Education, Clarity, and Detail
I enjoy a chatty introduction, explaining the history, motivation, uses and such of each recipe. These discussions are what most motivate me to try a recipe, the ingredients second. This discussion also helps me understand how to use the dish, what tweaks I might consider for alterations. This is especially true for an ethnic or regional cuisine I am not intimately familiar with.
I like explanations of odd or critical technique or odd ingredients up front in the intro to the recipe too. Or special tools if required. Pressure cooker for example. Recommendations are fine, but mention alternatives such as, "Wok preferred, but a 12 inch heavy skillet is acceptable".
Each intro should include a sentence on mise en place. In Asian cooking, I just assume everything needs to be ready beforehand and so do most authors of those cuisines. But a note about what needs to be done ahead or at least before a certain critical junction is important to know for dishes where there's a bottleneck. It should be mentioned in the body of the recipe where it happens too.
I prefer ingredients in a list, rather than interspersed through the recipe as in Joy of Cooking. I also want EVERYTING used in the recipe in the ingredient list. Quite often, recipes leave out water thinking it's not biggie. I often cook a dish for the first time in odd places (camping) and getting extra water, or hot water or ice cold water is an issue. Yes, I'll have read the recipe once, or twice before hand, but I've been burned on this one before. Also important for recipes that use a discard from earlier in the process, such as pasta or potato water, or mushroom water.
I prefer ingredients to be in the list in order of use, not in decreasing order by quantity used.
If an ingredient can't be substituted, remind us in the ingredient list with verbiage such as "No Substitute", but only for ingredients we would think might be substitutable. In Chicken Marsala, you could substitute veal, or turkey. I wouldn't think Marsala is substitutable.
I like a brief description of variations at the end of the recipe. I've toyed with the idea in my cookbook of writing the "scratch" recipe up front then the shortcut version after noting the taste tradeoffs.
Watch the jargon. Many of the french terms are becoming better known, but there should be an explanation for the term if it's at all uncommon. A glossary is good too, especially for ethnic or regional books.
As mentioned, include many descriptive cues. Sound, smell, color, appearance, time, pan reactions and so on.
Check your assumptions. Jeff Smith sometimes just describes a dish, either because it is simply impractical for a home cook to attempt--Drunken Shrimp where live shrimp are place in an alcohol tank to become drunk and saturated before cooking; where's the home cook going to get live shrimp and enough of the alcohol to fill a tank for them to swim in?--or because he thinks it's too simple to bother with details. I learned to cook from Jeff Smith and at that time some of his super simple described dishes were beyond me. I'd have appreciated some hand holding. The description would have sufficed in the intro and newbies could have gone on the recipe as needed in that case.
Another for instance. I've never read an omelet recipe I think a beginner could succceed with. IMO, That dish takes practice and hopefully participating with someone who knows how to do it to really learn it. I still consider it a tricky dish to do well for myself. Such simplicity to describe, but the correct heat, which varies with the stove and the pan in use, the texture and timing; it's deceptively not simple. And if you're a camper, a cool morning with a camp stove and a breeze can change the dynamics completely.
This next one is a tough trade off.
Keep sentences short as well as paragraphs. Coming back to a recipe, it's hard to find the sentence your were just on when you added the last spice. If it takes you a minute to find the spot, but the spice was only supposed to cook 30 seconds before the next addition, the dish is in trouble. Jeff Smith tends to use longer paragraphs than are always friendly.
The problem is this makes a recipe appear more difficult, lengthy and detailed, scaring off beginners.
Few would read it, but there should be a discussion of conventions for the book. How things were measured. Scoop and sweep for the flour or spoon and tap? As I cook at 5000 feet, it's helpful to know if the recipe was tested in low elevations or somewhat higher. For candy cooking, I assume sealevel and correct, but the discussion is important. Mary Crafts local caterer has a catering show on a local PBS station. But she talks about this in her shows, that she's cooking at altitude and temps are different. Some reference pointers throughout the book to this discussion would help remind people of this important detail and help them make important adjustments.
I'd even appreciate a comment on the stove output. If they're testing recipes on a commercial stove, their medium heat is not the same as medium on my wimpy 14000 BTU home burner. That's pretty technical info though.
Paul Kirk wrote a book "Paul Kirk's Championship Barbecue Sauces" that is amazing. I didn't come across it until I'd been barbecuing for a year or more. He drops casual comments on critical details I'd struggled with. But he's not pedantic about it and the Q can be good if you didn't get the concept, just not great.The book works at all levels of skill because an experienced cook can see the details and nuance that would overwhelm the beginner. I don't know how he did it exactly and his other books don't do it either so it may not be something he did consciously.
On the other hand, Steve Raichlen 's book "How to Grill" is also excellent but for opposite reasons. Raichlen holds your hand all the way through. Tons of full color pix and only a little text, usually something I find wasteful and more about image than content. However, here he's teaching basic simple concepts in clear detail to walk you through the difficulties fo removing silverskin, prepping a chicken, or whatever. Each recipe includes tips and variations in the sidebars, and suggestions for how to apply the TECHNIQUE he just taught to other dishes. A fantastic book teaches you how, not just rote robotic cooking. His recipes are competent but simple. And oh so clear. I don't consider his flavors the pinnacle of grilling, but the technique in this book is so complete, so educational that it astounds me. The book was motivated by the questions he'd get at his talks and demos. None of his other barbecue or ethnic cookbooks do this nor was that their purpose. But I think this one is the best.
I want a recipe to teach me something. Maybe about a spice, maybe just a technique tip. Maybe something about better prep work, or temp management. The food I cook from a cookbook should help me be a better scratch cook without a recipe.