Busting kitchen myths: The great recipe swindle

Should a recipe, if followed precisely, deliver culinary precision? Most experienced cooks realize that this kind of promise is actually not only unrealistic but also constraining. They use recipes as starting points, as inspirations. But cookbook authors, publishers, and sellers would have us believe that their cookbooks can deliver on such a promise.

The problem, as this article by Nicholas Clee in The Guardian points out, is that beginning cooks - the very ones that are likely to need instruction - can be woefully discouraged when a recipe doesn't work out. At the worst, they give up cooking altogether. And even with experienced cooks, many only use one or two recipes from a cookbook before abandoning it. So shouldn't we encourage cookbooks to teach and dispel kitchen myths rather than dictate a culinary regimen?

Here are three of Clees' tips for a good indication of a cookbook that tries to help and not discourage: point out that recipes are templates rather than the last word on any dish; offer "why you do it" sections with some simple kitchen science; and give an understanding of how dishes work rather than just a set of instructions. Clee's own book, Don't Sweat the Aubergine, is one example of such a book, we'd love to hear from our readers of others that they feel really helped them feel kitchen-comfortable.


  • Frenchie  on  5/9/2012 at 11:58 AM

    For me, 50 Curries of India by C. Panjabi helped me improve my cooking skills, well beyond providing precise curry recipes "that work". There is a great section in the beginning of the book with pages and pages of ingredient descriptions and pictures. Ms. Panjabi also gives advice on how to balance flavour profiles in dishes and fix cooking mistakes - even reducing saltiness after adding too much salt.

  • Leslie  on  5/9/2012 at 12:02 PM

    Lately I've been cooking out of Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen cookbook. This cookbook offers advance preparation tips, storage, and also has other uses for sauces, etc. This flexibility is honest and encouraging. I really love it!

  • stephlinde  on  5/9/2012 at 12:16 PM

    I love Baking From My Home To Yours by Dorie Greenspan because she doesn't just tell you to put the ingredients in your mixer for 2 minutes, she tells you what they should look like and feel like when they're done. She also has a "playing around" sidebar on many recipes that gives ideas - or even just permission - to change the recipe up.

  • Jenness  on  5/9/2012 at 10:52 PM

    Ruhlman's 20 is a great book which concentrates on technique and uses recipes to illustrate the point he's making

  • veronicafrance  on  5/10/2012 at 9:40 AM

    Pomiane's cookbooks. I reviewed "Cooking with Pomiane" here: http://www.larecettedujour.org/2012/03/cooking-with-pomiane-by-edouard-de-pomiane.php Elizabeth David said of him: "He has made us understand our actions. We know what we have done right — it is just as important — as well as where we may have gone wrong.” Having said that, the instructions for the recipe I tested were a bit muddled :) But I think that was a translation/proofreading error.

  • veronicafrance  on  5/10/2012 at 9:59 AM

    Oh, and of course Beck, Bertholle, and Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The recipes are humungously long and detailed, but they tell you absolutely everything you need to know to succeed.

  • LouiseAllana  on  5/30/2012 at 6:18 AM

    It's out of print and unfortunately not even listed in your library, but Beverley Sutherland Smith's The Seasonal Kitchen is a wonderful book that includes information on the different ways to prepare foods and how they affect flavour, texture and appearance, and includes 'this goes with...' panels, even down to how to use vegetables picked at different stages of growth or times of season.

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