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Do you find yourself let down by new cookbooks?

Let me start by saying that I'm not necessary unhappy with the ideas in the cookbooks but rather the writing/editing of the recipes.

My beef is with the instructions. Often I find the recipes are missing crucial information that either the writer assumes we all know or the editor is not a cook and doesn't realize that information is missing or the next logical step is just assumed.

Case in point: I just got Richard Blais' new book and I tried the brisket recipe. First off, I have to state that I am crazy about Richard and have no problem with the flavors in the recipe. But I have some technical issues.

The recipe doesn't provide enough information about how to handle the brisket. Do I need to trim it?
The spice mixture in the recipe makes too much. The recipe says to coat the meat with the spice mixture and then to brown/sear it. The spice coating was rather thick and would probably have fallen off when I browned the brisket but I rubbed the spices into the meat and left it overnight. When I browned it, I used a fair amount of oil so that it was actually kind of frying a bit, or else the spices would have just stuck to the pan and the meat wouldn't have browned at all.

The recipe called for the meat to be cooked for 10 hours at 300 degrees. I took it out at 8 hours and it was done, probably a little past done. If I had left it for 10 hours, it would have been very overcooked.

Now this is the first recipe that I have tried from this book and will definitely try others because I like the chef and I'm intrigued by his ideas. However, I think that the editor needed to think more like a cook and think about what questions will come up when actually cooking the dish and not just proofread.

Many years ago, I bought some cookbooks by Rob Feenie, a chef I greatly respect. I believe he's the first Canadian to win on Iron Chef. Anyway, it seemed like the recipe were more like outlines of recipes. The instructions were extremely brief and didn't explain anything. It was like chef was issuing orders to his sous.

Last night, I was thinking I wanted to make something Malaysian this weekend. I was looking through a Malaysian cookbook and again I was frustrated by the ingredient list which stated that I needed a pound of pork. What cut? I guess I have to make an educated guess.

I guess what I'm saying here is that I wish that cookbooks were edited by people who are cooks and that chefs/writers would write with the intent to actually show people how to make their dishes, not write recipes assuming we know things that we do not.

I guess it irks me more than most because I am a professional proofreader/editor and I always think of what I would have questioned/fixed if I had been working on that cookbook.

On a positive note, I haven't had any problems with recipes in Hugh Acheson's book. So far, everything has turned out great!

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  1. I agree. Editing and testing of recipes in cookbooks is not always up to par these days. I heard somewhere that Irma Rombauer didn't test all of the recipes for Joy of Cooking....?

    1. Along the lines of how cookbooks are editted, I have to say that the Jerusalem cookbook - I am not a fan of how the recipes are presented. Instead of having direct bullets to follow for recipes, I feel like I'm reading a book as opposed to following an instruction manual. It's beautiful and everyone says the recipes it produces are great - but personally, I need a little more functionality from a cookbook.

      6 Replies
      1. re: cresyd

        I'm a big fan of pre-19th century cookbooks and they're all pretty vague about ingredients and measurements. (WTF is a "gill" of water?) You don't appreciate what Julia Child wrote until you're faced with something like Apicius' recipe for lamb stew:

        HOT KID OR LAMB STEW. Put the pieces of meat into a pan. Finely chop an onion and coriander, pound pepper, lovage, cumin, liquamen, oil, and wine. Cook, turn out into a shallow pan, thicken with cornflour. If you take lamb you should add the contents of the mortar while the meat is still raw, if kid, add it while it is cooking.

        1. re: monkeyrotica

          Uff.....yeah, definitely could be worse.

          I don't personally own the Jerusalem cookbook, but I have a friend who recently bought it and figured we could try some recipes from it. But flipping through it just to get a quick idea of what would be fun, different, and not too difficult for the occasion - just didn't work. I felt like I was either going to pick recipes just based on the photos, or was going to need to devote more focused time to just reading.

          1. re: monkeyrotica

            What is vague about a gill? Just because we no longer use measure doesn't mean it is vague.

            More on historic recipes and converting measures

            1. re: paulj

              My mistake. I meant to say "obscure" rather than "vague." I'm actually familiar with the term from Dungeons & Dragons. Many's the time my 4th Level Cleric has found himself a +2 broadsword and a gill of cheap wine.

              A better example of vague measures would be from the Martha Washington Cookbook; many of the soup and stew recipes call for a "teacupful" of something. Was there a standard volume size for teacups in the 18th century?

              1. re: monkeyrotica

                I think soup and stew is rather forgiving and that for the most part tea cups were standard size. This was probably one of theist standardized items that the majority of folks would have.

            2. re: monkeyrotica

              I believe that recipes of this kind were not intended to teach anyone how to make the dish who had never made it before, much less never eaten it before, as most modern recipes are. They were intended more as memory joggers. Nobody in the pre-Joy/Fannie Farmer era would be learning to cook from a book, any more than anyone today would be learning to drive a car by reading a book. Anne Mendelson has a long discussion of this in chapter five of her wonderful book Stand Facing the Stove (her biography of the Rombauers).

          2. chefhound and the book by Blais is called, Try this at Home right?! Ironic that if the cookbook is lacking steps to do just that..

            anything within his blog that helps buyers of his book?

              1. Why blame the editor? A lot of guys don't really want you to know how to do what makes them famous. See this thread also:


                1. Just got the Blais book from the library. Regarding this brisket recipe:
                  - One 3-4 lb brisket, fatty end, rinse and pat dry
                  (it says nothing about trimming, so why assume something is missing).

                  - 'season with the coriander, salt, black pepper, paprika, and cayenne pepper'. Yes, the quantities given total more than 1/2 c, But 'season' is not the same as 'coat'. I don't see any need to make a thick, continuous coating, or to use it all. The spices that are not in contact with the meat don't do anything.

                  - after searing and cooling the meat is placed on foil, and rubbed with a brown sugar and yellow mustard paste. 'make sure to use every last bit of the paste'.

                  - now it is tightly wrapped and baked. I can't comment on the 10hr timing.

                  At the moment I have some corned beef simmering. It was store bought, but I am drawing on his ideas for cooking (e.g. including some vegetables).

                  On a first glance, I don't see problems with this book. It might not be a good book for a beginning cook or one who needs details. But I am one who looks to recipes for new ideas, and rarely follow a recipe exactly.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: paulj

                    I don't have a problem with the book itself. It's full of interesting ideas.

                    I just feel that more detail could have been included. And I'm not singling out this particular book. It's something I find in many books. I am just using Blais' book as an example because it's my newest one.

                    I'm not a novice cook and generally I can figure out what they haven't said. However, when I'm given measurements to make a certain quantity of spice mix, I assume I'm supposed to use all of it unless they say that there will be mix left over, which many recipes do state. And when I have a piece of meat with a fair amount of fat on it, I wonder if trimming is required, just as a part of my thought process. Which is the point of my original post.

                    Some cookbooks have recipes which are written in a somewhat conceptual manner, which when attempted in real life, do not work properly because of missing information. We all do it: when we give instructions for something we do all the time, often things are assumed because we are so used to it that we do it by rote.

                    The Sri-rancha recipe turned out pretty well, though I added more sriracha because I wanted it hotter. Next time, I'm going to try Dale Talde's sri-rancha recipe, which calls for the sriracha to be oven-dried and crushed into a powder, and I'm going to add lemon juice, from Richard's recipe.

                    I'm still a Blais fan and plan make his lemon curd roast chicken next. Just pointing out that better editing would help.

                    1. re: paulj

                      I wonder if the perspective of using recipes for new ideas but not exact recipes has contributed to the more "narrative" side of new cookbooks. I have not seen the Blais cookbook - but I was really underwhelmed by the Jerusalem cookbook.

                      I felt as though it was designed as a book to be read, or a coffee table book to be flipped through the photos. Both ways of absorbing the book would provide inspiration - but it just felt difficult for me to digest as recipes I'd want to follow. Personally, I consider myself a very uneven cook. In some areas, I have a fairly experienced level of capability - and in other areas (in particular meat) I still need a lot of instruction following many years as a vegetarian. So I do value recipes that offer me a bit more "hand holding" when I need.

                      1. re: cresyd

                        Blaise's book is more graphical than narrative. Lots of action or quirky photos (including the cover) and doodles. The recipe for microwave angel food cake (like the Chow Modernist video) includes a picture of a little girl (his daughter?) next to an Ezbake oven.

                        It reminds me a bit of the current COTM, Adhoc at home, though it isn't as grandiose.

                        A book with a lot more narrative is Jose Garces, Latin Road Home. Lot of personal accounts, both growing up, career, and travels connect to the book.

                        Gran Cocina Latina is encyclopedic, with lots of recipes, and lots of discussion of the foods and cuisines. There are some personal anecdotes, but not a lot. Photos are limited to a few full size pages.

                        1. re: paulj

                          My real issue with the narrative style has more to do with being able to skim recipes or not. How long is a recipe projected to take? Based on the skills required how far off the projected time do I think it'll take me? Is this a recipe that is going to require a major shopping trip or just a few new ingredients? Are the ingredients listed those I like in a fun combination? Is there a new cooking technique that the recipe makes sound achievable?

                          The more manual style cookbooks where recipes are more inline with the Joy of Cooking's style - I can skim through a section to get ideas. I'm not opposed to lovely/glossy photos - but I don't like them when they serve as the primary motivation for why someone would want to cook something. When I was growing up, my mom had a crepe cookbook and the photo of the grasshopper crepes (chocolate crepe, creme de menthe filling) was the image of my food dreams. After pestering my mom on the issue, she finally caved - and the result of a dark chocolate (not very sweet) crepe filled with alcoholic mouth wash flavored filling was an excellent learning lesson for me about recipes.

                          Photos are great - but for getting me to want to cook a specific recipe, it's not my #1 inspiration.

                          1. re: cresyd

                            When I mentioned the narrative content of Garces's book, I had in mind the stories accompanying the recipes, not the recipes themselves. I don't recall anything unusual about the recipe layout (I no longer have to book checked out).

                            Blais's recipe layout is a bit unusual, but still clearly lists the ingredients.

                            Joy intersperses ingredients and instructions, but the ingredients are nicely highlighted.

                            1. re: paulj

                              My "narrative" complaint is really directed to
                              Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi "Jerusalem" cookbook. Ingredients are listed, and from all the raves the cookbook gets on this site - I imagine that recipes do lead to quality results. It's just not a format I like consuming.

                              My current method of recipe consumption is now primarily through various food/cooking websites. So this may have also really streamlined how I prefer to find recipes and making me even less sympathetic to the "book" part of a cookbook.

                    2. I never ever go by cooking time alone when cooking meat. Know what doneness is needed for that cut and go by temp. Leaner cuts that you want to eat rare need to be cooked to a much lower temperature than tougher cuts where you need to render fat. That is a cooking basic everyone should know. Most of the time now days when I'm looking at cooking ( not baking) recipes I'm just looking for different flavor profiles so I ignore a lot of the often bogus cooking time information.

                      1. The cookbooks with the most complete and exact instructions on my shelf are the newest ones, the latest editions of Bittman's "Everything" books and Dupree's "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking." If I do what those books tell me, I don't go wrong. Put it down to the conscientiousness of the authors, not to in-house editing by the publisher.

                        I say that because I was an editor myself, not of cookbooks but of college textbooks where getting it right is likewise at a premium. Naturally we queried and advised our authors where we found something missing or something clearly wrong, but as regards general approach and reliability, we didn't try to think like English teachers, we got outside expert opinions. from real English teachers.

                        Authors write the books they have in them. If a cook or chef doesn't have it in him or her to instruct less experienced cooks in writing as precisely as they need, then an editor is wasting his time trying to test and revise the recipes himself, then persuade the author that he knows better. The editor should either sign a collaborator who can provide what the author can't, or if the author refuses such help and doesn't revise as needed, reject the manuscript.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: John Francis

                          Out of curiosity - are you familiar with Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's "Jerusalem". It is just so popular now - not just on CH, but also among my friends.

                          I would love to hear an editor's thoughts on that book - as I clearly have strong (somewhat negative) opinions.