How important are cookbook directives?

butter, salt, eggs

You see the directives in most modern (and even many older) cookbooks: use only unsalted butter, all eggs should be large, use X-brand kosher salt. Dire consequences are threatened if you do not follow these admonitions. But how much do these instructions really matter? It depends on who you ask, says The Telegraph.

Most of these demands are from authors we trust, maybe even revere. Ottolenghi's Plenty More lists several ingredient requirements: "Unless otherwise specified, all salt is table salt, pepper is freshly cracked, eggs are large, parsley is flat-leaf, olive oil is extra-virgin, peppers are deseeded, lemon and lime pith is to be avoided when the zest is shaved, and onions, garlic and shallots are peeled." The idea behind these directives "is to get us on the same page as the recipe writer before we start to cook. If we use curly-leaf parsley instead of flat and forget to deseed our peppers, we can't go running to Ottolenghi to complain his recipe didn't work."

This is not a recent phenomenon, either. The 1937 tome The Country Life Cookery Book by Ambrose Heath, (recently reissued by Persephone Books), also contains demands. Instead of dictating which butter to use, however, Heath was concerned about the composition of fines herbes. He insisted that fines herbes must include "parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon."

Just how important are these specifications and when do they cross the line between vital and pedantic? Michael Ruhlman addresses these demands in recent coobkook, Egg. He relates that his editor was peppering him with a multitude of questions like "butter (salted or unsalted?)" or "large eggs?" Ruhlman became exasperated by the incessant questions because he thinks that many of them don't really matter.

While not suggesting that there is no difference between unsalted and salted butter, Ruhlman believes that a good cook can make adjustments for different ingredients and in the end "salted and unsalted yield pretty much the same results." For Ruhlman, the crucial requirement (as noted in his EYB author interview) is that cooks pay attention.

Do you religiously follow the directives of cookbook authors or do you believe they are more guidelines than absolutes? Does it make a difference when it's a baking book versus a cookery book?

6 Comments

  • AndieG52  on  1/24/2015 at 2:43 PM

    One of the directives I have also noted is Ina Garten's use of extra large eggs.

  • sir_ken_g  on  1/24/2015 at 5:25 PM

    I use my own judgement. Sometimes I follow - sometimes not. I often with synthesize between 2 or more recipes. Yes baking is sometimes more critical.

  • wodtke  on  1/24/2015 at 9:22 PM

    Can't say I've ever noticed dire consequences being threatened. Not saying it never happens, but certainly can't be common or I'd have seen it.

  • Cubangirl  on  1/25/2015 at 1:28 AM

    I only use extra large eggs. In recipes with less than 3 it usually does not matter. However if a recipe calls for 4 large, I know to use only 3 extra large. Does not matter in cooking, but can mess up a cookie or a cake. I like knowing what kind of salt as well. If they use kosher and I use regular, it can lead to over salting. I'd rather undersalt that over. Having said that, even in baking, I ignore directions and switch things all the time (e.g., never use a double boiler for chocolate or butter) However, knowing what I am switching and paying attention is important to quote Ruhlman.

  • Foodycat  on  1/28/2015 at 10:06 AM

    I usually use salted butter regardless of what is specified.

  • susan g  on  1/28/2015 at 9:49 PM

    There's more of an issue with kosher salt vs table salt. Depending on brand, there can be double the sodium in the table salt than what's in the kosher (Diamond). By weight it is the same - an argument for measuring by weight. Tasting as you go recommended, too.

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