Salted Water for Boiling

Published in Gourmet Live 08.22.12
Former Gourmet magazine food editor—and current Gourmet Live senior editor—Kemp Minifie explores the passion, contention, and most of all, humor, surrounding the simplest recipe ever associated with the magazine
Salted Water for Boiling

Epicurious readers are a passionate bunch. They're eager to cook and just as eager to share their opinions on what they've cooked. If they love a recipe, they'll use the reviews section to rave about it. If they hate it, that will become abundantly clear, too. Between the comments and one- to four-fork ratings, the recipes are, in essence, peer reviewed.

The editors at Epicurious wisely tapped into this powerful, user-generated tool to gather the readers' best-loved recipes in The Epicurious Cookbook, due out November 6, 2012. Favorites with four-fork ratings and a plethora of positive comments are included in the collection.

Curiously, the third most-reviewed recipe on the massive Epicurious Web site, coming in at 880 comments and counting, is also the shortest, but it won't be appearing in the cookbook. With 3 1/2 forks and 78 percent of respondents saying they'd make it again, the recipe, titled "Salted Water for Boiling" consists of one line: When salting water for cooking, use 1 tablespoon salt for 4 quarts of water.

Even more astounding is the fact that this example of economy of words is from Gourmet magazine, not known for brevity. This single recipe, in fact, has to rank as the simplest ever associated with Gourmet.

That fact may be part of the reason it so tickled the Epicurious community's collective funny bone. The reviews run the gamut from understatement to absurdity, from dry wit to even salty (pardon the pun) salaciousness. Click on the reviews section of this recipe and start reading.

Having worked in Gourmet's food department for three decades, including November 2001, the issue the recipe is attributed to, I couldn't wait to haul out my 2001 collection and check the November index. No recipe by that title, not even under the Miscellaneous heading, existed. But right next to the index was the Tips column, new to the magazine with editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl's first issue in September 1999, when it was initially called the Recipe Key. Two thirds of the way down the page was the tip stating the ratio of salt to water "when salting water for cooking."

As inconsequential as the tip may sound, the food editors felt strongly about including it. We'd watched too many of our friends and family members toss a pinch of salt into a large pot of boiling water for "salted water," and we'd eaten the tasteless pasta and vegetables that came out of that underseasoned brew.

To make sure our readers were aware of these keys to success with our recipes, we referred to specific tips within the recipes themselves, with the parenthetical "(see Tips, page whatever)." In the November 2001 issue, two recipes, Scallions with Lemon Parsley Butter and Creamed Mashed Potatoes with Spinach, sent readers to the salting water tip on page 204.

When the recipes were transferred to Epicurious—the 40,000-recipe Web site rich with recipes from Gourmet and other expert sources—the parenthetical tip turned into a link embedded in the recipe directions. When you click on the link, you're taken to a page that looks like every other recipe, with the rather imposing title, "Salted Water for Boiling," along with the opportunity to rate and review it.

The first to respond with a review was "alarose from Canada," on the last day of November 2001: "Salted water. Blech. (Sorry, I just found it terribly humorous that I could "review" salted water :-) )" He gave it one fork.

Soon after, in December 2001, "A Cook" confirmed the feelings of the food editors: "Alas, how sad that there is actually a need for this recipe.' I know several people, (hubby included) that are clueless! Thanks, Mom for teaching me things that others never learn."

It didn't take long for the real jokesters to explode onto the comments section. "A Cook from Karnack" wrote in July 2002: "The ritual embalming process of us ancient Egyptians utilized some of the best saline secrets that are only now being uncovered, so to speak. Might want to consider adding a little frankincense and myrrh to the recipe."

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