Food Safety

Where Most Best-Selling Cookbooks Go Wrong

March 29, 2017

Are your favorite cookbooks skimping on food safety? Well, the results of a study published on Monday and released in the British Food Journal were pretty dispiriting.

Ben Chapman, a professor of Agricultural and Human Sciences at North Carolina State, teamed up with researchers to analyze over 1,497 recipes from 29 different cookbooks that had been on the New York Times bestseller lists for food and diet over the past few years. Chapman made sure that all of the evaluated recipes involved handling raw animal ingredients, like meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs—in other words, foods most susceptible to generate food-borne illnesses.

Researchers asked three questions when zeroing in on individual recipes. Does the recipe tell readers to cook the dish at a until a specific internal temperature? And if so, does that temperature conform to widely agreed-upon food safety standards (say, making sure a chicken cooks to 165°F)? What myths about food safety do those recipes peddle—for example, the belief that poultry should cook until the juices run clear, even though that’s not exactly the best indicator for preparedness?

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After combing through these recipes, Chapman and his team discovered that only 123 of the recipes they reviewed (that’s a measly 8%) even bothered to indicate an endpoint temperature at all, and 34 of those recipes recommended temperatures that were too low. Instead, researchers found that an overwhelming majority of recipes leaned on language with vague descriptors like “cook until done" or contain fuzzy references to the color and texture of meat, neither of which really suffice. These cookbooks also rely on what the researchers have dubbed "subjective indicators" of food safety, like cooking time. Cooking time is a barometer that fails to take into account the variables that could compromise the safety of a dish, from differences in cooking equipment to the size of a certain dish.

For those skeptical of this study's methodologies, I'd argue the main takeaway of this study is in its conclusion. “Popular cookbooks are an underutilized avenue for communicating safe food handling practices, and currently, cookbook authors are risk amplifiers,” the researchers write.

They're right. Cookbook writers are held up as figures of authority in the public imagination, and it's not a ridiculous demand for readers to ask them to be more mindful about food safety. Perhaps the most alarming find is that Chapman cites an analogous study conducted 25 years ago that reached similar conclusions about the inadequacy of popular cookbooks when it comes to food safety, indicating that very little has changed, and that our current day writing-and-editing process for cookbooks may call for more rigor. The point that this study ultimately makes is cogent and true. When cookbook authors aren’t meeting their directive of being instructional, they fall short of the promise they make to the public of teaching us how to be the best cooks we can possibly be.

Have you ever encountered any food safety issues with your favorite cookbooks? Let us know in the comments.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


cookingathome April 15, 2017
Nope.That's nothing I look for in a cookbook. I'm smart enough to know about food safety vs. hype. I 've been cooking well for a long time and no longer buy many cookbooks.
Mike April 1, 2017
Yeah, I read and cook from a ton of cook books and have done so for 20 years, I've never been sick (knock on wood). People need to take a modicum of responsibility and learn some science, a cooking school text book is what I used. However, I rarely if ever use a thermometer and find it completely unnecessary to take the temp of everything I cook. Trial and error, live and learn.
Michelle March 30, 2017
Even without this info in cookbooks, I have never gotten sick from home cooked food.

I know what food poisoning feels like, because it has happened to me twice: both times from restaurant food, and both times I had to excuse myself from the table at the restaurant right after the meal and before dessert! In my experience, home cooking is not the thing that has a food safety problem, it's restaurants.
Eldyne P. March 30, 2017
I don't use cookbooks as a "how to cook" book, but for the actual recipes - what ingredients to put together and how to do so to make a flavorful, interesting dish. If I don't know what temp something should have reached, or how to tell when something is "cooked", I would look that up as a separate matter - from the equivalent of a reference book for cooking. Who wants to read all the technical stuff as part of every recipe? Different books have different purposes. This is not the purpose of a recipe book.
Francoise B. March 30, 2017
I am in my 70s, I have eaten food prepared by my grand-mothers, my mother and myself, using some of these very books or no book at all, and guess what I am still alive!
caninechef March 30, 2017
How far does this responsibility of cookbooks go? Maybe they need to tell you when to wash your hands, when to use a clean cutting board, or knife?
creamtea March 30, 2017
I view kitchen thermometers as pretty basic equipment that every cook should have. They generally have markings for doneness levels of each individual type of meat. Agree with those who said that a basic chart in one place in a general cookbook is what's needed. I usually use 3 of the usual methods to check if poultry is done: thermometer, juices no longer pink when pierced in the thickest spot, and the leg jiggles; if roasting a whole bird, I lift with a carving fork inserted in the cavity and "drain" the juices briefly (sometimes over a white plate). If they are pink, back it goes into the oven. Cross-checking using 3 methods helps ensure the meat is cooked safely where one individual method may be flawed. Timing per pound is not the safest way because ovens are different (and over time one oven can change).
creamtea March 30, 2017
P.S. I'm not sure that the old advice to check the thigh meat of poultry is even relevant anymore; chickens and turkeys are bred to maximize white meat so now that's the thickest part. Thighs are practically all bone (which may heat up more slowly, so maybe that's the basis for the advice, but has anyone even ever checked if this is still the case?
Rachel P. March 30, 2017
Okay, I might be shooting myself in the foot as my upcoming book is about teaching students how to cook (this article did make me check back through my manuscripts to make sure I'd explained some of the less basic concepts well enough for about the 100th time), but this study is assuming that everyone who opens a cookbook is an idiot, does not know what raw chicken looks like, or not to cut fresh fruit on a board you've just had raw meat on. This is just like that report that blamed Millennials for food waste as they like to Instagram their food. Taking a wider problem (or in this case a perceived problem), and finding the wrong people to blame just because they're convenient.
Emily March 30, 2017
My advice: go vegan and never worry about the temperature of a cooked meat again! Works for me.
Windischgirl March 30, 2017
I actually would appreciate temperature guidelines for some dishes--I can never remember proper temperature and per-pound timing for poultry and roasts. Food safety is important for newbie cooks to know.
But I also treat recipes like guidelines, not firm rules. I can choose to ignore a step or an ingredient, relying on my experience instead. That's where common sense comes in.
Chocolate B. March 29, 2017
I agree with Nina Koritchneva's and daisyj's comments. I don't want a nanny in my kitchen, hovering over me through every step in every recipe. Shudder.
Nina K. March 29, 2017
I agree with daisyj. Food safety rules are ridiculously strict in the US, and don't actually reflect the way people eat. If you are a cook, you know when things are done, how well done you like them, and how to store things so they don't spoil (including cooked rice). What about mayonnaise, the real kind, or any other sauce made with raw eggs? Even though some cookbooks I know list an option for say mayonnaise made with cooked eggs, come on how is that ever going to work? Unless of course the design of the food industry is more cynical in pushing us towards processed foods like hellmans in my example, a far cry from real mayonnaise.
Amy March 29, 2017
And did any of the cookbooks supply a chart with recommended final temperatures for various meats? I just checked half a dozen on my shelf, and most of them listed that information in one central location (either in the beginning or in an index), not in each individual recipe.
Amy March 29, 2017
And did any of the cookbooks supply a chart with recommended final temperatures for various meats? I just checked half a dozen on my shelf, and most of them listed that information in one central location (either in the beginning or in an index), not in each individual recipe.
BerryBaby March 30, 2017
I agree. Joy of Cooking provides temperature information and I have used their charts often.
Whiteantlers March 29, 2017
My grandmother used to say, "Common sense isn't common." I don't know that is is the specific job of a cookbook author to teach food safety, but guidelines in recipes would not be out of order. No telling if people would pay any attention, though.
jsk March 29, 2017
I would argue that a lot of home cooks don't actually own a thermometer - I certainly don't, so when a temperature is specified, I just ignore it anyway. It wouldn't be a bad way of teaching people through cookbooks, but I certainly wouldn't call it a cookbook writer's duty to do so, and I would even argue that some (not all!) would find it less accessible than more nebulous terminology.
M March 29, 2017
"Until done" is annoyingly vague, but I wonder if it is used so the writer can avoid having to defend their preferred doneness, and whether it fits (or not) with food safety standards.

And that's to say nothing about how much popular food media is filtered through celebrities and personalities rather than food professionals. There's a world of difference in the amount and reliability of information between typical cookbooks and those penned by professional chefs.
scott.finkelstein.5 March 29, 2017
"Chapman made sure that all of the evaluated recipes involved handling raw animal ingredients, like meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs—in other words, foods most susceptible to generate food-borne illnesses."

Cooked rice.
daisyj March 29, 2017
Okay, but where is the corresponding data set of people having been harmed by cooking from these recipes? Food safety standards are notoriously over-strict and focused on worst-case scenarios, and if you follow them you're going to end up with a lot of overcooked food. Certainly, if you're pregnant/immune-compromised/etc, you are going to take a lot of extra care, but otherwise I think it's up to the individual to decide where they want to draw the line between risk and flavor.
A March 29, 2017
Agreed! I'd also add that many of the best cookbook authors--from strict recipe-writers like Kenji Lopez-Alt to more suggestive writers like Mark Bittman to Tamar Adler--are trying to teach kitchen confidence and encourage home cooks to develop their senses and intuition. That's not in conflict with food safety (and these authors actually do talk about food safety, as far as I recall), but it's a different goal, and leaves a lot of room for individuals to draw their own lines.