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Labeling recipes easy, moderate or difficult is an evolving process

Last week we labeled this Butterscotch Pie “Easy,” but after a call from a reader we realize maybe it’s not so simple after all.

\uFEFFELLEN FOLKMAN | Special to the Times

Last week we labeled this Butterscotch Pie “Easy,” but after a call from a reader we realize maybe it’s not so simple after all.

Since May, each recipe in the Taste section has been labeled "Easy," "Moderate" or "Difficult." We instituted that change to help people determine if the recipe was something they thought they could tackle.

The majority of recipes have been tagged "Easy," with very few "Difficult." In recent weeks several readers have called or e-mailed to question our judgment. Some kindly, some not so much. I'm glad they've let me know what they think, because the labeling is a work in progress, and their input allows me to hone the process. Plus, I like hearing from readers.

Several quibbled with the "Moderate" label on a Crumb Topped Lobster Pie recipe published a few weeks ago. They thought it should be labeled "Difficult" because, as one said, "Who knows how to cook a lobster?" And another: "Where do you even get live lobsters?" One caller thought "Moderate" referred to the price. "It's not moderate at all," he said. "It's very expensive."

I thought about giving the recipe the hardest ranking, but then I figured, how difficult is it to toss a lobster into boiling water? Yes, you need crackers and mallets to get the meat out, but many people have those for getting past the local stone crab claw.

The rest of the recipe was simple and included crumbled Ritz crackers. It's a recipe that a beginner would not likely attempt, but I figured with the number of transplanted New Englanders here, plenty of people would know how to cook a lobster. Many grocery stores have lobster tanks and will even cook the crustaceans for you while you shop.

I bring this up only to illustrate the thought process that brought me to the "Moderate" label. I'll stand by that one.

A reader called last week and said that a Butterscotch Pie recipe should have been labeled "Moderate" instead of "Easy." "It's not that easy to make a meringue," she said. "Not everyone is as good a cook as you."

Well, thank you, and I'll give you the win and not just because of the compliment. A meringue is not likely in most beginners' repertoire. That one was mislabled. Like I said, it's a work in progress.

Here's my criteria for the labels:

EASY: If the recipe requires one or two basic techniques (chopping, sauteing, boiling, simmering, baking), one or two pieces of equipment and widely available ingredients, I'll deem it "Easy." Does this mean it's doable to the person who's never cooked before? Probably not. "Easy" does not limit the ingredients. A soup might have 10 ingredients that need to be chopped or measured, but that is not difficult. Time-consuming, perhaps.

MODERATE: In my mind, a recipe that's "Moderate" requires more effort, plus multiple techniques and pieces of equipment. The cook needs to know more about ingredients. For instance, today's Indian Chicken With Sweet Potatoes (Page 6E) needs some attention paid to the type of curry powder used and probably requires a trip to a specialty shop to get it. It's a one-pot dish, which is simple, but still needs knowledge of several techniques such as braising the chicken and toasting the curry powder.

I take into account the amount of "active" cooking time, too. If the prep work for a 60-minute dish takes 30 minutes, I would say that's moderate effort. Fifteen minutes might make it simple.

DIFFICULT: This may be the easiest category to determine. About a month ago, we published the winner in the Build a Better Burger competition and deemed it "Difficult." Just the title alone signaled a lot of work: Hawaii Da Kine Burgers With Sweet-Chili Glaze, Ginger-Goat Cheese Spread and Hot Watercress Salad. It includes 21 ingredients and required the cook to prepare a glaze, a spread and a slaw in addition to making the burger. A recipe challenge, for sure. "Difficult" recipes require advanced skills and lots of equipment.

The categories are simply a guideline, and like every generality, there will be times they don't fit for everyone. But I assume that readers of Taste can boil water and use a knife, and that they have an interest in cooking. I also assume that most of them want to buy all the ingredients at a grocery store rather than make multiple stops.

Readers of the St. Petersburg Times come in all ages, and what is common kitchen knowledge for someone in their 60s maybe be a foreign language to a 20-something. I try to keep that in mind.

In the end, you are the best judge of your ability. That should be easy.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes or (727) 893-8586.

Labeling recipes easy, moderate or difficult is an evolving process 11/04/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 4, 2008 3:30am]
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