Cook from enough cookbooks, and you’ll have the experience of following a recipe and being disappointed in the results, whether it’s dough that never rises, cookies that spread too thin during baking, or flavorless pot roast. If you’re a cookbook author—the person ultimately in charge of making sure the recipes work—you don’t want to hear complaints from readers, but, as prolific cookbook author Rick Rodgers told PW, sometimes “bad recipes happen to good people.” How to handle reader complaints is up for debate. Many authors are content to run corrected versions of any problematic recipes in subsequent printings; others post guidance on their Web sites. But one prominent cookbook author is taking a more proactive approach to addressing criticism.
Erin McKenna, author of last spring’s popular BabyCakes: Vegan, (Mostly) Gluten-Free, and (Mostly) Sugar-Free Recipes from New York's Most Talked-About Bakery (Clarkson Potter), received widespread acclaim for her tasty treats and stylish approach, but many home cooks had trouble with her book’s recipes. Marika Collins, who writes the blog Madcap Cupcake, wrote about her trials with BabyCakes’s recipes for spelt biscuits (wet dough; flat biscuits), gingerbread (undercooked, despite baking an 30 additional minutes), vanilla frosting (greasy), chocolate chip cookies (melted into one giant cookie), and ginger-peach corn muffins (raw and “sunken”). Collins calls herself “an experienced baker who is familiar with alternative ingredients,” says she’s “good at reading instructions,” and that she “read the book cover to cover, with particular attention paid to the section on measuring. In fact I followed the instructions to the letter.” Posts from readers on the BabyCakes blog reveal similar issues. And at Food52's Piglet cookbook tournament two weeks ago, judge Helen Rosner, books editor at Eat Me Daily, said she chose Well-Preserved by Eugenia Bone over BabyCakes because BabyCakes’ “maddeningly vague ingredient lists,” “inconvenient timelines” and “surprising expense.”
On November 4, McKenna responded by posting a video online, in which she teaches a friend who failed at making BabyCakes’s banana bread the correct way to follow the recipe. “For my reputation, I wanted to clear the air,” McKenna told PW. “We were getting such mixed reviews from customers. Some people would buy the book and send us pictures of what they did and it was perfect. Other people were posting on Amazon about the recipes and saying they’re all wrong, and they don’t work, and the book is a piece of trash.” McKenna said the video (pictured, right) was meant to be “a clever way to get people to understand a few things they needed to be clear on,” such as using her preferred brand of flour and melting coconut oil before adding it to the batter.
Some chefs and cookbook authors—including Thomas Keller (who nevertheless told PW his chocolate chip cookies didn’t turn out well when he made them in his sister’s oven), Mark Peel and Lucinda Scala Quinn—said they have never had readers complain that their recipes don’t work. But Rick Rodgers (pictured, left), who has written more than 30 cookbooks (most recently Tips Cooks Love: Over 500 Tips, Techniques, and Shortcuts That Will Make You a Better Cook, written with Sur La Table and published by Andrews McMeel), said any cookbook author who says they haven’t published recipes with errors is “fibbing or qualified for sainthood. There is human error.” Rodgers posts any necessary corrections to his recipes on his Web site. However, Rodgers said, sometimes cookbook authors write books quickly and therefore make mistakes. He tests all his recipes himself. So does Amy Scherber, who is in the process of updating her 1996 cookbook, Amy’s Bread. Wiley will published the new, revised edition in February, and Scherber tested every one of the book’s recipes in an apartment with non-professional equipment.
Rica Allannic, a senior editor at Clarkson Potter who edited this fall’s Momofuku and The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern said the onus to test recipes is on authors, but that Potter has provisions in its contracts that stipulate testing recipes in a home oven and not a professional one. “Our authors test. We edit. And if something happens we do our best to address it,” she said, noting that mistakes are “pretty rare.” And if a cookbook author’s book is riddled with problematic recipes? “They’re not getting another book, that’s for sure. And their cookbook career is probably over.”
This story originally appeared in Cooking the Books, PW's e-newsletter for cookbooks.