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Mar 19, 2013 11:06 AM

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: