There are many different ways I could begin discussing recipes. Almost as many different ways as there are to write recipes themselves. Each recipe contains subtle differences, which tell you something about the author. Some are more conversational – incorporating jokes, or self-deprecating humour. Others are borderline clinical, as precise – and engaging – as a bomb defusal manual.
These differences won’t necessarily make the recipe more reliable or more tasty, but they can affect your perception of that; we can be put off a meal not only by the ingredients, but also by the metaphor and simile surrounding them.
Much like with any other form of creative writing, different readers will be attracted to different things. I, for example, love Nigel Slater’s evocative descriptions of foods’ textures and soul. It was Nigel’s voice which taught me not just to cook, but to love cooking. To savour it. But I have also heard people say that they don’t like his narrative voice at all, which puts them off his recipes.
I believe a good recipe – no matter its style – should allow us to see the dish in our mind’s eye, just as a novel allows us to see its characters. Learning to read and interpret a recipe is in itself a skill, much like learning to read a novel is.
For example, before starting to cook something new, you should always read the recipe all the way through, and get all your ingredients out. It doesn’t always happen for most of us – but it is often the source of disaster when disaster occurs. Whenever I read the brilliant instagram account, @nytimescookingcomments, some of the readers’ mistakes and confusion clearly stems from missing out these two steps.
A slightly more complicated, but almost even more important step, is using your senses. As well as paying attention to the recipe you have to pay attention to the food. Taste constantly, smell constantly, look at it, listen to it. You know if you’ve preheated the oil when you hear that sizzle, know it’s seasoned right when you can’t stop eating it out of the pan. Samin Nosrat even encourages people learning to cook to make something far too salty – just once – so they know what that means, and can find a balance.
But it is challenging to know what you don’t know. I will never forget Ina Garten’s story about learning to make her own recipes more accessible. She had the idea to give her recipe for pesto to a friend who didn’t cook very often, and go with him as he bought the ingredients. She intended to see how easily he could find the ingredients, but what actually happened, was that upon seeing the first item – “X Cups of basil” – he asked her “Is that dried basil, or fresh?”.
I believe almost every recipe contains its own dried basil – a tiny detail which seemed so obvious to the author, they never thought to include it. Not, that is, until they receive countless comments asking if you can make a brown butter sauce with margarine. I’m sure everyone can remember a time when we thought a substitution would work beautifully – only to be very disappointed. For me, it would be the time I swapped baking soda for baking powder before I knew better. I think I had to toss the whole cake in the bin.
The problem is, to avoid every recipe being unreadable, there has to be a balance. A compromise between pedagogy and brevity, clarity and cautioning. Recipe writers rely on a reader’s common sense to fill in the gaps – if they didn’t, it would take a manual the size of the King James Bible to describe boiling an egg. The trick, of course, lies in finding that balance.
If you enjoyed these musings, MFK Fisher’s “The Anatomy of a Recipe” in With Bold Knife and Fork is a fantastic read. Although no one will believe me, I actually only discovered that she had written an article on this topic – with the same title – after I wrote this. Such is life.