Food quality kept up by Test Kitchen

By Mary Herdliska

NIU’s Test Kitchen, where University Food Service recipes are tested twice weekly, is 25 years old this month.

NIU is one of the few schools that has a test kitchen. The kitchen is located in the lower level of Douglas Hall.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, NIU Food Specialist Patricia Lee and a panel of randomly selected tasters sample similar products of different brand names.

In general, products are judged on appearance and flavor, Lee said. “We probably sample about 200 to 400 items a year,” she said.

Lee said she writes to the manufacturers, tells them what she is looking for and asks if they are interested in sending a sample. “We just got through sampling about 15 different kinds of breakfast sausages,” Lee said.

Thursday, tasters will be doing a “can cutting.” This is used for testing vegetables, jams, jellies and fruit. It involves comparing and judging can A and can B.

Although tasters are usually managers in the different residence hall food service departments, they vary in age and sex. “We try to get a variety of tastebuds,” Lee said.

Tasters rate the products in different categories. Quality is the first consideration, but cost is also considered, Lee said. The tasters try to find the best product at the lowest cost.

“We also have to make sure we have the equipment to produce the food. Something may look good and taste good, but you need to be able to make it,” she said.

After the tasting is finished, the ratings are collected and the tasters discuss the results. An average of six points is the highest rating and a product averaging less than four would not pass.

Ordering Manager Joe Hon was a taster over the summer. “One time we spent the entire week testing hamburgers. We judged the meat on appearance, moisture, taste and texture,” he said.

Lee said she would like to see more student involvement in the tasting, but said students are too busy during the day when the testing is done. Sometimes, when a new product is introduced, she will conduct a written survey to receive student opinions.

Lee receives ideas for recipes from workers, organizations’ cookbooks, journals and other universities. “Occasionally, we get recipes from students. One girl said her aunt made the best broccoli casserole. She brought us the recipe, we tested it and decided to add it to the menu,” she said.

Lee said the food service employees also try to serve food that is currently popular. “With the Mexican-food craze, we have added a Mexican Casserole,” she said.