Cookbook writers are ridiculously bad at guessing how long it'll take to prepare a meal.

What to eat, drink, buy, and think during that special time of year
Nov. 17 2010 10:20 AM

The Worst of Times

Cookbook writers are ridiculously bad at guessing how long it'll take to prepare a meal.

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But it was Chris Kimball, editor of Cook's Illustrated, who cut to the heart of it. "Utter bullshit," he said when I asked what he thought of cooking times.  Kimball is no slacker; CI, as its devoted readers know, has a well-earned reputation for accuracy. They'll bake a chocolate torte 500 times before publishing the results. Yet Kimball doesn't include start-to-finish times in his recipes; he rejects outright the notion that they can be measured with precision. "Thirty-minute recipes are never 30 minutes," he says. "It's marketing."

All-inclusive cook times are actually a fairly new phenomenon. Older recipe books, such as The Joy of Cookingand the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, assumed an audience with a certain level of competency in the kitchen, and so never bothered to say how long it would take to prepare a given meal. Today, obviously, more people with less experience are attempting to put food on the table, and so cookbooks have become more explicit. But if our recipe-writing royalty are regularly off by a factor of two, then they're not helping novices—they're confusing them. We should all accept that these predictions are about as useful as the Times' football-score experiment and, like the Times, just get rid of them.

You're sure a dish takes under 30 minutes? Call it "speedy." Between 30 and 60? Try "leisurely." More than 60? "Labor-intensive." The bean-counters may whine, but better to be honest and leave precision timing to the racetracks and the atom-splitters.

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Jesse Wegman is a writer living, as required by law, in Brooklyn.