Recipe Development: Behind the Scenes
Hi, I'm Annette, co-owner/founder of Nature's Plate. I'm introducing myself because it's been well over a year since I've done a blog entry. Planning on making this a much more regular thing!
Recipe development is happening all the time around here. We’re driven by our love of food and our mission. We know we need to keep things interesting and fresh. Who wants to eat the same thing all the time? Well, there are certain dishes on the menu that no one seems to get tired of, but that’s another story.
We also get a lot of questions and interest in the process…
First, developing recipes is not the job of one person. Marianne and I are involved, along with Carilyn (our Operations Manager), many members of the NP team.. and even our families and definitely customers too.
Alexis and Shannon with the dips they created for our holiday menu – masks and distancing courtesy of covid.
Someone gets an idea for a dish, and that someone could be any of the people listed above. Sometimes, it’s based on a dish we ate in a restaurant, a customer suggestion, a dish we ate as a child, something we make at home… often these inspirational dishes are neither plant-based or healthy.
Next, we research recipes for that dish, from cookbooks, the internet, and our own personal experience and expertise… then we prep and cook one or two versions (often at home, but sometimes during downtime in the NP kitchen) just to see if it has promise. Many dishes don’t make it past this point.
A mom who tests cookies at home? Not a bad deal!
Next, we bring the recipe into the commercial kitchen and consider ALL of the operational implications: nutrition, ingredient availability and cost, complexity and applicability to meal prep. Some recipes that work really well at home don’t translate – maybe because they have ingredients that don’t have any shelf life (like fresh avocado) or because the process is just too labor intensive.
One of the steps at this stage includes getting the recipe into our online tool that analyzes nutrient content. We're checking for calorie count, protein, fat, and overall nutrition. We never have to worry about fiber - whole plant foods have plenty! A surprising amount of recipe development takes place at a keyboard instead of a prep table…
If it passes those filters, we’ll take the working recipe and make it in the NP kitchen. Sometimes this will vary a lot from the preliminary home version, either because we changed things in the prior step or just because commercial ovens and other tools are different.
Alexis & Josh strategizing and calculating before the third round of jerk tofu testing. So much math and logistics involved! Documentation is also key – what’s the point if we can’t duplicate our best version.
Then we taste and tweak!
Taste testers include our team, our families, and sometimes the bigger community of customers and friends.
We may make 10 versions, or more, at this stage. (Our Number 29 Burgers are named that after the number of test recipes.) It’s all about taste and texture within the parameters we set above. There is a lot of back and forth trying to balance all of the feedback and get the recipe just right! Luckily, we have a lot of experience with this and understand how flavors work together and the balance of different ingredients used within plant-based cooking.
12 versions of jerk tofu: marinating, laid out for baking, and labeled for taste testing.
How complex is this? Well imagine your recipe has 3 groups of ingredients and you are testing different proportions of those components (as in marinade and breading) in different combinations and quantities. And you need to get it straight, keep it straight as you measure and mix, and cook… and it all needs to be documented exactly
There’s also a lot of give and take within our team over flavor vs. nutrition. We feel very strongly about the ingredients we use and the nutrition profile of the final dish, but if it doesn’t taste good, what’s the point? So lots of healthy debate and discussion!
Next we move to final testing – documenting weights and volume of each component, setting portion sizes, and testing shelf life. Sometimes we run into issues at this point around packaging – like the portion size doesn’t fit in our standard container… so we resolve those too.
Roasted Vegetables for our Sweet Mustard Bowl – and the completed meal
Then we need pictures for our website, social media, and any other marketing...
(We do a lot of food photography outside – the light is better!)
And finally, we document everything and get to add the dish to our menu – this includes labels, recipe documentation, training, and adding the item to all of our systems - so we can take orders, track inventory, and track ingredients.
And then finally, we put it out there to see what you think!