When recipes lie

 open cookbooks

A seasoned cook can generally judge a recipe by a quick glance through the instructions. Novice cooks are at the mercy of the recipe writer, however, and this can pose problems, says food writer Debora Robertson. She assures readers that when a dish turns out badly, it’s not necessarily their fault (free registration required for full article).

Robertson looks for clues like the time stated for softening or caramelizing onions to ascertain whether a recipe is accurate. She thinks that many cookbook authors and other recipe developers are under pressure from editors to make recipes sound easier so they don’t put people off from attempting them. Space constraints provide another pressure point – gorgeous food photos leave less room for instructions, Robertson says. Designers also prefer the look of more streamlined, shorter recipes, which can lead to incomplete instructions. 

Another problem is translating chef’s recipes for the home cook. Chefs tend to season throughout the cooking process, tasting as they go. It can be difficult for a ghostwriter to capture that for the home cook. Says Robertson “It’s my job, as the person in the corner with the notebook, to write these tiny tweaks down and make sure they end up in the final recipe. Unfortunately, in these days of pared budgets, there’s often not the money for people like me who make sure what happens in the kitchen makes it to the page.”

All of these sins of omission can add up and lead novice (and even some experienced) cooks to feel that an unsuccessful dish is their own fault. Even though it isn’t “sexy” to write long explanations for how to complete a recipe, but Robertson thinks that food writers owe it to their readers to guide them through the process. 

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  • lapsapchung  on  May 11, 2018

    I have a theory that some recipe books are written to make things look easier than they really are in order to lure novices into attempting dishes that are sure to go wrong, thus leading them to think "Oh, I can't cook, I'm going to go out for a meal/buy ready made meals/ order a takeaway" – especially those produced by restaurant owners and food manufacturers, who after all have a vested interest in keeping the public buying their products. The onion caramelisation time quoted in the article is an example of this – it is just as easy to write "45 minutes" as it is "10 minutes" so why not do so if you want the reader's results to be worth eating?

  • annmartina  on  May 12, 2018

    I was recently at a restaurant in NOLA and I was telling the hostess about a particular recipe from their cookbook that is a favorite of mine and she expressed surprise that the recipe actually worked for me. I didn't tell her about the extra hour I have to add to the cooking time given when I make it.

  • sir_ken_g  on  May 13, 2018

    Perhaps that is why Fuchsia Dunlop's recipes are so good.
    They seem a little bit complex – but the results are extraordinary.
    Better that any other Chinese cook books – written by Chinese or not.
    Every Grain of Rice, Land of Plenty, Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook etc.
    She is a trained chef who has done her homework in China.

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