RecipeShy: The Food Network is at Least Partly to Blame


My ire: it is raised. (Please click photo for attribution to Jared Shelburne).

Lots of folks can get to the point in their Journey to become Confident Cooks where they can look at a list of ingredients and know what techniques to apply to come up with their desired end result. I'll talk about how to get there at Some Other Point (you're welcome), but friends, a Thing has come up that is making me take a Bit of a Detour today.

Today I want to take a look at supposed Expert sites that offer recipes.  Places like Martha Stewart and Epicurious*. And The Food Network.  And this is why.  When one searches for a recipe online, one should realize that one is Engaged in a Crap Shoot.  Recipe agglomeration sites are everywhere, and most sites do not require tested recipes.  It's the Wild, Wild West out there, and the recipes posted on these sites are just as likely to fail as they are to succeed.  But when you search for a recipe on the expert sites, you expect the recipes to work, to be accurately represented and to be tested or at least Skimmed Over for Accuracy.

But yesterday I was scanning through my twitter feed, and I came across this conversation between Extremely Talented Pastry Chef Stella Parks, @thebravetart, and The Undisputed Cookie Maven of NYC Gail Dosik, @THEToughCookie that started with this:

"It's telling that this upsets me. WTF, @FoodNetwork?" with a link to a Recipe. To this tweet, Gail responded with something along the lines of How could they even print that? Who's going to go comment Upon It?  Stella, rabble rouser that she is, was all "Let's All Comment!" So, not wanting to be Left Out, of course I went to see What was Up. And this is what I found and what had Stella and Gail all Het Up:

A recipe for something called "French" Buttercream attributed to baker/owner of Charm City Cakes, Duff Goldman of Ace of Cakes fame.  This recipe contains 3 ingredients: egg whites, sugar and butter. Yes, you can make buttercream with these three ingredients, but it's not French Buttercream.  It's Italian or Swiss Buttercream, depending on whether the sugar is cooked to the medium ball stage before being added to the whites or the whites and sugar are warmed together over a water bath until the sugar crystals dissolve.

  • Problem 1: This particular French buttercream isn't French at all.
  • Problem 2: As written, this particular buttercream isn't any type of buttercream that folks generally make ever.
  • Problem 3: No salt. Duh.
  • Problem 4: No attempt is made to cook the eggs, and there is no disclaimer regarding the consumption of unpasteurized, uncooked eggs in the recipe.

Here's the comment that I left:

While this is, indeed, a recipe for buttercream, it is not French buttercream. It is most akin to Swiss buttercream, a buttercream in which the whites and sugar are whisked together over a water bath until the sugar has dissolved before whipping to peaks and adding the butter.

Technically, it is based on French Meringue, which is a simple mixture of egg whites and sugar--at a ratio of usually 2 parts sugar to 1 part egg whites, by weight--which are whipped together to stiff peaks. However, French buttercream is an entirely different animal and is based on a pate a bombe--egg yolks whipped to a thick, creamy consistency with a hot sugar syrup. This buttercream, since it is based on uncooked whites, will weep and lose volume in short order.

Please, it's hard enough for people to learn to cook and bake without a supposed "expert" site disseminating incorrect information. Very sad, indeed.

And guess what happened? The Food Network Moderator People rejected my comment. Rejected it!  I'm used to having my photographs rejected at the food photo sharing sites. I mean, I'm not a photographer after all. But I do know my way around a buttercream or three, and for them to reject my comment--which was technically correct and at least could have helped someone out if they had read it--is Grumpy Making.

Oh, and why did they reject my comment?  Thank you for your comment, however, please use this section for reviews only. For your convenience we have copied your original review below.  Okay, my comment isn't a review? Because I haven't made their buttercream? Well, I didn't make it--and would never make it as written--because it won't work. And I know this because I Know Whereof I Speak when it comes to Such Things.

Here's Gail's comment:

French Buttercream? Nope. The lack of egg yolks make this this the ingredient list for Italian or Swiss buttercream.
Raw egg whites? Really? With Italian buttercream, a hot syrup is made to a) melt the sugar so you're not left with a grainy mouth feel and b) to bring the egg whites to a temperature that will kill any bad bacteria in the egg whites. In a Swiss Meringue the sugar and egg whites are heated together to do the same things.

Serving raw egg product is at best a risky proposition. I am the owner of an artisanal cake & cookie business and the idea of selling anything with uncooked eggs is absolutely out of the question.

Printing this recipe as written without a note about consuming uncooked or undercooked eggs is a bit irresponsible.

Bravo, Gail! The Food Network folks came back to Gail and said this:

Thank you for your review.  We appreciate you [sic] taking the time to bring this to our attention and have escalated to our culinary team of experts for clarification and/or testing. Should you have any additional questions regarding the recipe and/or accuracy, please contact...

While I didn't start writing this post to be all mad that my review was rejected and Gail's review, which brings up the same points, was kicked upstairs as it were, the fact remains.  So I just ask you to ponder that for a moment before we move on...

Okay, moving on.

At the bottom of this supposed French Buttercream recipe is printed the following:

* Restaurant Recipe

This recipe was provided by professional chefs and has been scaled down from a bulk recipe provided by a restaurant. Food Network Kitchens have not tested this recipe in the proportions indicated and therefore cannot make representation as to the results.

And guess what else? This exact recipe is printed twice on The Food Network site.  Once as French Buttercream and once as a component of--and I promise I am NOT making this up--Eyeball Mini Cakes.

The directions for each version of the recipe are identical except for the Cook's Notes.  In the first--the one for French Buttercream--the only Cook's Note is to use a very clean bowl and beaters so the whites will whip up to maximum volume.  In the second--the Eyeball Component Version--the Cook's Notes include the one about using a clean bowl and this additional note:

- Don't worry about using raw egg whites in your buttercream, the sugar cooks the egg whites and makes them perfectly safe to eat, if you are still uneasy about this, use a pasteurized egg product.

That's great and all, but the Actual Recipe Instructions do not mention heating the sugar at all. In either version.  And The Food Network folks print their little Don't Hold Us Responsible If This Doesn't Work Out for You disclaimer at the end of both versions.

Upon seeing the cook's note in the second version, folks like Gail and Stella other baker types would know that the instructions were in error and that they were actually making an Italian buttercream which requires a sugar syrup. But folks not In The Know would be very confused about how the sugar could cook the eggs if no heat is applied--maybe it's like ceviche, they'd think. And then they'd think that the recipe is correct as written because it was attributed to a Famous Chef and printed--twice!--on their Favorite Food Website.

How--how?!--are Intimidated Cooks going to learn if they aren't taught solid techniques or how to read a recipe with discernment? And how can they learn to be discerning if there's so much disinformation out there? And who's supposed to teach them if not the folks on the channel devoted to food?  (Oooh! Let me)! I am extremely disappointed in The Food Network folks on many levels, but this Particular recipe just Raises my Ire. Higher.

This morning, I asked my fans on facebook to help me out by commenting about the Fake French Buttercream--some of my fans are baker types and pastry chefs while others just enjoy baking. Here's some of what they said:

I am no stranger to buttercream, and I have to be honest--any buttercream recipe that starts with 10 egg whites is instantly cast aside. No matter how good it tastes. Too fussy for my kitchen. 😉 --CD

10 egg whites, Really! No I wouldn't bother with it at all, there are so many easy butter cream recipes out there. --BC

I wouldn't make this recipe simply for the fact that the egg whites are not cooked and I wouldn't risk serving this to my customers. I myself make Italian buttercream. Not only do the egg whites cook when you add the hot syrup but my recipe calls for less egg whites to butter ratio and might I say.. it is DELICIOUS!! --KK

I think the amount of butter is a little high. Also this is the first time I have seen a French Buttercream with no egg yolks. I share your sentiment for the Food Network --JR

This sounds more like a swiss buttercream. Also, if u calculate the total yield based on the quantity of eggs whites (10 oz.) this makes over 4 lbs.....that's a lot of buttercream. --LBM

Swiss meringue buttercream cooks the egg whites.. this recipe does not cook the egg whites. I agree with JR too... 1/2 cup too much butter I think. --KK (again)

First of all, thanks for chiming in.  Secondly--do you detect a theme? That most of these comments zero in on the facts that this is an uncooked buttercream, that the proportions are quite possibly off and that French Buttercream contains yolks.

Dear Food Network people. I am not alone in my assessment, my Review, of this recipe.  I am very sad that you rejected my comment, but I hope that your "culinary team of experts" take Gail's review seriously and amend the directions so that this recipe actually works as an Italian Buttercream.  I'm pretty sure that Duff makes this as an Italian buttercream, sugar syrup and all, and somehow the instructions got lost in translation, either because he didn't add instructions and an intern was tasked with adding them (a lot of my professional "recipes" are just a list of ingredients) or Some Other Reason That Escapes Me.

I did a search for "Duff Goldman Buttercream Recipe" to see if I could find a different list of instructions. And this is what I found. Folks on the Cake Central website were discussing This Very Icing three years ago. Here's what one of them said on May 27, 2009:

Actually what you describe is an Italian buttercream, and it's not simple syrup, but rather sugar, cooked to soft-ball stage (huge difference) which is added to the whipping whites. An actual French buttercream is where soft-ball sugar is added to whipping whole eggs and/or yolks (pate a bomb), and is VERY rich (I can post a recipe if anyone cares to try). What Duff is doing is using a french meringue and turning it into a buttercream, but it is not, by definition, a French buttercream. Duff's recipe is closest to a Swiss buttercream, except that in a Swiss buttercream, the meringue is heated.

Sound familiar? Everyone who knows about Such Things knows just by looking that this recipe is a bomb.  But anyone who relies on expert sites such as The Food Network for solid recipes would have no idea. And then Food Network covers itself with its little disclaimer so that folks can't come back and be all Upset with them when Little Precious's birthday party is ruined due to an Unfortunate Frosting Incident.

I guess that, after all of this, I should come up with something constructive to say. Pointers for The Food Network. Here goes.

I don't believe that all recipes necessarily need to be tested on these expert sites. I do think that the recipes should at least be Looked At with a critical eye--by someone who works for The Site. Because when you're just starting out, you know enough to be dangerous but not enough to realize that some instructions are just plain incorrect. Or sometimes proportions are off. I remember a couple of years ago when a site posted a recipe for a nutmeg cake.  It called for something like 20 teaspoons of nutmeg instead of 2.  When taken in large enough quantities, nutmeg is a hallucinogenic.  Folks who didn't know better made it and became Rather Ill Indeed.

Unless you're pedaling recipes to a bunch of folks who really know what they're doing, I think you--and by you, I mean The Food Network--really have a responsibility to try to give folks vetted information and not just weasel out with a disclaimer. It's not fair. Nobody learns anything, and folks who might already be recipe shy become even more so after a recipe printed from an expert site fails.

What do you think? Should these big recipe sites take more responsibility for the recipes they print? Have you ever had a recipe from an Expert Site fail? Sound off below!

PS Thanks, Stella and Gail, for getting me all wound up. See what happens?!

*I have no direct knowledge of any recipes from either Martha Stewart of Epicurious failing. I only list them as two other examples of Expert Sites that have exhaustive recipe databases.





  1. Holly Stockley says

    I’d agree that someone ought to be looking at these things with a Cook/Copy Editor hat on.  You’ve got all those interns – surely one or more of them has a Clue(TM)?  

    Secondarily – I HAVE had recipes from Martha Stewart’s site fail.  Usually the ones that were not from one of the magazines, but just on the site.  I’d thought the proportions were off a bit when I did it, but carried on in faith – to failure.  Strangely – it was a buttercream icing recipe, though I can’t now remember which.

    My personal favorite these days is Stella’s German Buttercream recipe, which has never failed me even under the worst heat/humidity conditions and doesn’t require messing around with hot sugar syrup.  Something I don’t care to do when my children are home.

    • says

      I just looked up German buttercream. Now I’m going to have to play with it–sounds like a good middle ground between “regular” American buttercream and cooked sugar buttercreams.  And I’m detecting a Theme about Martha’s recipes not working out. Blech.

      • Holly Stockley says

        🙂  If you read through my blog, you’ll notice I have a love affair with Stella’s German Buttercream.  But I think I might (just for grins) do a compariosn next week between it and her new “faux French” buttercream.  Stella’s a peach and was great about helping me troubleshoot my macarons.  And while I didn’t have such good luck with her GF poptarts, I think that was me and not the recipe.  Most of her stuff, I trust implicitly.  And I don’t say that about too many sources.

        That said, I spend my time converting vintage recipes, so I’m learning when to give something the hairy eyeball.  😉

        • says

          I think everyone needs to learn to look at recipes (or stuff in general) with a “hairy eyeball.”  Too many people just accept that it will work because it is written down. We gotta develop–and help others develop–their Discernment Muscles when it comes to cooking/baking.  And yes, Stella is Totally a Peach! 🙂

  2. says

    I actually don’t trust most Martha Stewart site recipes.Too many failures or just really lack-luster results have made me gun-shy. I prefer their crafts instead. I’m always amazed that a perfectionist like Martha would be OK with something bearing her name on it that doesn’t produce reliable results.

    • says

       I agree with you. I mean, why would she allow her name to be associated w/recipes that don’t work? But then again, why is she associated w/K-Mart? It’s all about the bottom line, I guess. And we end up w/bad info. Sad.

  3. hk mouse says

    Worst failure ever was a braided bread loaf from Emeril on FN. I make bread twice a week so I’m no stranger to the Way of the Yeast. I *knew* the proportions were off, but I made it by the recipe anyway, thinking he knew what he was doing. I had to toss the entire 8-cup monstrosity. It smelled fantastic but was otherwise a brick.

  4. Croque Camille says

    I would never trust any recipe coming from the Ace of Cakes. That guy is such a whiny hack. I’m not allowed to watch his show anymore because it makes me shouty. Thanks for calling him out. (and poorly edited recipes in general.)

  5. says

    Raw eggs. OMG. Sorry I missed this Twitter exchange and appreciate the recap… I just can’t get past the RAW eggs (I won’t even get started on the buttercream). On Food Network no less. Food safety 101. Also, those of us who cook/bake regularly can usually read/take apart a recipe and know if it will work before we try it. What a shame for peeps who are going to a trusted resource for guidance. URGH. Hooray for recipes that work, right?? Thank you, Jenni. 

  6. says

    I think this is just another manifestation of how the main media outlets have failed readers. You just have to stick to food bloggers you know and trust. Forget about massive, scaled media sites like The Food Network and Martha Steward. Caveat emptor. A food blogger with a modest audience will actually post your comment and answer for it.

    Dan @ Casual Kitchen

    • says

      Good point, Dan. At the end of the day, it should be about our relationship to our readers. If we value them, we give them solid info and listen to them. Otherwise, we’re only traffic generators and won’t last long.

  7. says

    Thanks for bringing this into light. I don’t deal with buttercreams and dont have a basic knowledge but if I were to make this thinking it is cool and easy, I would have been in dire straits apparently. When quantity takes over quality, this is what happens with every brand, I think. 

  8. says

    Martha Stewart has pretty pictures and that’s it… I tried two cake recipes from one of her magazines and they both failed terribly. Like one of your commenters below, I *knew* ratios were off but I made them anyways because those recipes are supposed to *work* and they’ve been tested before printing in thousands of magazines, right? Thank God I knew the problem was the recipe and not me… but, like you say, what if an inexperienced home cook comes across one of these recipes and dares to try it? Some will blame themselves and will never want to try cooking or baking again. 

    • says

       Yuri, this makes me so mad!!  If we baker-types get duped sometimes, at least we can say “I should’ve known better.” But when someone is just trying to make their kid’s birthday cake, a bad recipe can just ruin their day. Poo.

  9. jan says

    I love your letter.   With the price of groceries going up, more people are discovering the kitchen.  The newbies will look at a recipe and give it a try, and it fails, is not a good confidence builder.  I, myself, find a recipe I like and will research it on other sights for clarification, but not everyone does that.  Food Network should be held responsibile for what they are providing to the public, even the small disclaimer, no one will actually read.

  10. Littlemsfrigginsunshine says

    I remember a few years ago watching E! True Hollywood story on Martha. There was a big stink about most of the recipes in atleast her first book that didn’t work. I haven’t ever tried any so I wont claim that its true, but I will tell you I refuse to buy any more of her products for the home. Cheaply made crap that either shredded in the first wash or broke after a few uses. I have tried the buttercream recipe of emerils on FN and let me tell ya, Epic fail. 3 times. It was raining that day and I’m blaming it on that, but I’ve been gun-shy on buttercream ever since. Come to think, there were a few mishaps with “chef” recipes on FN… I definitely don’t claim chef-dom in my household, but I know what I like to taste and how I expect a recipe to turn out after reading it. I will definitely keep this in mind next time I want to tempt my tastebuds.

    • says

      I had no idea that the Martha stuff is so bad. Sorry to hear that; I would think it would negatively impact her brand. Guess not so far, huh? :/ I hate that you’re gunshy, but that just goes to reinforce my point. By posting any old recipe w/o testing, these large recipe sites cause more harm than good by making folks feel less confident than they were to begin with!  I will be happy to help you make good buttercream. Just let me know. 🙂

  11. says

    Oh, so comforting to know that others feel my pain when it comes to untested recipes!  I have always had confidence in 2 recipe sites that have never steered me wrong: King Arthur Flour’s recipe archive and (all rise. . .) America’s Test Kitchens, who do not only test, but test exhaustively and explain, explain, explain all variations in results.  Because testing is, like, their THING. And, now I love Gail and Stella right along with Jenni!


  1. […] Having the desire to cook without having the know-how to back it up is a Frustrating place to be.  And The Food Network is all about Food Lifestyle, not about teaching folks to cook. So, what’s a well-meaning person to do? They probably will turn to a recipe.  Maybe from a cookbook on a shelf, maybe from a blog, maybe even from The Food Network site (and we all know how that goes down, right)? […]

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