Our feeble excuse: Working with newspaper deadlines, a few mistakes are inevitable. Besides, a newspaper costs a lot less than a cookbook. And corrections can be made the very next week if necessary. It takes months, sometimes years, to get a cookbook published--and there's no one to complain to when a recipe doesn't work out. Short of a recall--or waiting until the next printing--publishers can't correct even the mistakes they'll admit to.
In 1977, Random House published a cookbook, "Woman's Day Crockery Cuisine" by Sylvia Vaughn Thompson, with a recipe for "Silky Caramel Slices" that recommended placing an "unopened can" of condensed milk in the crockpot and then covering and cooking on high, four hours. Six months later, a Random House employee tried the recipe--the can blew up after two hours, shattering the glass lid and liner. Urgent warnings about the recipe were dispatched to the media the following Monday. Ten thousand copies had already been sold; the remaining 2,000 to 3,000 were recalled from bookstores. It was considered a publishing first at the time.
In 1991, Ballantine recalled Carole Walter's "Great Cakes," because it recommended decorating a dessert with lily-of-the-valley. After the book was published, someone pointed out that eating the flower can cause symptoms ranging from upset stomach to irregular heart beat and other circulatory problems. After a corrected edition was published and re-released, the book won a James Beard award.
While cookbook publishers claim to care about accuracy in recipes, most are unwilling to spend the money to make sure the recipes actually work. In a standard publishing contract, the responsibility of recipe testing is left up to the writers--the money comes out of their advances.
A good book can depend on how hard a worker the author is. Some swear they test and retest. Others say it's futile: Not only are you trying to communicate results to a readership that can't bake a cake, but you don't have the same flour, the same pan, the same stove, the same anything as a home cook.
"Sometimes I have to abandon a recipe because I can't make it consistently enough," says Barbara Kafka, author of "Microwave Gourmet" and two other cookbooks. "I'm working with veal for a new book and I found a variation in quality. I tested a recipe with veal from a butcher, then I retested it with veal from a supermarket near my house and then with veal from a supermarket not in New York. The quality was so different and made the results so variable that I'll have to tell people to either buy really good veal or not use the recipe."
Not only that, but she still has to put the recipe into words her readers will understand. "I assume people pretty much know how to do certain things like cut and chop. Otherwise it's a judgment call each time I write a recipe," says Kafka. "I'm never going to get total precision. One man's simmer is another man's slow boil."
That's especially true for cookbooks put out by restaurant chefs. It's no easy feat adapting restaurant cooking so that it can actually be used by a home cook, and very few chef-writers are successful at it. The home cook seldom has the equipment or support staff found in professional kitchens. Nor does he or she have a stock pot full of veal bones simmering on the back of the stove, an essential ingredient in most restaurants, which contributes a huge amount of flavor to dishes.
Also, the quantities and procedures used in restaurants are entirely different: Professional chefs seldom measure, and they test for doneness by using their senses, not strict cooking times. On top of that, very few chefs are writers.
"I've noticed that chefs and other professional types who aren't writers very often choose to work with people who also are not writers. . . . Relatives, friends, business associates, all kinds of people who aren't the right person," says Bantam cookbook editor Fran McCullough. "And while they can, with a little coaching from an agent, get together a pretty credible-looking proposal, sometimes what you end up getting is a big surprise."
Another problem: In today's society, where three in five woman are in the work force (contrasted with one in three in 1950), authors and publishers can no longer assume a cookbook buyer knows how to cook. The majority simply want a way to put a decent meal on the table when they come home from work at night.
This means that not every cooking failure can be blamed on bad recipes. A lot depends on the expertise and knowledge of the cook.
"The results you get by touching and smelling and seeing is what nobody knows anymore," says McCullough. "Their grandmother didn't teach them, their mother didn't teach them and they haven't a clue. So even if it's imprecise, I like my authors to say, 'about 10 minutes or until such and such happens.' "