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Do too many cooks spoil the broth?

Do too many cooks spoil the broth?

By David G. Hall
School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, Woodland Road, Bristol, BS8 1UG, United Kingdom.


The origin of this proverb is somewhat sketchy, but the meaning is as clear as a bell.* Or is it? Do too many cooks actually spoil the broth? In this experiment, broth is prepared, cooked, and served by several kitchens full (and not so full) of cooks, in an attempt to quantify the problem.

* Origin also unknown.


A standard broth recipe was obtained and followed (Box 1), using a number of different cooks. Cooks were assembled in the kitchen area, and each ‘group’ of cooks had the same amount of ingredients at their disposal, and the same amount of time.

The broth was prepared at different sessions by: 1 cook, 2 cooks, 4 cooks, 8 cooks and 16 cooks, each using the same kitchen facilities and each broth was tested immediately after preparation. Blind tasting of broth was carried out by a group of 10 judges, each rating the soup on a scale of 1-5, 1 being ‘foul’ and 5 being ‘sublime’.


Box 1.
Scotch Broth (Traditional) Recipe
Celery, Turnip, Carrot, Onion, Vegetable stock, Lean lamb (chopped), Pearl barley, Chopped parsley, Salt and Pepper

Add the meat to the pan, then add the stock. Dice all the vegetables and add to the pan. Season well. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 2 - 2.5 hours. Finally, add the parsley and serve hot.



The totals for the broth scores are seen in Table 1. Broth with one cook was very salty. With two cooks, there was a tasty broth, but a bland aftertaste. With four cooks, there was a superb taste, with a very tangy, vegetable-rich soup that was well seasoned. Eight cooks created a tasty soup, but with a very strong aftertaste, and finally, 16 cooks made an ‘awful’ soup, over-seasoned, thick, lumpy and over-cooked, and one chef sustained whisk wounds.

Table 1. Total broth scores for each of the five concoctions. Totals are the sum of the number of judges multiplied by the broth rating.

Figure 1. Total broth score for each of the cook groups, with standard deviations.

The quality of the cooking by a number of cooks, as seen in Figure 1, can be described by the equation:

Where: σ is the standard deviation
µ is the mean
p is the probability of a measurement of value x
e is e
1 is 1
2 is 2
and x2 is something squared


A single cook, it seems, gathers no moss… or at least no momentum in the kitchen, and was cooking on a whim with no feedback on the seasoning or general consistency. Two cooks, although making a reasonable broth, constantly bickered and argued like a married couple; two is not always company it seems in this case. Eight cooks engineered a fine broth, but the repeated arguments about seasoning left a bitter after-taste that was not liked by the judges. The sixteen cooks fought continuously, experienced a lack of room to work in and showed a serious lack of coordination which led to time-wasting, abuse, injury and a game of ‘pin the skewer on the sous chef’. Four cooks, however, was a different ball game, with a soup-er broth and good discussion throughout the preparation time.

Recent research into thickening agents (Rosett et al. 1996) and other modern treatments (Houska et al. 2003) might increase broth quality for the future, and decrease the number of cooks that can safely cook in the kitchen. The gender of the cooks was not investigated in this study, and was kept secret from the judges to reduce bias, but work may have to be carried out to investigate whether males have greater or fewer kitchen squabbles than females.


Too many cooks do seem to spoil the broth (in concurrence with Cleland & Clark 2003), but too few cooks also seem to spoil the broth. It is recommended that the proverb be modified to include “too few”. It also seems to suggest that many hands don't make light work, although further research may be required to prove this.


Cleland, J.G.F. and Clark, A.L. (2003). Delivering the cumulative benefits of triple therapy to improve outcomes in heart failure - Too many cooks will spoil the broth. Journal of the American College of Cardiology 42, 1234-1237.

Houska, M., Sun, D.W., Landfeld, A. and Zhang, Z.H. (2003). Experimental study of vacuum cooling of cooked beef in soup. Journal of Food Engineering 59, 105-110.

Rosett, T.R., Kendregan, S.L., Gao, Y., Schmidt, S.J., and Klein, B.P. (1996). Thickening agents effects on sodium binding and other taste qualities of soup systems. Journal of Food Science 61, 1099-1104.

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20 Jul 2017
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