Editors’ Choices for Cookbooks

beginning month 6 of staying at home; books are my friends; thank goodness for the public library; brief review of “Samarkand” by Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford; ridiculous recipe conventions; water is so an ingredient; reluctance to change from measurements by volume to metric weight; art directors’ decisions based on looks rather than content; going postal; yet another rant;

It has now been more than 5 months that we have been “staying at home”. Yes, we can leave the house to go for walks and bicycle rides. And we can also go to stores – as long as we wear our masks and stay at least 2 meters away from anyone not in our bubble. And the library is now lending hardcover books with curb-side pickup only. But it looks like I might be losing what’s left of my mind.

Samarkand Cover A couple of weeks ago, when the library finally started the curb-side pickup for hardcopy books, we borrowed a copy of “Samarkand: Recipes & Stories from Central Asia & The Caucasus” by Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford.

Samarkand—the turquoise city
For centuries, the fabled city Samarkand has been a magnet for merchants, travellers, and conquerors. Its name resonates like those of only a handful of other ancient cities, perhaps Babylon, Rome, or Jerusalem. Say it out loud and it rolls off the tongue: Samarkand. It is seductive.
– Caroline Eden, Introduction, p7

It is the most wonderful book about the “inextricable link between food and travel” and the delicious offerings from Central Asia with its “dazzling bazaars, golden bread, and a blanket of stars“. The photographs – which include tantalizing views of various places in Central Asia and the Caucasus mostly taken by Caroline Eden, Eleanor Ford, or Christopher Herwig, as well as Laura Edward’s stunningly beautiful food shots – draw you in, but Caroline Eden’s essays and Eleanor Ford’s recipes hold you there.

The book is only available in hardcover. There is no paperback (not even trade paperback) or e-book version. To look at, on first glance and leafing through, the book is beautiful and appears perfectly laid out.

However, peering in closer to actually read the book, it turns out that Caroline Eden’s essays are printed in a rather small not-quite-black font on a medium-grey background. The index, printed on the same medium-grey background, is even harder to read because the font is tiny. Mercifully, most of the recipes (which are well laid out, with clear and concise instructions) are printed in the same size and coloured font on an off-white background. That light background makes all the difference.

But a handful of the recipes are printed on a background of a photograph of fabric – linen or silk. Sure, the pages look beautiful. Indeed, the fabric examples are often beautifully woven, printed and/or embroidered. But, once again, an enthusiastic art director has neglected to realize that the content is the most important part of this particular book.

Recipe Detail from 'Samarkand' by Eleanor Ford

We have bookmarked several recipes. These are the ones that we think we neeeeeeeed to try first:

  • p.134 Melting Potatoes with Dill
  • p.140 Roasted Cauliflower with Pistachio and Tarragon
  • p.144 Green Beans with Hazelnut Tarator
  • p.147 Glazed Beets and Greens
  • p.152 Non (“Non is the flatbread that is made the length and breadth of Central Asia” – Eleanor Ford)
  • p.156 Uzbek Pumpkin Manti with Sour Tomato Sauce
  • p.160 Kyrgyz Swirled Onion Flatbread

It is lepyoshka to the Russians and çörek to the Turkmen, but to the Uzbeks and Tajiks, it is simply “non” (the word is Persian, but it is often transliterated as naan, and pronounced nahn). Right across Central Asia, these golden discs of bread are served at every meal along with steaming cups of chai.
– Caroline Eden, Baking Non Bread, p.151

Warning!! Warning!! mouth-foaming rant ahead
:stomp: (so what else is new?) :stomp:

Here is what got me going: The “1/2 cup of cold water” – which is absolutely essential to the success of the bread – is missing from the ingredients list for the Non recipe on page 153 of Samarkand. And yet an unspecified quantity of oil is included in the list.

There don’t seem to be a lot of recipe writing handbooks out there (or not that I could find by searching on the internet and on the public library website…). But there are two or three references from the late 20th century and early 21st century that are referred to often.

Perhaps the editors for Samarkand were following the ridiculous convention to omit water from a recipe’s ingredients list and only include it in the instructions….

I also suspect that the decision to omit the water from recipe ingredients lists is from lazy cookbook editors getting only as far as “Water, considered to be readily available, is usually omitted from the ingredient list” in The Recipe Writer’s Handbook by Jane L Baker and Barbara G Ostmann, or “Because water does not have to be purchased, it is always omitted from the ingredients are called for” in Recipes Into Type: A Handbook for Cookbook Writers and Editors by Joan Whitman and Dolores Simon, and neglecting to read just a little further.

Water, considered to be readily available, is usually omitted from the ingredient list when an unspecified amount is needed, such as for rinsing an ingredient, cooking pasta, or covering a vegetable before boiling. Water is usually listed when it is a specific ingredient, such as when a specific measure is given, something is dissolved in the water, or when the water is modified in some way, such as cold, hot, warm, or lukewarm.
– Jane L Baker and Barbara G Ostmann, The Recipe Writer’s Handbook, Revised and Expanded, ISBN: 0471405450 (ISBN13: 9780471405450)
Because water does not have to be purchased, it is always omitted from the ingredients are called for, such as for boiling pasta, for covering a vegetable or another ingredient with water and then bringing it to a boil, for adding to a pan to surround custards, etc.
      There is disagreement, however, about listing water when the amount is essential to the dish, when the water must be at a specific temperature and when something must be dissolved in it and thus becomes part of the final dish. We recommend that such specific amounts of water be listed so that the cook will know to measure it and have it ready when called for in the instructions.
– Joan Whitman and Dolores Simon, Recipes Into Type: A Handbook for Cookbook Writers and Editors, ISBN: 1892526018 (ISBN13: 9781892526014)
I’m going to try, and –yes– to nitpick. Such is the job of an editor. […] I thought you might want to know about the most common mistakes. […]

  • 5. Listing water as an ingredient. Just bring it up in the method and state the amount. Such as “Add 1 cup of ice water, a few splashes at a time, until the dough comes together.”

– Dianne Jacob, …will write for food | 7 Most Common Recipe Writing Errors
Typically, water is not used in the ingredients list, because it is not considered something that must be prepared in advance.
– Dianne Jacob, ‘Mastering the Art of Recipe Writing’, Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing, ISBN: 0738218057 (ISBN13: 9780738218052), p 195

Speaking of nitpicking: Since when are things that don’t have to be prepared in advance not considered essential to a recipe?

We don’t prepare salt in advance either, do we? And, while it isn’t piped directly into our houses, most kitchens have salt readily available.

That means that following Dianne Jacob’s logic, the only ingredient to be listed in a typical basic sourdough bread recipe would be flour. :stomp: :stomp:

How much sense would that make?

Can we please have water listed as an ingredient when it IS an ingredient? Can we please spell that out?

And don’t even get me started on weights vs. volume!

Oops. Too late…. :lalala:

The Samarkand Non Bread recipe on page 152 calls for cups of flour, teaspoons of dried yeast, salt, sugar and spices, and an unspecified amount of oil. Note that the oil is NOT included in the bread dough at all and is only used to oil the rising bowl and for brushing on top of the shaped bread just before baking.

For measurements, please just use standardized weights, preferably metric (ounces are considerably larger than grams, so often have to be presented in fractions of an ounce), and offer a link or page number to conversion charts?

Here’s what the Recipe Writing experts have to say about this:

Giving more than one way to measure an ingredient (such as 1 small apple, about 1/2 cup chopped) decreases guesswork, thus ensuring confidence. It also provides clarification.
– Barbara G Ostmann and Janet L Baker, The Recipe Writer’s Handbook, Revised and Expanded, p.8
In baking, know the difference between liquid and dry measure. Do not use a scale to measure ingredients, even if you think it’s more accurate, unless you are a baker and your publisher has agreed. […] American home cooks do not use scales to measure flour. Most do not use the metric system either, so keep measurements in cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons, unless you are writing for an international audience on your blog, or your publisher has requested metric measurements.
– Dianne Jacob, ‘Mastering the Art of Recipe Writing’, Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing, p 192

Sigh. Why are we incapable of using a scale to measure ingredients? Even when we’re not baking! And. Is it true that American cooks do not use scales to measure flour?

A scale is so much easier to use, and so much more accurate than cups and spoons! (Note that I didn’t used to measure by weight either and was quite resistant to it….)

But, even a spring scale is pretty easy to use. Digital scales take up very little room and are not insanely expensive. They’re certainly within reach for the marble countertop, microwave oven, high-tech espresso machine, and fancy electric stand mixer crowd.

It’s one thing for me to use cups and spoons in my own kitchen. I can be fairly certain of consistency from one day to the next.

But how can I follow other people’s cup and spoon measures? I don’t know what size their cups and spoons are. Nor do I know how much their flour is packed down in its bag.

Personally, I far prefer bread recipes that have their measurements in grams. I can tolerate the recipes if the measurements are by volume only, because they are relatively easy (with the help of GourmetSleuth) to translate from volume to metric weight …as long as I know whether they volumes are US volumes or UK volumes.

(On the other hand, just to be contrary, because the degrees are smaller, I’m starting to prefer Fahrenheit scale for temperatures, even though freezing point of water is inexplicably at 32F instead of 0C, and the boiling point of water is equally inexplicable at 212F instead of 100C.)

<mouthfoaming-rant>But it’s the recipes that are in a mixture of spoons and weights in ounces that really bother me, with spoons for the small measurements like salt (which sends me into fits because salt grains can vary so drastically) and ounces for the larger things like flour and water (which also sends me into more fits because it’s often not clear whether the recipe author is measuring the water in fluid ounces and just not bothering with adding “fluid” because it might seem obvious AND not taking into account that a US fluid ounce is different from an Imperial fluid ounce). Don’t even remind me about “stick of” this and “pinch of” that.</mouthfoaming-rant>

For volume measures of flour, it all depends on how packed down the flour is in the bag, and how the cup is filled. A while back – before we got a digital scale – I did a completely unscientific study (I did not weigh hundreds of half cups of flour…) to compare the weights listed on the flour bags with what I pulled out of the bag in a half cup measure and weighed on our inexpensive kitchen spring scale:

bag stats for ½ c wholewheat flour = 62gm (on my spring scale: 55-60gms using ‘fluff-spoon-level’ OR 70gm using ‘fluff-scoop-level’ methods of putting wholewheat flour in the cup)
bag stats for ½ c unbleached allpurpose flour = 66 gm (on spring my scale: 70gm using ‘fluff-spoon-level’ OR 80gm using ‘fluff-scoop-level’ methods of putting unbleached allpurpose flour in the cup)
bag stats for ½ c rye flour = 85 gm (on my spring scale: 58gms using ‘fluff-scoop-level’ method of putting rye flour in the cup)

The results are similar for salt.

…weight measures for the win!

Our Scales

Further Stomping :stomp:

There was quite a long discussion in 2010 on Dianne Jacob’s blog about whether water should be included in a recipe’s ingredients list. Alas, it appears that the comments for that post are now closed. Otherwise, as late as I am to that particular party, I would have commented there.

Having been one of the people reluctant to switch from volume to weight measures (mostly because I’m a cheap skate and didn’t want to buy a digital scale), I really hope that in the next edition of Dianne Jacob’s book “Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing”, she will make a major revision to say that unless the recipes are being written exclusively for resistant-to-change American readers, the ingredients list should be in metric weights as well as internationally standardized cup and spoon volume measures.

Also, I’d like to see her remove her rash statement that ingredients should not be measured by weight. Why not?? How hard can it be?

Maybe by a miracle, Dianne Jacob will see this diatribe so she can have a chance to try to justify her position.

Here is the post in question:

And. One more thing. How is it that two English women seem required to use the American Standards (and spelling!! – “flavors” instead of “flavours”, “colored” instead of “coloured”, “travelers” instead of “travellers”, etc. etc.) for their book of Central Asian recipes published in the UK?


edit 22 August 2020: :stomp: even more foaming at the mouth: :stomp:

Looking at the publication, How to Write a Recipe, Publication FST-155NP (pdf): from Virginia Tech | Virginia Cooperative Extension programs, there is no mention at all about omitting water from the ingredients list. Under the Ingredients List heading, the first item is:
List ingredients in the order they are used

In What’s Cooking America | What is a Recipe – What is Mise en Place, there is zero mention of omitting water if it is an ingredient:
A well-written recipe will list all ingredients in the order they will be added in the Preparation Instructions.

When searching for pages about recipe ingredients lists, Sharon Palmer’s (The Plant-Powered Dietitian) page came up first. She wrote the following in her Rules for Good Recipe Writing
The ingredients list is one of the most important parts of a recipe, and it should be listed in the order that it will appear in the directions list. Make sure to be specific and list exact amounts needed

And yet, unbelievably, Danielle Walsh wrote the following for Bon Appétit | What Does a Recipe Editor Do, Anyway? Here’s how a Bon Appétit recipe gets edited, step by step on 10 September 2014:
Fun fact: Water is not included in our ingredient lists, since it’s a resource that’s presumably always available. If you don’t have ready access to water, you might not want to be cooking at all.

Fun Fact?!! :stomp: :stomp:
How does ready access to water figure into it? You still need to get all your ingredients together before starting!

But here is the kicker. If you are planning to list your ingredients for selling your product, according to the Food and Drug Administration of the USA, you must list water:
Water, when used as an ingredient of a fabricated food, including water used to reconstitute concentrated or dried ingredients, should be declared on the label as an ingredient.

As far as I can understand from trying to decipher on Government of Canada | List of ingredients and allergens on food labels, this is the case for Canada as well:
Components (definition) (ingredients of ingredients) must be declared by their common name as part of the list of ingredients.
For example:
A jar of unsweetened apple sauce is made of reconstituted apple purée without any added sweetening agent. The ingredient list on the jar would be declared as follows:
Ingredients: Apples • Water • Ascorbic acid

And finally, when taking a look at Justin Schwartz’s (JustCookNYC) lovely recipe writing cheat sheet he posted in April 2011, I was heartened to see in his 20 point list absolutely no mention or hint of the bizarre notion of omitting water from the ingredients list simply because it’s readily available. Anywhere.

Even though I work in book publishing, I blog for fun myself, so I say this with only the best of intentions. I think some of you need a few more recipe writing pointers. Wait, fix that — I think you just need a cheat sheet. […] Copy it. Print it out. Tape it next to your computer screen for when you’re writing recipes. And follow it until it becomes second nature. […]

  1. List all of the ingredients together at the top of the recipe, rather than interspersing them through the directions.
  2. List every ingredient in the ingredients list that is used in the directions.
  3. List the ingredients to match the exact order they are used in the directions.
  4. Pro Tip: If you add multiple ingredients at once, list them from biggest to smallest measure.
  5. Offer substitutions for unusual ingredients or else people might just omit them completely.
  6. Explain unusual ingredients in the headnote, if possible.
  7. – 20. […]

– Justin Schwartz, JustCookNYC | recipe writing cheat sheet (justcooknyc.com/justcook-nyc-1/2011/04/14/recipe-writing-cheat-sheet)


Ha! Talk about going postal!

Grandpa's 'Superior Postal Scale'


There will be no guesswork in our kitchen.
Ms. H—–, my sister’s grade 10 home-ec teacher


This entry was posted in baking, food & drink, rant, whine on by .

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1 response to “Editors’ Choices for Cookbooks


    I was making our dinner tonight, Grilled Chicken Salad with Creamy Tahini Dressing, as I was talking on the phone (I like to play a little game called “guess what I’m making for dinner!” with one of my sisters). I wondered aloud why the tahini dressing was so gloppy. I interrupted myself to look at the instructions only to find the words ‘slowly whisk in up to 1/2 cup water….”. Why, why, why isn’t ~1/2 cup water in the ingredients list? This is a recipe I make fairly often so you’d think I’d remember but no. Now, I’ve added it to the ingredients list so next time I’m chatting and not really paying attention to what I’m doing, I’ll have it ready to add.

    edit 22 August 2020, 13:07: Shriek!! It makes zero sense for the editors to omit the water from the ingredients list, especially when it is so necessary to the final product. Sure, leave it out if the instructions say something like “if the dressing seems too thin, add a few drops of water”. But if it calls for 1/2 cup?! It drives me crazy that people are following a rule that seems to have been created by one opinionated editor some time in the 20th century. I really wish I knew who it was. I would punish that person with a sentence of being required to sit for several hours on one of those old-style stacking chairs with the curvy seats that are so prevalent in church basements, community centers, and public school assembly halls.
    I started to go on much further here in the comments area, but I had too many links that wouldn’t appear because of the stringent rules I have in place for comments. Therefore, I edited that actual post. Scroll up to “edit 22 August 2020” in the actual post for even more foaming at the mouth.


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