1639: To Taste

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To Taste
Look, recipe, if I knew how much was gonna taste good, I wouldn't need you.
Title text: Look, recipe, if I knew how much was gonna taste good, I wouldn't need you.


The imprecision of recipes is often a source of frustration to culinary novices, especially the more analytically-minded. Cueball expects a recipe to provide instructions precise enough that by following them carefully, a cook can create a dish exactly as the recipe author intended. Unfortunately, exact replication is impossible in cooking because of the natural variation of ingredients as well as differences in equipment. In addition, most home cooks lack the tools needed to make precise measurements, such as scales and thermometers. Thus, a recipe for strawberry smoothies might read "add sugar to taste" because the recipe-writer can't specify precisely how ripe the strawberries are to begin with. In addition, a smoothie recipe would typically specify imprecise quantities of fruit such as "1 banana" or "1 cup of strawberries" (much less precise than specifying the weight). Thus, it is impossible for the cook to determine the correct amount of sugar without actually tasting the drink.[citation needed]

The instruction "to taste" can also be used for ingredients that alter a simple aspect of the food's flavor, such as sweetness, sourness, saltiness or bitterness without affecting the quality of the overall dish. Individual preferences can vary wildly and it's not possible for a recipe's author to predict how much the reader will want. Specifying any exact amount in these cases will inevitably lead to the food being too bland for some, while being too strong for others.

In this comic, Cueball is shown as having no idea how to cook (or having a ridiculously large sweet tooth), and the suggestion that he is going to add large crates of sugar to a small pot is, of course, silly. This would ruin the dish, as whatever was in the pot would be drowned out by the sugar. Alternatively, he could simply bring in enough sugar to make sure he will not run out of this particular ingredient before it reaches the correct level of sweetness for his taste. This too would display a complete lack of understanding about what it is to cook; even a beginner cook should be able to logically deduce that this is far too much sugar.

Another possible explanation would be that Cueball plans to add as much sugar as possible to the dish and eat it, so that he can sue the recipe book's writer for any ill effects he receives as a result. Needless to say, this would be a complete waste of effort - he would probably lose the lawsuit, and even if he won and received compensation money, he would not be able to enjoy it thanks to his ill health.

The title text is Randall's (and Cueball's) personal comment on what he thinks a recipe should do to fulfill his needs. If he knew how much of each ingredient would be appropriate for a given dish, then he would not need the recipe in the first place. The title text actually scolds the recipe for being imprecise. In his view, mixing in imprecise or "use your own judgment" language makes it less of a "recipe" for the dish, and thus less suitable for those looking for the specific instructions to make the dish because they either have no cooking experience, feel they don't have the expertise to make their own decisions, or simply want to follow clearly defined steps without any decision making required.

This is the second comic this week that concerns one of the basic condiments for food, and also regards one of the five basic tastes. The first one, about salt, was 1637: Salt Mine. Lately Randall has made several food related comics.


[Cueball is standing near a stove holding a pot just above it. He is looking away from the stove, reading the recipe from a piece of paper he is holding in the other hand.]
Recipe: ...And add sugar to taste.
[Cueball has placed the pot on the stove looking at it while holding the paper down along his side.]
Cueball: ??
[Cueball leaves the pot and stove to walks off-panel left with the recipe.]
[Cueball returns backing up to the stove with a dolly loaded with three crates, labeled "sugar". The bottom crate is still not fully inside the panel and the first letter cannot be seen.]


This is the official transcript of 1639, as of 21st March, 2023, valid for 1637: Salt Mine.

[Three women and a (stick) figure stand in a salt mine. There's a control panel with two benches in the centre, and two piles of salt to the right. Two figures are talking, and two are shovelling salt into their mouths.]
Woman 1: So you've build this particle detector in a salt mine to block out cosmic rays?
Woman 2: Yes. That is definitely why.
Woman 3 and figure: <<Homf nomf nomf>>

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Seasoning is not an intermediate process which can't be repaired/re-done. you're left with an edible dish before and after. You add seasoning in small incremental steps, and the quality of the dish, or appropriateness of the taste improves monotonically, and additively. On the other hand, baking something for 5 minutes, and then another 5 minutes isn't the same as baking it for 10 minutes. 09:54, 5 February 2016 (UTC)

Yeah, but a beginner should be given an idea of what a basic incremental step is supposed to be, based on the number of servings in the recipe. One pinch? One (tea/table)spoon? One cup? One jug? One crate? - 11:38, 5 February 2016 (UTC)
Usually when it's said to taste, which I guess corresponds to the Italian quanto basta, it's referring to small amounts, so a beginner could just add a pinch per time until he finds the flavor is good. Whenever it's unnecessary, recipes shouldn't be specific; you don't have to grill a steak for exactly 5 or 10 minutes, just until it has the color and looks of a steak you think you may like; if you boil pasta, you taste a bit once a minute until the texture is good. -- 12:25, 5 February 2016 (UTC)
The joke is that this kind of knowledge is implied in recipes, it isn't spelled out. Which can be a problem for beginners. And good luck trying that approach when baking spiced bread. Or manufacturing soufflé. ;) 13:15, 5 February 2016 (UTC)
Luckily, there are pastas which specify how long you are supposed to cook them on the package. Especially useful in case of those "fast" ones. -- Hkmaly (talk) 13:57, 5 February 2016 (UTC)
"Appropriateness" increases "monotonically" ... until it decreases again. :D 13:15, 5 February 2016 (UTC)
Try preparing two slow cook dishes but in one add all the seasoning at the end before serving. You will now know that seasoning can be very integral to the process and if added in wrong quantities at the wrong time can ruin a dish.--R0hrshach (talk) 17:11, 5 February 2016 (UTC)
De gustibus non disputandum est. RAGBRAIvet (talk) 16:46, 6 February 2016 (UTC) — RAGBRAIvet -- RAGBRAIvet (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
De gustibus non disputandum est This is Joda-Latin, isn't it? 13:26, 6 February 2016 (UTC)
I prefer to binary search instead of linearly searching. O(log n) versus O(n)! -- 21:31, 9 February 2016 (UTC)
Also, I noticed that an unusual number of IP's are on the 162.158.x.x sub-block. Weird. -- 17:10, 10 February 2016 (UTC)
ExplainXKCD uses Cloudflare, which means all connections end up proxied through one of their servers. Those servers have a small range of IP's. 23:03, 1 September 2016 (UTC)

I can't tell if Randall is reading too many cookbooks or if he just has... Too many cooks108.162.221.54 13:46, 5 February 2016 (UTC)

It does take a lot to make a stew, after all. A lot of sugar, in this case. 07:19, 6 February 2016 (UTC)
That's only 3 cubes. Totally reasonable. Elvenivle (talk) 20:24, 7 February 2016 (UTC)

Maybe he obtained enough sugar so his sample size would be sufficient for scientific experimentation on what to taste means.Thaledison (talk) 14:02, 5 February 2016 (UTC)

In my experience, the instructions "add _____ to taste" usually are referring to salt, not sugar. And from comic #1637, we all know Cueball has access to virtually an unlimited quantity of salt! 14:55, 5 February 2016 (UTC)Sam

As a non-USAian, it's interesting that Randall has chosen to show excessive amounts of sugar. I've used many great recipes of US origin and the first thing I do is ignore everything that the recipe says about sugar, in pretty much every case (not baking though) our (British taste) is satisfied by removing all added sugar. Perhaps he's highlighting the US "sweet tooth"? 08:39, 8 February 2016 (UTC)

Why is he bringing in the sugar backwards? Perhaps he doesn't know how to properly use a dolly? Bsellnow (talk) 19:37, 5 February 2016 (UTC)

Maybe he just came up the stairs? There's loads of houses that have stairs (or, frequently, a single stair) between the kitchen and the back porch/food storage area/front porch/garage/attic/wherever else you'll get sugar from. Plus, since the sugar was stacked so high it was leaning against his face, there's no way he'd be able to see if he was walking forwards. I think, really, his biggest sin is that he stacked the boxes to an unsafe level. Jeudi Violist (talk) 00:34, 6 February 2016 (UTC)
No kidding that's an unsafe level. He's holding them up with his face! Jkshapiro (talk) 03:37, 7 February 2016 (UTC)
The framing of the comic was such that if he had pushed the dolly in, we would not have seen cueball in the last panel, and might have been confused as to where the crates of sugar were coming from, and if they were just falling in, or dollying in, or what. Randall knows how to draw in a manner that conveys the meaning, and we really don't need to look into it so deeply. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
But looking into comics far too deeply is what we do! :) 12:40, 10 February 2016 (UTC)
That isn't how to use a dolly, so it's a good thing he isn't using one. A dolly is a platform with wheels, used for furniture moving, mobile cameras for filming, and the like. He's using a Hand Truck, which would usually be backed through doorways so you can actually open the door. It is also easier to steer precisely in tight spaces backwards. 23:11, 1 September 2016 (UTC)

This is strongly reminiscent of episode 5 of Astrid Lindgren's Seacrow Island (original title Vi På Saltkråkan) where Melker adds salt to taste. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Am I the only one who thinks that updating "...as of..." dates like this is wrong. The notable time of some "as of"s is when it is discovered to be true, not the most recent continuation of its truth. "As of publication, it was wrong (and continues to be so)" ...or similar. And if something like a broken link gets discovered, noted, then later corrected, e.g., "The link stopped working some time prior to <date1>, but was fixed as of <date2>" is easier to write when you hadn't previously updated date1 all the way up to date2, then there's no profit in continually moving date2 onwards from that point. (It makes the information less precise.) In other words, I'm not sure why people are so anal at revising lower limits. Upper-limits, yes ("...it is still not resolved by <newdate>"), but that's often not what is intended. 10:52, 21 March 2023 (UTC)