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Long ago, we decided that recipe requests were considered off topic as they are not objective, do not promote "expert" answers, and are highly susceptible to "me too" answers. However, there is a class of question "How do I use [Ingredient]?" that isn't necessarily a recipe request. This falls under the culinary uses tag and the site position was outlined by Sam Holder.

The obvious issue is that these questions can be recipe requests in, sometimes rather thin, disguise: What can I do with a Chicken? What can I do with Onions?

We've seen quite a lot of these questions recently. Some of them are ok and some of them are clearly not. How do we as a community judge when these questions are on/off topic? I'm having a hard time coming up with any real metric to determine if the question is ok or not.

Some of the recent questions we've been seeing:

Some questions that were deemed on-topic (per Sam's original post):

  • Things which normally would be considered waste. Questions about stale bread and apple peel are existing examples of this.
  • Things which are not usually associated with cooking but are edible. Questions about hops and lavender are existing examples of this.
  • Things which have a specific (or few) widely recognised uses which may have other uncommon uses. The question about cornstarch is an existing example of this.
  • Things which are extremely rare. This is obviously the most subjective, but we could consider things which are not available in a supermarket as the yardstick. This is not perfect, and any other suggestions are welcome. A question about sumac is an existing example of this.
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Digging a little more into the origins of this thread, it seems Allison quoted this from the guidelines:

  • Things which have a specific (or few) widely recognised uses which may have other uncommon uses. The question about cornstarch is an existing example of this.

And later commented in this discussion:

Maybe the problem isn't enforcing these guidelines, but with the original guidelines?

I frankly cannot find fault with her argument. I was leery of that particular bullet point even back when it was first posted, but if it's enough to lead one of our current top members astray then there's clearly something wrong with it.

In my opinion, this guideline sucks. Not the guidelines in general - most are quite straightforward - just this particular one about "uncommon uses". By what criteria do we qualify "few", or "uncommon" for that matter? It seems to me that every conceivable question posted under the auspice of the "uncommon uses" guideline would essentially become a list of recipes.

There shouldn't be any gray area here. The whole point of the guidelines was to single out the "extreme" questions that were unique enough to justify their existence. Especially items which aren't normally considered food, but we might also make special exception at our discretion for items that we think most people have never heard of.

I propose a very simple test:

  • Is this thing obviously food?

If it is, close it. If it's not, slap on the ` tag and downvote answers that contain unqualified recipe requests and don't tell us anything interesting about the ingredient.

How upset would people be if I removed the "uncommon uses" bullet point from the guidelines?

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    I think removing that bullet point is a good idea. At the moment, what counts as uncommon depends (as I mentioned elsewhere) entirely on your cooking/cultural background. What's unusual to one person is completely ordinary to another. The question "is this thing obviously food" is much easier for people of varying backgrounds to answer objectively. I don't have to be familiar with using an ingredient to still say "yes, it's obviously food". – Allison Mar 19 '11 at 7:21
  • So does that mean stale bread, apple peels, and cornstarch aren't on topic any more, or that things that fit those criteria that allowed those questions stay open? – justkt Mar 20 '11 at 16:52
  • @justkt: Stale bread and apple peels are generally thrown out, so I think those definitely still qualify. Looking back on the cornstarch question, I really think it should have been closed, and that the "uncommon uses" criteria was somewhat of an attempt to explain away the fact that it wasn't. It's only that specific criteria I'm proposing to turf; the rest still make sense to me. (I hope they make sense to everyone else too) – Aaronut Mar 20 '11 at 20:13
  • @Aaronut - now I get it. That makes sense, yes. – justkt Mar 21 '11 at 16:03
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    @Aaronut - are we going to run into problems with the "incredibly rare" criteria? We've already seen people looking for things like artichoke stems in the US that are apparently common in the Middle East, etc. I can't find lard in the supermarket in my part of the US but I know up in Canada I could get Tenderflake easily, etc. – justkt Mar 22 '11 at 13:48
  • @justkt: I take "rare" to mean not only "hard to find" but "hard to find information on". If the Wikipedia entry has a long list of culinary uses, or if a recipe search turns up a thousand results, it's probably not rare everywhere. The number of recipes with lard is virtually infinite; now if you wanted to know what the function of lard was in certain recipes, that would be another story, and an entirely different question. – Aaronut Mar 22 '11 at 22:16
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In my opinion, I liked the boundaries outlined at Sam in the old question. They made sense. They made the site better. To me they were relatively clear. Would the question get five or six good answers or largely answers that might belong in Modernist Cuisine? Probably on-topic. Would it generate eight or ten recipes or dishes? Probably off-topic.

While I understand that Seasoned Advice is a place for getting google hits, that doesn't mean that we're a place for answering questions that can easily be answered by a google search. In fact questions that can be answered quickly on google were recently decided as good candidates for closing network wide. If we can google the answer quickly and find most of the answer's we'd list already posted in a clear and easy to find source, it might not be a good candidate for our site.

I use buttermilk regularly. I don't think it's particularly difficult to find uses for it. I couldn't make plenty of the Cooks Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen recipes I love without it. Want to make fried chicken? Soak it in buttermilk for extra flavor and tenderness. Drop biscuits? Wouldn't be the same without buttermilk. Ranch dressing? Much better if it's homemade with buttermilk. A quick google search can come up with the page that had 25 applications I found and more pages that have others.

I found the savory banana application question kind of interesting because I'd never thought of using bananas (at least not the yellow kind from Chiquita, etc.) in a savory application, despite having fried plantains plenty of times. At the same time as I saw the answer count increase I felt that it was turning into more and more of a place where random recipes would be posted as opposed to adding interesting information on chemistry and flavor pairing that would be definitive.

Since I usually cook one meal to last between two and four days I was thrown for a loop by the day old cooked rice question. Maybe this is heresy, but I usually just eat day old cooked rice as part of whatever I made it to go with. The answers were somewhat interesting, but not necessarily different than what I'd get from googling "rice recipe."

I don't want to say I'm calling out the authors of any of these questions. I can see how they'd each one be quite interesting, especially if you're not familiar with that given ingredient. I just don't think they're a fit.

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    What counts as "widely recognized" is unfortunately pretty subjective, particularly depending on your cooking cultural background. (For the specific case of buttermilk, that list of 25 is stretched out a lot by listing things like biscuits and scones as separate items.) – Allison Mar 18 '11 at 18:42
  • I'm generally in agreement, but I think the real issue is how do you decide which questions are OK and which are not? It's obvious at the extremes what's ok and what's not, but when you get closer to the middle, it gets very gray. It's hard to close / keep open questions when there's no clear guideline in the rather large gray zone. For instance, the Peas question was kept open. I'm not sure that's much different than the buttermilk question. cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/12660/… – yossarian Mar 18 '11 at 18:42
  • @Allison - I agree that what I see as familiar isn't what other cuisines will see as familiar. I never use Chinese Five Spice, some people use it all the time. What I meant to point out what that if google has a lot of hits, it might not be our territory. Lots of hits on google is to me a good metric for widely recognized. – justkt Mar 18 '11 at 18:55
  • @yossarian - personally I'd close the peas question. I think it's worse than buttermilk or savory bananas. I make up new seasonings for peas on the fly whenever I make them because I hate the taste of peas. – justkt Mar 18 '11 at 18:56
  • @justkt, right, I agree with you. But you're still making a subjective decision on each question. Where do we draw the line, and much more importantly, how do we draw the line? – yossarian Mar 18 '11 at 19:03
  • @yossarian - what I'm trying to get at is - if there is a good set of easily accessible lists on google, maybe it's not our place to make that list. That's where I'd draw it. At some point, the decision will contain an amount of subjectivity. Sidenote: enjoying that all-powerful moderator vote yet? ;) – justkt Mar 18 '11 at 19:06
  • You know what they say, "With great power comes great responsibility to smack around the peons." ;) – yossarian Mar 18 '11 at 19:18
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    I guess I don't see "google-able" as a sufficient metric since the guidelines include things as acceptable that I would consider equally google-able (e.g. what is sumac). The advantage that this site has over random google results is accountability and a level of trust for the answers you find. I don't really have any suggestion for an alternative metric though, since the issue is of a subjective nature. Maybe the problem isn't enforcing these guidelines, but with the original guidelines? – Allison Mar 18 '11 at 19:27
  • @Allison: "What is XYZ" questions are currently being frowned upon as well as they are pure Wikipedia fodder. It's one thing to be able to assemble an answer with Google; it's quite another when the answer is literally hanging right in front of you on Wikipedia. The real question to answer, for both general reference questions and culinary uses are, can we add anything substantial to what's already out there, or would we just be duplicating content that's already easy to find? Are we making the internet a better place? – Aaronut Mar 18 '11 at 21:55

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