On Trusting Food Bloggers, Cookbook Authors and Their Recipes

How do you know if you can trust a recipe from a food blogger, a chef, or a cookbook author? Why do we trust some recipe authors more than others? And why do we not trust certain recipe authors at all?

We're inundated by food blogs, food websites and recipe aggregation sites these days. There are so many cookbooks out there, and more coming out every year, that it's almost funny. And they all seem to have some kind of marketing angle, food niche or some celebrity chef behind them in order to stand out from the pack.

And there's nothing more frustrating than trying a new recipe and having taste bad. It can take the fun out of cooking for weeks. No, months!

New cooks--those who haven't yet developed an eye for discerning good recipes from bad ones--are like lambs led to slaughter in this world.

But yet there are certain cooks and chefs I instinctively trust: writers and cookbook authors like Mollie Katzen, Paul Prudhomme and Jay Solomon, for example. Among food bloggers, I instinctively trust recipes from people like Dave at Food and Fire, Melissa at Alosha's Kitchen, Jules at Stonesoup, and Mike at Dad Cooks Dinner, just to name a few.

And then there are the cooks and food bloggers I instinctively don't trust: like Martha Stewart, or Shauna Ahern. Martha Stewart has a reputation for complex, often difficult, recipes. Shauna Ahern has an unfortunate reputation for publishing sloppy, error-ridden recipes.

I think it comes down to consistency. As circular as it may sound: if you're reliable, people will rely on you. They'll see you as a generally sound source of good recipes. This is what I'd like to have for my reputation here at Casual Kitchen. People know what they're predominantly going to get here: easy, healthy and laughably inexpensive recipes. Sure, not all readers will like all of my recipes, but the majority of readers should like the majority of my recipes... or else I'm doing it wrong.

I'd also add that the standards differ between regular bloggers and professionalized websites or cookbooks or magazines. Recipes from professionalized sites have test kitchens, editors, copy editors and fact-checkers: in other words, they have a staff of people who exist to check things over. This isn't to say that you'll never find a mistake in a professionalized publication, but the vast majority of mistakes will get caught and fixed.

Therefore, the professionalized realm is, and should be, less forgiving: If you publish a bad or error-ridden recipe on a professionalized media site, your reputation can suffer permanent harm.

I think this is why, for example, a widely-read food blogger like Shauna Ahern can catch heavy flack after publishing error-ridden recipes on professionalized food sites. Ahern's infamous "Potato-Mushroom Tart" on Martha Stewart's website is an object example: not only did it leave out "potatoes" in the ingredient list (an error several commenters quickly caught), but the savory recipe also accidentally included a sweet crust recipe containing cinnamon and sugar (an error that several commenters caught after having made the recipe, which apparently tasted awful). By the way, this recipe, and the Martha Stewart-affiliated website that contained it, have long since been deleted. But as we all know, the internet never forgets.

Look, nobody is saying everything must be perfect everywhere and always. But if you're publishing recipes on major media company websites, you (or the site publishing you, or ideally both) have an obligation to not post recipes with catastrophic errors in them. Don't you think?

Readers, how do you know who to trust when you read food blogs? How do you think about this issue?



For further reading:
1) Shauna Ahern's infamous and error-ridden Potato Mushroom Tart post, courtesy of the wayback machine.
It's quite interesting to read the comments--there's an entire a story arc there. First, a series of increasingly frustrated comments from readers who can't believe such a glaring error could exist in a recipe from a well-known food blogger on a Martha Stewart site no less. Next, days later, a response from a site editor. Then, yet another day later, a response/excuse from Shauna Ahern herself ("I'm not sure why people are so upset"). After that, a series of weird sockpuppet-like comments ("this recipe was delish!"). And then an intriguing meta-discussion of whether it's "mean" or "a personal attack" or "hate" to criticize a bad recipe on a major media company's food website. Really interesting on a few levels.

2) About a month later, Ahern published another highly suspect recipe, this time on The Food Network's website.

3) Not for the faint of heart, and don't go here if you have anything else to do today: A 1,391-page (and growing) thread on Shauna Ahern at the Get Off My Internets forum.


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10 comments:

Anonymous said...

To begin, this is the only food blog that I follow.
Second, I have dietary restrictions that I need to follow, so that takes the fun out of a lot of food blogs & recipes.
As a consequence, I catch a recipe here & there.

I usually cannot give credit to the originator because I put them in an e-mail file without the links so that I can "search" for something. I guess I've been lucky, not too many flops from my highly unscientific method of trying recipes (even those from Martha Stewart - 1 or 2 of her recipes is in heavy rotation at our house.)

chacha1 said...

This is the only food blog I follow, too. :-)

And to be honest I don't read for recipes. I am not at all in a foodie state of mind now, and while I did read around for a while when I was first starting to learn to cook (circa 2008-2011) I eventually arrived at a set of preparations that work fairly well for me, and don't experiment much.

Given that my raison d'etre en cuisine is that we have to eat, and not that I like to cook ... I read this blog for other reasons. :-)

If there is something particular I've thought about cooking, I'll do an internet search, find the simplest recipe, and then adapt it for my own purposes. I don't own a stand mixer or a food processor, so anything requiring those is out. Almost never follow a recipe exactly, almost never do anything resembling "baking," and almost never do anything classified as "roasting." Too hot, takes too much time, hate my oven, can't be arsed.

Melissa said...

I don't trust the same people you don't trust. Funny, that. I don't trust Martha Stewart on consensus; it seems like every time I google for a new recipe and she is in the results, the ratings are mediocre at best. Every time. That tells me her recipes are not good in practice for home cooks.

So how do I trust someone? My gut reaction to that is "I don't trust them; I trust ME." I consider myself very knowledgeable and practiced at this point and I know if a recipe is well-written and is going to turn out well and taste like something Steve and I would enjoy.

I don't follow a lot of food blogs these days, either, but the majority in my list are people I've known for 5 years or longer. I consider them friends. I know how intelligent, methodical, and diligent they all are in terms of publishing recipes that are clear, repeatable (the MOST important aspect), delicious, and, more often than not, quick and frugal.

But to follow someone new, for me, takes a lot. I think the most recent one on my list is Iowa Girl Eats, whom I have been reading for about two years maybe? When I first landed on her page (don't even remember how), I recall thinking how similarly she and I approach simple, healthy, one-pot type cooking. So I guess I look for people like me. HA.

Good post, Dan. Good food for thought.

(And I am obviously honored that you would include me in the "trusted" category. Thanks for that.)

Anonymous said...

I trust Rose Levy Beranbaum, even though her recipes are rather complicated--she explains the science and they work.

Anna said...

It is very frustrating when a recipe -- whether it comes from a blog or a book -- contains errors. It's like, come on, you had one job! In my opinion, there's no excuse for not proofreading recipes ruthlessly.

When it comes to food bloggers, I'm most inclined to trust the ones who describe their recipe development process. For example, Deb from Smitten Kitchen often mentions making multiple attempts to improve or streamline the recipes she posts. And Lisa of Homesick Texan often describes adapting recipes from her childhood to be healthier, use more fresh ingredients, etc. I have a lot more confidence in a food blogger if s/he appears to be approaching recipe development in an organized, systematic, thoughtful way.

Anonymous said...

I don't trust food blogger recipes, as most of them are amateur hacks. However I do like maangchi.com as I have no idea how to make Korean food, so if her recipes are off I can't tell anyway! Shauna's errors are ridiculous and her hostile response was not necessary.

Lisa Griffin said...

Ah, I am so glad you mentioned Gluten Free girl. Both my kids have celiac, so of course I found her website a few years ago. Sadly, very few of her recipes work and those that do just don't taste very good. Despite her using the word joy a whole lot on her website and on Twitter, she doesn't seem like a happy or healthy person. She seems very sad and victim-like so maybe there's something bigger going on in her life. I feel sorry for her. We're all stressed out and we're all working a lot, but the tone of her website has changed so much that I don't read her anymore or use her recipes. I like Smitten Kitchen's recipes (because they work), but I don't necessarily always like her writing. Sometimes it's just too much. And I'm not a fan of Orangette, either. Another good recipe site is Simply Recipes. Those dang things work every time and her food is delicious!

Sally said...

I enjoy reading about food and cooking, so I read a number of blogs. I agree with Lisa Griffin. I've never had a failure from Simply Recipes or Smitten Kitchen. I'm also not fond of Orangette. I've had success with recipes from Budget Bytes, Good Cheap Eats, Dinner: A Love Story, Mel's Kitchen Cafe, The Mom 100, and Brown Eyed Baker. I enjoy reading The Wednesday Chef, but rarely try her recipes.

I used to buy a lot of cookbooks but have gotten much more selective in recent years. I did a major purge and probably have less than 5% of what I used to have. I do like The Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. Like Simply Recipes and Smitten Kitchen, Ina Garten's recipes always work. But then I also like Better Homes & Gardens and Betty Crocker cookbooks as well as those that feature foods from the Mediterranean or Mediterranean/American foods.

I haven't tried a lot of recipes from Martha Stewart, but those I have tried have been successful -- and not long and complicated. Her Everyday Food magazine was one of my favorites.

More and more I go for simple recipes. I don't care if something takes a long time to cook as long as it doesn't call for a list of ingredients as long as my arm and many steps. Using few pots/pans is a good thing, too. I don't want to use more than two pans for a meal, so any dish that calls for more than one is pretty much out of the running. You would think I would like Stonesoup, but for reasons I can't explain, I don't. There's something about it that just turns me off.

Sally said...

One of the only recipes from Orangette that I like: http://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/pomodori-al-forno

Lise Karpel said...

It's funny, I don't get so upset over a failed recipe that I would be reluctant to cook again "for months" but it is irritating to spend money on costly ingredients and then not be able to salvage a meal from your efforts. I will usually give an author or blogger one or two shots. If the recipes don't work out I don't generally get pissed off but I probably will go back to my old standbys who have proved to be reliable time and time again. I can say without hesitation that Nicole Hunn (gluten-free on a Shoestring) has been one of my favorite gluten-free bloggersfor quite some time now! I've also enjoyed Vegan Richa and a number of others...there are many excellent excellent recipes out there! I always find it helpful when there are lots of comments as well. Often times the commentary is what prompts me to try a recipe or not.