Lies My Cookbook Told Me

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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21 Responses

  1. Jason, when you add in the milk (or cream) to the heated roux, is the milk heated first? I’ve had better results mixing cold milk into my warm roux and then heating the mixture. Flour clumps more when it encounters hot liquid than cold.Report

  2. Jihard says:

    I read halfway through the post before realizing this wasn’t some grand critique of popular conceptions of predatory lending.Report

  3. Pat Cahalan says:

    Cooks Illustrated. Nothing else comes close.Report

  4. LawMonkey says:

    I have discovered a new excuse for why I can’t cook.Report

  5. zic says:

    I really recommend Richard Olney’s “Simple French Food.”

    And Transplanted Lawyer’s right — add the milk or cream cold. (Trick to rue’s, if the rue’s cold, the liquid most be hot; if the rue’s warm, the liquid must be cold.)Report

  6. Jaybird says:

    It took me three months of screwing around with stovetop custard until my custard would actually set.

    I had to put up with online recipes that lied to me as well as people who told me that I should just bake my custard.


    I kept making proper eggy sauces but never custard, thanks to the cookbooks I had.

    I suspect that this is the real reason behind book burnings.Report

    • Debbie says:


      I can’t remember how many batches of failed rice pudding I threw out over the years. I tried just about every recipe from my cookbooks but couldn’t understand how I kept taking warmed, milky pans of goop out of the oven. It wasn’t until I read an article in The Atlantic several years ago about rice pudding and saw the words “it will thicken as it stands.” Not a single one of my cookbooks stated that; they only said to cook for 3 hours and to serve warm or cold. Now I wait 5-6 hours, and it’s fine. So much for clear instructions.

      If you ever want an explanation of why things do or don’t work in cooking, Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking” is a classic reference. It explains the science behind just about everything to do with cooking, and it’s very readable and easy to understand.Report

  7. I would agree with Transplanted Lawyer – I always add the milk cold. Never have any problems. I think the trick for me is that the butter and flour have to be completely combined and the milk has to be added slowly. Even if there’s a bit of clumping though, I can usually knock it out with some vigorous whisking.

    A bechamel is the key ingredient for our signature Louisville dish, the Hot Brown but I find I make it much more often these days as the start of a killer mac & cheese recipe.Report

  8. E.D. Kain says:

    This is why I just wing everything.Report

  9. Ivan Maminta says:

    I find a recipe is only a theme, which an intelligent cook can play each time with a variation. — Madame Benoit

    Cookbooks don’t lie. Julia Child’s bechamel is a classic French Recipe. It’s the technique of whisking that gets rid of the lumps. Letting in all the milk at once tempers the roux and prevents it from overcooking. As for the temperature, hot into cold or vise versa.
    As for James Beard’s Mayo, you have a point there. True mayonnaise recipes call for egg yolks alone, allowing it to be blended with lemon in 5 seconds.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki says:

      @Ivan Maminta,

      But you can’t have it both ways. Either you do the hot/cold technique, or else you follow the “classic French recipe.” Doing it hot/cold purportedly won’t yield any lumps to whisk out. (And have you ever tried to whisk out lumps? Might as well sieve out the oxygen from water.)

      And as to the mayonnaise, even just using the yolks won’t work if all you do is blend for 5 seconds. Trust me, I’ve tried that, too.Report

  10. La louve says:

    I don’t particularly believe that cookbooks lie. The cooks who employ these methods are simply saying that this is what works for them. There are too many factors that affect the outcome of these recipes: how you whisk (as in speed and even the angle at which you hold the whisk) to what sort of blender you use. A stick blender versus the usual blender sometimes is the trick for some people, or vice versa for others. Even the brand/model you use is a factor because they’re all rather different in my opinion. You may have a point with James Beard’s mayo; the technique seems faulty. However, I can’t say that cookbooks really lie. Honestly, most people who love to cook versus bake like it because it can be tweaked more easily. Therefore, when approaching a recipe from a cookbook, you could tweak it as necessary. Not all methods work for everyone. While it’s true that most people expect a recipe’s outcome to be consistent, sometimes the directions are just not clear enough (though not always to the fault of the author). I’ve always been wary of this problem myself but I find that a recipe should be tested by you more than once. I typically do not make something from a recipe I haven’t tried out a couple times before for a dinner party; I typically stick to tried and true recipes for those occasions to minimize the stress of wondering why this sauce came apart or why something else went wrong and how I could try to fix it.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki says:

      As I said, the bit about lying was facetious. It was just too good a play on Lies My Teacher Told Me. I couldn’t pass it up.Report

    • Plinko says:

      If you want to learn technique, go for Harold McGee. His explanations of the ‘why’ behind how cooking works can be a godsend if you’re trying to understand why doing things a particular way works. If he’s too science-y then I like Mark Bittman. If he’s not fun enough, then Alton Brown.
      I think he old Mastershave a problem of things being so ingrained with them that it’s hard to actually explain how and why they do things to people who aren’t trained.

      (I also do bechamel cold into hot and slowly, btw.)Report

  11. Rufus F. says:

    I’m not up to sauces yet, having really only perfected mashed potatoes, and that with great help from a chef friend of mine. I am, though, very happy to read about cooking here, since I’ve been wanting to post about beer for some time and was worried the topic might be too apolitical for the League. Also I fully intend to try this recipe out. Lastly, I laughed out loud at the post title.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki says:

      @Rufus F.,

      Seeing the interest, I’ll definitely post more about food in the future.

      The next time you make mashed potatoes, top them with Béchamel sauce, flavored with some minced shallots, sautéed until transparent, and a generous grating of both black pepper and nutmeg. Use red-skinned potatoes; leave the skin on for color and texture.

      I’d make potatoes that way all the time, but for the lactose intolerance in my house. Lactaid-based Béchamel is too sweet to use as anything but the base for a dessert sauce. Even adding lots of very sharp cheese doesn’t help.Report

      • Boegiboe says:

        @Jason Kuznicki, “I’d make potatoes that way all the time, but for the lactose intolerance in my house.”
        Lactose BIGOTRY, you mean!
        Jason once said that I tolerate lactose like Fred Phelps tolerates gays.Report

  12. Simon K says:

    I think its down to the cook testing in many cases. Recipe publishers employ people to check that the recipes can actually be executed in a normal home kitchen with one oven, four burners, a sensible number of pans, and above all, only one cook. Most cookbook authors are professionals who are used to having multiple cooks, each with their own station and almost endless supplies of pans. The translation can be tricky. I’m pretty sure the mayonaisse thing comes down to cook testing – a commercial kitchen blender probably can make mayo in 5 seconds. Not sure about the bechemal, though.

    Cook testing is expensive. My personal conspiracy theory is that this explains the move away from technically complicated French food which is quite hard to make decent recipes for, towards quick non-really-Italian/Asian food thats much easier to make recipes for (and cook) in the cookbook market.

    I like the French Laundry cookbook – its makes no pretense to being something you could cook from in a regular kitchen. The recipes are broken down the way they would be in a commercial kitchen – by station and with prep separated from final cooking.Report