Knife’s Edge


Not long after graduating from college, I found myself in my mother’s kitchen, knee-deep in bread crumbs and ricotta. My own dishwasher-less, counter-less kitchen wasn’t fit for my new job: I had just a few weeks to test about 100 recipes for Rocco DiSpirito’s second cookbook, Rocco’s Italian American. Scribbling furiously as I cooked, tweaking measurements and timing, I tried to perfect DiSpirito’s restaurant and family recipes and translate them for the average home cook. Each night, in an apron caked with the stuff of veal parmigiana or clams oreganata, I served the triumphs—and failures—to my parents, who probably would have preferred to go to a restaurant, or at least have their kitchen back.

Cookbooks are imperfect guides. The fact that a book’s in print doesn’t guarantee its recipes. Most home cooks assume they’ve done something wrong when the bread doesn’t rise or the sauce is more like soup. In truth, the trustworthiness of a cookbook’s recipes—whether they work—varies dramatically. There is no set method for the testing process, and while food magazines have test kitchens where recipes are developed and reworked, cookbook editors expect authors to fulfill this crucial responsibility themselves. But in today’s overheated food world, it’s hard for anyone to get a cookbook published without a TV show. A celebrity chef is often juggling a string of restaurants and the demands of his publicist while his books are being produced. Testing recipes too often ends up on the back burner.

Marcus Samuelsson, chef at Aquavit and author of a new book about African cooking, The Soul of a New Cuisine, puts it this way: “They give you some money, and if you want, you can take it and go to China.” Which means that the difference between a juicy roast and a shriveled lump rests on the author’s priorities—whether he decides to test the recipes himself, put the necessary portion of his advance toward thorough testing, or spend the money on something else. Samuelsson traveled all over Africa for his book, studying what local cooks did, trying it himself, and then producing the recipes. The dishes were later tested by a professional Samuelsson’s publisher recommended. “I allocated a lot of money toward each step,” Samuelsson says. “You become your biggest investor in your book.”

Susan Friedland, the former director of cookbooks at HarperCollins, echoes this sentiment: “There’s always gossip about whose recipes don’t work. It’s in [the author’s] best interest to have recipes that work.” Friedland has always been known for her ability to read a recipe and spot problems. “If it seemed very good or very bad, I would test it myself,” she says, though testing wasn’t one of her official duties. “In the author’s contract, we get a warranty that the recipes are original, and that they work.” Friedland, who writes cookbooks as well as edits a stellar list that includes Michael Romano, Patricia Wells, and Marcella Hazan, acknowledges that recipe testing isn’t the most interesting part of making a cookbook. “You just do it. You keep testing until you get it right,” she says.

Top-caliber authors tend to be very involved in all aspects of roducing their books, including the recipe testing. The question is how many publishers still want this kind of author—whose books take longer to produce and are priced higher. Judith Choate, who has collaborated on about 100 cookbooks (most recently with David Burke and Jim Botsacos of Molyvos) and written 20 of her own, points out a dangerous ripple effect that can be caused by celebrity chef hype. When the author is popular, the publishers want the book out fast (before Rocco does that next reality show, for example). The publisher’s focus can become less about providing solid recipes than selling more books.

Choate says that when she co-writes with a chef, she always requests “a good, solid home cook” to do the testing. To her mind, the most successful and instructive recipes are ones that have been attempted not by a chef used to restaurant equipment and who takes a good deal of knowledge for granted, but by someone who speaks the language of the average reader. Judith Jones, the legendary Random House editor (Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking launched her career in cookbooks in 1961) has a stunning position on the subject: “If you really want to know,” she says, “I don’t believe in recipe testing.” Jones sees cookbooks as an intimate conversations between professional and student. “To me, a recipe is not a formula exactly. It should empower you, especially to do something you’ve never attempted before,” she says. “I don’t want the interference of a recipe tester. It’s all so clinical and detached.”

So how does a consumer determine which cookbooks provide more inspiration than precision, which will soon be forgotten, and which will become part of the family, pages stuck together with egg wash and speckled with tomato seeds? For starters, beware of instant celebrities, especially when they’re churning out recipes like so much sausage meat. Also, you may want to wait for the second printing to come out, when all the mistakes in the first edition have been corrected. Friedland always has her authors keep a master copy of their published books and mark them up. “I would say, ‘When you have a handful of [corrections]—and you will!—send them back to us.’ ” After all, a tiny typo in a recipe can mean the difference between delicacy and disaster.