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Jan 3, 2012 12:40 PM

I Find it Very Tough to Write a Recipe

I have been cooking forever and so have that "instinct" that cooks get via experience. My good friend, on the other hand, is a life-long bachelor and real novice in the kitchen.

My wife and I got him a Dutch oven for Christmas since he's decided he wants to cook a lot more at home, specifically my beef stew that he fell in love with (loaded with black beer, shallots, etc.).

So, I start writing the recipe and again I find recipe writing a very difficult task. Listing ingredients and temperatures is simple, but I try to describe certain critical techniques - like how to brown the meat by not crowding the pot, making sure you don't burn the precious fonde - and a "simple" beef stew recipe becomes War & Peace.

In essence I am trying to teach someone how to cook on paper, which is a very difficult thing to do, and which explains how incomplete recipes always feel to a newcomer.

Is it just me who finds this difficult?

A well written cook book or recipe is a real art. I recently stumbled across Michael Ruhlman's books, and my hat goes off to him.

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  1. Is this friend close by? If so, do some things in person with him. Show him how to cook. Also, i remember watching some Julia Child videos on the basics, they were really good. Is there any reason why he can't watch videos? Maybe you could peruse the various how-to videos on the web and send him some links?
    I find the directions part to be much simpler to write than having to measure every last ingredient for a "recipe."
    If this is your first attempt, then don't worry, it will get better!

    1 Reply
    1. re: wyogal

      Oh I def. agree about cooking. Cook in his kitchen, with his ingredients. Take him thru the steps and let him write down the recipe. It's the best way to teach a recipe you have in your head.

    2. Until your friend learns some basic cooking techniques, he'll never be able to duplicate the flavor of your dish...regardless of how close in length to War and Peace your recipe becomes. IMO a recipe is an ingredient list and a brief reference to any relevant techniques not a treatise on how to cook.

      If a recipe calls for blanching an ingredient you shouldn't have to explain what blanching is.

      If a recipe calls for diced onion, you shouldn't have to explain the difference between large dice, small dice and mince.

      And, in your case, if the recipe calls for browing the meat you aren't expected to explain the technique for browning meat (e.g. not crowding and having a high enough heat that you are searing and not steaming...without burning).

      These are all cooking technique issues that are orthogonal to a recipe.

      12 Replies
        1. re: meadandale

          Yes, very well said. I'm trying to pack too much into the recipe. He lives 350 miles away, so I may have to coach him by phone.

          1. re: EarlyBird

            If he likes to read and is motivated to learn to cook, a book like "I'm just here for the food" by Alton Brown will help remove some of the mystique about cooking and explain what we do in the kitchen AND WHY.

            However, no matter how much you read about cooking or watch cooking on TV you still have to do it yourself and it's frequently not as easy as it looks on TV or youtube. Nothing beats the school of hard knocks (otherwise known as spending time in the kitchen) for building experience. That's why most good chefs have either been to culinary school, where you learn by doing, or have been cooking (often with mom or grandma) since they were very young.

            As goofy as it sounds...I got inspired to start cooking more watching Emeril Live back in the late 90's. However, it has taken a lot of time in the kitchen to build my confidence level. I can tell you that I frequently made a dish for the first time when I had company coming over...and there were many disasters and lots of swear words along the way.

            1. re: meadandale

              Yes, there is no replacement for experience. And, it doesn't matter how good a cook someone is, you WILL make mistakes every now and then as well as it hit home runs.

              Yes, to all of you: I'll need to physically teach him to cook, or refer him to some of the better websites or shows.

            2. re: EarlyBird

              why not give him the gift of a certificate for cooking classes if there's a place near his home that offers them?

              or buy him a couple of good books on technique...

              instructional DVDs might also be an option.

              1. re: EarlyBird

                If he has internet access, direct him to youtube videos. I've been doing that more and more when I email recipes. Ex: explaining to someone how to pound a breast of chicken and dredge it in the flour-egg-breadcrumb steps.

                1. re: EarlyBird

                  Can you set up a skype cooking session? Plan on it, get a grocery list, basic set-up outline, then call. Take him through a technique together, both of you doing it at the same time. and send him this link:

                  1. re: EarlyBird

                    ...and you got to use the word "othogonal", cool.

                  2. re: meadandale

                    I disagree with a number of your points.

                    You don’t need to give a treatise on blanching. But different ingredients require different timing. It’s quick and easy to say “Immerse in boiling water for X minutes.” And then, do you just drain it? Do you need to put it in an ice water bath to stop the cooking. These things matter. They should be in the recipe.

                    I do agree that the difference among large and small dice and mince is the subject for a technique book, not a cookbook, but the distinction needs to be made.

                    And as for browning meat, any good recipe should definitely specify such details as oil temp and don’t crowd, however it is the author chooses to write that. It may be heat the pan for X minutes or heat the oil to X temperature or until a bread cube turns golden after however many minutes. Only experienced cooks will know what is supposed to be achieved and they can skip over these parts. Less experienced cooks need the detail. And most really good recipe writers, think Jean Anderson who I consider one of the best, wouldn’t leave the details to chance.

                    1. re: JoanN

                      I agree with you Joan. I have written out recipes (or expanded on existing recipes) for people many times and if they are not very experienced, I give them as much detail as I can. Doesn't matter if it doesn't look like a recipe from a book or is two pages long. Even when I pass on a photocopy of an existing recipe, not only will it have my notes that I write right on the recipe in the book, I will expand on anything that I think won't be clear.

                    2. re: meadandale

                      Extra credit for correct use of "orthogonal" in a food post.

                    3. No matter how many videos he watches or cookbooks he reads, translation to his own stove and equipment will make for imperfections. Perhaps the most important lesson to impart is that practice makes perfect, and not to get discouraged. Mastering the Art of French Cooking does an exceptional job in explaining the hows and whys of cooking techniques.

                      1. A million years ago I studied/lived on a kibbutz. On Thursday nights, we ulpan students got to use the kitchen to bake (to take offerings to our hosts on Friday night). Most of us were pretty adept bakers and shared recipes, cobbled together from many languages. Lots of short-hand and abbreviations. One night, a guy from Chicago joined us - and made a cake using black pepper (BP) instead of baking powder. That is when I fully realized the art behind recipe writing.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: tcamp

                          Hah! That's funny. I had a good high school friend from Spain who came to our house for his first ever Thanksgiving dinner. He couldn't get enough of the stuffing. He asked my mother to give his mother the recipe. They had me over for Christmas Eve dinner and I ate the stuffing. What were the weird little green specks? Where celery was called for she had used (and sauteed) lettuce!

                          1. re: EarlyBird

                            Celery and lettuce are not that far apart. But black pepper instead of baking powder? Only a NOOB would make that mistake. Sheesh.

                        2. Write your recipe just as if you were telling yourself how to cook it or perhaps just like you were submitting the recipe for a book but then add an extensive note section at the end. There you can communicate how not to burn the frond or how such and such a step is critical.