Getting disheartened with cookbooks

Discussion in 'The Mess Hall' started by duotone, Feb 29, 2012.

  1. Tried another recipe today and after following all the stages I am just becoming slightly underwhelmed with the final results. I am confident that I am carrying out them to the letter and am not cutting corners, if I wasn't confident in reading through a recipe I wouldn't waste time trying it.

    I'm not sure if I can put it down to eating at better restaurants which is making me feel underwhelmed at the final taste tests. But it's making me just want to stick to the tried and tested recipes that I KNOW are good but I want to expand my horizons a bit and try cooking different things.

    Any ideas or similar experiences?
  2. I don't cook anything decent, but I have noted that suggested cooking times can't be relied on. Particularly in the oven. I considered buying an oven thermometer, but they are even more unreliable than the oven settings! E.g. you can buy two identical thermometers and they can differ in readings by 40°C or more when sitting next to each other!
  3. I think that you may need to try the recipes a few times and look at the different results - unfortunately as you are working with natural ingredients, with different atmospheric conditions with different tolerances for measuring, beating, temperatures that cooking is not just about following a recipe exactly, it is about using your eyes, smell, sense of touch and experience and working out if everything looks like the desired result at each stage, not just assuming it is because that is what the book says. Also many books will assume that you have perfect technique which you may not have. I often find that you get better results the next time you cook something because you can learn from your previous attempt.

    That being said it also depends on you recipe, some are more forgiving than others, I've seen my grandmother making scones (biscuits to you americans) and she does it with feel and a dash of this and that, working quickly and adding more flour or liquid until the mix is correct she wrote it down what she did one day with exact measurements and the recipe does not work for everyone who uses it. I have found that some recipie books are like this. Others, are designed for people with less experience in mind and have better instructions and more forgiving techniques (I like the america's test kitchen cookbook for this)
  4. Not all recipe books are created equal, even those written by successful restaurant chefs. Being a great cook and being able to teach others effectively how to cook what you cook are two different things.

    Some time ago there was a conversation on The Splendid Table about the propensity for many cookbook authors to specify quantities in units which may have considerable variability. The best cookbooks specify ingredients by weight rather than volume.

    Personally I also find that many cookbooks don't break things down into steps laid out in the correct order. You should be able to look at the beginning of a recipe and know all of the ingredients and tools you will need before you start cooking.

    Cookbooks written by restaurant chefs often forget that the home cook doesn't have the very hot stoves they have in their restaurant or other tools that are tough to duplicate in a home kitchen. I would take a look at the Splendid Table web site for recommendations.

    It may not be you, it may be the cookbook.

    Also, it may be that your taste is just different than the writer of the cookbook you are trying. I tried a number of recipes from a cookbook written by a restaurant chef from New York and found that most of them used way too much salt for my taste. Once I reduced that they tasted great.
  5. SiBurning

    SiBurning Steward Contributor

    I find several problems with some cookbooks.

    First, I might not have the same taste as the author. I really hate to say this, but it's hit and miss with me and Julia Child. Also, while I love Mario Batali's whole approach and his basic recipes--and someone even called me out on this in another thread--his recipes can be downright boring if you don't spice them up. I think this is a good example of what the previous posters are talking about. On the other hand, absolutely everything I've tried from Madellaine Kamman was perfect and delicious as is. But then, hers is more of a teaching book, and was actually adopted by some schools. (She intend it to teach home cooks and had to adapt it a bit to make it more appropriate for commercial cooking for the second edition. This is by far my favorite coobook, but if her food isn't to your taste...)

    The second problem is with books put out by teams. I don't mean those where each chapter is done by a different person--which is a problem of its own, IMHO--but something like The New Best Recipe, where they debate each recipe and adjust it by committee toward the middle so that noone's actually happy with the result.

    I guess a third issue comes in those huge encyclopedias where the recipes are all over the place in terms of tastes and styles. And quality. Although much more than just a bunch of recipes, I'd put The Joy of Cooking here.

    So, maybe you just need to find different books--ones that work for you.
    Last edited: Mar 1, 2012
  6. Cookbooks are what they are, someone's opinion as to the what's the best way to make ______, They all bring their own approach, philosophy and tone. I always browse through the book, or borrow it from the library before ordering/buying to see if the recipes fit in with my cooking style.

    I live in New England, so a cookbook that assumes that I'm going be buying fresh products year round isn't going to work for me. Although I have access to small boutique markets, if the ingredients are too esoteric, it also won't make the cut.

    Increasingly I find forums such as Allrecipes, Epicurious, Chowhound and even the Barbershop forum here at B&B as sources of great recipes. The comment sections offer good reflections observations and of the recipes.
  7. Thanks guys,

    Out of interest how do you fair with America's Test Kitchen recipes? like

    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 6, 2017
  8. Sullybob

    Sullybob Contributor

    I have a cook book by Emeril Lagasse and the recipes just don't work, or maybe I should say that they really aren't anything special.

    Some cookbooks don't have recipe testers. It the recipe hasn't been tested how does the author know it will work? Thomas Keller had a lot of recipe testers for his cook book, The French Laundry. He wanted to make sure that the recipes worked in a home kitchen. Things that are really easy to do in a commercial kitchen are really difficult to do in a home kitchen, and some things are nearly impossible to do in a home kitchen. For example, most commercial kitchens have convection ovens, I've seen home convection ovens but they are always a pale imitation of a commercial convection oven.

    Most recipes are also a guideline. You make the recipe and figure out what you need to change to make the recipe shine. Like Steve pointed out, you are going to like some authors recipes, and others are going to be completely underwhelming.

    I also think that repetition is key. Cooking the same thing again and again will allow you to really come to understand the dish.
  9. You need to read Appetite by Nigel Slater. I think you would appreciate that "cookbook" and his opinions on recipes.
  10. saf


    Many "chefs" are just trying to do something against the norm in the books they put out. Most of the time it doesn't work. I use cookbooks as guidelines, as long as I know the method.
  11. Many cookbooks ommit certain things that are assumed such as do you use eggs room temp.
  12. maxman

    maxman Moderator Emeritus

    While it is better to learn the method and technique with cooking you would expect that a good cookbook will give you some tips on technique rather than just recipes.
    So I always suggest the standard old school cookbooks.
    Joy of Cooking and Mastering the Art of French Cooking are two that are must haves.
    The Good Housekeeping Cookbook is a good one too.

    Not only will you get top-notch, time-tested recipes but you'll get all the technique too.
    Yes you do have to spend some time reading it, but it will be worth it in the long run.
  13. SiBurning

    SiBurning Steward Contributor

    It occurs to me to go back and question you about your experience cooking. There was a point at which recipes weren't doing it for me anymore, and what I really needed was to actually learn how to cook. That means learning basic techniques and the hows and whys. Every few years I find I need to revisit the basics to grow, and then I tend to slowly let go and experiment some more. I've actually been buying a ton of different kinds of onions lately and learning all over again how to brown them and mix various kinds and mix them with other things and have been making a lot of onion soup and other things with lots of onions--though the mushroom mix was a failure--and it pays off when I go back to something else. Yesterday, I made a sausage & lentil dish with a humongous sweet onion and it utterly melted away without browning just as I'd hoped. In the past I've revisited browning meats, eggs, and I even revisited the onions once before. The last time it was chicken, which I don't really care for, but I forced myself. I guess the right thing to do is to stay with the learning almost constantly.

    Thing is, a book full of recipes isn't going to help with this. I guess this is why I so love Madeleine Kamman's The New Making of a Cook. She explains the chemistry and physical changes that happen with every technique, how to get there, and even how to experiment with it a little. She's very French and very serious, so it's not for everyone.
    Last edited: Mar 1, 2012
  14. If you're underwhelmed by the end results then do whatever you think is necessary to improve the dish, there are no hard and fast rules. I tend to use recipes more as rough guidelines to creating my own version of a particular dish, and I'll only stick strictly to a recipe if there're ingredients or techniques that I'm unfamiliar with
  15. One question that hasn't been asked, are you cooking or baking? If baking then a bit more adherance to measurement is critical, more science to baking. If cooking, then it's pretty wide open. If you feel something is lacking, add it. The biggest piece of advice when cooking is taste, taste, taste! Adjust as you go then you'll get what you want. If it's a technique issue then work on that. Some of my best meals have just been made on a whim.
  16. Okay my question is what books are you using, what level are you cooking at, and what direction are you trying to expand your horizons? Are you thinking healthier, most international, more complex flavors or techniques? Mostly need to know where you're starting from.
  17. As a former chef, I often get asked by friends which cookbook is best. There are PLENTY out there will all kinds of recipes, some better than others. However, there is only one cookbook that really nails the basics of how to cook just about anything humans are willing to eat: The Joy of Cooking. It's been around forever and is constantly updated. It's the only one I bother to own. The reason is, once you learn to cook...anything, a then becomes easy to experiment with your own recipes, varying off the basics. Don't by The Joy of Cooking for recipes, buy it to learn to cook properly. The recipes that work for you will follow.
  18. I have great results with America's Test Kitchen/Cook's Illustrated. Also with Alton Brown's first two cookbooks.

    My big problem with so many cookbooks is they assume that everyone lives in a major metropolitan area and has access to every ingredient in the world. I live in a small town of 900 in south central Colorado and our selection is pretty small. You can only order so many ingredients online.

    I do have a fairly large library of cookbooks - I love to read them and get a lot of ideas to use from them. Of course, I will admit that, other than for baking, I rarely follow a recipe to the letter. I taste as I go and make changes based on what I think will be good and what I have in the pantry. Drives my wife crazy, as she is an engineer. I also admit that I do like a number of Rachel Ray's recipes because she tends to use easily available ingredients and has recipes that are can be made in 30 minutes or so after I get home from work, leaving me time to do other things. Can't watch her show, though.
    Last edited: Mar 1, 2012
  19. Sullybob

    Sullybob Contributor

    I'm getting ready to head out the door to work so I don't have time for a long reply. I'd skip making that recipe again, unless you are willing to modify it.

    In your opinion what was that recipe missing? That recipe is okay as a starting point but it needs a lot of help. For starters it needs salt, the roasted vegetables will add a lot of flavor but they don't add enough.

    If someone else hasn't posted a better recipe I'll post or link one for you after I get off work.
    Last edited: Mar 1, 2012

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