It’s one of my biggest fears, something that sometimes even keeps me awake at night: Writing recipes that are inaccurate, incomplete or incomprehensibly worded.
When I started teaching cooking classes, I was determined to write accurate, easily understood recipes. Cooking involves all of the senses, not just taste. I knew what I meant when I said “well browned.” I knew what it tasted like, looked like, smelled like, the sound made by browning at the proper temperature, how it should feel to the touch – but now I needed to communicate it to others.
Students would see the recipes demonstrated and in most cases have made them in class, but would they be able to re-create what they’d done and seen months later? What if they gave a recipe to a friend? The recipes needed to be usable by themselves.
There was terminology: Should I explain the difference between “chop,” “dice” and “mince”? Between “braise” and “stew” or between “rolling boil,” “boil,” “simmer” and “bare simmer”? I found myself using words like “squish” (as in “squish the contents of the bag to make sure everything is coated with the marinade”). It sounded unprofessional, but was the most accurate way I could think of to convey what needed to happen. Cooking times can vary widely, depending on a burner’s heat intensity, pan type and size, oven temperature (rarely exactly what it says on the dial), and even humidity.
What about fruit and vegetable size? I’m irritated by recipes that call for a “small” onion, or one carrot, or two cloves of garlic (Should I define “clove of garlic”?). What’s small to me might be medium to others. Some carrots and garlic cloves – or apples, tomatoes, celery stalks, etc. – are two or three times as big as others. It doesn’t always matter, but an onion that yields two chopped cups or more can make a dish very different than one made with an onion that only yields a cup. I decided to use only measured amounts: 1/2 cup equals a small onion, one cup equals a medium onion, two cups equals one large onion; one teaspoon of minced garlic equals one clove, and so on.
Then there’s the number of servings. Unless the recipe produces individual portions (one steak, one tomato, two slices of French toast, etc.) or yields specific amounts (makes two cups or one cake), the amount a recipe yields depends on diners’ appetites and what else is served. For example, pasta that serves four if preceded only by a salad may serve six if appetizers and bread are included in the meal or eight or more if it comes in between antipasti, salad, or soup and a main protein course.
Determined as I was to create accurate recipes, I didn’t think it’d be terribly difficult. Wrong! I agonized over those first recipes, spending days getting them just right. Giving recipes to friends is one thing, but people would be paying for these. I asked friends and family to test and critique. I lay awake at night reviewing them.
Fortunately, those first recipes were OK, although revisiting them, I realized my recipe writing skills have improved. Eventually it became somewhat easier, but recipe writing still takes a lot of time. And I’ve never quit obsessing about clarity, omissions and mistakes.
A primary reason getting recipes right was so primal is that I know how many are vague, confusing and even plain wrong. I’ve seen cookbook pictures of dishes that contained ingredients not listed in the recipe and vice versa. Web recipes for something prepared on TV can be substantially different than what’s shown on the screen.
Unfortunately, some professional chefs – and their recipe testers – are the worst culprits; they apparently just can’t accurately translate restaurant preparations for home cooks. Chefs use a kind of shorthand when sharing recipes with each other: In a magazine for food professionals such as Food Arts, a recipe for Lemon Raspberry Tart with Spiced Nut Crust might read, “Make pâte sucré with almonds and cinnamon, blind bake, fill with lemon curd, top with glazed raspberries.”
On the other hand, some chefs make it needlessly complicated, such as Jimmy Bannos’ use of roasted-garlic purée in his cookbook. The chef/owner of Chicago’s Heaven on Seven restaurants calls for it in every recipe that uses garlic. Easy for him: He undoubtedly has vats of the stuff made by his prep cooks. Roasted garlic is delicious and has many uses, but doesn’t contribute anything special in long-cooked preparations such as sauces, stews and soups. There’s no reason that a home cook needs to take that extra step. Minced raw garlic will work just as well.
Chefs aren’t the only ones who have trouble writing cookbooks. Perhaps the most infamous blunder was made by Alice B. Toklas, longtime partner of Gertrude Stein. After Stein’s death, Toklas – legendary for her French homestyle cooking – needed money and started writing about food. She signed a contract for a cookbook but soon regretted it, saying that the job was “miserable” and “tormenting.” Toklas couldn’t come up with enough recipes; she met the magazine’s deadline by frantically imploring friends for an entire chapter’s worth that she apparently didn’t bother to read, much less test.
Surrealist painter and writer Brion Gysin contributed a confection that “might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR.” It promised “euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personalities on several simultaneous planes.” The recipe called for butter, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, dates, figs, almonds, peanuts... and “canibus [sic] sativa.”
Toklas might have been at the center of 1920s Bohemian Paris, but she was no pothead: Toklas had no idea what the mystery ingredient was; when told, she was furious. The publisher, who apparently hadn’t proofed Toklas’ manuscript either, quickly removed “Haschich Fudge” from subsequent editions.
Here are a couple recipe-reading suggestions:
- Read the entire recipe before beginning. I can’t emphasize this enough. First, you’re making sure that you have everything before starting. Nothing is more frustrating than realizing that you’re missing a crucial ingredient.
Except, that is, finding out that the recipe takes longer or has more steps than you assumed. Deciding to make something for dinner – or even worse, a dinner party – and then realizing that you have to go shopping or that it must cook for hours either means eating at midnight or carryout. It seems obvious, but it’s a lesson many people (including me) have learned the hard way.
- Trust your judgment. Sure, the more experienced a cook is, the better he or she will be able to decide whether a recipe will work, but, even if you’re a novice, if a recipe doesn’t make sense you probably should skip it. Sometimes all that’s needed is to change things around a bit. I recently made a recipe from an old Gourmet magazine that called for pork to be browned for eight to 10 minutes. What seemed wrong was the instruction to add fresh herbs to the pan at the beginning. Surely they’d burn, I thought. I compromised by adding them at the end of browning but quickly snatched them out – they’d immediately started smoking. I put them back when I was adding braising liquid. The roast slowly cooked for hours and was wonderful, suffused with the (thankfully unburnt) herbs’ perfume.
Hard as I try – and although it pains me to admit it – I still occasionally make mistakes when writing recipes, both my own and recipes from others that I transcribe. So if you see anything that doesn’t make sense, whether it’s an instruction or ingredient, commission or omission, please let me know. I’ll be embarrassed for sure. But I’ll be even more happy to have the chance to clarify or correct.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.