Features & Stories

"Looking at the stars": thoughts on recipe reviews and ratings

In this occasional series, ckbk users share their thoughts and experiences on cookbooks and cooking. The latest contribution comes from prolific cook and ckbk recipe reviewer Rob Hindle, who discusses his own approach to reviews and ratings.

By Rob Hindle

When I heard from ckbk founder Matt Cockerill recently “Thanks for all the reviews. Hope you find a keeper recipe eventually :-) “ I think it may have been a polite hint that he considers my star ratings a bit lacking in generosity.

My view is that for ratings to be meaningful they need to be an honest opinion and supported by a comment. I seldom allocate 5 stars and, in my defence, I’ll quote from Stanley Tucci’s book Taste:

“I think you can always tell when someone isn't really tasting something. You don't even have to look that closely to see that this happens too often on the excessive number of cooking shows that inundate today's television. It seems that before whatever is being eaten has touched the tongue of the chef/host/cook, they are rolling their eyes in ecstasy, moaning and shaking their heads as if it's the most delicious thing ever to have crossed their lips. To make matters worse, before they have even finished swallowing, the word 'perfect' is sanctimoniously whispered.

All I can say is, no. No. Sorry. I don't believe you. There is no possible way that you are actually tasting whatever you ate that quickly and that whatever the hell you made is actually that extraordinary. And who the fuck ever, even brilliant chefs, makes something that is 'perfect' right out of the gate every time? More often than not, there is something not quite right. It's too sweet, or not sweet enough, or needs more salt or pepper or oil, or there's too much... whatever! To see someone adjust seasoning or comment on what has worked or doesn't work in a dish is a thousand times more interesting and instructive than their giving themselves a clearly false pat on the back for their culinary genius.”

Similarly, when I cook for family or guests I want an honest assessment.  If it’s not perfect (and it never is) I want their help to identify why so I can do better next time. Unless I push hard they’ll tell me it was great.  They don’t want to hurt my feelings when I’ve been slaving away over a hot stove all day. I have to prompt with negativity on my part “I’m not happy with this, I’ll not cook it again” or “I think it could do with a bit more/less of…”.  I know I’ve probably got a hit on my hands when they ask for the recipe - but even that could be subterfuge on their part, I never send them the recipe unless they remind me.

I get recipes from loads of different places and they all get the same assessment. My equivalent of 5 stars is that I print off a recipe and store it in a loose-leaf binder because I expect to cook the same again.  Very few make the grade but I also keep the “near misses”, often with notes that might help make it a bit better if I do repeat.

So let’s consider the star ratings.  They are subjective, not just “one man’s meat is another’s poison” but I need to acknowledge that my (unimpressive) level of culinary skill will have contributed to the outcome; my experience and preferences are personal, my complete disaster may be your 5 star success. The value of star rating schemes is that crowd-sourced data will average out individual experiences.

I don’t think I’ve ever rated a recipe on ckbk as one star (unlike recipes from the internet in general), I’d like to think no cookbook author would publish a truly grim recipe but is striving for excellence.  There’s nothing wrong with “average”, that may be a disappointing verdict for the author (as my “average” A-level results were!) but not a “fail”!

★ - In my opinion a poor recipe.
That doesn’t mean everyone else will think the same, I may have made a mistake or it might just be a matter of my personal dislikes.  Sometimes they’re not well founded, that’s why I will try cooking something I don’t like.  Maybe my past experience of a dish was a mistake by the cook or the quality of the ingredients. On the other hand, internet search will find some seriously bad recipes. A predominance of one star ratings would be a benefit to others.

★★ - Less of a disappointment, but I’d certainly not repeat.

★★★ - Middle of the road – OK but nothing special.
I might repeat it but more as a matter of convenience, maybe because I had all the ingredients to hand but not if it was going to demand a lot of time and effort.

★★★★ - We’re getting there…
Maybe a little tweak would make it a 5! It’s a sound recipe, nothing wrong with it and it worked for me but I’m sparing with my 5 stars.

★★★★★ - It’s a keeper! 
I’ll probably cook this again. Even so that rating too could be just my opinion (although usually influenced by my household and guests). That doesn’t mean I won’t try varying the recipe in future (see rhubarb raspberry and orange cake).


Bacon, Lentil and Bulgur Wheat Pilaff from The Lentil Cookbook by Ghillie Basan


Yesterday, for example, I cooked Ghillie Basan’s Bacon, Lentil and Bulgur Wheat Pilaff (above). That was primarily because I’d not had Bulgur for years, I’d now got all the ingredients in stock and we just needed a quick simple “fuel food” meal. My wife and I had a portion each, no particular opinion either way so I’d rated it a solid 3. Then my son came home and had the 3rd portion, half an hour later he had another go and finished off the 4th portion. That seemed like a vote of confidence so it got 4 stars (but no “how to make it better” notes).

I regard each meal as an opportunity to try something new, I don’t want the institutional or family rota – “if it’s Friday it’s fish, if it’s Sunday it’s a roast” etc., or worse the same fish or roast each week. That means I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. The various emails from ckbk are one of my key inspirations and I greatly value others’ experiences and star rating. So, a big “thank you” to all those ckbk users who contribute reviews — please keep them coming! 

A selection ckbk recipes reviewed by Rob

View all Rob’s recipe review in this ckbk collection.

Tales from the Chopping Board is a space for members of the ckbk community to share their thoughts on cookbooks and related topics. If you’d like to join the discussion and contribute a piece, drop us a line.

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