac and cheese, or a newly discovered difference among the cocoas that you might use in a chocolate cake. But whatever it is and however long it takes, we will figure it out and deliver the recipe to you.