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FoodBUG: Thoughts on a Failed Recipe...


Isn't that a lovely loaf of sweet bread?

I was experimenting one night and swapped a single ingredient around in a quick bread recipe that I use regularly with great success. It wasn't even a big switch, damned near the equivalent of changing beer brands in beer bread, but it was apparently the exact wrong thing.

An overwhelming yeasty one-note 'aroma' gave way to a crumb that was somehow both gummy and dry and a profoundly bitter taste. There was no yeast and nearly a cup of sugar in one loaf, and the gummy/dry thing is just baffling. I literally took one bite and threw the rest away.

A blogger friend saw the photo and said, "You know, some people would just post the recipe...I mean it looks good." I got another note moments later saying "JUST KIDDING! Please don't tell anyone I said that." so I am not naming names.  glares at @redacted

This got me thinking about the less deliberate recipe failures that hit print and what heck is the bar for publishing recipes (and other things) anyway and what happens when the inevitable screwups happen. And they will...

Foodbug1In the decades I have been writing professionally, I've had mistakes hit print for a variety of reasons: I slipped on a fact, a copyedit inadvertantly changed meaning, layout chopped an image and (one of my favorites) an editor's last minute global search and replace that went a bit awry. Old-fashioned dead-tree authors have an actual permanent record; worse, other people get to edit what goes into it.

Recipes are fraught with opportunities to go sideways. A typo in the measurements, a vague description of when a baked item is done, or an incorrect oven temperature (few people have a calibrated oven) can derail a recipe entirely. Incorrect assumptions about reader knowledge or availability of ingredients can also lead to failure in the kitchen.

I like the ability to correct those things when they crop up here. No errata or waiting for next printing needed. Another help is the interaction with other cooks who actually made the recipes at home. I have learned over the years that flour in the Pacific Northwest often has an extra bit of moisture, requiring tweaks in bread recipes. When I don't mention when to use an ingredient, someone points it out. I appreciate every comment, be it compliment or critique. My recipes, here and in Picture Yourself Cooking With Your Kids, are better for the feedback.

The idea behind the failed bread is still a tempting one, though, so it's back to the drawing board. While I do that, you should make sure you aren't taken in by a tempting picture of a failed recipe. Here are a few things I use to judge web sites and their associated recipes:

  • Get your recipes from sites that earn your trust. Did the last two recipes from that site work? The next one is probably going to as well. From the other side, I give recipe developers ~3 strikes before I bail on them. Ask friends whose recipes they like and pay attention to lesser-known names, they are often great finds.
  • Educate yourself so you know roughly what the recipe you are looking at should look like. There are, for example, general ratios and methods for baked goods. Are there weird ingredients (or missing ones) that don't fit with the desired end result? Creativity is one thing, but fundamentals of structure and flavor should look right. If you have no idea what a 'standard' version of a recipe is, search and look at a few for comparison.
  • Adapted recipes are not original recipes. There are a few sites that I read because I like how the writers think about adapting recipes, changing flavors in original ways, for example, while maintaining a great base dish. At least one of those sites also has original recipes, none of which is even the least bit appealing. I don't know why this is the case, but it is a great reminder that people who are not so good at one thing probably excel at another.
  • Good recipes are not a function of being a well-known writer. There are celebrity chefs and extremely popular bloggers alike with a reputation for recipes that fail and unknowns who turn out one winner after another. Keep in mind that feedback left on a site not controlled by the recipe creator (meaning not their personal site) can be extremely useful. Amazon 2-4 star reviews, for example, can be really helpful in that they tend to include nuance, like whether or not the recipes work, rather than love or hate for the entire book.
  • Comments can be useful but keep in mind that "That looks delicious!" is relatively meaningless compared to "I made this and it is delicious." Funny how once you start paying attention to this difference, there seem to be far fewer relevant comments. (I'm not dissing "looks delicious" and would never delete a friendly "Looks great!" but it doesn't tell me much.)
  • If there are only positive comments on a site, the site owner is most likely censoring out any negative feedback. This is not only surprisingly common in foodblogging, it is what is sold as "how it is done" by far too conferences and so-called experts. Nobody's recipes work every time, even if only because eventually someone will misread the recipe and use baking soda instead of baking powder. Call me suspicious but if only positive comments are allowed, I start to suspect the censor is hiding something...

How do you tell a good recipe from a bad one? Share your best tips for not getting burned in the comments here; I promise I won't censor you. (Comments are moderated so they don't show up immediately. Don't worry, it got saved)

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