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Cookbook Caution

Cookbooks

Cookbooks

Guilty of criticising cookbook writers whose recipes fail or disappoint, I recently read with growing disillusionment a post on the blog pages of Eat Your Books entitled “How Well Are Cookbook Recipes Tested?”

I was surprised to learn that no industry standard exists to test and refine recipes for cookbooks. Publishing house contracts vary, and rarely do they stipulate that recipes be tested, leaving it entirely up to the author to organize an independent evaluation of their work. Because these costs have to be covered by the publisher’s advance, this important step is often compromised.

Recipe development is the job of the cookbook writer. Recipe testing is a completely separate field.

In an ideal world a recipe tester would be an independent home cook with an average domestic kitchen and an editor’s eye. Their role would first entail procuring ingredients to gauge ready availability. The preparation and cooking of the recipe exactly as written by the author would be the next step, refining the clarity of the instructions for the method as she progressed. Finally, an objective assessment of the result would be made, assessing the ingredient list, equipment choices, cooking times, seasoning, texture, balance and general appeal. Depending on the tester’s findings, the recipe may be returned to the developer for further work. It is not within the realms of the recipe tester to make changes only recommendations.

As a cookbook consumer I believe that testing should be carried out not once but at least twice by different people with different skills in different kitchens, but approaching the Facebook community to fill this role, as one author did recently, seems to lack serious intent.

Recipe testing is ideally a controlled process. “The Cook’s Cook,” a recipe tester and blogger explains over several posts her exacting role. She has to put aside her creativity, experience and judgement and just cook like a beginner, following the written recipe verbatim. She then submits an assessment sheet to to the author.

New cookbooks hit the book shelves daily. I’ve learned the hard way that a book full of gorgeous glossy photos serve as a warning that I need to exercise caution, that I need to taste and use my personal judgement when it comes to seasonings and cooking times. To me it’s photographically obvious where the budget has been spent!  I’m also wary of cookbooks bearing the names of cult status chefs. Recipes developed using specialist equipment with artisan products to be served in restaurants rarely translate to the home kitchen for the average family cook to prepare after a busy day at work.

I love my cookbooks. They are a valuable resource to inspire, provide guidance and educate. Their contents are like roadmaps providing one single route to a finished dish. I can choose to slavishly follow the written recipe and find myself disappointed, or I can take the scenic route and explore as I go, apply what I know, what my experience has taught me, what my instincts tell me and enjoy the journey and the finished dish.

I let my palate and common sense be the guide, you should too.

Cookbook users, be aware.

About ladyredspecs

I live in sunny Brisbane, Australia. My love of good food drives me as a cook, a reader, a traveller, an artist and but mostly as an eater. I cooked professionally for many years but have no formal training. Simply guided by a love of eating good food, respect for ingredients and an abhorrence of artificial additives, I cook instinctively applying the technical know how acquired by experience. I hope you enjoy what I share Sandra AKA ladyredspecs

38 comments on “Cookbook Caution

  1. Napoli Restaurant Alert
    October 3, 2016

    Great post. I have found many time recipes where the quantities just don’t work. I rarely buy cookbooks these days, I borrow them from the library, as often the reality is that while they look good, I might only consider making a handful of things!

    Like

  2. Elisa
    December 28, 2014

    Martha Stewart’s recipes are often incomplete or NASTY, as if NO HUMAN had ever ever tasted them. I commented once and they had the audacity to tell me that I just don’t know enough about cooking to make it. Then I told them that I have a Culinary degree. Then I told them the steps I had taken trying to figure out who forgot ingredients and/or steps and that the dish was irreparable. On another note. I often get cookbooks and first, I do them exactly and mostly as if I do not know what I am doing. (I do group for creaming in baking items, as many books give a ton of steps or skip creaming altogether, which doesn’t work for many things.) Then I test it again clumping, lumping and shifting things to get them to work. At present I am having to convert things to gluten free. It’s annoying me about the learning curve about proteins in the flours, especially since many of the helper ones, I am also allergic to.

    Like

    • ladyredspecs
      December 28, 2014

      Let your training, experience and palate be your guide. IIt’s interesting that Martha Stewart has never gained a foothold in Australia.

      Like

    • ladyredspecs
      December 28, 2014

      Sorry Elisa my reply posted before I’d finished! I’m constantly challenged by converting to GF too, not always with success. Structure presents problems and I have found a tablespoon or two of psyllium husks help enormously in baked goods

      Like

      • Elisa
        December 28, 2014

        Thank you, I had heard that about psyllium however it makes my IBS sooo much worse. I appreciate your time and comments 🙂

        Like

      • ladyredspecs
        December 28, 2014

        IBS is such a fickle condition, we all experience our own personal ups and downs and we have so much to learn about our own individual experiences. The diet is a journey of discovery 😃

        Like

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  4. Sally
    November 6, 2014

    That’s where books like Good Housekeeping are so good as they are triple tested. I bought a book the other day that I’ve been cooking my way through and while one recipe said arborio rice in the instructions, the photo clearly showed basmati!

    Like

    • ladyredspecs
      November 6, 2014

      Sadly we don’t have a local Good Housekeeping. The Australian Women’s Weekly is our most reliable magazine by a mile, although it’s not very exciting, just good honest to goodness reliable homestyle cooking

      Like

  5. firecook
    November 2, 2014

    One of my classes . I had a dessert class and that book forgot many things in recipes. I heard some of my friends had to ask the instructor and mine well I have to twist it a bit. The title didn’t say pineapple cubes and another ingredients in another recipes I had to do for a plating and grade and to make a short story this but and recipes was a challenge. The instructor wasn’t to happy on the book but it was fun because I enjoyed the challenge..

    Like

    • ladyredspecs
      November 2, 2014

      Thanks for joining the conversation Firecook. There are many tales about badly written recipes, it’s way too common, but the upside I guess is we learn to redeem the dish we have cooked by adding our own unique touch.

      Like

      • firecook
        November 2, 2014

        No problem it was quite a learning progress for me and the Chef Instructor wasn’t mad as I add my own idea. I have known about recipes for years about the recipes and poor printing of them. Like they say Read and double read your recipes and planned before you do your recipe that what I do..;)

        Like

  6. ChgoJohn
    October 31, 2014

    I so agree with you. I’ve learned not to assume that I am the one that made the error. All that does is ensure that I’ll make the dish again and it, too, will go into the trash. Even our television chefs have been caught preparing some nasty dishes. The resulting criticism is very hard to deflect. One can hardly blame a typo or misprint when the chef can be seen on YouTube preparing the dish.

    Like

    • ladyredspecs
      October 31, 2014

      It’s so frustrating John, I’ve had it happen again today making a Burmese salad recipe from a magazine. I stupidly thought it was a customary use of ingredients which was unfamiliar to me. It was just plain horrible!! i read up on the traditional dish, the recipe I used had totally misused and abused it!!

      Like

  7. Leah
    October 31, 2014

    Reblogged this on The Cookbook Guru and commented:

    Today I wanted to share with you a very different kind of post but one that I think has a very valid placement in the purpose of this blog.

    Here at The Cookbook Guru we spend each month cooking our way through published cookbooks from around the world. We choose a book for the month using it as an opportunity to learn, to be inspired and to create. Along the way many of our members have discovered the errors and inaccuracies that seem to plague particularly the more glossy picture based books and it has resulted in some less than successful creations and great frustration for the cook in question.

    One of our members, Lady Red Specs, has taken this frustration seriously and written a very informative and interesting piece about the pitfalls and perils of cookbooks, and the lack of regulation that surrounds the industry for the recipes within them to be accurate and to actually work.

    I believe, along with many of the commenters on her post, that this conversation is an important part of the food world where so many of us rely on the people writing and publishing cookbooks to know what they are talking about and provide us with a product that actually works.

    I’d love to hear what your experiences of cookbooks are and please do check out the full post on this topic,

    Leah

    Like

  8. Michelle
    October 30, 2014

    Hear, hear. Though given that magazines and newspapers hardly have editors or fact-checkers or proofreaders anymore, I guess it’s not surprising. Sad, really.

    Like

    • ladyredspecs
      October 30, 2014

      Yes very sad! Our media has been dumbed down to infotainment bites of a dubious quality, but, a cookbook is a consumer item and I don’t believe it’s unrealistic that it should be a book that you can cook from!

      Like

  9. trixpin
    October 29, 2014

    Definitely. I’ve been bitterly disappointed by some of the cookbook recipes I’ve tried. It’s astounding to hear that there’s no regulation regarding recipe testing, and unlike a car you can’t test drive them before you buy them.
    I’m invariably drawn to the glossy photos and had never considered that these were done at the expense of the quality of the written content. And I totally agree about the celebrity driven ones – I followed a marshmallow recipe recently by a celebrity cook and it asked for 1/2 tsp of salt. Well, I put in 1/4 tsp and it was still WAY too salty. Lack of proper recipe testing by the author etc can be a HUGE waste of the home cook’s time and money.
    But like you I find myself using my natural instincts when it comes to cooking, and whilst in the past I’ve felt a bit guilty that I rarely follow a recipe to the letter, after reading this I feel better about that!

    Like

    • ladyredspecs
      October 30, 2014

      Well it seems we have both learned something Trix. It’s a disappointing reality, but if cookbook users are aware, then at least you can exercise caution. It won’t stop me buying cookbooks though, i love the stimulation!

      Like

  10. Leah
    October 29, 2014

    great post and a great reminder that it is so important to trust your instincts. Do you mind if I reblog this on The Cookbook Guru? xxx

    Like

    • ladyredspecs
      October 29, 2014

      Happy for you to reblog, especially ’cause the Cookbook Guru got a nice compliment in the comments! Just today made a recipe that listed dried chilli in the ingredients, but once it came to the method it had been substituted with salt flakes! Xxx

      Like

  11. tinywhitecottage
    October 29, 2014

    Great post Sandra. I really don’t have anything to add other than I really enjoyed reading the post and the comments. 🙂

    Like

    • ladyredspecs
      October 29, 2014

      Thanks Seana, indeed it is an interesting discussion. You publish accurate recipes which I really enjoy, you give me faith in published recipes!

      Like

  12. Raphaelle
    October 28, 2014

    Forgive cause I’ve sinned… 🙂 I love buying cookbooks and the food photography that are in these cookbooks. But I have to say i love them more as for a source of inspiration than for really trying out the recipes. To me just like blogging and reading other friends blog – cookbooks are here to open upyour mind to new combination of flavours and help you cross that line that you might not have crossed without reading about it.

    Like

    • ladyredspecs
      October 28, 2014

      I absolutely agree Raphaelle, new cookbooks should excite and stimulate, give you courage to try new flavours and ingredient combinations. It’s hard not to feel deceived though if the recipes have glaring mistakes or omit steps in the method

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Glenda
    October 28, 2014

    Hi Sandra, I should have been smarter than to add 9 teaspoons of gelatin to my the last Maggie Beer dessert I tried but I did check three publication and they all had the 9 teaspoons. Clearly none checked the recipe.

    Like

    • ladyredspecs
      October 28, 2014

      I have to say Glenda I was quite taken aback when you posted that recipe. I just expected Maggie Beer to be reliable, but I guess if you spread your self too thinly running a business and meeting media obligations, you have to relinquish control somewhere and trust that your support people will not let you down. I’m not very experienced with powdered gelatine and may not have questioned the amount stipulated either. Don’t be too hard on yourself, it should have been right

      Like

  14. cheergerm
    October 28, 2014

    Great post and comments. I had a chef teacher at TAFE years ago who was very anti Gourmet Traveller magazine due to the lack of recipe testing. I did work experience at the Murdoch Books test kitchen ‘back when’ and they were very thorough. By all accounts, the Women’s Weekly were thorough and supposedly, still are. Their books are great starting points for the home cook and I still love their baking recipes as they consistently work, even just to base new versions on them.

    Like

    • ladyredspecs
      October 28, 2014

      Three cheers for the Australian Women’s Weekly. I learned a lot from their original cookbooks when I started cooking, and like you, I still turn to their cake recipes for reliable basics. I guess I feel if you’re forking over your hard earned $$$$ for a recipe it should work. You can return a toaster that fails to function, but try returning a book with inaccurate recipes!

      Liked by 1 person

      • cheergerm
        October 28, 2014

        That thought has me cracking up, imagine what the bookshop owners would say! He he….

        Like

  15. StefanGourmet
    October 28, 2014

    Agree absolutely! Especially about good photos usually being a sign of inferior recipes. Even worse are cookbooks translated from another language, where the translation introduces new errors (sometimes I can even figure out what was written in the original language). Besides the skills mentioned by you when cooking from a cookbook, an important skill is to be able to judge whether a recipe is going to work before actually cooking it. Saves a lot of disappointment (but also has resulted in not using many of my cookbooks much).
    When it comes to temperatures to which proteins have to be cooked, I suspect many publishers of adding a ‘safety margin’, leading to ridiculous recommendations like cooking beef tenderloin to 60/140. By now I hardly ever cook any recipe verbatim and always use my own judgement. And I very very rarely buy cookbooks!

    Like

    • ladyredspecs
      October 28, 2014

      I feel for young inexperienced cooks who rely on books for guidance and expertise. They need an expert hand to help them develop judgement, give them wise guidance. I was fortunate that the cookbooks I gained my experience with were rigorously tested, the recipes reliable. If parents and schools are not teaching the young to cook, the next most likely guidance they will seek is from a book. Where did you learn your rudimentary skills Stefan, and how have you developed them?

      Like

  16. My Kitchen Witch
    October 28, 2014

    I couldn’t have put any better myself. I use cookbook recipes as a GUIDE, not as an absolute rule. On my shelf are plenty of those glossy cookbooks – most of which are there just to admire the photography, but there are a few (just a small few) that actually deliver on on food front. I, too, am highly suspicious of celebrity chefs and refuse to buy these books or watch their antics on the telly. Have you also noticed how a favoured cookbook writer changes (usually for the worse) over time as their popularity increases? We need more honest home cook assessments of these recipes (hurrah for The Cookbook Guru!).

    Like

    • ladyredspecs
      October 28, 2014

      Which of your glossy books have dependable recipes Deb? For me ,the more recent publibations have been less reliable. As the author of recipes, (if blogging counts), I feel a strong obligation to ensure that each recipe is clear and concise. Does income hold greater sway than reputation, but then surely reputation suffers if the recipe is dodgy and income is then compromised. Have cookbooks become a victim of short attention span syndrome?

      Like

      • My Kitchen Witch
        October 28, 2014

        Well, the books by Canadian couple, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, are both brilliantly photographed and the recipes are well written. I’ve cooked many things from them with no difficulty at all. Then Tessa Kiros’s books are well designed and photographed. However, only her first (Twelve) is very, very clearly written. I use it all the time. I also find it difficult using the “post-modern” layout of Falling Cloudberries and Apples for Jam even if the recipes are fairly clear and interesting. The others she has written begin to fall short of her original recipe standards, although the images are still glossy and interesting to look at. And, that’s a quick assessment. I’m sure there are more from the plethora of cookbooks out there. And, yes, blogging counts as an author of recipes! Blogging is a social media designed to combat short attention span syndrome, unlike Facebook, twitter, etc. where hash marks, one-liners or simply an image seem to be more important than words.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ladyredspecs
        October 29, 2014

        You have recommended the Canadain authors to me before, their Chinese cookbook is number 1 on my Christmas wishlist. I’ve had mixed success with Tess Kiros, but I haven’t been able to pin down why, it may be a decline the chronology of the publications. Having said all that I’ve said about cookbooks and their authors, I tend to gravitate towards favourite familiar authors, classics and ethnic cuisines. I recall many years ago seeing a statistic that the average cookbook has only 3 recipes made from it, I wonder how much that has changed. It is an interesting discussion

        Liked by 1 person

  17. Francesca
    October 28, 2014

    I agree entirely. I have many cookbooks, mostly for inspiration and a few walls of (old) magazines which serve as a seasonal guide but then the recipes can often be quite untrustworthy. I don’t buy glossy cookbooks when I can borrow them from the library and read them at leisure. If they are good, I may reborrow them. My favourite books tend to lack pictures.
    I have heard that the Womens Weekly booklets, despite their simplicity and often pedestrain tastes, are well tested. These books are great for the beginner.

    Like

    • ladyredspecs
      October 28, 2014

      I was prompted to write this after a spate of posts that landed in my reader complaining about failed recipes. My reading inferred that magazine recipes were quite stringently tested. I’d agree that the Australian Womens Weekly is generally reliable and perfect for those starting out. I do love books, even glossy publications but I cook from them with caution.

      Like

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This entry was posted on October 28, 2014 by in Food.
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