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Jul 10, 2012 08:17 AM

Recipe Advice for the New (or Old) Cook

You just purchased a new cookbook and can hardly control the excitement of trying some of those new recipes. Your excitement turns to disappointment and frustration when some of the recipes just don't seem to work.
It may help you to understand that many cookbooks, especially first editions, contain a lot of errors.
I recently collaborated with a group of others on a new cookbook. All recipes were tested and the book was submitted for edit and publishing. When the book, with over 250 beautifully illustrated pages hit the stand it contained nearly five dozen errors involving about fifty of the recipes.
As you might expect, errata information was made available. Nevertheless, I'm certain there were a lot of disappointed people who worked carefully with the instruction first provided.
Moral: The moral here is two fold - 1. Learn as much about cooking and how ingredients relate to one another so that you recognize when something doesn't look quite right in a recipe. 2. If a new recipe doesn't turn out as you had expected it may not be your failure.

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  1. That's really good advice, especially when someone might throw in the towel and think it's them. I always read the reviews before trying an online recipe to see what has worked/hasn't worked for others. You don't get that feedback w/ a book. I think it was Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc that had a big error, enough that they had a sticker you could place over that page in the cookbook. I have to go back to see what the mistake was. Added to which, in today's autocorrect days, it's easy to type one thing and get another.

    1 Reply
    1. re: chowser

      Excellent point (read reviews on line) ... tnx chowser.

    2. 3. Don't purchase the first edition. Get it from the library if you are tremendously eager to try a new cookbook. Read and contribute to reviews on Amazon and other bookseller sites. Buy a later edition if there is one.

      1 Reply
      1. re: greygarious

        I agree. The book sales site reviews are a lot of help for avoiding troublesome publications.

      2. I don't understand. Doesn't the author check each page before it is sold to the public?
        When do the mistakes occur?
        It seems crazy to have to become an accomplished cook before trusting a new cookbook!

        1. Moral 3: If the recipes in your cookbook don't work, get a better cookbook. Chowhound is a good place to ask what the most reliable cookbooks are.

          blue room is right. Morals 1 and 2 may work for the old i.e. experienced cook but not for the new one, who's learning by doing and depends on clear and correct instructions. Who has time to study nutritional and culinary theory when they have to put a meal on the table tonight? Especially if the dish they were preparing turned out badly and they have to start over, in a hurry?

          Moral 4: Proofread very carefully before sending a book to the printer! These days, with spellcheck software in every word processing program, authors and publishers seem to believe that it's not really necessary to read proof carefully. Bad thinking.

          2 Replies
          1. re: John Francis

            Well, John, I respectfully disagree with "...not for the new one, who's learning by doing .." That's precisely the audience that needs to understand the facts about cookbooks. Those of use who are experienced already know that you can't rely entirely on what's printed; we've been there and done that. Most of the errors in cookbooks would never be caught by a spell checker. The spellchecker doesn't know the difference between 1 cup and 2 tablespoon in a recipe.

            1. re: todao

              todao, you're repeating yourself - I understood what you said the first time. So I guess it's OK to repeat myself too - respectfully, of course.

              For most people in the real world, the answer to dealing with a recipe that don't work is not to become enough of an expert on cooking that kind of food to critique and correct the recipe, but just to toss it and move on to another. And I'm sure most people learn whether a recipe works by making it, not by analyzing it in advance. Whether that's what they should do, seems to me beside the point.

              As a former book editor, I'm well aware that typos get into print no matter how hard you try to find and fix them, especially when numbers and such are involved. Even so, and though I'm a pretty experienced home cook, I never bother to "proofread" a recipe before using it, or assume I know better than the author how to make her/his dish. I just make it by following the instructions, see how it turns out, and decide whether or not it's a keeper.

              Your way works for you, my way works for me, and many others here believe their ways work for them, including cooking without any recipes at all. None of these are guaranteed to get good results. But for a new cook, surely the best advice is to get right into cooking with some tested recipes, whether from Mark Bittman or grandma, instead of studying the theory of the subject in advance so as to avoid the occasional recipe typo. That would only encourage people to get microwavable prepped food or take-out Chinese instead of actually cooking for themselves.