Don’t count on cookbooks—even the most popular ones—to give much useful or accurate advice about food safety. Reporting in the British Food Journal, researchers from North Carolina State University and the USDA evaluated 1,497 recipes from 29 cookbooks on the New York Times bestseller list in 2013 and 2014 that contained at least one raw animal ingredient (eggs, meat, poultry, or seafood) that was intended to be cooked and whose endpoint temperature can be measured with a food thermometer.
Only 123 (8 percent) of the recipes included an endpoint temperature—and of those, 34 gave a wrong temperature in terms of safety. Moreover, most recipes, whether they provided correct endpoint temperatures or not, gave subjective, unscientific “doneness” recommendations—such as to cook for a certain amount of time or to a certain color or texture (like flaking), which are usually unreliable safety indicators.
Cooking time, for instance, does not ensure safety because of differences in cooking equipment and in the ingredients themselves, such as their size, thickness, and initial temperature. Some descriptions of doneness—such as cook until “totally done”—were especially vague and questionable. (In some cases, subjective measurements of doneness are considered acceptable, however—for foods too small or thin to be measured with a thermometer, for instance, and for eggs that are scrambled until not runny and ground beef that’s cooked until all brown.)
In addition, fewer than 5 percent of the recipes addressed the risk of cross-contamination (the spread of bacteria to foods from contaminated foods, surfaces, or utensils). Some recipe instructions, such as to wash raw poultry, actually increase the risk of cross-contamination.
Bottom line: “Cookbooks are not currently effective communication tools for safe food handling practices,” the authors concluded, and the risky advice in them “puts the cooks and those they serve at a higher risk for foodborne illness.” Thus, home cooks should pay little attention to subjective recommendations in cookbooks regarding doneness of foods. Instead, they should double-check safety information about proper cooking temperatures and how to avoid cross-contamination at reliable sources such as FoodSafety.gov.
Also see TV Cooking Shows Cook Up Trouble.