I’m reviewing a lot of cookbooks lately. I’m incredibly okay with this. I have a thing for cookbooks that comes relatively close to rivaling my thing for journals. For something that’s generally short and seemingly easy, recipes are really hard to get right, especially with all the copyright issues around them. With the ever growing number of cooking themed blogs and books out there, it’s always interesting to see what new ideas people can bring to the topic. Like all genres of writing, there are issues at play. And since those issues are currently giving me an eye tic, both as a reviewer and a barely functional home cook, it seems as good a time as any to talk ’em out.
Don’t leave things out.
Seriously, an ingredients list needs to be complete. By this, I mean that literally every edible thing that goes into that freakin’ dish is mentioned in the ingredients list. Don’t tell me half way through the processes that I needed to have salt and pepper, or cold water at a certain temperature, or whatever other random crap you happen to have remembered at that point. Include that bastard in the ingredients list.
That’s the entire freakin’ point of the list of ingredients: it tells me what I need to use to make a dish. It’s your job as the writer of a recipe to have that shit sorted long before I ever lay eyes upon it. Typically, people using a recipe just write out the ingredients list and go shopping or prepping from there. Which means that, unless they’re aware you’ve left things out and are checking over your recipe like a frustrated teacher in marking season, they’re going to miss ingredients. That’s an almighty pain in the ass, and one that doesn’t make the writer look good.
If I have to stop what I’m doing to chill water or make ice- or worse, head out to the shops- I’m not going to be happy, especially if it means having to start the cook all over again. If I have to stop and go grab or prepare something mid way through a cook, I’m hoping every time you bake, it burns. I’m hoping you confuse salt and sugar for the rest of your natural life. If I have to red pen a book to be able to use the recipes in it, I’m wishing you cookery ills like you wouldn’t believe.
Conversely, if it’s in the ingredients list, it needs to be used in the recipe. There’s a surprising number of recipes out there that call for an ingredient that never gets used. If you as the writer have skipped a step, the reader has zero chance of perfectly recreating the dish. And now they’ve got a random ingredient they need to do something with. This is not a good way to look professional, or have people wanting to try more of your recipes.
Keep it freakin’ simple.
This ‘I’m gonna say this recipe has three steps, but each step has, like, 18 processes’ thing frustrates the hell out of me. So let’s clear up that issue. This is the point of a recipe: in the simplest language possible, a recipe tells someone who has never made the dish before exactly what they have to do to make that freakin’ dish.
That’s it. It’s meant to be simple, clear, and direct. If you’re showing off, you’re doing it wrong. If it’s wordy and rambling or going off on tangents, you’re doing it wrong. If it’s an intimidating block of tiny text with no white space, you might actually be Satan.
Too many processes jammed together make it easier for people to skip over steps. Bad things happen when people skip steps. At best, they wonder why the hell you created and hocked the steaming pile of grossness congealing on their plates, and never buy another of your books or try another of your recipes. At worst, they flood your Goodreads or Amazon reviews with hate because the food tasted like barf.
Seriously, if people have to rewrite your recipe to be able to use it, you’re doing it wrong.
There are no ad breaks in recipes.
If the information doesn’t directly impact the process, it goes in the notes section. What that means is that you don’t interrupt the processes to shill products. Yes, I know you’re paid to say it. No, I don’t actually care why you’re hocking that particular product. I don’t need the sales pitch rammed brutally into the processes.
Fine, have a tools list where you say to use a particular brand of product. Or even go the Tupperware™ route and use the item’s full branded name in the processes if you really feel you must (though that’s irritating). Whatever. But if you really feel the need to declare, in detail, your love of a certain brand of spatula, just add it into a notes section at the end of the recipe. People skimming over the sales pitches are more likely to miss a process, which tends to bring about barf-tasting food and the urge to set fire to the cookbook responsible.
Spell check is your BFF. So is proper grammar and punctuation.
Does anyone else remember the ‘freshly ground black people‘ screw up? Yeah. Don’t do that.
But also? Make sure it makes sense. Capitalise brand names if you’re using them, make sure you have deleted all the words you were meant to. Read it out loud to yourself. No, really, it’s the best way to find screw ups in your writing. Find yourself a tame English teacher, and give them a print out and a red pen. Find the angriest home cook you know, and ask them to tell you what they think. Not the nice people who’ll tell you it’s wonderful while quietly throwing out their attempts at cooking it. The ones who’ll call you out on things with flailing gestures and rich profanity.
Get it to the point that anyone who stumbles onto that recipe can look at it and believe they could make it. Give us pretty pictures (and if you need help figuring out how to do that, look at Kirsten Tibballs ‘Chocolate‘ for some phenomenal visual foodgasms) and white space so our eyes don’t bleed. White space is your friend. It tells the brain (rightly or wrongly) that it’s an easier recipe- which means better chances of success, and more people are likely to try it.
You know those recipes that make you think you’re capable of achieving them? Those ones that inspire you to try, those ones that become a family favourite?
Yeah. Make that kind of recipe.