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Lying Recipes

Posted by TPANDAV 
Lying Recipes
May 09, 2018 10:20PM
I enjoyed this piece in The Sunday Times.

Lying recipes: how cookbooks don’t tell us the whole story

When a dish turns out badly, it’s not necessarily your fault, says the food writer Debora Robertson. Many recipes lie

The Sunday Times, May 6 2018, 12:01am

One way to judge whether a recipe will work is to look at how it tells you to cook onions. If it says, “Gently soften over a low heat until translucent and starting to caramelise, 5-10 minutes,” I know someone has the recipe writer locked up in a cupboard and is not letting them out until they’ve really got the message that everything has to be 15 minutes or less now, capisce?

This instruction sets off my inner kitchen buzzer, because it’s the clearest indication to me that either the recipe has never been tested or — in these days of creating a feast for 20 in less than 30 minutes — they’re trying to make the recipe sound like less of a time-suck than it really is. Because if you’re reading this on Sunday morning and you’re planning to serve French onion soup for dinner, you probably ought to get those onions on now. Or, better still, yesterday.

There are other calumnies that set off my inner buzzer. Browning mushrooms over too low a heat (many people tell me they hate mushrooms because they’re “slimy”, and this idiocy is why), or reducing a big pan of stock or sauce to a glaze in five minutes, or pretending that frying enough slices of aubergines until golden for a parmigiana doesn’t take half your natural life. Buzz, buzz, buzz.

It’s tempting to think this compulsion to make dishes sound incredibly simple is a relatively new phenomenon. But for certain the habit of assuming too much predates the bish-bash-bosh school of cookery. Elizabeth David’s writing is full of instructions to cook until done with no time indication. In his 2003 book A Pedant in the Kitchen, the novelist Julian Barnes — a self-described late-onset cook — speaks for many of us when he writes: “Is the recipe framed in this imprecise way because there is a happy latitude ... for interpretation; or because the writer isn’t capable of expressing him or herself more accurately? It starts with simple words. How big is a ‘lump’, how voluminous is a ‘slug’ or a ‘gout’, when does a ‘drizzle’ become rain?”

You can hear the exasperated sighs of the culinary curmudgeon rising from the page, but he had a point. Some writers, and some experienced cooks, rail against the tyranny of the digital scale in the same way that opera snobs sniff at the very mention of Classic FM, as if they want to keep the high-church secrets to themselves.

But it makes me boil over. It may have the unsexy whiff of white-aproned domestic science lads, but I think we have a duty to readers to guarantee our recipes work. Poor instructions let readers down. Worse, they often make them feel it’s their own fault. It’s all very well blethering on about the importance of people cooking from scratch, but we need to show them how. We live in an age of superlative food photography, but the era of the full-bleed picture often leaves little space for the words. We’re encouraged to make our recipes shorter to make them sound easier, but also because cookbook designers get twitchy at all those bloody words. I’ve always liked to write recipes as though I were standing alongside readers, showing them how to do it — what each stage should look like, smell like, feel like, sometimes taste like — so what they make in their kitchens turns out just as it would in mine. But, you know, boring.

So we cut out steps and cut down text so everything looks gorgeous, but I think we might be doing a disservice to all those keen home cooks. I look at the recipes of, for example, Donna Hay, the Australian high priestess of the modern white-plated relaxed style of cooking, and I think , sorry for being so dreary, but a few more instructions for the novice might not go amiss. I once went to interview her and her young, glossy assistant forgot to roll the edges of our chicken salad sandwiches in sesame seeds. The almost imperceptible tightening of Donna’s jaw made me think it wasn’t all Byron Bay breeziness. The secret to her success was a ruthless attention to detail, an iron fist in the oven glove.

Simplicity usually conceals great knowledge and expertise. John Pawson doesn’t design pared-back kitchens because he ran out of time and ideas. And then there are the deliberate obfuscations. I once worked on a magazine where the tyranny of the nutritionists was strong. Of course I understand, where we can, we need to help people make informed choices about their health. This wasn’t that. At the bottom of each recipe there was a breakdown of its calories, fat, sugar and salt content. We were pressured all the time to squeeze out many of the things that would make the food taste as good as it looks in the glossy pictures. For example, generously salting pasta water is essential to making a delicious dish. (I follow the late Marcella Hazan’s rule: in a minimum of four litres of water, “for every 450g of pasta, put in no less than 1½ tbsp of salt, more if the sauce is mild and understated”. You should too). The nutrition-box despots got their knickers in a twist over this as it makes it look like the dish contains a lot of salt, even though you pour most of it down the sink. In the end, we had to write: “Cook the pasta following the instructions on the packet.” Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t help.

As well as the sins of commission, there are sins of omission. I’ve worked alongside enough chefs, and edited and ghost written their cookbooks, to know that they tweak and season and taste all the time when they’re working. But in the recipes they seldom tell you about how they added just a pinch of sugar or a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar right at the end to lift the flavours, not (usually) because they want to keep that from you, but because they do it automatically, sometimes without even realising they’ve done it. It’s my job, as the person in the corner with the notebook, to write these tiny tweaks down and make sure they end up in the final recipe. Unfortunately, in these days of pared budgets, there’s often not the money for people like me who make sure what happens in the kitchen makes it to the page.

So next time you slavishly follow a recipe and it’s not as delicious as you expected, it’s entirely possible that’s it’s not you, it’s me, or someone like me, losing the fight to be able to tell you to salt the water or add more butter. I’ll try to signal that to you from the cupboard with my eyes — two blinks for cook the onions longer*, three blinks for boil that sauce really hard for 15 minutes, capisce? — but I realise that this doesn’t really cut it and I offer my heartfelt apologies if I’ve spoilt your dinner.

*As a rule of thumb, translucent onions take 15 minutes, caramelised/browned onions 45+ minutes

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 05/09/2018 10:21PM by TPANDAV.
Re: Lying Recipes
May 10, 2018 05:45PM
This is so relevant to me at the moment. I have found some very old recipes, some in books and some handwritten.I thought I would try some baking using a couple of them, however the baking instructions on most of them are just "bake" which was fine when everyone was an experienced cook from necessity but in this day and age it had me scurrying to modern recipes to find something similar so I had some approximation.
Re: Lying Recipes
May 10, 2018 07:28PM
This is so true. I can work my way through recipes with only basic instructions, but I'm a decent cook - I feel very sorry for all those learning with these half recipes.

One of my favourite cookbooks is an old dessert book from the 80's. The desserts are of course appallingly overstyled, but the base recipes are great. One, for a very thick custard/pastry cream, has a line in it which I have always appreciated "as it gets close to boiling, the custard will go through a lumpy stage, this is normal, keep stirring and the lumps will disappear".. such a very, very useful line and one that would be excluded in many recipes. Also for the same recipe "Do not stop stirring the whole time it is on the heat, eternal vigilance is the price of not using a double boiler".
Re: Lying Recipes
May 10, 2018 08:23PM
Something that wasn't mentioned in the Times piece is the way that myths about cooking techniques are perpetuated. Two examples spring to mind, each a "fact" that is rarely questioned:

1. Lemon curd needs to be stirred for a long time in a double boiler over simmering water. I doggedly obeyed this all of my cooking life until Stephanie Alexander mentioned that in fact any fruit curd can be cooked over medium-hot direct heat, stirred constantly for about 5 minutes. The acid and sugar lower the boiling point so that the mixture won't curdle before it thickens. It's true!

2. Dried beans, lentils, chick peas etc must not be salted until they are fully tender or they will never soften. I have believed this all my cooking life but recently I read in Samin Nosrat's masterwork "Salt Fat Acid Heat" that salt in fact tenderises the pectin in vegetables including the skin of legumes, so it adding salt at the beginning of the cooking process shortens the cooking time. I've tried it out and it's true! And they taste better.
Re: Lying Recipes
May 10, 2018 10:17PM
Re: #2, I have a pot of pinto beans cooking right now, without salt, as I understood the same thing. I'm off to add salt and give it a go, frightening as it may be grinning smiley
Re: Lying Recipes
May 10, 2018 10:35PM
You're making me nervous now... Do report.
Re: Lying Recipes
May 11, 2018 12:29AM
2 hours later and they're lovely and tender.. which is about an hour earlier than I would have expected. I would usually simmer for about 4 hours.

They had already been cooking for an hour before I put the salt in, but I suspect you're right and it doesn't cause tough beans and perhaps there is something to the shortened cooking time too.
Re: Lying Recipes
May 11, 2018 02:27AM
TPANDAV and Jenna, I was also taught not to add salt to beans before they were tender. I will be brave and add it at the start.
Re: Lying Recipes
May 11, 2018 03:02PM
I have been a reasonable home cook for years, but still can't get a fruit crumble to be crispy. I cook it at mid to lower in the oven but should I be trying upper oven, all the recipes have said 180°. Helpful tips wanted before another failure.
Re: Lying Recipes
May 11, 2018 04:13PM
I could never get a crunch topping on my crumbles till IngridO gave me this tip:

Crunchy Topping:
Mix 130g brown sugar and 1 tablespoon cornflour together and sprinkle over the top of the crumble.

Pour 1/2 cup boiling water over the back of a spoon onto the top of the crumble – this creates the crunchy topping.

Bake about 20-30 minutes till the topping is golden and crunchy.

Re: Lying Recipes
May 11, 2018 11:14PM
I came across a fruit galette recipe in my local paper not too long ago which I wanted to try and which was by a cook who writes for that paper every so often. It told you how to make the pastry and although I am not a very good baker I do have enough experience and warning bells should have rung when I looked at the amount of butter in the pastry. Thank goodness I had placed the galette on a rimmed baking sheet because it was swimming in fat. The pastry tasted of course really buttery but there was just too much fat in it to the point of being unpleasant. I have tried several recipes by this particular cook and some of them did not turn out as anticipated despite following the instructions carefully, I just look at those recipes for inspiration only.
Re: Lying Recipes
May 11, 2018 11:19PM
Lorna thank you for that very handy hint I shall write it in my recipe book and give it a go next week and report back. Annie
Re: Lying Recipes
May 11, 2018 11:26PM
In the letters of the latest issue of Life and Leisure questioned the cooking time of a relish recipe by Ruth Pretty, who responded but I thought it was a justified query. Some of the newspaper recipes area bit suspecting I wonder if the author has test driven them. Lois Daish writer many years ago was always spot on.
Re: Lying Recipes
May 14, 2018 03:55PM
I was given a recipe book this weekend, I strongly suspect that anything made from it won't work...the pointers, it's been written by a "blogger", who has been "eating this way for 2 years"...multiple recipes request one stock cube for over a litre of water. I think the recipes probably haven't been tested, and the author isn't an actual cook... just someone who has traded on her good looks for Instagram likes and managed to wangle a book deal.
Re: Lying Recipes
May 14, 2018 05:28PM
Oh Griz, it is like those awful recipes that say "Add a packet of .... mix" then add a can of ,,,,,,, and finish it of with a jar of .......thumbs down
Re: Lying Recipes
May 14, 2018 05:39PM
Anything with "blogger" and "stock cube" in the same description has to set alarm bells off. Eew...
Re: Lying Recipes
May 14, 2018 06:38PM
And the recipes that call for packets of this and jars of that, are titled "The Best Homemade XYZ, Ever!" Homemade my a$s.
Re: Lying Recipes
June 02, 2018 08:34PM
Lorna, excellent tip. Have been doing it for years. Its everyones favourite.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 06/02/2018 08:35PM by Memmi.
Re: Lying Recipes
June 03, 2018 04:54AM
Annie H while I definitely have my share of failures it is never with crumbles, they always have a crunchy top and I am trying to work out why they wouldn't.
The crumble recipes her on foodlovers all work well. I do think that it is essential to have enough butter and sugar as these are what will help make the topping bind and also aid crunch.
Re: Lying Recipes
June 03, 2018 02:30PM
Thanks Helen, I will have a look at them. Made one with the cornflour brown sugar and hot water - oh dear not successful. Have access to steady supply of granny smiths so determined to crack it this winter.
Re: Lying Recipes
June 03, 2018 04:32PM
AnnieH, I'm not sure why your crunchy topping didn't work. Did you put that on top of your normal crumble topping or was it the only topping you used? Basically, it's a topping on the topping!
Re: Lying Recipes
June 04, 2018 02:47PM
Lorna - silly me, I did not put topping on topping -will try again
Re: Lying Recipes
June 06, 2018 06:38PM
What a very informative topic thank you TAPANDV for starting this thread. I have been asked to put some of my favourite recipes down to go towards a book for a bride to be, I will be putting a lot down from here along With Foodlovers web site.
Re: Lying Recipes
June 06, 2018 10:09PM
This has made me laugh and prompted a conversation with foodwriter friends re how long they allow for softening onions, celery etc...
I guess it did all stem from the pressure to cut back on recipe timing.
It is worth thinking about and remembering as I write. smiling smiley
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