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Where Most Best-Selling Cookbooks Go Wrong

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.

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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?

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.

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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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