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Dumbed Down Cookbooks

I have recently been going to the library, getting two or three cookbooks, reading them, and returning in a week for a few more books. In doing this, I have found very few books that are, in my opinion, worth my time.

My biggest pet peeve is the Dumbed Down recipe. Many recipes I have found will say something along the lines of "Traditionally this dish is made with this technique or with this ingredient, but doing it this way is just fine for the home cook." Thanks author, way to make me feel like I only deserve adequate. Even worse is "In the restaurant we make it this way, but to make it easier do it this way." Why on earth would I want to make a lesser version of something because it's "easier"?! When I need easier, I'll go buy it in a box. Good food takes time and work. Shortcuts don't get you anywhere in life, and I think the same philosophy applies to cooking.

Personally, I love "The French Laundry Cookbook" because, although most of the food takes hours upon hours to prepare, sometimes even days, I know that I am making something the correct way and it will turn into amazing food.

My question to all you ChowHounder's is this:

What cookbooks would you recommend (that revolve around French or Italian food) that will teach me the in's and out's of the dishes it contains or provide in depth expertise in one specific subject, such as bread or sauces or pasta making (or anything else)?

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  1. I don't' know whether your library has any of these or not. But you can look at the reviews (as linked to the following page) and see if any are on your local shelves.
    My personal favorite, although not a cook book per se, is Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking - The Science and Lore of the Kitchen" . It is not a cookbook for dummies.

    1 Reply
    1. re: todao

      McGee's book looks fascinating, I can't wait to read it.

    2. Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking would be the absolute opposite of "dumbed down" and would meet your Italian desires. I like Ad Hoc at home which doesn't take any shortcuts, but is a bit "homey" when compared to French Laundry. Of course Julia Child's Master the Art is a benchmark book, however even my very French cousins don't eat that way anymore.

      That is all I have on the top of my head. Do you read either of these languages?

      8 Replies
      1. re: smtucker

        +1 re Hazan.

        @OP: realize that CHs don't necessarily represent the majority of people who buy cookbooks. Also libraries are poor nationwide and they have to spend nonfiction dollars very carefully so what you see there isn't going to represent what's actually available. An hour spent looking over books at B&N etc. will give you a better idea. Plus CH, of course. Check out the COTM threads for true inspiration.

        1. re: c oliver

          I third the recommendation for Marcella Hazan.

          1. re: woodleyparkhound

            BTW, we stayed just south across the bridge from Woodley Park while in DC. Great nabe. Much good food.

              1. re: woodleyparkhound

                +4 for Hazan - my MIL just gifted her tattered copies to me and it made my holiday!


              2. re: c oliver

                Los Angeles Public Library has 18 copies available.

                Mr Taster

              3. re: smtucker

                Unfortunately I don't read either of them, it'd be pretty cool to learn though.

                1. the cooking magazines sometimes do that when they publish variations on restaurant dishes and i find it rather insulting. i think Food & Wine is the biggest offender: Chef so-and-so prepares it with specialty ingredients a, b, and c and techniques D, E and F, but we've simplified it for the home cook by substituting these common [boring!] ingredients and cutting out 5 steps. grrr.

                  if you can track down a copy, i've heard that this one from the Time-Life series is excellent:

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                    I have Cooking Italy, American Cooking: Creole and Acadian, both have so many wonderful recipes. They are recent finds at a thrift store, glad they have your stamp of approval! I'll be doing some reading tonight.
                    All of the the timelife (The Good Cook) books have helped me tremendously with technique and reicpes. Wonderful wonderful cookbooks if you can find them.

                  2. Anything by Giuliano Bugalli. "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" by Julia. "Cucina Simpatica" which comes from the chefs at the restaurant in Providence that popularized grilled pizza and rich baked pasta.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: escondido123

                      +1 Giuliano Bugalli. He is uncompromising.

                    2. Anything by Richard Olney. "Simple French Food" is not dumbed down in the least, title notwithstanding. "The French Menu Cookbook" is also excellent, and if you have any interest in wine pairings, "French Food and Wine" is brilliant, even though you are unlikely to get your hands on the wines specified. Mr. Olney's palate was infallible. Not to mention the Time-Life "The Good Cook" series, which Is a classic. Olney's recipes put Julia Child to shame, IMHO. Everything of his that I've tried becomes THE definitive version. The turnip gratin from Sinple French Food shows just what a humble turnip can be, in the right hands.

                      1. The dumbing down of cookbooks is a HUGE pet peeve of mine as well. As already mentioned, McGee's books are amongst the most brilliant written. Ditto on French Laundry. I must admit that I love Escoffier's Complete Guide to Modern Cookery and my favourite of all time, although more than a cookbook, Larousse Gastronomique. For something inspiring on the molecular gastronomy front Alinea by Achatz and Blumenthal's Fat Duck are sensational.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: chefathome

                          In the last year I've bought 8 or 10 cookbooks based on CHs recommendations and haven't found a single one "dumbed down." On the contrary, I frequently need to read and reread a recipe to "get it." And to keep repeating myself: YOU CAN DO THIS. YOU CAN DO THIS.

                        2. I don't consider comlpicated as not "dumbed "up. I have the French Laundry cookbook--I only bought it because it was at a huge discount at my library's book store--and though I appreciate the recipes there is so much involved both ingredient and technique--that I cannot do in my own kitchen that I just read it for interest. To call books that do not reach the level of FL "dumbed down" is to just be a snot about cooking about food. I have lived in southern New England where you could get virtually every ingredient that gets included in major cookbooks and that is not the be all and in all of cooking.

                          8 Replies
                          1. re: escondido123

                            "there is so much involved both ingredient and technique--that I cannot do in my own kitchen that I just read it for interest."

                            Could you give an example please?

                            1. re: escondido123

                              As c oliver said, could you give an example regarding TFL? The only recipe out of all 100 that I couldn't make at home would be the pigs head (although I'm sure I could get one if I really really wanted it), and many happen to be very easy.

                              I was not implying that a recipe needs to be complicated to be good. I just don't want anything taken away from it.

                              1. re: schoenfelderp

                                All the recipes that require Veal Stock, Sauteed Monkfish Tail with Braised Oxtails, Salsify and Cepes, Pan Roasted Breast of Squab with Swiss Cahrd, Foie Gras and Figs, Pacific Moi with Fresh Soybeans, Citrus Salmon With Beluga Caviar and Pea Shoot Coulis, Braised Beef Cheeks and Veal Tongue, Poached Moulard Duck Foie Gras, Tasting of Potatoes with Black Truffles,

                                1. re: escondido123

                                  My apologies regarding the ingredients. Yes, those dishes contain either hard to get or expensive ingredients, but are not unobtainable to the home cook (needless to say, but I won't be buying foie gras or black truffles until I get a significant raise). The methods of preparation are what I am concerned with, and in that respect, all of those dishes are doable.

                                  1. re: schoenfelderp

                                    +1 - they are tricky to get BUT I personally go to great lengths to obtain tricky ingredients - I love the challenge. In fact, when I read culinary books I search for trickier techniques and ingredients deliberately. Not only to cook but to learn more about that skill or ingredient. So, to me some of those ingredients are truly worth it. Sure, I'm obsessed, but that is what I choose to spend money on.

                                    1. re: chefathome

                                      I wish I could afford those ingredients but I can't. So it can be difficult at times to go through that cookbook. Glad you both enjoy it so much.

                                      1. re: escondido123

                                        Sorry to hear that - truly. It really would be difficult. I am extremely grateful for all that I have been blessed with and must never take it for granted.

                              2. A recipe that calls for ingredients the reader can't obtain is of marginal utility. At one point in the not-too-distant past, that meant suggesting substitutes for things that are readily available now such as fresh ginger and decent wine. Were such cookbooks (eg, Mastering the Art of French Cooking) "dumbed down"? I don't think so.

                                Ditto with equipment or techniques that the reader can't duplicate. Those of us with internet access can now lay hands on sodium alginate, but liquid nitrogen baths and immersion circulators are still unusual equipment in the home kitchen. For that matter, most home cooks don't have a salamander that runs at 1800F. Is a recipe that's modified to work under a residential broiler "dumbed down"?

                                If the recipe gives a traditional preparation and then suggests a substitute, I don't have any problem with that. If you want to do it the hard way, knock yourself out. If you want to take the shortcut, you can assume that the results will be good, but not quite as good. The world isn't dualistic. Life isn't a choice between The French Laundry and Swanson's Frozen Dinners. You can have good food that's neither haute cuisine nor mundane everyday fare.

                                In answer to your ultimate questions, I agree with the Hazan recommendations. She's uncompromising, but her recipes are do-able. For French, Pepin and Child are classics. And why not expand your horizons to Mexican - Diana Kennedy's works are no-holds-barred homages to traditional cuisine.

                                But seriously, don't take food too seriously. While there's a place for the exacting and the technical, cooking should be fun.

                                7 Replies
                                1. re: alanbarnes

                                  Pepin has written both detailed technique books and short cut books.

                                  1. re: alanbarnes

                                    Hazan's recipes are more than doable. They're downright easy.

                                    1. re: sushigirlie

                                      Hazan's recipes seem easy but getting the perfect result requires a lot of finesse.

                                    2. re: alanbarnes

                                      I found myself flipping through one of Charlie Trotter's cookbooks at a bookstore. Gorgeous photos...and recipes with upwards of 50 ingredients, half of which were pretty difficult to come by. So I put it down and picked up another Jacques Pepin cookbook.

                                      1. re: alanbarnes

                                        I appreciate the Hazan recommendation, she seems very well-liked here and I'll definitely check the book out, especially if its anything like Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

                                        I do agree with the fact that recipes using equipment that most people don't have is useless, but I haven't found one thing in TFL that I couldn't make here in my own kitchen unless I've missed something. Admittedly, getting a pig's head for one recipe would be difficult, although I'm sure I could persuade my butcher with enough cash.

                                        Very good point on the dualistic world, I'll certainly keep that in mind.

                                        1. re: alanbarnes

                                          +1 on Diana Kennedy. Her latest (and according to her, sadly, her last) Oaxaca al Gusto is stunning.

                                          1. re: nodots

                                            Yes al Gusto is visually stunning, but is it a cookbook, or just a coffee table book? I just checked it out of the library. It should be interesting browsing, but so far nothing has said 'cook me'. A while back some asked about finding a chile none of us had heard of. Turns out it was some highly regional Oaxaca variety that no one can find on the market, not even in Mexico. Seems that demand from would-be Oaxacan cooks living in Chicago highrises had cornered the market. :)

                                            But for more on cooking from this see

                                        2. I agree with the numerous posters that just because a book does not have complicated recipes such as FLCookbook, is in the dumb down category. Books by Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, Jamie Oliver, just to name a few, are fairly straight forward. Not everyone has a whole day to cook a dinner. Considering what many American's diet consist of, I consider any book that gets people to cook is good.
                                          For in-depth cookbooks for French food: earlier Jacques Pepin such as La Technique and La Methode, The Art of Cooking V. 1&2; Madeleine Kamman's The Making of a Cook; Cooking with Daniel Boulud; Simply French by Joel Robuchon; Alain Ducasse's Grand Livre de Cuisine.
                                          Italian: start with Giuliano Bugialli , Marcella Hazan as mentione many times; The Splendid Table by Lynne R. Kasper.
                                          For very detail recipes: any books by Paula Wolfert
                                          For "why's" of cooking besides Harold McGee, Cookwise by Shirley Corriher.
                                          Even more molecular than French Laundry is Alinea; Pierre Gagnaire's Reinventing French Cuisine; and stay tune for the monumental, The Modernist Cuisine, coming out this March.

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: PBSF

                                            I was not trying to imply that a recipe needs to be complicated to be good. A perfectly roasted chicken may be one of the easiest yet most delicious tasting things out there, provided you have the knowledge to do it right. My main point was that I don't want a classic dish done, for lack of a better term, the Sandra or Rachel way.

                                            I can't wait to check out some of your recommendations, especially the McGee and Hazan books.

                                            1. re: schoenfelderp

                                              But, as I said above, CHs don't represent the majority. If Rachel gets someone cooking that's fantastic. That person may or may not want to grow in their skills and tastes. So those cookbooks aren't dumbed down. They're perfect --- for their audience.

                                              1. re: c oliver

                                                I completely agree. I have cooked out of the French Laundry cookbook, but I need to eat every day and I have a fulltime job and I don't have assistants to clean 101 pots and bowls and a chinoise and a tamis every single day. I have no problem with getting one of Rachel Ray's recipes off the internet and having a home cooked meal with a fast preparation some days. (I prefer her recipes without pre-made ingredients, and there are many of them.)

                                                as to The French Laundry, I could have bought molds to make cones for the tuna cornets. Instead, I made them flat and used them as crackers with the filling. not the same, but the same. why shouldn't restaurant chefs make their food accessible by suggesting shortcuts. Keller didn't for the cones, but if he did I certainly wouldn't consider it "dumbed down" or equivalent to frozen food. That's a false equivalency.

                                          2. Mark me down as fully in the Marcella camp for Italian.
                                            As for Mexican, Rick Bayless's first two books are pretty dang uncompromising - and the recipes produce seriously good food.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: buttertart

                                              Oh wonderful suggestion. His first two books produce some wonderful food, and I can't sense any shortcuts in his preparation methods. But do note that his later books are companion books to his TV shows and begin to cater to the "make dinner after work" crowd. Still good food, but not what the OP is looking for, I don't think.

                                              1. re: smtucker

                                                Exactly, that's why I specified the first two.

                                            2. Along with Marcella (the very first COTM!), I would also add some more COTMs which are definitely not dumbed down.

                                              Both Fuschia Dunlop books
                                              Zuni Cafe by Judy Rodgers
                                              Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin
                                              All About Braising by Molly Stevens
                                              New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden

                                              2 Replies
                                                1. re: beetlebug

                                                  Yes, YES to the Zuni Cafe book. I was wondering if it would come up.

                                                2. For Italian Breads, Carol Field's book on the topic cant be beat. dittos on the italian cookbook recommendations for Bugialli, Hazan and Lynn Rosetto Kasper. Books by Arthur Schwarz on Naples and southern Italian cooking are also very good, as are Carol Field's other Italian books.
                                                  Paula Wolfert for French and Mediterranean dishes - her books are very detailed and produce lovely food, favorites of mine. Julia Child's The Way to Cook might also be an excellent choice for you.

                                                  2 Replies
                                                  1. re: jen kalb

                                                    It doesn't get much more not dumbed down than Wolfert.

                                                    1. re: jen kalb

                                                      I have had Carol Field's book for ages, and have adapted her Rosemary Bread recipe as rolls, which I make for every big party. They go so well with ham or turkey. Definitely NOT dumbed down!

                                                    2. Carol Field's book on Italian baking is excellent.
                                                      For Chinese food in general (the Fuchsia Dunlops are excellent but limited to the spicier cuisines), Irene Kuo's "The Key to Chinese Cooking" still can't be beat. Broad range of techniques and cuisines, and the recipes work. The REAL "Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking".
                                                      The paperback "Indian Cooking" by Madhur Jaffrey is as good an Indian cookbook as I've seen as well.

                                                      1. Could you give some examples of dumbed down cookbooks and their inferior shortcuts?

                                                        What cookbooks do you have, in particular basic reference ones? I learned most of my basics from a 1970s Joy of Cooking, particularly the ingredients sections. With that I could make my own puff pastry even if another book suggests buying it frozen. Same for mayo, salad dressings, etc.

                                                        What kind of cook are you? Do you have to follow a recipe in detail? Or do you use recipes as inspiration, drawing on your own accumulated experience to fill in the details?

                                                        1. I'm suprised no one has mentioned Escoffier (unless I missed it) for not dumbed down. And talk about easy to get product, how bout some black birds bonne femme? Good thing I have a BB gun :).
                                                          It is classic, fun to read ,and in no way dumbed down.

                                                          There's also anything coming out of the cia, although I don't remember ever really using any of them while I was there or after I finished, I doubt they are dumbed down, pro chef certianly isn't. However, they may assume you allready have a fair amount of knowledge.

                                                          4 Replies
                                                          1. re: shaharidan

                                                            I mentioned Escoffier above - he is one of my culinary heros! LOVE his books.

                                                            1. re: chefathome

                                                              lol oops :). now i'm glad i added that, unless i missed it, to my post.

                                                              always a mistake to respond to a post with 38 responses and expect to come up with something new. :)

                                                              1. re: shaharidan

                                                                Man, I do that all the time! :-D Have you seen this Escoffier website? Well, it's not entirely Escoffier but geared toward chefs.

                                                                1. re: chefathome

                                                                  I hadn't seen that web site, looks interesting.
                                                                  To avoid any confusion, I'm not a chef. I went to culinary school about 25 years ago, and had worked the line for a few years prior to that.
                                                                  However, shortly after camp culinary my life took a radically different turn, hmm wonder if the two related ? :). Anyway, I left the industry. I really enjoy cooking, I always have, but as a hobby it's pure pleasure, as a job I never had much fun. So, I moved on to other things.

                                                                  Is there a way to private message people on this forum? I sort of feel like I'm hijacking a thread for a conversation.

                                                          2. I understand where you're coming from, as I do love slaving over a recipe for hours on end. However, there are a few practical realities that make well-written "home cookbooks" worthwhile.

                                                            1. Lack of restaurant quality equipment. For example, the vast majority of us simply don't have the stove BTUs to even do the simplest of tasks like properly searing scallops. This drives me crazy. I can't even get a decent socarrat on my paella. For a Chinese example, we don't have the proper "fire pit" style stove to cradle a wok and heat all sides, so we're stuck with "flat bottomed" woks on anemic burners, making a restaurant quality stir fry virtually impossible.

                                                            2. Given our equipment limitations, sometimes the "shortcut" is simply better. Just look to Lahey's no-knead bread (and Cook's Illustrated adaptation which adds a scant amount of kneading, beer and vinegar back into the recipe) as a prime example of a dumbed-down recipe which produces spectacular results. While I do sometimes find CI's lack of authentic ingredients and techniques (particularly for Asian recipes) bothersome, I have had a lot more successes than failures.

                                                            Mr Taster

                                                            1. Fascinating thread (cookbooks are a minor personal vice and a major part of my total book collection) and I agree with several recommendations here.

                                                              Among very classic authors writing in English, Richard Olney and Elizabeth David are timeless and respected even by some high-profile chefs today. Jacques Pépin helped pioneer the modern photography-rich demonstration cookbook with his _La Technique_ (aka _Technique_) 30 years ago. Marcella Hazan is unique, witty, and almost single-handedly popularized Northern Italian cooking in North American homes 25-35 years ago (unlike Julia Child, for example, Hazan actually grew up cooking what she wrote about, and got instruction, recipes, and lore from previous generations). Hazan's influential and classic books are the original 2-volume set (_The Classic Italian Cook Book_ and _More Classic Italian Cooking_) which have observations and quips* later removed to save space when these recipes were reissued in a single volume. The original two-volume set is easily available used.

                                                              Some people have mentioned Escoffier. His standard work, available in English for many decades under this title, is the _Guide Culinaire,_ and usually cited that way by US writers until recent years when various publishers began selling it under its subtitle ("Complete guide to modern cookery") or other names, e.g. using the author's name as a title (dumbing down of titles?). The _GC_ was written for professionals and is terse but accessible. Not to minimize Julia Child's contributions to popularizing and explaining the recipes, in frank terms her _Mastering_ is Escoffier dumbed-down and explained for US home cooks (as to some extent Hazan did with Ada Boni, but Hazan added far more original recipe content as well as lore.) Altogether Julia Child adapted about a tenth of Escoffier's standard recipes.

                                                              French _home_ counterpart to Escoffier's professional cookbook (and published also in his time) is "Madame E." de Saint-Ange's _Livre de Cuisine_ (Paris: Librarie Larousse, 1927) which experienced a renaissance of popularity after WW2, reissued then with a different title (and in an English translation too), I'm sorry I don't have those references quickly handy, I have just the 1927 French original. For years I've seen this book in both French and English on the US used-book market.

                                                              Which leads to a topic of wide importance and misconception. With due respect for contrary perceptions (not just on this topic), you _do_ read French or Italian or Spanish, enough for cookbooks with very little extra effort, if you read English. That's because, first, Latin and (separately) Norman French account for an important fraction of words in modern English, and secondly, cookbooks, more so in older cultures than in the US, use very limited, stylized vocabularies. With a (printed) language dictionary handy (you'll find you need it far less than to read a newspaper, for instance, and even less with experience), cookbooks in those European languages (German even more so, though its food nouns have spilled less into English than the Latinate ones) are fairly easy to follow even without formal training in the language.

                                                              * Marcella Hazan: "I am very skeptical of the dream kitchen -- not necessarily because of its elaborate equipment, but because of the spirit in which it has been assembled. It sometimes seems to reflect more of an interest in theater than in the taste of cooking ... Some of the best food I have ever had has come from kitchens so bare that to use the word 'equipment' to describe their facilities would be an overstatement." (More Classic Italian Cooking,1978. Knopf, ISBN 0394498550.)

                                                              5 Replies
                                                              1. re: eatzalot

                                                                Amen. Brilliant post. Who could forget Madame E and Elizabeth David? Your post has inspired me to go through my old classics yet again. Right now.

                                                                1. re: eatzalot

                                                                  Great post, and your Hazan quotation is one I paraphrase often . . . as the newish owner of what many would describe as a "dream kitchen", I always counter that I did me some damn fine cookin' with cheap ranges and <gasp> only one oven and dishwasher at my disposal. The books you mention were cooking incredible food when cooking wasn't so "cool."


                                                                  1. re: eatzalot

                                                                    I second chefathome's Amen. Very impressive post, I'll be sure to look into these.

                                                                    1. re: eatzalot

                                                                      yes to the Hazan quote! and Julia Child, in an article about dream kitchens, refused to pick a side between gas and electric. she said you could cook well on either. it was very comforting to me when I was remodeling my kitchen and could not afford gas (no gas to the house), that Jula Child thought it Would Be Ok. And it has been. I have a ceramic electric stovetop and I adapt.

                                                                      1. re: cocktailhour

                                                                        one of the classes at the cia had an all electric kitchen (atleast it did 25 years ago) so people could see it didn't generally make a difference. Eric Ripert uses an electric stove top on his show also, but they may have more to do with sponsorship then functionality.

                                                                        I still prefer gas slightly, probably because my parents house had gas, even though i haven't had a gas stove since i moved out 30 years ago :).

                                                                    2. Further to this subject (I thought my first post above was long enough), some of the very history of major US cookbooks constitutes dumbings-down. Keep in mind when you read this that I'm forwarding objective criticisms of books that, like many people, I grew up cooking from (along with Julia Child's) and assumed at the time were very good.

                                                                      After learning more about cookbooks (and inheriting widely-separated editions from family, then getting the first, 1896, in facsimile) I'd nominate the Boston Cooking School Cookbook (widely called the Fannie Farmer) as the premier example of dumbing-down. This and subsequent mainstream 20th-c. US cookbooks (the _Joy of Cooking_ began as cheaply-printed family recipes from canned foods) led a relatively novel trend away from how most home cooks have learned cooking throughout history, which was recipes and techniques learned from elders, toward books that claimed to teach everything, cold, from texts. In contrast, earlier books like the two big mainstream 19th-c. US cookbooks (Eliza Leslie's and Mary Randolph's -- both incidentally extremely popular, proportionately more so maybe than any 20th-century successor) had more a spirit of reference texts, roughly like Escoffier, for people who could be assumed to know cooking basics.

                                                                      The Fannie Farmer was well organized, with background sections on basic food concepts and techniques. I found occasional flashes of the passion and sensibilities for quality and local and seasonal ingredients that characterized Randolph's and especially Leslie's books (you'll note the irony that, as with so many cooking insights, those principles were _re_ -discovered and -popularized lately). But overall, the Fannie Farmer was about simplicity and newly fashionable "scientific" concepts at the expense of flavor, subtlety, excitement. Some of it is downright Puritanical, like the pious villagers late in the movie _Babette's Feast_ who abjure natural pleasure even at an exceptional meal. A good part of the Hesses' informative, unsparing critique _The Taste of America_ (1977, reissued 2000) analyzes the insidious effects of moving away from family recipes and traditions, toward kitchen manuals.

                                                                      Of course many US families continued to impart learned skills, and some cookbooks celebrated flavor and excitement and the real cooking of other cultures. Including minor classics, popular but not ubiquitous (I'm thinking offhand of Morrison Wood in the late 1940s, Louis de Gouy in the 1930s -- chef de Gouy wrote for both home and professional cooks; Watt popularizing local French bistro recipes in the 1950s before Julia Child wrote a word; there were many others, some mentioned in this thread). It is these more quirky, passionate, cosmopolitan cookbooks on the pre-1960 US market that show by contrast the limits and simplifications in the more mainstream US titles.

                                                                      1. What I find annoying about dumbed down recipes is a simple process or technique like deglazing a pan or sweating vegetables has to be described in mind numbing detail.

                                                                        The other thing that annoys me is a recipe telling me to saute a mirepoix when they want me to sweat the mirepoix.

                                                                        Sorry, I just had to add that. I know why they do it. I just find it annoying.

                                                                        6 Replies
                                                                        1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                          Tell me about it! And re-constituting mushrooms doesn't take four paragraphs of explanation. Neither does bechamel. Or clarifying butter. Heck, there are too many. I'm just getting too annoyed. You are NOT alone...

                                                                          1. re: Hank Hanover


                                                                            These cookbooks are for folks who don't know how to do a deglaze or a saute or sweat.

                                                                            Just pass by those cookbooks and leave them to those who are joyfully climbing the ranks.

                                                                            As to annoying, there's something quite cloying
                                                                            of condescendsion of those cooks who just aren't quite there yet.

                                                                            1. re: FoodFuser

                                                                              Precise descriptions of common cooking procedures are not "dumbed down" in my book. To me, dumbed down means a recipe that omits steps and ingredients, uses convenience foods etc out of an assumption that the cook wants to save time, effort and money and is likely not to notice or care about a loss of flavor that additional or better ingredients and more refined/complex procedures bring. Use of ingredients like garlic salt, dried herbs, margarine canned soups etc fit into this category right off.

                                                                              Everybody starts at a different place with cooking and every cookbook writer writing for a general audience (not pros) has to decide how much explanation is needed. For every person who knows what "sweating" is there must be many who would scratch their heads until it was explained. So a balance needs to be struck. I think most of the general audience books recommended above, including Julia, strike a good balance of presenting excellent recipes that are not compromised in quality with sufficient explanation to guide relatively inexperienced cooks through. No reason for more experienced cooks and pros to be offended - the recipes work.

                                                                            2. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                              What, were you born knowing how to deglaze a pan? Did you emerge from your mother's womb knowing how to sweat vegetables?

                                                                              There's nothing "dumbed down" about explaining a process that comes as second nature to an accomplished cook. If you already know how to do it, just skim to the next step.

                                                                              If you want go all to reductio ad absurdam, perhaps your ideal cookbook would be a single page reading "prepare and serve a spectacular meal."

                                                                              1. re: alanbarnes


                                                                                It's alright.

                                                                                I simply mentioned something I found annoying. I also said that "I know why they do it."

                                                                                Although, do you have a link to that cookbook "prepare and serve a spectacular meal."? It sounds like a good one.

                                                                                1. re: alanbarnes

                                                                                  Out of curiosity, Alan, I just pulled out books by Child, Beard, Bourdain and Hazan. I find no mention of sweating, only sauteeing. I doubt that anyone would accuse them of having "dumbed down" a recipe. In Child's The Way to Cook, she devotes an entire page to how to hard boil eggs. A Chow-buddy of mine, who is an amazing cook, taught herself to cook from that book. If it didn't explain things so well, I doubt that she could have done that.

                                                                                  In the coming week or so, I want to make pho, menudo and dan dan noodles for the first time(s). Thanks to Chow recs, I have Nguyen, Kennedy and Dunlop books which will walk me through the processes. Thank heavens for their back-to-basics approach.

                                                                              2. I have long defended Diana Kennedy on cooking forums. She and her recipes have been described as "didactic".

                                                                                Sadly, Mexican cuisine has been "dumbed down" for the most part, and Kennedy's hewing to tradition and long, multiple cooking techniques, makes it stellar!

                                                                                So put Mexican cookbooks largely "dumbed down" with the exception of traditional cooks like Diana.

                                                                                41 Replies
                                                                                1. re: SilverlakeGirl

                                                                                  Anything by Claudia Roden (her original version of The Book of Middle Eastern Food was perhaps the first cook book I purchased for myself, way back in the '70s) and by Paula Wolfert. For other writers not mentioned elsewhere here, Anya von Bremzen is great -- both for Please to the Table and for The New Spanish Table, both of which I love.

                                                                                  1. re: Joan Kureczka

                                                                                    But The New Spanish Table calls for things like
                                                                                    '1 store-bought rotisserie chicken',
                                                                                    pitted prunes (can't the cook pit her own prunes?),
                                                                                    crumbled dried rosemary
                                                                                    dried thyme
                                                                                    Maria or Ritz crackers
                                                                                    boned quail (ask your butcher to do this!)
                                                                                    canned chickpeas

                                                                                    And that's just from the poultry chapter!

                                                                                    The rotisserie chicken is for a recipe from a 'dumbed-down' cookbook by Ferran Adria (Cocinar en Casa).

                                                                                    1. re: paulj

                                                                                      The recipes that used the store bought stuff were primarily from a cookbook produced by Ferran Adria specifically for stores, as you cite. I've got no problem with this when most of the huge book is straightforward cooking and these recipes are specifically called out for what they are. And dried herbs are NOT dumbed down -- they have a different character from fresh that is often desired.

                                                                                      1. re: Joan Kureczka

                                                                                        Yes Joan - I cited dried herbs as one thing I have noticed in dumbed down cookbooks I mean, parsley flakes??? - but that doesnt exclude theuse of dried herbs generally.

                                                                                        Its unrealistic to exclude the use of any prepared, canned or convenience foods - sometimes they work just fine and are a real timesaver sometimes not. Creative cooks may also incorporate commercial or prepared products into their dishes if they have a desired quality. Canned chickpeas and pitted prines for example - anyway, try finding prunes with pits still in them these days..

                                                                                        1. re: jen kalb

                                                                                          One thing that annoys me in cookbooks and shows is when the author rides some hobbyhorse too often. Jeff Smith (Fruge) repeatedly made snide comments about bottled lemon juice. Some stress the use of Kosher or sea salt, even when the distinction from table salt isn't important (yes, I aware of the density differences). Others repeatedly specify free range hand fed chickens, as if their recipe can't be made with a $.99/lb grocery store bird. Of course dumbed-down books recipes can do the same, specifying X brand condensed soup, or Y brand salad dressing.

                                                                                          The plus side to those annoyances is that they encourage me to look for the essentials of this dish, so that in the end, I rarely follow a recipe in detail.

                                                                                          1. re: paulj

                                                                                            We were at Raleys (a West Coast grocery chain) yesterday. This is VERY nice, much more selection of just about everything. They periodically have a giveaway magazine with a lot of recipes. Of course, they use their store brands or brands that they carry. But the recipes sometimes look quite good. I've just learned to slide past the built-in ads.

                                                                                            1. re: paulj

                                                                                              Case in point: "Jeff Smith repeatedly made snide comments about bottled lemon juice." The same Jeff Smith who, in a cookbook of his that I've used, unhesitatingly specified both Margerine and (rather embarassingly considering all the good Chinese cookbooks available in the US by then) MSG (in a Westernized Chinese recipe), something Chinese authors of US cookbooks had been discouraging for 20 years already.

                                                                                              Jeff Smith was an example of the sort of thing I alluded to in my "profile" comment here about cookbooks -- a very fashionable US author for a time, regardless of limitations or merits or alternatives. In a public Internet cookbooks discussion related to this one, 20 years ago, to a call for eclectic introductory cookbooks, I recommended a quirky minor-classic author who was then still in print, but everyone else recommended Jeff Smith, not because they had a basis for comparison but because it was what "everyone" was currently using.

                                                                                                1. re: buttertart

                                                                                                  Morrison Wood (mentioned upthread). His original "With a Jug of Wine" (1949), still in print in paperback in the 1980s and easily available in used hardcover, was given to me by a (former restaurateuse) relative who was a brilliant cook, and it was among the most alive and eclectic US cookbooks I know of, published before 1980 or so when US cookbook diversity and quality really grew.

                                                                                                  In the period shortly after the War, the US was busily losing former cooking wisdoms in favor of convenience foods. (The late 1940s and early 50s saw a flowering of hokey trends like green food coloring in drinks, perfunctory overuse of Mayonnaise, and ground beef -- formerly ground on request by butchers, now pre-ground in bulk, no charge for the E. coli bacteria.) This is traceable in cookbooks of the time -- I have the 20th c. pretty thoroughly covered among my US cookbooks.)

                                                                                                  Against that trend, Wood incited people to use garlic and wine and herbs and to borrow ideas from other cultures, with a recipe collection that had an exceptional "hit" rate (as in "say, this is great -- where'd you find the recipe?") which may not be surpassed by any other US book that I've used extensively.

                                                                                                  Of course there are better, more diverse, more authentic sources today, but considering the milieu in which Wood published, he bucked a great nationwide tide of blandness in the US, and people familiar with his work have tended to credit him for that.

                                                                                                  1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                    You know, that's really interesting. I know a fair amount about cookbooks and 20th century food history, but I don't recall ever seeing his name mentioned.
                                                                                                    Cooking with Wine or Through Europe with a Jug of Wine?

                                                                                                    1. re: buttertart

                                                                                                      The original classic Wood title is the one I mentioned just above, just "With a Jug of Wine." (Farrar, Straus, Giroux in its various evolutions as publisher; 1949, altogether 32 printings in hardcover.) All copies I have, hard and paper, use that title, incl. the 1983 paperback reissue, ISBN 0374517738 . The "Through Europe" part looks (in my quick ISBN search just now) to be a variant title for the same work (much as people now market Escoffier's _Guide Culinaire_ under various other titles, sometimes confusingly).

                                                                                                      The immediate sequel, _More Recipes with a Jug of Wine_ (1956), I have used less and generally consider inferior to the original. There may be other titles also by Wood, I'd expect they appeared later.

                                                                                                      Poking into used bookstore Cookbook sections habitually for many years I've often noticed copies of the originals. Along with other classics like the 1961 Crown _Larouuse Gastronomique_ and the 1950 _Gourmet Cookbook_ and its spin-offs. (Booksellers seem often to keep one copy of each on the shelf, since plenty of each title, very popular in their time, are available as owners retire, die, sell off their book collections, etc.)

                                                                                                    2. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                      Very , veery interesting post sbut i wonder about your ground beef point.

                                                                                                      I grew up with depression era parents who purchased most of their beef in ground form apart from the occasional sunday potroast. It was economical and could be stretched it in casseroles (fave dish of the era), chili etc. These ground meat recipes were also the way the general population made baby steps into "international" flavors, i.e. hamburger stroganoff, the aforesaid chili, italian meat sauce, swedish meatballs, etc. Wine and herbs were extremely avant garde for the middle americans of this era.

                                                                                                      1. re: jen kalb

                                                                                                        That is a great point about the ground meat, it had never occurred to me but it was certainly borne out in my mother's kitchen (hamburger stroganoff, spaghetti with our neighbor from Malta's meat sauce, etc).

                                                                                                        1. re: jen kalb

                                                                                                          Hey, that's how I started cooking meat dishes too! But my point was just the shift in how the beef was commonly made, not how it was used. (Today, I understand, the way it's bulk-agglomerated, theoretically one fast-food hamburger may contain bits of hundreds of cows from several countries.) The historical pespective comes from cookbooks over time. As late as middle 1950s such a mainstream US classic as the Fannie Farmer still told you to instruct your butcher to grind the meat extra fine or whatever. Someone else traced the appearance of packaged bulk ground beef in detail, linking it to supermarkets and suburbs, both mainly post-WW2 phenomena.

                                                                                                          Even my food-obsessed parents usually bought ground meat from the supermarket in the 1960s. Yet we still had a cast-iron clamp-mounted table-top hand-crank home grinder, used for grinding meat in specialties like scrapple. Such grinders are cheap, but being cast iron, take some care to keep from rusting. A vivid fond memory from teen-age years is when I bought some fresh beef and ground it for hamburgers for the family -- they tasted far better than any others, even using commercial ground beef from the same market.

                                                                                                          1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                            (Fascinated by this thread, due in part, to your erudition and passion for this topic, eatzalot!)
                                                                                                            We kept an iron grinder on hand at home in the 60s, not for beef, which the butcher would do for us to order, but for pork (dietary issues for the neighbourhood butcher shop that served a large Jewish population as well) and for lamb (and I gather this was due to difficulties in cleaning the machine after the strong flavour of lamb).

                                                                                                            1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                              If you search around on this site, you'll find a fair number of 'hounds who are big advocates of grind-your-own burgers. You avoid many of the problems that can lead to e. coli infection, and even more importantly, they taste better!

                                                                                                              Fortunately most hand grinders these days are cast aluminum, so rust isn't an issue. And the grinder attachment for a KitchenAid mixer makes things even easier!

                                                                                                              1. re: alanbarnes

                                                                                                                You know how I feel on this subject. I havent bought ground beef in a couple of years and don't eat burgers out anymore cause they just don't measure. Oh, and did I mention how inexpensive it is? And, yes, the KA attachment which is I have comes completely apart, you can see every nook and cranny when washing and rusting is not a problem. Hopefully if we keep singing this song, people will come out of the 1950's :)

                                                                                                                1. re: c oliver

                                                                                                                  On the fresh-ground hamburgers -- hear, hear! This also is understood in some insightful (not necessarily expensive) restaurants. When I was hanging out in New Orleans some years ago I learned about a whole class of restaurants there that ground their hamburgers fresh, even to order. At least one of them would use tenderloin if you paid for it. Others operated 24 hours (that town has had a whole class of restaurants that cater to the other restaurant and hospitality workers who come off shift at 2AM or so and want to dine and party).

                                                                                                                  I keep learning valuable tricks even after decades of obsessive cooking and recipe reading. An example is making your own sausage meat. Not sausages, sausage meat. The difference is liberating because it's so easy and good. _Giuliano_ Hazan's 1993 Italian pasta book (ISBN 0751300527) described how to make a delicate Italian type of suasage, rare outside Italy, and useful specifically in pasta recipes. Combine fresh ground pork (as lean as you like) with minced FRESH rosemary, just a little garlic, dry white wine (dry Vermouth works superbly), salt, and pepper. Mix well, squeeze into a ball in plastic bag or wrap, refrigerate overnight before using, to impart the flavors. It can then be frozen in convenient portions. Warning: Once you find out how good it is simply shaped into patties and fried, you'll wish you made more, for the pasta cooking.

                                                                                                                  1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                    I love making sausage and that sounds like a good combo. I make a Batali one the has pork shoulder and pancetta (I sub bacon) with s&p, fennel seed, red pepper flakes and a little while wine. Like you, I've never gotten around to using casings. I freeze it in 8 and 16 oz. portions.

                                                                                                                    1. re: c oliver

                                                                                                                      Bulk sausage is a thing of beauty, and it's dead easy, but stuffing your own is pretty special, too. You just put the horn on the front of the grinder and stack up the casings.

                                                                                                                      The KA attachment is good for small quantities, but one time Abby and I processed a 30-pound batch. Commercial equipment would have been far smarter. We were both whining by the time it was done.

                                                                                                                      1. re: alanbarnes

                                                                                                                        I was all set to buy a bag of casing when in SF recently. But they were $45!!!!!!!!! I decided to look around. Maybe Cabela's in Reno. I've never done more than 6# of sausage at a time. 'Bout time to make another batch; only a # left. BTW, get that girl the pasta attachement, why don't ya??!? :)

                                                                                                                        1. re: c oliver

                                                                                                                          That must have been a serious quantity of casing. Hog casings are $5 or so for a pack that goes a long way. Come to Sacramento and we'll hit Corti Bros.

                                                                                                                          As far as the KA pasta attachment, we had one and it didn't work out. But I do want to put a motor on the pasta machine. Same idea, much better execution.

                                                                                                                          1. re: alanbarnes

                                                                                                                            It makes a great difference. Especially when you hook up the die for cappelini.


                                                                                                                          2. re: c oliver

                                                                                                                            Are you serious? My local supermarket has salt packed casings for $3.45 and it lasts about a year in the fridge!

                                                                                                                            1. re: smtucker

                                                                                                                              The price isn't necessarily unreasonable. Collagen casings are often sold in serious bulk. The primary market is the commercial producer.

                                                                                                                              Of course if you measure your sausage by the link rather than by the case, you may want smaller quantities...

                                                                                                                              1. re: smtucker

                                                                                                                                I almost choked! It's a little family-owned Italian meat shop in North Beach in SF. I've shopped there before. I bought two cotechino, a 1/2# of panacetta and maybe one other thing. I didn't ask prices cause it never occurred to me that anything would be unreasonable since I'd shopped there previously. But when the total was $85 I put on the brakes and kindly declined. It's great father-son place and I'll definitely return but not for that.

                                                                                                          2. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                            I use his Immigrant Ancestors book more than any other, just because he samples a wider range of countries than anyone else.

                                                                                                            1. re: paulj

                                                                                                              Paul, I gather you refer to Jeff Smith. The one I have is the Three Ancient Cuisines book (1989).

                                                                                                              If you have a chance, you might flip through your Smith book(s) and look for things like Margerine and MSG or other marginal ingredients (ones he _doesn't _ make snide remarks about). I was truly surprised to see both in his 1989 book, the MSG in particular was so stigmatized by then as to be almost taboo in US recipes.

                                                                                                              Margerine in its customary US form (hydrogenated veg. oil, a major trans-fat source) is more widely stigmatized now than in 1989, but already, before the 1980s in fact, it was being publicly questioned on health grounds and statistically linked to certain diseases, which was conspicuous, given its tradition of heavy marketing as not just a cheaper but a "healthier" butter substitute in the 1950s and 60s.

                                                                                                              1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                My copy of 3 Cuisines is buried. In the Immigrant book there a few (optional) uses of MSG in the Japanese and Korean chapters, and a side bar, noting that a few people have an adverse reaction to, but otherwise it is a natural derivative.

                                                                                                                I didn't off hand notice margarine, but that word does not jump out as readily as MSG. Why would he use it in the 3 Cuisines? None of those has a prominent role for butter, or its substitute. I would expect some use of MSG in the Chinese recipes. Margarine might occur in his book of American classics.

                                                                                                                1. re: paulj

                                                                                                                  I don't second-guess his motivations, the point is that I recall Smith in _Ancient Cuisines_ oddly specifying Margerine explicitly (not "butter or Margerine" as is typical or implicit in many US recipes) and without any special reason.

                                                                                                                  As for MSG, evidently Smith hadn't seen the popular Kenneth Lo's tirade in _Chinese Regional Cooking,_ 1979,* nor Jim Quinn's inside look at a practical Chinese restaurant (in the collection _But Never Eat Out on a Saturday Night,_ 1983). Chef: "We don't need that stuff here. The chicken stock is our MSG." (Goes on to describe multiple re-enrichments of stock, as Lo also does in his cookbook.)

                                                                                                                  * "This ingredient was originally introduced from Japan and has been much indulged in and abused by Chinese cooking abroad in recent decades." -- Lo

                                                                                                            2. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                              I just flipped through 3 Cuisines and see mention only of olive oil and butter. Regarding MSG, he stated "A powder made from seaweed or soybeans. Used as a natural flavor enhancer. Some people seem to be allergic to it and talk of Chinese Resturant Syndrome, in which they have a headache or light chest pains when eating food containing too much msg. Few are bothered by this natural chemical and i use it now and then. IT SHOULD BE USED SPARINGLY, JUST AS YOU USE SALT. (his caps)"

                                                                                                              1. re: c oliver

                                                                                                                I agree, I flipped through Ancient Cuisines and don't see Margerine either, so I might be confusing another author. Yet the recollection with Smith is vivid.

                                                                                                                Smith does call for MSG ("optionally") throughout the book in Chinese recipes, I saw many examples. Why, as late as 1989, he could not have suggested natural umami sources like chicken stock is not explained. He even uses MSG in dishes like jook (congee) that probably contain more MSG from natural stock-making ingredients in the recipe. (Along with a couple of others, it is among the most common naturally occurring flavor enhancers, present in meats, fermented foods, dried vegetables, etc.)

                                                                                                                Which implicitly raises a point often arising in my region (heavy with all sorts of Asian restaurants). The psychosomatic MSG syndrome. People claim exquisite sensitivity to ill effects from MSG, then get big doses of it in natural sources like meats or fermented condiments (but don't know it) and feel no such effects. Locally, Chinese restaurants often boast "no MSG _added_" (my emphasis), since the many natural sources of it render strictly MSG-free Chinese (or most other) cooking impossible.

                                                                                                                1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                  MSG comes from a natural source, doesn't it? chemically it is the same.

                                                                                                                  i have many older chinese cookbooks using MSG.

                                                                                                                  1. re: alkapal

                                                                                                                    Tropp has an entry in her glossary on MSG:
                                                                                                                    "Let me say immediately that I don't use MSG to those who, like me, tend to judge a Chinese cookbook by whether or not MSG appears in the ingredients list. .... MSG is a common item in most every Chinese kitchen. It would not thought refined if one did not use it. It would merely be thought strange. I am thought a bit strange by many of my Chinese friends, because to my tongue food does not need it." p 554

                                                                                                                    So she's admitting to dumbing-down her recipes, leaving out a common ingredient, to suit her taste, and the preferences of her American audience.

                                                                                                                    I don't use it either - by name. Nor have I ever bought a bottle of Accent. But I do use seasonings where it is high on the ingredient list, such as Hon-Dashi, and Maggi/Knorr/Goya hispanic soup seasoning.

                                                                                                                    1. re: paulj

                                                                                                                      Contrast to Tropp what I quoted above that Chinese experts were saying to US audiences around 1980. It's typical of what I've seen and heard ever since (-- per another thread here on Sichuan cookbooks, and other comments on the Chinese restaurants long numerous and diverse here in silicon valley, I've been avidly accumulating and using Chinese cookbooks in the US since around 1980).


                                                                                                                      My own point as voracious cookbook reader and armchair food scientist is that you get glutamates (and guanylates, inosinates, etc.) from popular ingredients known for natural flavor enhancement, but those have interesting flavors too. In preferring meat stocks (or miso or aged Reggiano Parmesan) to pure MSG as a flavor enhancer, I express the same sensibility that induces me, for example, to add onions or carrots rather than pure sugar when I feel a stew or something needs a little sweetness. And as Chinese cooks have been trying to explain for a long time, irrespective of health anxieties, MSG is unnecessary and redundant in recipes using things like chicken stock or soy sauce or fermented bean pastes.

                                                                                                                      1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                        My first Chinese cookbook was a little one published in Hong Kong in 1964, 'Chinese Recipes' by Leon Huang. Most of the recipes have 1/4-1/2 tsp of accent.
                                                                                                                        It's where I first learned about 'lap cheung' (5 recipes).

                                                                                                                        1. re: paulj

                                                                                                                          What you report about Huang is typical of the 1960s Chinese cookbooks that I have. But again (and in case it was unclear to anyone) most admonitions against MSG that I've seen in the past 30 years came not from white folks with real or imagined health issues, but from Chinese cooks (both cookbook authors and in person ). To again repeat Lo (who is credited as a teacher by the likes of Martin Yan and Lawrence C. C. Chu), MSG had a regrettable run of being "much indulged in and abused" in Chinese cooking abroad. In the last couple decades I've tended to assume that we are past that.

                                                                                                                          1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                                                            No doubt MSG is used by plenty of places to cover up shortcuts and shortcomings, especially in stocks and sauces. But my copy of Lo's "Complete Encyclopedia Of Chinese Cooking" calls for optional MSG in many or even most dishes. I don't use the stuff, but FWIW...

                                                                                                                            1. re: alanbarnes

                                                                                                                              That is part of the complexity of Lo's body of work and is why I've cited the 1979 title elsewhere on CH as "good" Lo as opposed to "bad" Lo. Some of Lo's books shine with vivid almost poetic recollections of China, and nuances of regional cooking contrasts. (Some though of the several I own seem more like what Will Owen said below re Nathalie Dupree, like quickies at publisher behest.) That Encyclopedia in my copy shows a first copyright date of 1974, but Lo seems to've gotten wiser about MSG by the time of his very good compact 1979 paperback I quoted on the subject (a book I've used much more than the Encyclopedia, partly because of some pioneering content of modern PRC recipes) -- which incidentally is another of those titles found in most US used-bookstore Cookbook sections I've browsed.

                                                                                                      2. re: paulj

                                                                                                        The prunes I buy are generally pitted. I've never yet bought any that have pits in, frankly. Nor do I dry my own.

                                                                                                        Some really old cookbooks call for the cook to remove seeds from the raisins. Do you buy seedless raisins?

                                                                                                        Personally I am not averse to some shortcuts. And there can be a difference between "dumbing down" a procedure and simplifying it.

                                                                                                    3. re: SilverlakeGirl

                                                                                                      Interesting topic. Seems to me there's a fine line between dumbing down a recipe, adapting it to regional tastes/ingredients, and the normal process of evolution in a recipe. How were sauces prepared before Escoffier? Is that a "more authentic" technique? Because if you go back far enough, the earliest "receipts," such as those from Apicius, consisted of instructions like "roast meat over open fire, baste with juices, salt."

                                                                                                      I also have several of Diane Kennedy's books, which are thorough and excellent. But how many Mexican cooks use ollas? Some of the best Mexican food I've had has been from run-down little taquerias that used Japanese rice cookers and crock pots.

                                                                                                    4. Something else to keep in mind. Just because a book recommends a different or easier way for the home cook, doesn't mean the end result will be different.
                                                                                                      As an example, books will often recommend setting up a double boiler, when they want something to come up to temperature slowly , where a professional cook would be more likely to use direct heat.
                                                                                                      The difference is the professional is doing it everyday, and is more experienced in controlling the results. They are also probably making a much larger quantity, so direct heat is less risky.
                                                                                                      So, while a double boiler might seem dumbed down the end result is the same.

                                                                                                      8 Replies
                                                                                                      1. re: shaharidan

                                                                                                        I think that's a great point. I was looking at Bourdain's Les Halles book regarding stocks. He gave instructions for things that are achievable in a home kitchen. Because they're making stocks daily, they don't have issues with flavors degrading and they have the space. He said the recipes would measure up to a "bistro" restaurant by not Thomas Keller. I thought that was a good way to explain it. Not dumbing down but giving a recipe for success.

                                                                                                        1. re: c oliver

                                                                                                          Oliver, When I was writing this post Bourdain's demi-glace recipe was one of the first to come to mind. First, let me say that I am a huge fan of Bourdain. Though I haven't made this, I do not doubt in the least that it is bistro quality, I trust him. On the other hand, if I am going to spend multiple DAYS making demi-glace, I am going to do everything I possibly can to make the best demi-glace possible.

                                                                                                          Coincidentally, I would love to know what separates Bourdain's version from Keller's version. Do you have any insight on this? I have never made demi-glace but I think it would be a fascinating and rewarding project, and I would be willing to try Bourdain's if I got some positive feedback on it.

                                                                                                          1. re: schoenfelderp

                                                                                                            Bourdain doesn't actually say why his isn't up to Keller's standards, but having read his piece on stocks I can make some guesses.
                                                                                                            First, Keller's stock technique is just plain more refined and exacting, down to the way he sets his stock pot on the stove. So, you end up with a better stock.
                                                                                                            Bourdain adds tomato paste and flour to his bones, not really classic. I have Keller's beef stock recipe, but not his veal stock or demi glace, but he probably isn't adding tomato paste and even less likely adding flour.
                                                                                                            Keller doesn't use celery much as an aromatic, instead he seems to use leeks. I don't know why, I haven't found an explanation in ad hoc at home. I'm guessing it's more refining.
                                                                                                            Another point is that at home most people are likely to use chicken or beef/veal stock in all there sauces. At The French Laundry if they make a sauce for a duck dish they use duck stock. You could do this at home obviously, but it means either having a lot of different stock types in your freezer, or making fresh stock when you want duck for dinner. And where do you find duck bones? Not impossible, maybe not even hard, but I don't know where to get them off the top of my head.
                                                                                                            Lastly, Keller is probably using fresh stock everyday. Again you can do this at home, but kind of tough if you have a normal full time job.

                                                                                                            All these things are fairly minor when taken alone, but they aren't the way things are done in a very high level kitchen, and they are cumulative.

                                                                                                            Bourdain gives us a way to come up with what's still a good product, but something much more realistic for home.

                                                                                                            Bourdain's demi glace seems just fine to me, it's the way it would be done in a lot of restuarants. It's just not the level of a restaurant in the French Laundry's class.

                                                                                                            My recipe for stock is to make friend's with a bar tender at a good restuarant. When i need stock I stop in for a beer, ask him to hit the kitchen up for a quart or so of what I need, then leave a nice tip. Even better if your friends with the chef. :)

                                                                                                            1. re: shaharidan

                                                                                                              Makes sense, and I love the idea of hitting up the bar tender for stock!

                                                                                                              1. re: shaharidan

                                                                                                                I'm not at home for a couple of days but my recollection is that the recipe isn't what HE would have been doing at Les Halles but rather what is doable at home. And, yes, part of that is that most people aren't making stock daily as restraurants are. I don't think he was comparing what HIS kitchen would make to Keller's but rather what that recipe will give you. Very, very good but not as refined.

                                                                                                                1. re: shaharidan

                                                                                                                  Comparing stock/sauce making between two chefs, Keller to Bourdain, is a complicated, especially for restaurants that are so different.
                                                                                                                  First is the type of restaurant that they are running: Keller’s Michelin 3 star TFL to Boudain’s brasserie/bistro like Les Halles where the price point differential is so great. Keller has more time, more resources and uses better ingredients.
                                                                                                                  Second is the cooking philosophy of each chef. At TFL, Keller’s stocks and sauces are extremely light, delicate and transparent. He does not have a beef stock recipe, hence no demi-glace, in his TFL Cookbook. And from my two visits there, I did not see one beef dish on the tasting menus. He does not want his sauces to mask the flavors of his primary ingredients where he has so meticulously sourced. Rather he uses his sauce to bring out the flavors of his ingredients and help bring a dish together. He serves his sauces in very judiciously, dabs here, dots there, swirls in other places. In Bourdain’s Les Halles, he uses stocks and sauces to add punch to his dishes. His ingredients are not topnotch, therefore, he needs to add flavor or hide their shortcomings. His cooking is straight forward brasserie/bistro fare, therefore, he has no need for too much refinement or subtlety.
                                                                                                                  Third: chefs have their own preferences and quirks. Keller does not even roast his bones for his veal stock, just blanched to remove the impurities and then give them two long simmers, combining the two to make a single stock. He does not put celery in his stock because I think he believe celery is very vegetative and its distinct flavor can take over a stock such as Keller’s veal stock for TFL. Leek is a little sweeter and not so pronounce and I think that is the reason he uses it. Tomato paste can be too sweet for some and add it to roast pan with flour, if not careful, can give a burnt edge and bitterness to a stock. Bourdain is more straight forward because his restaurant is in that mode and he needs not be a cerebal as Keller, therefore, he simply follow the more Escoffier classical method of roasting bones, adding the classic mirepoix combination with tomato paste and flour as a thickener. For his liver with onions, onion soup gratinee, daube de boeuf, his stocks are perfect.
                                                                                                                  Four: stock and sauces have come a long way since Escoffier. This evolution started with the Nouvelle Cuisine movement in France back in the 70’s; now a days, stock and classical sauces are make differently or not made at all. Other than a béchamel, starch thickened sauces have pretty much disappeared from most high-end kitchens. I worked at a high-end kitchen where the we made only three stocks, plus a vegetable mushroom stock, then reduce each of them into glaces. From these, the chef builts his different sauces.

                                                                                                                  1. re: PBSF

                                                                                                                    Resistance to thickened sauces in France actually long predated Escoffier (to say nothing of Gault and Millau, who demonstrated a French flair for organizing and codifying existing ideas when they proclaimed their "Nouvelle Cuisine"). In his periodical _Almanach des Gourmands,_ A. B. L. Grimod de la Reynière (1758-1837) condemned the "immoderate use" of thickening agents as the main charlatanism of French cuisine. I've seen Grimod's famous tirade quoted here and there over the years.

                                                                                                                    By the way, you can make variants of sauce demi-glace from any gelatine-bearing stock. A batch I made recently used poultry stock from leftover holiday bird carcasses.

                                                                                                                2. re: schoenfelderp

                                                                                                                  I've made demi-glace occasionally at home in recent decades, it's a starting point for various derived sauces (the "small compound" brown sauces, #27-82 in Escoffier). I admit that 30 years ago, choosing recipe source was easy; these newfangled celebrity chefs were not yet in print (or even cooking, I think) so the obvious source was where they too likely learned it: Escoffier. (That's why an Amazon.com review of Le Guide Culinaire advises "why not go to the source?")

                                                                                                                  Obvious alternative authoritative recipe sources at the time -- the Larousse Gastronomique and the Gourmet Cookbook (US, 1950) -- basically just quoted Escoffier anyway (which is typical of 20th-century French publications that touched on the organized repertoire). On the other hand, demi-glace is a big fuss whatever method you use. Often even high-end restaurants in the past, not to mention today, substituted jus lié (bound or thickened stock), or the shortcut fake thickened sauce bases for the restaurant trade that I mentioned in the roux thread below; they freely and misleadingly label themselves demi-glace. Deep dumbing down, we might say.


                                                                                                            2. I just got "The Lost Art of Real Cooking" by Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafziger (Perigee 2010). As a cookbook it's not wonderful, and some of the recommendations are less than stellar (or accurate!), but what made me get it was this on the title page: "An introduction to the antiquated kitchen, or cookery made difficult and inconvenient …" and so on. In other words, if you think life's too short to peel tomatoes, buy another book!

                                                                                                              I like "Joy" okay, but any contemporary cookbook that routinely specifies bottled, canned and/or processed foods will be passed over. Even worse is when someone whose work I have admired publishes a book whose contents seem to have been phoned in; Nathalie Dupree is my worst example. Back when Southern cooking had too many exponents trying to promote "diet" versions of traditional recipes, she was a tower of strength, throwing lard in those biscuits and damn the torpedoes. The last book of hers I got was pathetic - no backbone, no spark, and it read as though she'd just sent a rough outline to her editor and said, "Here, finish this."

                                                                                                              1. Cooking By Hand, by Paul Bertolli. not dumbed down. excellent essays and recipes.


                                                                                                                1 Reply
                                                                                                                1. re: pork_chop

                                                                                                                  Paul B. (longest-tenured chef at Berkeley's Chez Panisse restaurant, I believe) is a good example of the not-quite-gone practice of handing down cooking techniques. But he had an advantage, because his family immigrated recently enough to US that he had direct experience of cooking by old-world-born relatives. (Part of this I'm recalling from direct comments -- I knew him and used to see him socially when I lived in his area -- but some is also explained in his large Chez Panisse cookbook.) As a young cook, before Panisse, he worked in Europe as chef for an aristocratic household. So he was steeped, so to speak, in venerable cooking traditions both from family and experience.

                                                                                                                2. I just checked out from the public library Ruhlman's Ratio and Wolfert's Clay Pot Cooking, and have put a hold on Cooking for Geeks.

                                                                                                                  Ratio tries to bring some sense and reason to recipes, particularly baking ones. It identifies the essential difference among various doughs and batters as different ratios of the key ingredients: flour, liquid, eggs, and fat.

                                                                                                                  13 Replies
                                                                                                                  1. re: paulj

                                                                                                                    I take it you would further recommend Ratio? I have considered it before...

                                                                                                                    1. re: schoenfelderp

                                                                                                                      I'm one of the devil's party on this book, it left me deeply unimpressed. Talk about simplification.

                                                                                                                        1. re: schoenfelderp

                                                                                                                          I started reading it and put it aside, it's just not my sort of thing. Ratios for different kinds of cooking, a lot of them fairly intuitive if you've been cooking a long time. A lot of people love it and his other books but they do nothing for me.

                                                                                                                        2. re: buttertart

                                                                                                                          Can you summarize the difference between a muffin batter and pancake batter? Could you make either without looking up a recipe? Could you make a baked custard without opening a book? If you had 2 jumbo eggs, could you adjust the other quantities in a baking recipe? Those are the kinds of questions that this book addresses.

                                                                                                                          1. re: paulj

                                                                                                                            I was going to get this book but it sounds, as buttertart says, intuitive. And from what you say, paulj, quite basic. Good to know - I can get another book on my wishlist instead!

                                                                                                                            1. re: chefathome

                                                                                                                              You can get the gist of the baking section by going to book's page on Amazon, and looking at page 1 (previews), and zoom in until you can read the ratio wheel (same as on the cover). The ratios are all by weight (including the egg).

                                                                                                                              1. re: paulj

                                                                                                                                I hadn't done that yet - thanks! Methinks I will be giving this one a pass...

                                                                                                                                1. re: chefathome

                                                                                                                                  It has some very strong advocates, but since laying it aside I haven't picked it up again.

                                                                                                                                  1. re: buttertart

                                                                                                                                    That, buttertart, is very telling. Thanks!

                                                                                                                        3. re: schoenfelderp

                                                                                                                          Ratio is a book that tries to break people of the habit of mindlessly following specific instructions. Its focus isn't on individual recipes, but on why a particular recipe will produce a particular result, and how to change ingredients to alter the end product. I wouldn't even call it a cookbook; it's more a book about (fairly basic) cooking theory.

                                                                                                                          I think it's ideal for beginners and for experienced cooks who fail to see the forest for all the trees. It's a decent reference for folks who want to innovate (especially with regard to baking, where it's harder to make corrections on the fly). And it's an interesting read for anybody.

                                                                                                                          I borrowed the ($27) book, but didn't buy it. Instead, I bought the ($5) smartphone app. It contains a lot less background, but it does the math for you. Pretty cool. Here's a demo:


                                                                                                                          1. re: alanbarnes

                                                                                                                            I use the app a lot, and not just for his stuff. If I only have 14 oz of meat for a recipe that calls for a pound, I can have the app do the math for the other ingredients. And that is convenient.

                                                                                                                        4. The Silver Spoon - Italian
                                                                                                                          Lidia Bastianich - Italian

                                                                                                                          Keller, Trotter, Ducasse - French