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What's the point of cooking.stackexchange.com? I find it useless so far.

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What's the difference between these two "list of X" questions

This question has been deemed fine:


This one was closed:


on the basis that it was subjective, a recipe request or a GTKY list.

I don't understand the distinction being made here. One of the examples offered to @ixtmixilix was that "ketchup" would be a perfectly valid pairing for tea, because it is so subjective. By that light, isn't the parsley question subjective as well? Couldn't someone say that shredded cucumber peel is a good sub for parsley?

I agree that the green tea question could be phrased better, as say "What are flavors that are widely known to be compatible with green tea?". Would everyone find that an acceptable question? (Which would then be CW since it is a list).

I have no dog in this hunt, the tea question isn't mine, but I do want to understand the rules and make sure we are applying them fairly and not discouraging new members of the community. If the rephrased question is acceptable, I think we should make a practice of editing this type of question when it comes in, rather than closing it.

  • @hobodave : how is this a duplicate? I think it's valid for us to discuss what the boundaries of the site are, and this one's a valid question. The one you claim it to duplicate is obvious flamebait. (yes, I know, it's re: the same question, but the meta-question is flamebait)
    – Joe
    Aug 31, 2010 at 1:03
  • Right - I clearly don't think the site is useless, as you can see I've been contributing to it as a rather rapid clip for the past month. And I don't think it is equivalent to the bbq sauce and sandwich questions either. Please see my answer to aaronut below - I believe that flavor pairing questions are actually pretty objective. Aug 31, 2010 at 2:53
  • @Joe: It was simply because it was regarding the same question. The answers Aaronut and I gave there apply here. I wasn't implying this was "invalid", nor that Michael had the same views as that user. I was just looking through the flamebait and considering that question "Why was X closed?". My bad.
    – hobodave
    Aug 31, 2010 at 3:00

5 Answers 5


Substitution questions generally have a pretty well-defined set of answers. They also have implicit constraints: Answers should normally be ingredients that mimic either the flavour or texture (most of the time, the flavour).

"Flavour" may be somewhat subjective, but it is far more objective to say that shredded cucumber peel does not taste like parsley than it is to say that vanilla extract is not a good flavour addition to green tea. The former can be expressed as "What B can I use in place of A?" and the answers can be judged according to the system of "How similar is B to A?" - that's a reasonably objective evaluation. The latter, on the other hand, is simply "What B is good to use with A?" and the only way to evaluate that answer is, "Do I think I would enjoy B with A?" That is entirely subjective.

If you believe that there's some science behind the "pairing" that I'm not comprehending then please, do explain. Otherwise, I have to conclude that the green tea question places no constraints whatsoever on the answers and that makes it not a real question.

It's right there in the FAQ:

Avoid asking questions that are subjective, argumentative, or require extended discussion. This is not a discussion board, this is a place for questions that can be answered!

If a question can't have legitimately wrong answers then it is not a question at all, it's an opinion poll, or at best a discussion, and both are toxic to a Q&A site for a number of reasons. Recognizing them is one of the more important aspects of moderating these sites - not just as a diamond, but also as a community mod (close/reopen privileges). Of course, not everybody agrees on the definition of a poll/discussion, but I think that the difference between the two questions being discussed here is pretty clear.

  • 4
    Oh, no, there is definitely science in pairing. See the flavor chemicals section in On Food And Cooking, the wonderful book The Flavor Bible by Dornenburg and Page, or the TGRWT section of khymos.org (blog.khymos.org/tgrwt). Maybe this is the basic problem, that the folks who have been closing "what goes together" questions don't realize it is organic chemistry and physiology, not random opinion? To make it even clearer - I'm not saying that cucumber peel is a good sub for parsley. I'm saying there are solid reasons why ketchup doesn't go with green tea. Aug 31, 2010 at 2:40
  • @Michael, I'm iffy about this. There's obviously a strong science behind flavor pairings, but I don't really feel like the green tea question was asking for scientific pairings, but rather a list of anything. I think that's aaronut's issue, and I'm inclined to agree. As with a lot of off topic questions, if they were changed slightly, they'd be perfectly reasonable. I think the green tea question falls in to this category. It's too broad as is, but could certainly be refined. I think the major thing is to have some sort of criteria to judge an answer on, rather than just have a list.
    – yossarian
    Aug 31, 2010 at 14:37
  • @yossarian - right, I agree that question was poorly phrased. What I'm getting at is, if we can all see how to phrase a question better, I think we should lean heavily to editing it instead of closing it. And since these flavor pairing ones come up a lot, let's get in the habit of changing them to something along the lines of "What ingredients are traditionally or chemically considered good pairings with X?". Aug 31, 2010 at 14:40
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    @Michael: As yossarian says, if the question had asked "What kinds of flavours are appropriate to combine with green tea?" then that would be different, you can have a whole discussion about flavour balances and pH balances and all that fun stuff. That's not really the same as asking on what things (ingredients) you can add; that question is not asking for information about chemistry or physiology, and I'm fairly certain that editing the question to be about those things would only leave the question author confused and annoyed.
    – Aaronut
    Aug 31, 2010 at 14:58
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    @Michael, as @Aaronut says, it would annoy me to no end if someone changed my question to something different than I had asked and then said, "well it makes the question better." I think a better approach is to close it, recommend changes, and then reopen it once the changes are made. We, as a community, just need to make sure that those questions get reopened quickly and that we reward authors who make the changes by accepting their new questions.
    – yossarian
    Aug 31, 2010 at 15:01
  • One other thing @Michael: If you compare to a question on, for example, wine pairing, the field of candidates is pretty limited. There are 2 basic types and somewhere between 5-10 common varietals each (depending on how you define common). So you can easily reframe the question as "given a list of all these candidates, which one should I choose for my situation and why?" I don't see how you can do that with the green tea question; even if you take a scientific/MG approach to the problem, you could potentially list hundreds of possible solutions.
    – Aaronut
    Aug 31, 2010 at 15:15
  • 1
    Aaand one other other thing @Michael, and here's the crux of the problem in my mind: Even though you may perceive the question as having a rational/scientific basis, most of the community won't, either when answering or voting. Whether you view skill level as a bell curve or a long tail, it's clear that vastly more people will interpret and treat such questions as being precisely about random opinion and well-thought-out answers like the ones you propose will simply be lost in an ocean of noise.
    – Aaronut
    Aug 31, 2010 at 15:18
  • @aaronut - re the comparison to wine tasting, do take a look at The Flavor Bible (amzn.to/d0k38W0). They have extensive information on how food pairings work, and tremendous lists for just about any ingredient you can think of. You are correct, many of them have a 20-30 pairings listed, but most have only a few bolded pairings which are considered to be the primary matches. Aug 31, 2010 at 19:42
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    @Michael: Link doesn't work, unfortunately. I see your point anyway, but no such list is ever exhaustive, there will be valid answers that aren't on the list, and in any case, if we just list things with no context then we're not teaching anyone anything. If a question requests an explanation with examples, that's OK; it's even OK if some of the answers are just examples; but a question that just says "feed me answers!" isn't a good question. And while your edited version of the question is one that I would not have closed, it's also hard to tell if that's really what the OP intended.
    – Aaronut
    Aug 31, 2010 at 19:56

I have to say that I have no idea why that green tea question couldn't have stayed open as a community wiki. I know that the other stack exchange sites frown on that type of behavior and I totally understand why as the subject matter is very objective. However, I sometimes feel as though we as a group are leaving out the entire side of cooking where you just go nuts and toss some crap in the pan and see what comes out the other side. Don't get me wrong, I love knowing that if I have a food safety question or a technique question it gets answered almost instantly, but cooking isn't just technique. It's more than that and when we try to reduce it down to just the objective stuff, it loses a lot of the fun.

On top of which, I defy anyone on this site to present to me a gathering of cooks of any stripe that don't discuss pairings and flavor comparisions every time they are together. I know that I have never been to one. Luckily for us, this site already has a way to deal with such subject matter already in the form of the cw's. I would much rather see something like the tea question converted to a wiki and left than closed.

NOTE: I am not saying that I don't fully support the reasons to close that exist. They all make a lot of sense and are great tools to limit ourselves to stuff we can actually deal with. I just think that we are going to fail to address the subject matter we have choosen without a place to sound off on these things. (plus wiki's don't generate rep so I don't believe that people will keep posting wiki question after wiki question)

  • I totally agree; and flavor pairings also aren't all that subjective. See my comments above in reply to @aaronut. Aug 31, 2010 at 2:46
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    Unfortunately the historical evidence doesn't support community wiki mode as a disincentive; first, many people don't understand it, and many others ignore it (eventually their questions get converted but in the meantime, they earn rep). Discounting those things, users still earn badges, and discounting that, people sometimes just want to "chew the fat" and get a lot of attention.
    – Aaronut
    Aug 31, 2010 at 15:01
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    The "we hate fun" charge is an old one, and possibly a somewhat true one; the point is, even though it's fun to discuss and throw out ideas, the site's design doesn't support it well and isn't intended to. Everything you say about cooking and cooks is true but that doesn't mean we have to be everybody's one stop shop for all things food- and cooking-related. If you just want recipes or recipe ideas, there are a thousand other sites you can go to; we're trying to offer something that those sites don't. Carving out a niche is ultimately what will make or break the community. Isn't it?
    – Aaronut
    Aug 31, 2010 at 15:04
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    And, just to clear up a misconception here: Community Wiki mode for certain polls is something that is grudgingly tolerated in order to support a limited number of the most popular subjective topics and "lists" (i.e. cookbooks). However, that is not the reason for the feature's existence; the actual reason for CW is to open it up for editing by anyone - in other words, you don't own the content, the community does. The rep immunity is a side-effect of renouncing ownership. CW is unfortunately a rather poorly-understood feature and I mean to actually write a proper FAQ on it someday...
    – Aaronut
    Aug 31, 2010 at 15:08
  • @Aaronut: There are a few posts scattered around MSO I believe explaining CW.
    – hobodave
    Aug 31, 2010 at 15:17
  • @hobodave: Unfortunately they're all (IMO) programmer- or at least geek-oriented, full of technical jargon and explaining mainly the mechanism of CW as opposed to the purpose or intended use. I don't think that any of them are really appropriate for a site like this. We need to better answer the question of "What is Community Wiki?" as opposed to just "what happens when I use it?"
    – Aaronut
    Aug 31, 2010 at 15:26
  • If all that is the case why are we tolerating any polls at all? If we don't want that sort of stuff here at all then we should be enforcing that instead of whatever we are doing now. I am pretty geeky (I use a rooted android, I know some programing, I can build a computer from scratch) but I have never used the stackexchange sites. The message as I understood it was, ask questions and get them answered, otherwise use the wiki for knowledge adding that doesn't fit the q & a format. That is what I had come up with by what I observed on the site anyway. Aug 31, 2010 at 22:45
  • @sarge: Great question. We can certainly decide not to allow any poll/list type questions. This is actually the policy on all of the trilogy (SO,SF,SU) sites as well as many of the SEs. It certainly makes moderation easier, as we no longer have to deal with confusion or needing to have this type of discussion at all.
    – hobodave
    Sep 1, 2010 at 14:45
  • @sarge: I believe that we shouldn't tolerate polls. The trick is defining a poll. And the rule of thumb I go by is whether or not it can have wrong answers. And by wrong I mean actually answers the question but does so incorrectly. Polls, like anything worded as "What's your favourite", don't have wrong answers, only answers that people agree/disagree with, and that's outside of what I consider to be a "real question". Because of that, only a few of the most important polls (most notably "resources" - cookbooks, recipe sites, etc.) are or should be tolerated.
    – Aaronut
    Sep 1, 2010 at 15:00
  • Basically, the philosophy tends to be that polls are not accepted as a policy but we "whitelist" certain subjects. Lists of books, sites, and other resources are almost universally accepted on SE because even though they don't have "wrong" answers, they're still purely factual. Another thing we accept here, which both hobodave and I have expressed consternation about in the past, is "What can I do with this ingredient?" questions, which sound a lot like recipe polls to me. Other than that, though, I don't think we've ever intentionally allowed any polls.
    – Aaronut
    Sep 1, 2010 at 15:05
  • @hobodave @aaronut I guess what I am saying is there needs to be a shift in how we discuss this. The way this is supposed to work is we will accept cooking resource aggregation threads, but do not accept any other "poll" type questions. Is that the gist of the matter? Because as I look through the community wiki's only about 1/3 meet that standard, and even hobodave has one that would fall into the not around here territory. I would like to say that it doesn't matter to me one way or the other, I just want a policy that's going to be consistent. Sep 1, 2010 at 17:56
  • I would point out that the questions with the most activity are the community wikis, just something I noticed as I was looking through them Sep 1, 2010 at 17:57
  • @sarge: They tend to be most active because they tend to have little to no barrier to entry.
    – hobodave
    Sep 1, 2010 at 21:35
  • @sarge: I'm not necessarily opposed to greatly restricting what we currently let slide w/r/t list/poll type questions. Most of the ones that exist, including the one I asked, were in the early days. It would make moderation simpler, should make it easier to understand for new users (less why was mine closed but not X?), and would improve the quality of the site. Looking at some of the answers to some of our larger CW's, they're just all over the place. The average quality of answer just sucks compares to the objective questions.
    – hobodave
    Sep 1, 2010 at 21:42

Part of the issue with placing things into groupings (in this case, 'is related to cooking' and 'is subjective') is that we the boundaries of some types of groups are a bit fuzzy.

In my mind, the parsley question is similar to so many other questions about what are suitable replacements for items that people can't find. There's over 100 questions tagged 'substitutions' (out of 1333). I will admit, that's it's much more subjective than the other substitutions, where we might be trying to re-create specific properties (acidity, sweetness, etc.), but there's often similar chemical compounds that can be measured even for aspects of 'tastes similar to'.

The green tea question ... I'm undecided on. Personally, I'm waiting for the community to establish what's suitable or not for these borderline items. I might cast the 5th vote to close, and if I feel strongly about it, I might cast the 4th vote, but it's got to be blatant and not something that could be saved for me to close it right off the bat.

In my opinion, the green tea question could've been saved if it were worded differently:

I have to (consume) (ingredient) each day for medical reasons, and I'm getting tired of it. Are there any interesting things I can do to add variety?

We've had similar questions on the site, and as best I can recall, they weren't closed, or at least weren't closed as quickly. Maybe they just had the advantage of being asked before we had moderators.

  • Thanks Joe - see also my reply above to aaronut. Aug 31, 2010 at 2:45

I'd think a close analog to the green tea question that got left open was


This question didn't go into the science of it. If it were asked today, would it be closed or left open?

  • Interesting. That's actually his 2nd attempt at this (deleted) question: cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/4741/… The phrasing he uses in the open one is actually directly suggested by me.
    – hobodave
    Aug 31, 2010 at 15:49
  • I'd like to point out that in both cases the original question was closed. Chad took the advice and opened a better one, ixt threw a fit on meta.
    – hobodave
    Aug 31, 2010 at 15:52
  • So my question is, rather than closing these questions and asking them to open a better one, why don't we just edit them to be a better question? That seems like it would both reduce noise and be more congenial to the sense of community. Aug 31, 2010 at 15:56
  • @hobodave - so would "what common or uncommon flavors pair well with green tea (and a chemical reason if you have one)" have remained open?
    – justkt
    Aug 31, 2010 at 17:26
  • @justkt: I wouldn't have cast only the 2nd close vote on it. My reason for shutting it down wasn't that it was a flavor question, but that it was a blatant "what is your favorite", as stated in my comments. I still think it's a bad idea that we permit these as they literally have no bounds.
    – hobodave
    Aug 31, 2010 at 17:34
  • @hobodave - thanks for the clarification. That helps me understand some of the appropriate question bounds.
    – justkt
    Aug 31, 2010 at 17:38

First, the question wasn't "what goes with tea?", it was "What is your favorite ...". This is off-topic and not valid material for the site, period.

Second, this is mentioned in Aaronut's comments to another answer here, is that subjective questions are not allowed by default. This is listed in the FAQ, in the close reasons, and quoted numerous times by members of this site, moderators or otherwise. Then there is a special subset of questions that we call "lists or polls", these are even less tolerated. This site simply isn't built for that, nor is it meant to handle those types of questions.

These formats of questions are simply guilty until proven innocent. We have made two rather well defined exceptions thus far: (1) "what are some good resources?", and (2) "What else can I do with X?". The tea question simply doesn't fit into either of these categories.

Thankfully the list of candidates for (1) is small, and I think we've covered all the possible questions that fit into that. It also provides something we lack, recipes. We don't allow them here, but we do provide some helpful resources.

The second category is actually quite vast, and while I think it's useful, I can actually see it spiraling out of control. Since we've established that we're allowing "What can I do with X?" questions, we can potentially see hundreds, if not thousands of these. Simply replace X with thyme, oregano, cilantro, milk, ancho chiles, etc.

I really don't see a benefit in adding additional exceptions to these. By opening the door to the tea question, or the sandwich question (What can I do to spice up my boring sandwich?) we open the flood gates to virtually every food related question on the planet. Currently we have permitted the exception for specific ingredients, which exposes us to every ingredient possible, but there is no way to restrict what dishes would be acceptable. We'd see things like "What can I add to X?" where X could be manicotti, lasagana, mostaccioli, ravioli, etc.

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