Buyer beware when it comes to cookbook safety

The recent recall of Tales from a Forager’s Kitchen got me thinking about food safety in cookbooks. Many modern books go out of their way to be safe, with meticulous instructions and caveats – especially books on sous vide cookery. With older books and self-published books, you’re on your own. 

Books by self-described foragers or naturalists are among the most danger-prone. I purchased the self-published cookbook Native Harvest after reading an intriguing article in The New Yorker about the owner/chef Damon Baehrel. Baehrel owns and operates a tiny restaurant in upstate New York in which he serves foods that are mostly made from ingredients on his 12-acre property. The chef goes to great lengths in his preparations, making flours from almost every plant or tree imaginable (including clover and willow bark), among other esoteric ingredients. 

Native HarvestWhile Baehrel’s book has a few warnings (about the potential dangers of foraging for wild mushrooms and using pine needles for brine), it contains some dubious recommendations. For instance, he suggests cooking vegetables at low temperatures in the soil in which they are grown. He also advocates making ingredients such as acorn flour without mentioning that unprocessed acorns are exceedingly tannic and can make you ill. Baehrel also touts the attributes of staghorn sumac with no caveat regarding other types of sumac that can severely irritate your skin if you touch them. 

Many older canning and preserving books also advocate methods that don’t meet modern safety standards. I recently snagged a copy of Mes Confitures and was a bit surprised that the author recommended the inversion method of sealing (filling jars with hot jelly, putting on the lids, and turning them upside-down). While I know many people use this method, it is no longer considered safe, at least in the US. If you are interested, Marisa McClellan of the indexed blog Food in Jars has an excellent explanation of why the inversion method isn’t recommended

If you are like me, you might ignore some food safety warnings – no one is going to stop me from eating raw cookie dough. In that instance, I am aware of the risk and choose to disregard it. It’s probably fair to say that cookbook authors generally strive to be safe and to include warnings when their recipes deviate from standard food safety practices. However, as the recent recall shows, sometimes these things can slip by editors. Therefore we should exercise caution when presented with any recipe that involves foraging, preserving or unusual techniques, or when using older books that might not be up to snuff with regard to modern food safety practices. 

Post a comment


  • catmommy9  on  August 19, 2018

    The most ridiculous self-published cookbook I have ever seen was one about cooking in cast iron. It was a free download at the time. There was a recipe in it for pizza. It said to either bake the pizza, in a CAST IRON SKILLET, either in a wood-burning oven or in the microwave. Now, I would like to hope that most people would be smart enough to know not to put anything metallic into a microwave, but you never know. People might think that because they saw it in a book they got from Amazon, it must be okay.

    People (myself included) wrote reviews that brought this up. Amazon pulled the book, and rightfully so.

    As for canning, the books from the Ball jar company are the gold standard, and they are always being updated with the latest safety information. So it is worth the money to have the latest edition, or at least take the time to look at their website for the most current safety information.

    I would also suggest being careful of YouTube videos from unknown sources, as well. I used to be friends with this guy on Facebook who liked to make cooking demo videos and had a YouTube channel. In this one video, he made spaghetti sauce, with meat in it, and showed how to can it – using a water-bath canner. NO NO NO NO NO! I know that plain tomato sauce can be safely water-bath canned, but anything with meat in it MUST be pressure canned. I argued with him about this, but he says nobody has died yet, well, maybe he was just lucky.

    Be careful, people!

  • veronicafrance  on  August 20, 2018

    The US aversion to "open kettle canning" as it's called in the article has always puzzled me. It's universally used in Europe when jam making. If it's dangerous why aren't there widespread cases of poisoning here? I've been making jam for decades and I've never had to throw a correctly sealed jar away because it was spoiled. Of course there is the proviso that the sugar content of the jam has to be high enough to preserve it correctly, and the jars are sterile and have correctly fitting lids. And preserving vegetables is another — ahem — kettle of fish altogether.

  • darcie_b  on  August 20, 2018

    veronicafrance – many modern jam and jelly recipes call for less sugar than older recipes, making water bath canning more important. Water bath or steam canning ensures safety and isn't difficult. I give away my jams and jellies as gifts, and the last thing I want is for someone to open up a jar and see mold or worse yet, become ill. It's like adding suspenders when wearing a belt – only it doesn't look as dorky.

    Here's another website with an excellent explanation, including how it actually saves time to water bath can because you don't have to sterilize the jars first:

    My mother remembers "back in the day" (60+ years ago) that people used to frequently get what they called "summer sickness" – which, looking back, was undoubtedly due to improper food storage, including poor canning practices. You might not kill anyone with tainted jam, but you could make them ill, and if they are immuno-compromised it could be serious.

  • veronicafrance  on  August 20, 2018

    Yes, I take your point Darcie — I did specify the fruit/sugar ratio needs to be right. I've just got a new cookbook of jams and preserves, and being French it doesn't even suggest sterilising the jars — just "wash them in hot water"! I definitely won't be following that advice. It includes sugarless jams too (using agave or stevia), without any different instructions. Seems like it would be good policy to waterbath those, unless they're going to be consumed very quickly.

  • darcie_b  on  August 20, 2018

    I understand your perspective, too. I use the open kettle method for "extra" jars that won't fit into the canner (the yield always seems to be 1-2 jars more than the canner will hold). I keep those for myself and refrigerate them for good measure. I've always sterilized the jars. I haven't had any issues either, but I'm not willing to assume the risk for others. In any case, hooray for homemade jam! This year I made strawberry black pepper, strawberry rhubarb, vanilla/spiced pear, rosemary pear, lavender pear and dark chocolate pear. (As you might guess, I have a friend with a pear tree!)

Seen anything interesting? Let us know & we'll share it!