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Cooking 101: Add 1 cup of simplicity

The country's top food companies are creating recipes tailor-made for a generation of culinary illiterates.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

At Kraft Foods, recipes never include words like "dredge" and "sauté." Betty Crocker recipes avoid "braise" and "truss." Land O' Lakes has all but banned "fold" and "cream" from its cooking instructions. And Pillsbury carefully sidesteps "simmer" and "sear."

When the country's top food companies want to create recipes that millions of Americans will be able to understand, there seems to be one guiding principle: They need to be written for a nation of culinary illiterates.

Basic cooking terms that have been part of kitchen vocabulary for centuries are now considered incomprehensible to the majority of Americans. Despite the popularity of the Food Network cooking shows on cable TV, and the burgeoning number of food magazines and gourmet restaurants, today's cooks have fewer kitchen skills than their parents -- or grandparents -- did.

Back to baking basics
To compensate, food companies are dumbing down their recipes, and cookbooks are now published with simple instructions and lots of step-by-step illustrations.

"Thirty years ago, a recipe would say, 'Add two eggs,' " said Bonnie Slotnick, a longtime cookbook editor and owner of a rare-cookbook shop in New York's Greenwich Village. "In the '80s, that was changed to 'beat two eggs until lightly mixed.' By the '90s, you had to write, 'In a small bowl, using a fork, beat two eggs,' " she said. "We joke that the next step will be, 'Using your right hand, pick up a fork and . . .' "

Even the writers and editors of the "Joy of Cooking," working on a 75th anniversary edition to be published by Charles Scribner's Sons in November, have argued "endlessly" over whether to include terms like "blanch," "fold" and "saut é ," said Beth Wareham, Scribner's director of lifestyle publications. "I tell them, 'Why should we dumb it down?' When you learn to drive, you learn terms like "brake" and "parallel park." Why is it okay to be stupid when you cook?"

So far, the "Joy of Cooking" editors have compromised by including a detailed glossary explaining various cooking terms.

At a conference last December, Stephen W. Sanger, chairman and chief executive of General Mills Inc., noted the sad state of culinary affairs and described the kind of e-mails and calls the company gets asking for cooking advice: the person who didn't have any eggs for baking and asked if a peach would do instead, for example; and the man who railed about the fire that resulted when he thought he was following instructions to grease the bottom of the pan -- the outside of the pan.

"We're now two generations into a lack of culinary knowledge being passed down from our parents," said Richard Ruben, a New York cooking teacher whose classes for non-cooks draw a range of participants, from 18-year-olds leaving for college who want to have survival skills to 60-year-olds who have more time to cook but don't know how.

"In my basic 'How to Cook' class, I get people who have only used their ovens to store shoes and sweaters," he said. "They're terrified to hold a knife. They don't know what garlic looks like."

Substituting for mom
For many people, cooking classes like his compensate for what they did not learn at home. "Food companies have to acknowledge that there used to be a level of teaching in the home by moms and grandmas that is not as evident today," said Janet Myers, senior director of global kitchens for Kraft Foods who has been creating and testing recipes for the company for 30 years.

A survey of women in their twenties and forties for Betty Crocker showed that 64 percent of women in their twenties had mothers who worked full time, outside the home, during their childhood, compared with 38 percent of those in their forties. The group in their forties primarily learned to cook from their mothers and at school; the younger women also learned from their mothers, but more of them learned from their fathers, television chefs, or on their own.

Lisa Bernstein, 31, an employment law attorney in the District, said that while growing up, her mother was too busy to teach her much more than how to make spaghetti with sauce from a jar. Tired of microwaving frozen dinners, she signed up two years ago for lessons with veteran cooking teacher Phyllis Frucht.

"I watched some of the Food Network programs, but it's not the same as having someone in the kitchen with you, showing you how to hold the knife," said Bernstein, who now can make her own pasta sauce for baked ziti, as well as homemade biscotti for dessert.

Still hungry for home-cooking
Some of these skills used to be taught in mandatory home economics courses in middle school, but most of the classes ended about 20 years ago, said Pat Lynn, a Springdale, Md., high school teacher who taught her first home ec class in 1968. But in some schools, including her own, home economics has been reconstituted under the umbrella subject of "family and consumer sciences" to include electives in cooking, parenting, fashion and career training for jobs in the food-service and hospitality industries.

And despite laments about the end of home cooking, more than three-fourths of all dinners are prepared in the home, with women doing the majority of the cooking, according to the latest figures from the research firm NPD Group. Interest in food is undiminished, as measured by magazines devoted to the subject (it's the second-most-popular topic behind crafts and hobbies for new magazines launched in the past three years, said Samir A. Husni of the University of Mississippi) and in sales at gourmet cookware chains such as Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table.

Still, in test kitchens at food giants such as Kraft, the goal is terminology that is "simplistic, and very literal, to make it easy to understand," Meyers said. Where 20 years ago a recipe for chicken might have said, "dredge the chicken in flour," today it might say, "coat the chicken in flour." And instead of saying "sauté," recipe writers say to "cook over medium heat and stir," she said.

Recipes designed for Web generation
At Land O'Lakes, the 85-year-old Minnesota farm cooperative known for its cheese and butter products, former test kitchen director Lydia Botham said cooks in their forties and younger are high-tech oriented when it comes to using the company's Web site for recipes and customized advice but relatively unskilled when it comes to baking.

"They've grown up with the computer, so they expect things to be faster, including cooking," said Botham, now director of corporate communication at the company. "They like baking by adding things to a mix. In recipes, they want fewer ingredients -- seven is ideal -- and they like step-by-step pictures that show them what to do."

In 1935, for example, a Land O'Lakes butterscotch cookie recipe directed cooks to "cream together thoroughly the butter and sugar." Today, Botham said, "we don't use the word 'cream' anymore. People don't understand what that means. Instead, we say 'Using your mixer, beat the butter and sugar.' "

A survey conducted by Betty Crocker Kitchens in 2004 showed adults don't even realize how cooking-challenged they've become. The national survey of 1,500 adults found that 70 percent rated themselves "above average" in cooking knowledge, even though only 38 percent scored above average on a 20-question cooking-skills quiz. While 98 percent knew the abbreviation for teaspoon, only 44 percent knew how many teaspoons were in a tablespoon. Even fewer, 34 percent, knew how much uncooked rice is needed to yield one cup of cooked rice. (Answers: 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon; one-third cup of uncooked rice yields 1 cup of cooked rice.)

Children age 10 to 17 weren't much better. A 2004 Betty Crocker survey of 1,000 children found that while 94 percent could access the Internet, only 42 percent could cook a spaghetti dinner. Nearly 100 percent could play a computer game, but only 41 percent could make a fruit smoothie in a blender. On the other hand, 64 percent said they'd like to help more with the cooking at home, confirming that cooking is hardly a dying art.

"There's a real need and desire to learn these skills," Ruben said.