The next time you’re perusing the aisles at the grocery store, take a look at the back of each box. Chances are you’ll stumble upon a goldmine of dinner recipes and ideas in very small print. Each one has a good chance of being both delectable and adaptable, tailored specifically to the buyer—that’s you—courtesy of a corporate test kitchen.
Many of the recipes that have become iconic American dishes were first engineered by the brands selling you the ingredients, only evolving later into multigenerational mainstays. It’s what food writer Cathy Erway calls “Brandma Made”: the idea that certain commercially developed recipes eventually found their way into family cookbooks, passed down across the decades.
As all this has unfolded, brands have kept something of a veil over their actual recipe developers. Meanwhile, the companies have grown exponentially and globally, and the resulting dishes (featured on the back of the box) have come to define American cuisine. Who these chefs are and how they made their way into consumer brands’ test kitchens is an important part of our culinary history.
According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the idea of “convenience foods” came to prominence in the 1940s. With rising consumer demand in shelf-stable pantry foods, companies such as Campbell’s began to seek out opportunities to meet that demand. The Campbell’s test kitchen was created in 1941 and home economists were hired to test out the soups.
Betty Crocker, a General Mills brand, took a slower, careful approach. Two decades prior, the company debuted 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, it hired home economists to power the operation.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, test kitchens became known as the “consumer sciences” department. Eventually, they evolved into a 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 come with a particular pedigree. Many have college degrees in nutrition science or professional chef certifications, along with experience in other realms such as food photography, food styling, and restaurant management.
Chef Helen Roberts has been working at Kikkoman for almost four decades. During her time with the company, she has developed many recipes, sometimes five per day. But many do not know that it was she who created the popular turkey brine recipe that boldly uses an entire 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 unfamiliar with soy sauce, or at least unaware of how useful it could be in their cooking. Though the recipe does not bear her name, it helped consumers view the product differently and consider it a more versatile ingredient than they knew.
Jane Freiman, founder of Smart Kitchen Insights Group, is another veteran of the test kitchen world. She spent 27 years at the Campbell’s Consumer Test Kitchen and helped develop many recipes, such as the popular one-dish Chicken & Rice Bake. The Campbell’s kitchen has, 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, either. Independent specialty foods producer Stonewall Kitchen and its Urban Accents line of seasonings and spices place a lot of emphasis on this work. Sarah Beth Tanner, creative development chef for Urban Accents, is credited with creating more than 200 recipes during her five-year tenure with the company.
Many of the recipes created in companies’ test kitchens were initially created to sell more product. The idea was simple: provide consumers a guide for how to put the item to use. The better the recipe, the higher likelihood that the consumer will buy the product again. But recent years have presented new opportunities and challenges. Consumers have become more health-conscious, and companies like Kraft Heinz are paying attention.
The brand’s main research and development center, located in a Chicago suburb, is led by Robin Ross, a 25-year Kraft veteran. Ross believes that the main impediment to people not trying a new recipe is because they don’t have the right ingredients. Her team’s job is to change that, or to constantly innovate, revising old classics to meet current trends—or creating new recipes altogether.
These days, recipe developers not only work in collaboration with other departments, including marketing, strategy, and consumer insights teams, but also with one another. Multiple rounds of testing are completed to ensure that a recipe is foolproof, and certain rules must be followed before a recipe is deemed appropriate for the company’s website and package labels. Online customer reviews are also read and evaluated, according to Tanner. (That’s as good a reason as any to keep your criticism constructive.)
The cleverness of the back-of-the-box recipe has stood the test of time, growing 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 listed on the packaging, many note they aren’t in this for the fame. For them, the satisfaction comes from simply knowing that people are out there building memories, one recipe at a time.