Writing a Cookbook Review: Always Test!

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett

I got a lovely comment this weekend from the author of the book Sarabeth’s Bakery, which I just reviewed on the New York Journal of Books website:

I was so thrilled to read your review of my book! It amazed me how thoroughly you read the book; that you even noticed the indexer’s handiwork! Your baking expertise is evident! It was the most thoughtful and comprehensive review that I have received yet. Thank you so, so much.

Granted, I made it easy for her to write such happy thoughts; this was the first truly positive review I’ve been able to write in a while.  I go into all my reviews with such hope–so many of the books I’ve reviewed have been hefty tomes full of fabulous photos, making them look most impressive.

Coming down from those expectations frustrates me; as a cookbook author, I hate to write reviews in which I can’t find much good to say. A good review doesn’t just make an author’s day–it makes your month, and it gives you a lift every time you think of it for years to come.

Usually, I request the books I review, so I’ve already weeded out ones that look thoroughly unpromising. When the book arrives, I spend a few days reading it, taking notes on format, style, and any obvious errors or discrepancies, and choosing what recipes to test.

I can’t begin to understand cookbook reviewers who don’t test recipes–and one book I covered recently proved my point. The review was headed for a positive spin all the way until I got into the kitchen. Every recipe I tested was either disappointing or a total flop. I got so tired of wasting ingredients that I didn’t bother to test the final recipe I had planned. I tried to be gentle, but the message was pretty clear: Don’t buy this book.

When I test, I choose recipes that I want to eat, and those with unusual methods. It was the unusual method (a lack of eggs in a choux paste) that led me to test another book’s recipe for churros, and that was a surprising flop. Not because of the method, which seemed a little too unusual to be right, but because those churros were the cover photo. I still haven’t figured that one out.

My feeling about testing equals my opinion of blog comments on a recipe that say, “Looks yummy!” Well, sure, but how useful is that? It’s the same with comments on Amazon or elsewhere that offer impressions of a book before the writer has cooked from it. I like to see, after I’m done with my review, what others have written about a book–but I’m often disappointed to find that the answer is “not much.”

Along with recipes that work, I like photos that match the text. Don’t put a garnish in a photo that wasn’t mentioned in the recipe, and don’t do something outright wrong, such as picturing jam in jars that you couldn’t actually use to process the jam safely. And I really, really dislike incomplete indexes–as the comment above noted, I’m going to point it out if an index is really good, and if it’s hopelessly useless.

I’m able to avoid many of my other biases (cutesy writing, recipes that use junk I’d rather not put in my body, celebrity chef books, any writing aimed at mothers that calls us “mamas”) by choosing the books I want to review. When those things sneak through, I do try to stay objective and kind: I’m brutally aware that I’m setting myself a very high bar for reviewers of my own future books!

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