I have not been having great luck with Bon Appetit recipes lately. Bon Appetit claims that its recipes go through extensive development, discussion, and third-party testing before being published. Great, but if that's true, then how do so many stupidities make it through the whole process and into the magazine? Messed-up quantities, useless or erroneous instructions, uninspiring flavor, or the just-basically-a-dumb-idea quality of the peach-blackberry campfire cake? (Bon Appetit editorial staff, did you really try baking that cake in the coals of a campfire before your daily 3 pm tasting meeting?)
In 2013, food blog The Bitten Word organized a massive cover-to-cover testing of Bon Appetit's September issue. Multiple readers cooked every recipe in the issue. 54% of testers said they would definitely make their recipe again in the same way. 33% said they might make the recipe again, but make some changes. And 13% said no, they would never make their recipe again. Certain recipes, as one might expect, were loved by every single one of their testers, while there also distinct least-favorites. It was unclear, to me, whether these were recipes containing errors, or whether they were simply unappetizing. (Which, I guess, is an error in itself. The 1960 New York Times Cookbook should never have included all those recipes for consomme and organ meats.)
So, in this test involving hundreds of people, you might say the magazine performed pretty well. The Bitten Word's editors themselves expressed that they were surprised by the number of "yes-I'd-make-it-again" positive responses. (Does this mean, since their own blog is based on testing food magazine recipes, that their own experience would suggest a lower success rate?) On the other hand, the 1/3 of testers who said they might make the recipe again but would "make some changes"-- those are the ones that would concern me if I were a Bon Appetit editor. If the recipe works correctly, you should either enjoy it and be willing to make it again, or not think it's worth making a second time, for whatever reason. You should not immediately perceive that the recipe requires "some changes" in order to be worthwhile.
(I've just realized that I have complained specifically about butter in three Bon Appetit recipes already on this blog. The pistachio cookies contained too much butter for my taste, while the blueberry-pecan galette contained so much butter that the dough melted. The instructions for adding butter to the peach-blackberry camp cake were nonsensical.)
Here are a few of the less positive comments from the Bitten Word's readers/testers about their assigned recipes:
"The online recipe calls for 1 cup mustard while the printed recipe says 1/4 cup mustard (which is plenty). I was wondering if there was a mistake in the directions, thinking it might have worked better to run the flavored oil through the sieve, not the finished sauce."
"From there the recipe continues to refer to this this mixture 'rye oil' where mine looked like 'bread powder'. I read and re-read the recipe confirming I did everything according to instruction so I'm not sure what gives."
"A fermented ginger base that will bubble by itself but appear to die quickly when added to other ingredients. It is supposed to add carbonation to drink the old fashioned way. Instead it adds sadness. UPDATE SEVERAL DAYS LATER: After leaving the grape alone for a couple more days, it bubbled! And carbonated the soda! It opened sounding like a soda, smelled like pizza dough and tasted like something had gone horribly wrong. Maybe it had gone too far into alcohol production. I didn't drink enough to really tell. The few small sips I took were all I could stomach. I am waiting to see if anyone got this recipe to work. I'll go back to something easy, like rocket science."
"Then I realized the recipe called for some odd instructions: Roast the lamb first and then rest it for 30 minutes. While it's resting, bake the polenta for 60 to 75 minutes. Ummm... that seems a little too long to be resting my meat."
"Right off the bat something struck me as being off. The recipe calls for the lamb to be roasted for 60 min/lb. calling for a 3 lb shoulder to be roasted at 325 for 3-3 ½ hours. This seemed a little long and thankfully we checked the temp at 2:40 and the roast was already well done. We also reduced the time on the sear at the end, as the recipe called for 500 for 10-15 mins to get the lamb golden brown.[...] As with any recipe, use your judgment, if we followed the cooking times in the recipe this dish could have been completely ruined."
In any given case, it is difficult to say whether a poor result is a matter of a bad recipe, or cook's error, and so the Bitten Word's project is particularly interesting because multiple readers try each recipe-- in most cases, some succeed happily while others complain of pitfalls. But, overall, I am not feeling particularly confident in Bon Appetit to provide recipes that are consistently coherent and tasty. Maybe my standards are just too high? After all, most cookbooks contain successes and failures also. I've long ago learned to ignore the salt quantities specified in Madhur Jaffrey's recipes, quantities which seem completely random, and just use my own judgment. What kind of track record is reasonable to expect?
I leave you with a few blasts from the past, courtesy of Huffington Post, but actually compiled by a Bon Appetit writer. My favorites, which are all from the 1970s, because of course they are:
- The Avocado Meatza: "It is topped with cheddar cheese soup and its crust is made entirely of lean ground beef." What?
- The Blue Cheese Mousse: This one is all about the photo, which looks like a carefully molded pile of mold. Well, that is pretty much what it is. Also, I used the word "mold" two ways in one sentence.
- The California Waldorf Salad: Also all about the photo, which pictures a Waldorf salad that has been embalmed in Jello.