If you've noticed that the menu of cookery programmes on television is shorter than usual, don't tighten your belt just yet - by the end of the autumn you'll be letting it out again. Tom Sutcliffe tries to work up an appetite
If you have browsing through the Radio Times in the past few weeks, you could be forgiven for thinking that the great cookery boom has already passed. Food and Drink, the senior citizen of the magazine programmes, is off the air, Floyd has finished his tour of South Africa, and those daily stalwarts of the BBC's daytime schedules - Can't Cook, Won't Cook and Ready, Steady, Cook - are nowhere to be seen. Even Masterchef, which honours the domestic wannabes of haute cuisine, has just concluded its 1996 competition.

But the fact that the table has been cleared by a summer season of sport shouldn't mislead you. The second course is on its way and it's a blow- out. "In the next 12 months," says Peter Bazalgette, director of factual programmes for Broadcast Communications, industry leader in the field of foodie broadcasting, "we'll be making something like 350 food programmes."

And that figure doesn't take in the catch-up efforts of networks, which have belatedly recognised the appeal of what Bazalgette calls "leisure- based game shows" - programmes that cheerfully flout nannies' stern injunction not to play with your food. Mentorn Films are preparing a daily food-based quiz show for the ITV network, a programme which will combine culinary instruction with audience participation and which has been queasily entitled Quisine, while Channel 4 is preparing an evening series called TV Dinners, as well as contemplating its own daily daytime celebrity chef programme. BBC2 will be bringing us new series from Rick Stein and Antonio Carluccio and, in perhaps the most calculated marriage of new enthusiasms, has also commissioned a pilot for a series called The Larder Lads, in which Neil Morrissey of Men Behaving Badly joins DJ Jonathan Coleman to "demonstrate how ordinary chaps can cook proper meals without either compromising their masculinity or changing their instinctive, lazy ways". The ingredients reportedly include items called Fat Bastard Meals and Legover Meals. Even the most gluttonous consumers of cookery programmes, then, may find themselves feeling bloated by the end of autumn.

The reasons for this prodigious expansion in culinary broadcasting - from the upmarket instruction of the celebrity chefs to the cheerful food fights of the daytime schedules - are simple. Compared with drama or entertainment, leisure programmes are relatively cheap and within that category, cookery programmes are cheaper still. "Daytime television needs low-budget programming," explains Peter Bazalgette, "and if you do gardening or interior decoration, you really have to go out on location, with all the associated costs that implies. Cookery programmes can be done in a studio, quite well and quite cheaply. If you can then add an element of entertainment to that, you have a very attractive package."

Audiences certainly seem to think so. Ready, Steady, Cook, in which chefs compete to cook instant meals from ingredients supplied by members of the audience, consistently sits in the upper reaches of the BBC2 ratings. "In a cost-per-viewer sense," says Karen Brown at Channel 4, "leisure programmes deliver very good value."

The question of what the programmes are actually doing to that audience is more difficult to answer. "In the Fifties, the average shop carried around 800 items," Peter Bazalgette points out. "Now a good-sized supermarket will carry something like 16,000 different lines." But he notes carefully that it can be difficult to disentangle symptom from cause in this matter. Increased foreign travel, the popularity of ethnic restaurants and the greater sophistication of consumers have all played their part in creating a culture far more adventurous than it used to be. But cookery programmes undoubtedly feed that interest as well as feeding on it. Elizabeth David, who once lamented that you could only buy olive oil over the counter at Boots, would be astounded to find supermarkets offering a range of perhaps 20 different varieties - from single-estate, cold-pressed specialities to basic frying oils. It's also true that a determined and powerful television cook can force an ingredient into the national consciousness - the Delia Effect, by which the Puy lentil or the cranberry is transformed from elusive delicacy to temporary staple, is not simply imaginary.

Even so, it is worth remembering that cooking remains a minority interest. Polenta may be last year's thing in many circles but it would still cause consternation if placed on most works' canteen menus. "I still think you're a gourmet in Britain if you notice what you're eating," says Bazalgette wryly, pointing out that while cookery programmes perform well on minority channels such as BBC2 or in off-peak hours, they are unlikely ever to match prime-time hits on the main channels.

But the fact that cookery programmes remain a niche interest is actually an argument for their beneficial influence rather than against it. One of the common objections to the cookery programmes - that they encourage a mere armchair pig-out among viewers who won't be weaned off frozen pizza - lacks foundation. The image of stolid viewers grazing on a take-away Kebab-U-Like while Delia does something exquisite to an aubergine may offer a tempting journalistic paradox, but it is wide of the mark. By and large, these programmes are watched by an aspirant, self-educating audience and, however ham-fistedly, however half-heartedly, the techniques and recipes shown on television are likely to find their way into domestic kitchens (indeed, to be invited for dinner during a Delia series can considerably shorten the odds on what will appear on your plate.)

There is harder evidence of a practical effect. When Food and Drink sent the top chef Anton Mosimann to cook a budget Sunday lunch for a Sheffield family (arguably the most influential item it ever broadcast in its marriage of rarefied skill and ordinary appetite), one in 25 viewers sent in for the accompanying recipes - a very large response by television standards. Clearly, in that case, television cooking wasn't merely a spectator sport, even if the connection between instruction and performance is sometimes vague. Sainsbury's hugely successful recipe adverts, supported by careful in-store stocking, demonstrate most transparently how the mechanism works - television stimulates the tastebuds and tranquillises the novice's anxiety, while a fact-sheet or Ceefax supplies the detailed instructions for those hungry enough to pursue the matter further. Indeed, that soft-sell format, in which a soothing description accompanies glossy close-ups of the process, has been widely imitated, even by BBC1, which uses an identical style for the recipes in its new food magazine programme The Good Food Show.

In this respect at least, the trickle-down theory works. Culinary standards in Britain haven't been magically transformed by the increase in cookery programmes but they are indisputably moving in the right direction. And the question of whether food programmes have an immediate effect on what viewers cook and eat at home may in any case be a red herring (served, naturally, with a coriander, lime and onion salsa). Rick Stein, whose Taste of the Sea was one of the best of the recent star-chef series, a programme conspicuously determined to steer clear of the al fresco tricksiness of some of his contemporaries, knows the series had a direct influence on some people's palates. "It has a tremendously beneficial effect in getting people into the restaurant who wouldn't have come before," he says, "Certainly, our clientele has changed, but it hasn't been an unpleasant change."

The cynic might argue that the benefit is rather narrowly focused on Rick Stein's bank balance, but that reckons without his genuine passion for food and for the de-mystification of good cooking. It's as important to him that the surge of visitors to his Padstow restaurant included many who had never previously ventured into a top-class establishment, even some who had never eaten any fish that wasn't rectangular and covered in orange breadcrumbs.

He is also impatient with the argument that the celebrity-chef series dangle unattainable pleasures in front of people whose budget will not run to turbot or cod so fresh that it is still flapping. "The controller of BBC2, Michael Jackson, put it very well," he says. "He said it's like programmes about cars - you don't think you're going to own a Ferrari, but it's nice to dream." For the star presenters, of course, it can be a very good way of acquiring a Ferrari, certainly once the promotional deals and publishing spin-offs have been factored in, but that's beside the point. You would have to be priggishly censorious to let the wealth of the cook put you off the food he or she has cooked.

The cookery boom isn't by any means an unmixed blessing - some programmes are silly, some downright misleading. Too many still encourage the rigid commandments of the recipe over the creativity of assured technique (though the sugar-coated instruction of programmes such as Ready, Steady, Cook is doing something to set that right). Others can only be described as recklessly tasteless. Floyd's recent series from South Africa, for instance, included dishes that seemed to have been thrown together as an edible satire on gourmet experimentation. But, on the whole, cookery programmes nourish the right instincts in us - that pleasure matters, that the quality of our food is worth thinking about, that the education of the palate opens new possibilities for daily contentment. And even if some watch only to appease their visual appetite, where's the harm in that? It must be the only form of gourmandising that is absolutely calorie-free.