ChefTalk.com › ChefTalk Cooking Forums › Cooking Discussions › Food & Cooking › What makes a written recipe good? bad?
New Posts  All Forums:Forum Nav:

What makes a written recipe good? bad?

post #1 of 22
Thread Starter 
I will be giving a presentation to a group of chefs on writing recipes for home cooks, and have a question for home-cook members here who follow written recipes: what do you consider necessary for a recipe to be well-written? And on the flip side, what makes you hate trying to use a recipe, or have trouble following it?

I'm deliberately leaving this vague, so you can free-associate as you wish. The only thing I don't want to hear is: "I made such-and-such and hated it." And I don't really want the specifics of the book/magazine/newspaper or the recipe's author; that is, no flaming, please. If you think someone's recipes are consistently good or consistently bad, what makes them that way?

I may come back with some leading questions later, depending on responses.

Oh -- and I'm interested in hearing from home cooks at all skill levels, from absolute beginner right up to very skilled. Thanks!
"Notorious stickler" -- The New York Times, January 4, 2004
Reply
"Notorious stickler" -- The New York Times, January 4, 2004
Reply
post #2 of 22
I'm a very experienced home cook. I love to read cookbooks and love to try recipes.
WHAT I LIKE:
- a really good description of what the thing is going to taste like. If you put, say, two differnt chocolate cake recipes in a cookbook, i want to know what qualities one has and what the other has. I want to know why i should try one or the other. I also want to know even if you have only one chocolate cake recipe, because i have plenty of others and weant to know why i should use yours. I want it to be chatty before the actual recipe starts, and more succinct once the actual recipe begins
- Clear instructions, in clear step-by-step format. Ingredients listed one on top of the other, and steps listed one on top of the other, sort of like i'm listing the what-i-likes here.
-the description of the procedures should correspond to their time sequence. If you do x first and y second, x has to be written before y.
- The descriptions of procedures should be to the point and not too extensive.
- The instructions should tell you how the thing should look at different stages ("this will look curdled" "this will be somewhat thick" etc
- explanations wherever possible (why do you do it this way? Is it for a reason, might i do it another way? For example,it was very useful to know that if you mix flour and liquid too much you develop gluten, good in bread but not good in cake. But if your liquid is with the fat, then it's different. Or that sauteeing garlic, onion, etc, in fat releases the fat-soluble aromas)

WHAT I DON;T LIKE.
I'll give examples for these, since i came across them
- the old fanny farmer cookbook has lots of recipes for the same dish, and no description whatsoever of the differences between the dishes
- many cookbooks have the instructions all in a paragraph. I like them in steps. I usually read a step, then do it, then go back and read the next, and don;t like to have to search it out inside a paragraph
- measurements in various formats - e.g. I hate when butter is measured in tablespoons. I like cups, and then (possibly) weight, then also tbsp if you like (i always have to transform stuff from one system to another, so that's my particular gripe as a resident in europe
- italian cookbooks are always telling you stuff out of sequence (do this, then do that, then add the beans that have been previously soaked for 12 hours - AARGH!) - i know i know you should read through the recipe first, but still, if you do a lot of cooking you may not bother.
- overly detailed technique descriptions - like for example the time life cooking of the world series - i love those books but i get fed up with so many words - e.g. grease the pan with softened butter on a paper towel and then dust with flour. rap upside down on a table to remove excess flour. Come on, gimme a break, who cares what paper you use to grease it, and who wouldn;t figure out what kind of surface to rap the pan on - say simply "grease with butter and flour", and if you must, add "tap out excess flour" or something. If anythign make a general instruction for preparing pans at the beginning of the chapter and describe how you might do it.
- instructions that are too vague - just as irritating. "add onions" are they chopped, sliced, minced, grated? etc.

Hope this helps
As you can see i do a lot of thinking about this.
"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
Reply
"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
Reply
post #3 of 22
oh, and i like to read someone who writes well, with evocative descriptive language
"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
Reply
"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
Reply
post #4 of 22
Well my biggest thing getting a recipe that says add a dash of this, or a splash of that. I mean come on they have to know how much in order to write the darn thing. Incomplete instructions is another thing. I got a recipe off another site here while back do not remember what it was for but there was a typo and I screwed the recipe up because of it. Error checking should be priority especially when you have cooks out there that are just starting out.

Rgds Rook
post #5 of 22
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.

Phil
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
Reply
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
Reply
post #6 of 22
Exactly Phil I just could not express it that way good job.

Rgds Rook
post #7 of 22
I'll give similar suggestion to Siduri, but I don't like a long explanation before a recipe. Craig Claiborne's New York Times cookbook has a sentence or two, and that does the job well.

Chefs shouldn't use "chefese" without immediately paraphrasing. And for heaven's sake, make sure they don't say anything about searing meat to seal in the juices!!! I'm still hearing that on Food Network and on PBS now and then.

I guess my pet peeve is "Combine the first seven ingredients".... The ingredients should be grouped by steps. For instance, the ingredients for a bechamel (white sauce) should be given and labled as ingredients for that portion of the recipe along with the method for that element. The meat sauce should have its own set of ingredients and instructions. I think Julia Child does this in her books. (It's too late and I'm too tired to pull out Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but I think it's in there as well as The Way to Cook.)

Print layout should allow plenty of space for comments. I just scribbled up a page for the recipe I used for rugelach. My mom did the same in some of her cookbooks, and now they're that much more useful (and precious) to me.
Moderator Emerita, Welcome Forum
***It is better to ask forgiveness than beg permission.***
Reply
Moderator Emerita, Welcome Forum
***It is better to ask forgiveness than beg permission.***
Reply
post #8 of 22
There is so much here in this thread that I agree with that quoting it all would probably get tedious to read. So ditto to just about everything here :D .

What I have to add is somewhere between a preference and a question.
If a recipe calls for using an ingredient at several different junctures, I sometimes find it confusing to have the ingredients list call for 3T of soy sauce and then the instructions start with 1 3/4 T soy sauce for a marinade and then later call for 1 1/4 T soy sauce added to the first ingredients in the wok and then the final 1/2 T somewhere else (yes, I know that adds up to 3 1/2T, but that's also what I'm talking about ;) ). Sometimes I would find it easier to have the ingredients list broken up into sub-headings like: "marinade," "sauce," and "whatever." HOWEVER, this could create a problem when it comes to putting together the MEP. Maybe subheadings that divide up the directions rather than the ingredients might be the answer. Rather than the simple do this then this then that, I'd like to know what I'm going for before I begin. In other words, don't surprise me at the end of the paragraph. Let me know with a clear subheading that this particular step will result in the marinade.

Sorry for the meandering post, but I'm just thinking out-loud (er, on-line? :o )
Emily

______________________

"If you are not killing plants, you are not really stretching yourself as a gardener." -- J. C. Raulston, American Horticulturist
Reply
Emily

______________________

"If you are not killing plants, you are not really stretching yourself as a gardener." -- J. C. Raulston, American Horticulturist
Reply
post #9 of 22
There are a few things that really bug me. One occurs way too often and the other, though it doesn't occur often, is a serious problem when it comes up. The first issue is misspelled words. The other is when an ingredient is not listed in the "ingredients" section but is in the procedures section or vise versa. Both seem more like editing issues, but these are my biggest pet peeves in cookbooks.
post #10 of 22
Mezzaluna, you got me, is this some new development in cooking science that has escaped me? I've eaten some pretty awful pieces of meat as a guest at people's houses where they put the meat in the cold pan, then turn it on - water coming out of them and the meat sort of boiling. It always made sense to me to sear first, since it works like cauterization of a wound - stops the bleeding - so I'm curious why this doesn;t work in cooking???
"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
Reply
"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
Reply
post #11 of 22
I never realise that there are so many important factors that make a good written recipe. I surely learnt some things here which will help me in my website on simple Asian cooking.

But then again, I have learnt cooking more on trial and error rather than sticking closely to each and every instruction.
Visit my site on home-cooked Asian recipes!

http://deliciousasianfood.com
Reply
Visit my site on home-cooked Asian recipes!

http://deliciousasianfood.com
Reply
post #12 of 22
The other posts in this thread raise some excellent and valid points. It seems to me that there is a fine balance between providing enough information that the complete novice will understand the process and providing so much detail that it puts anybody off.

It is important to me that the recipe writer does not assume that the reader has any specific knowledge or skills. When executing a recipe many of us do certain things almost intuatively or at least automatically because we have done it a thousand times and it is second nature. In writing instructions it is easy to gloss over that process and that can be a mistake if the reader is doing it for the first time. On the other hand, writing detailed instructions for every step can be counter productive.

If you are writing a book it should be relatively easy to include the detail for those who need it in either a side bar or in a section of the book devoted to special techniques. If it is a single recipe it may be useful to include an addendum with the details applicable to that recipe. That's what I do when I write a recipe for friends I know have limited abilities; even if it came from a published source.

Giving encouragement to beginners is always a good idea I think. I know from my own experience that it took a lot of attempts at something before I truely understood it. Julia is always good at encouragement in her teaching I think.

Jock
post #13 of 22
Siduri, searing is very desireable! It just doesn't have the power to seal in juices. It serves to give the meat wonderful flavor. :lips: You'll have to read Harold McGee's explanation for this, but Alton Brown also did it on his show and proved it does not seal in juices; they still run. But the seared crust gives the meat flavor and allows the juices on the bottom of the pan ("fond") to make the base of a wonderful pan sauce.
Moderator Emerita, Welcome Forum
***It is better to ask forgiveness than beg permission.***
Reply
Moderator Emerita, Welcome Forum
***It is better to ask forgiveness than beg permission.***
Reply
post #14 of 22
I like when you can completely make your mise from the ingredient list; 8oz bell pepper quarter inch dice, 2 cloves garlic minced, 3 tbls paprika divided 2/1, etc. I don't like a list of ingredients with all the direction in the text.

If we're talking cookbook, I like a preamble, history, a sense of the intention, but if it's just to read and prepare, just straightforeward.

Tony
post #15 of 22
For me, yield amounts are important. I like the recipe to be given in weight and, if it's not, to have an accurate description of how one is supposed to measure the cups etc. I also like a good description of the outcome... taste and such as mentioned in the first reply.
post #16 of 22
i disagree with this one. I hate to see some miniscule quantity measured - 1/4 tsp, 1/8 tsp - i say only do that when it really makes a difference, like possibly in a cake. i never measure those small quantities, and go by eye. The amount of salt or pepper has to be judged by taste, not by measure. It's annoying to find them measured like the accuracy made a difference. It's like saying "stir with a wooden spoon" - and if i stirred with a plastic spoon or a metal spoon, would that really make a difference? Usually not.
"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
Reply
"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
Reply
post #17 of 22
In that case, the description of the taste needs to be detailed and accurate so that it can be replicated.
post #18 of 22
I'm sure many of us would like to have ingredients expressed in weight rather than volume but the reality is the vast majority of home cooks (presumably who the recipes are being written for) do not have scales in the kitchen but almost all will have cup and spoon measures.

I think weight becomes more critical (and practical) when you are dealing with larger quantities. Who wants to measure 20 cups of chopped onion? And baking of course where proportions are critical. Even then, recipe writers consider that their audience may not have accurate scales and develop recipes that work well enough from volume measurements.

Recipe writers (and especially professional chefs) should not talk down to the reader. I've seen that on occasion and it annoys me to no end.

Another thing that annoys me about some recipes is when they say a "small" onion or a "medium" leek. What does that mean?

Jock
post #19 of 22
Barb Ostmann wrote a handbook for recipe writers that won alot of awards......
I've got a problem with dumbing down recipes, know your audience is the first criteria.....who are you writing for......

I like old Joy of Cooking, I like the format, I like the ease of using the recipes.....I use that often as a template.

size of pans matters often.
cooking with all your senses.....
Reply
cooking with all your senses.....
Reply
post #20 of 22
I am a home cook and so many of the points made here fit me well. I like detail so I understand what needs to be done, but not so much I get bogged down. I also like substitution recommendations but it's not a necessity as I do have internet sites as well as cookbooks to help with that.

I do not have kitchen scales so weight of ingredients doesn't help me as much as measurements. I know I need to invest in some good scales.

I agree, don't talk down but make sure there is a reference to different techniques for those of us who may not understand them. I consider myself a pretty decent self taught cook but would love to take a class where I can learn the techniques I see in many cookbooks.

My favorite cookbooks are the ones more for home cooking using simple everyday ingredients. While I love experimenting, I can't always fit expensive ingredients into my budget, especially with no idea if my family will even enjoy them! Common ingredients can make good food with the right amounts and cooking methods! Not to say I don't enjoy new things and exotic flavors. I just can't always get the right ingredients to make them myself. I live in rural Indiana and have to drive almost an hour to a city of any size.

Oh yeah and small onion, medium, etc. doesn't always make a lot of sense! I grew up in Vidalia Onion country where a small onion may be a large to other people. A measurement is helpful in some instances in others, I just go with good judgement and hope it's right for that particular recipe!
post #21 of 22
Oh, that one drives me crazy! I'm stopping to count the "next 5 ingredients", and trying to figure out where "next" starts. Then trying to figure out if the second quantity of sugar goes with the first mention of sugar in the directions or the second. I'm thinking of my favorite cinnamon roll recipe that was printed in the local newspaper years ago. It gives this huge list of ingredients, and does the "next 5 ingredients" bit about 3 times.:eek:

The layout that comes to mind for me is that of Gourmet magazine. You have the ingredients & directions for one part of the recipe, say, a cake, then you have a second ingredient list and directions for the icing/frosting/glaze. It is much easier to keep track of what you are doing. On the downside, it takes a few more seconds to make a shopping list for that kind of recipe, but I would spend that few extra seconds for the easier to follow layout.
Cheers,
texasflute
Reply
Cheers,
texasflute
Reply
post #22 of 22
Yes, Texasflute, you make a very good point. That too bugs me in recipes. Who has time to count all the different 5 ingredients when they're in the middle of putting it all together? I do read the recipe and ensure I have what I need on hand but can't remember it all word for word. I love to have it broken down like that!
New Posts  All Forums:Forum Nav:
  Return Home
  Back to Forum: Food & Cooking
ChefTalk.com › ChefTalk Cooking Forums › Cooking Discussions › Food & Cooking › What makes a written recipe good? bad?