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The Test Kitchen

Black Toms Sea Biscuits, made with spiced rum

Black Toms Sea Biscuits, made with spiced rumI’ve always imagined test kitchens to be laboratories, with colourful liquids and expensive machines spinning tubes and outputting graphs.

My kitchen in the house doesn’t do any of those cool things, but apparently it is a test kitchen. The only thing that makes it different from other kitchens (aside from a really old dodgy Electrolux oven), is the detailed records of all biscuits produced.

Biccie lovers regularly ask if they can test the biscuits, try new flavours and suggest the next biscuit to be made, which I completely understand. It sounds glamourous, fun and scientific all at the same time. 

What lots of people don’t realise, is eating your way through several kilograms of biscuit dough (cooked and raw), is neither glamourous nor fun. But it is scientific, as long as you write everything down. 

Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not complaining. It’s a bit like fishing. You don’t know what you’re going to get until you see it. You have a plan for what you want and a plan to make it happen, but until you’ve got it in your hand, you really can’t be sure.

So where is the fun and glamour?
The fun (for me anyway), is in the planning and nearing the final result. In developing Black Tom’s Sea Biscuits for example, there was a selection of rums to try. (The fun part). Each rum was tasted straight – no mixers, just as they’re bottled.

The next stage is to pair them with the icing and the biscuit. This naturally changes the flavour, making it sweeter and changing the consistency, so it’s a completely new product. The secret is not stopping with a great new flavour. The secret is to keep testing, rebalancing the alcohol with the ingredients until the product is fully tested. A great product could be a tweak away from an amazing product.

It’s also equally possible that a great flavour turns into a rotten flavour, which is where the importance of paperwork comes in. Looking back through the notes and findings will identify the perfect biscuit, and exactly what’s required to recreate it. 

Sadly, making the biscuit is the easy part and typically takes around 4-6 weeks. With the ingredients and design decided upon, lots of biscuits are produced to test scaleability. You’ll notice the cool pirate arm with the rum bottle I designed doesn’t actually appear on the biscuits you buy. Sadly the process to add the arm wasn’t repeatable at scale without some extremely expensive machinery. The test biscuits are then bagged and packed away in a cupboard for shelf life testing. If you want three months shelf life, you need to store and test for a minimum of three months. If you want a year, it’s store and test for a year, assuming the product hasn’t spoiled during that time.

The hard part is the packaging.

Packaging has so many requirements, it’s a world of study all on it’s own. Obviously the first product is the hardest, but every new product requires a new label and nutritional values calculated. Bagging and boxing are slow processes, unless you have tens of thousands of pounds spare, so it’s a cheap and painfully slow process to get started.

You can design the most beautiful box or packet for your biscuits, but if it doesn’t handle well in transit (in delivery vehicles, boats and aircraft, shop cages, shelf packers and so on), then it’ll never see a shop shelf. If you want scaleability, the pack also has to fit inside another box (an outer), which can fit securely onto a pallet when stacked. 

The label is yet another field of study, from product naming to ingredient lists; there’s an encyclopedia of regulations to determine what you can and cannot write or display on your label. But getting back to the fun, there is the naming and graphics to be chosen. Personally, I’m a fan of my research, and basing my products on historical details. Black Tom for example, is a rarely documented pirate, who is thought to have hidden his treasure in Dunluce Castle, a couple of hours north of my kitchen. (Spoiler alert, in Northern Ireland, anywhere in the entire country is no more than a couple of hours away, unless there’s sheep walking up the road). So with a local pirate, a delicious Cornish rum, and a new biscuit, we’re all set for a new product.