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How Should Recipes be Written?

sandylc May 14, 2012 08:44 AM

I have been searching for the very best method for writing recipes. Ideally, baking recipes should have both weight and volume measurements, since I like to weigh as many ingredients as much as possible.

Should the ingredients be put into some sort of table, a la Rose Levy Berenbaum? Or do you all like it when the ingredients are on the left side of the page, lined up with their time of usage on the right side of the page? Do you prefer numbered steps, or more of a narrative style?

I personally hate it when a recipe introduces an ingredient that wasn't listed with the other ingredients, either by oversight or by the thought that an ingredient like water doesn't deserve to be listed....

Then there's the old Gourmet magazine method - does anyone remember way back when they did not included ingredient lists at all? That was really baffling!

EDIT: I ran across a website a while back called something like Recipes for Engineers which really had a different style....I'll look for it and post back....

Any thoughts?

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  1. Quine RE: sandylc May 14, 2012 09:23 AM


    I would imagine the recipe style would vary according to how it is to be used. Published? Family Share? Food Blog etc.?

    Some people are visual and like photos (I really don't like it if I can't see a product), others like concise, spare me the teaching details, others need/want a step by step, teach me as I go style.

    I do not think there is a one size fits all recipe template. YMMV.

    1. i
      Isolda RE: sandylc May 14, 2012 09:31 AM

      I've thought about this a lot and don't have a perfect answer, but I do like the approach I've come up with when handwriting recipes for myself. I list all the ingredients on the left side of the page or card, indicating how they are to be prepared before starting the recipe (e.g., 6 oz onion, sm. dice). Then I draw brackets around groups of ingredients that are processed together, and indicate on the right side of the page what is to be done with them (e.g., saute until translucent). I use arrows to indicate when groups of ingredients are to be mixed together.

      This gives me a visual picture of the process without any extraneous explanations about techniques I know well. For baking, I'll also include something like "oven to 350; grease 13x9" at the top of the page.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Isolda
        kcshigekawa RE: Isolda May 14, 2012 03:42 PM

        I do this too, Isolda, I try to distill it down as much as possible, but that's only for something I'm keeping for myself. If writing it up for someone else, I try to elaborate a bit more.

        1. re: Isolda
          caviar_and_chitlins RE: Isolda May 16, 2012 01:13 PM

          I do this as well- picked it up from Julia's (we're on a first name basis) Mastering The Art of French Cooking. You have your ingredients along the left, and you don't have to look up and down for the method.

        2. l
          LeoLioness RE: sandylc May 14, 2012 09:37 AM

          Introducing new ingredients/components mid-way through a recipe drives me batty. I'm looking at you, Joy of Cooking1

          For me, it depends on the recipe. I'm a decent cook and have no trouble following a chatty "recipe" a la Laurie Colwin for something easy. I'm not that great a baker, so in that case I prefer clearly outlined steps.

          6 Replies
          1. re: LeoLioness
            sueatmo RE: LeoLioness May 14, 2012 05:09 PM

            I prefer JOC style to the overly wordy style of Cook's Illustrated.

            1. re: sueatmo
              LeoLioness RE: sueatmo May 15, 2012 07:01 AM

              Ah, see I like the Cook's Illustrated preambles because I'm interested in why certain techniques/ingredients work better than others. It's also gratifying to see some of my own past failures be documented by the professionals at CI--it wasn't me, it was the recipe!

              I can see how others would not, however. I do find their actual recipes fairly straightforward, however.

              1. re: sueatmo
                jmcarthur8 RE: sueatmo May 16, 2012 04:47 PM

                Yep, another JOY fan here. Maybe because that's the one I learned to cook from. I can scan the entire recipe and see what ingredients will be used together, and group them on the kitchen counters accordingly (prep stuff on the island, cooking mix-ins next to the range).

                I do post my recipes on CH both ways, depending on the recipe.

                Since I do kitchen design and space planning for a living, the JOY method just may feed my need to be organized.

              2. re: LeoLioness
                LindaWhit RE: LeoLioness May 15, 2012 09:00 AM

                I never bought JOC for this very reason. I prefer all ingredients listed together, in the order they are needed, then the directions. Their format drove me crazy every time I looked at it in the bookstore.

                1. re: LindaWhit
                  NanH RE: LindaWhit May 15, 2012 01:58 PM

                  Even worse is Elizabeth David. Great recipes that are a giant PITA to follow.

                  1. re: NanH
                    sandylc RE: NanH May 15, 2012 05:57 PM

                    And she stated that vanilla did not belong in food!!! Heresy!

              3. njmarshall55 RE: sandylc May 14, 2012 11:09 AM

                cookingforengineers is definitely a style I can relate to...I'm an engineer/manager. But as a cook/baker (home schooled), I prefer to see ALL ingredients up front so I can estabilsh my own mis en place, a list of recommended hardware (pastry cutter vs. two-knife method, or sheet pan vs. jelly roll pan, etc.) and step by step directions WITH pictures so I can judge my own success criteria.

                1. kubasd RE: sandylc May 14, 2012 12:14 PM

                  I gotta say, I LOVE that method on Recipes for Engineers. That chart on the bottom was such a nice, easy, concise way to show the recipe.... and I'm not even an engineer! lol

                  1. DiningDiva RE: sandylc May 14, 2012 03:57 PM

                    I've written recipes at work for years. For that I generally use an Excel spread sheet in landscape orientation and 4 columns of varying widths. The first column is for ingredients and they are listed in the order in which they appear in the recipe, the 2nd and 3rd columns are for weights and measures and the 4th column is for method and the steps are numbered sequencially. The hardest part is the 4th column when the method is too long for the space availalbe, I have to remember to reposition the cursor down to the next line :-). I generally start a recipe on the 5th line, using the first 4 lines of the spreadsheet for recipe name, yield, serving size and any other pertinent service information. I do not use the box or line features so that when the recipe gets printed out it's very easy for my cooks to read.

                    At home I always list all the ingredient first and usually in the order in which they are needed followed by numbered step for the method. I recently started using Pepperplate - http://www.pepperplate.com/ which allows you to enter recipes in whatever format you like. It'll also import recipes from a list of sites. I've been pretty happy with it so far. It's not the most user friendly site, but it doesn't take an awful long time to figure it out.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: DiningDiva
                      caviar_and_chitlins RE: DiningDiva May 16, 2012 01:15 PM

                      dining diva- for your 4th column, use the "wrap text" feature. It will make the text fit to whatever width you need, and you don't have to do to the next "row".

                      1. re: caviar_and_chitlins
                        DiningDiva RE: caviar_and_chitlins May 18, 2012 10:15 AM

                        Good idea, thanks.

                    2. Karl S RE: sandylc May 15, 2012 06:37 AM

                      I prefer:

                      1. An upfront or left-column list of ingredients, grouped with spacing to indicate things like wet vs dry and similar situations, as applicable.

                      2. An upfront or left-column list of tools needed.

                      3. Nutritional information (can be calculated by an embedded spreadsheet - carbs & protein are 4 cal per gram, alcohol 7 cal per gram, and fat 9 cal per gram), with number of servings. I find that calculating this information makes you think critically about the recipe as a whole in a way that one would fail to do without it. Frankly, for professional recipes, it's inexcusable to omit the information.

                      1. paulj RE: sandylc May 15, 2012 12:58 PM

                        Then there's the Chinese cookbook (with the yellow dust jacket) that identifies each ingredient with a letter, A, B ...., and then instructs you to 'dice A', 'combine B-G, and marinate A in this', 'stir fry H-J' etc....

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: paulj
                          sandylc RE: paulj May 15, 2012 05:58 PM

                          Oooh, what if you're cooking drunk? You might get an odd dish.....

                        2. meatn3 RE: sandylc May 16, 2012 08:30 AM

                          I appreciate when a recipe gives active/total times and servings just after the title. If the recipe is linked to another recipe (a la Ferber's jams requiring green apple jelly) please place notation at the top!

                          I like the ingredients listed by order of use. I like all the ingredients listed (including water, salt, etc.)

                          I prefer a straightforward style. I don't mind a chatty style when reading a cookbook, but I find it cumbersome when actually cooking.

                          Great question!

                          1. c
                            Charles Robinson RE: sandylc May 18, 2012 05:23 AM

                            I don't read recipes often, and I don't own many cookbooks, so I'm not sure what styles are common. I recently did a Mexican dinner and used several books by Diana Kennedy. In "The Cuisines of Mexico" she listed ingredients to the left and then the steps to do with them to the right. You could skim down the ingredients column if you chose, so that was handy, but you still had to compile the shopping list and be careful that you got everything.

                            I prefer a style that lists all the ingredients together, including breaking them into their functional groups if necessary. I list all the marinade ingredients together, all the sauce ingredients together, etc. I also list all the equipment needed in one spot. Then when it comes to the recipe itself, I break it into Preparation, Assembly, and Serving as needed. Like this: https://www.box.com/s/ee6d1bfdf4100a9...

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Charles Robinson
                              sandylc RE: Charles Robinson May 18, 2012 10:43 AM


                            2. d
                              DGresh RE: sandylc May 18, 2012 06:31 AM

                              the peeve I have is when an ingredient is used twice and they don't say "divided" in the ingredient list. This has burned me more than once if I don't pay attention, and add the entire amount in the first stage. I also get irritated at the (minority) of recipes that list things from "most" to "least" rather than in the order you use them. I also like little helpful hints like "add the next six ingredients, rosemary through garlic" rather than simply making me count. I like things well-paragraphed, so I know when I've finished a "stage" and I don't have to go searching.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: DGresh
                                jmcarthur8 RE: DGresh May 18, 2012 10:41 AM

                                dgresh, you reminded me of a recipe from some website I read a while back, and in the reviews, there were lots of complaints about the huge amount of flour in the sauce. Seems that they'd listed a cup of flour, then later in the instructions specified 2 Tbs or so of that for the gravy, and the rest for dredging the meat.

                                1. re: DGresh
                                  sandylc RE: DGresh May 18, 2012 10:42 AM

                                  Really good points. The divided use one, especially.

                                  1. re: sandylc
                                    njmarshall55 RE: sandylc May 25, 2012 08:11 AM

                                    Agreed wholeheartedly!!

                                2. dave_c RE: sandylc May 18, 2012 11:04 AM

                                  I'm an engineer so the format for Cooking for Engineers is how I write my recipes/mise en place. Everything is in a nice neat matrix. When I first came across the Cooking for Engineers website, I thought he "stolen" my format. I found out he's younger and went to a 2nd tier university (a jab a Cal - lol).

                                  In regard to weighing ingredients for baked goods, I'm a big fan of weighing ingredient. It's faster and a little more accurate for baked goods.

                                  For general recipes, all the ingredients in front and steps with minimal side comments. Comments should be at the end or on the side bar. As Joe Friday would say, "Just the facts ma'am."

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: dave_c
                                    sandylc RE: dave_c May 18, 2012 11:11 AM

                                    I sometimes think that recipes should come with two versions - the brief one and the long explanatory one.

                                    1. re: dave_c
                                      njmarshall55 RE: dave_c May 25, 2012 08:12 AM

                                      Not to put too fine a point on it, weighing also guarantees a much higher level of consistency....this from another engineering type! now a quality manager...eliminate variation!

                                    2. h
                                      HillJ RE: sandylc May 23, 2012 06:44 AM

                                      I like printed recipes that leave room for the reader to add notes neatly for listing substitutions, a change in measurement that worked better, etc. Otherwise, I wind up rewriting it on my own sheet and sticking it in the book for reference.

                                      But more times than not, I'm reading off of my laptop recipes that aren't in a particular style of recipe writing.

                                      1. Emme RE: sandylc May 24, 2012 09:56 PM

                                        the way i load things into my recipe holder, MacGourmet is different than i necessarily want in a book/site/whatever.

                                        1. Weight is a necessity; volume optional.
                                        2. Ingredients first in order of usage.
                                        2a. If a particular ingredient is used twice, but in different steps and amounts, list it twice, and avoid the "divided" term
                                        3. Sparse but precise instructions. "Beat til ribbony, approx 8-10 minutes" or whatever. Time is a useful to an extant, insomuch as I have an approximation. This does not hold for caramelizing onions ;)
                                        4. No teaching/food science in the method. Put it in the precursor/descriptor or a separate section. I LOVE chemistry, science, explanations, but not in my recipe.
                                        5. I like when there is a summary up top of oven temp and active vs inactive prep and cooking time. Just for a ballpark of where I'm headed.

                                        1. Without weights, I detest an ingredient like "4 medium onions" or "5 perfect tomatoes." Useless to me.
                                        2. Don't tell me in step one to preheat my oven to 450, when in step 4 I'm chilling the dough for two hours.

                                        ...These come to mind at first...

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: Emme
                                          sandylc RE: Emme May 25, 2012 08:46 PM

                                          "Don't tell me in step one to preheat my oven to 450, when in step 4 I'm chilling the dough for two hours."

                                          This happens really often, too! Shocking.....

                                          1. re: sandylc
                                            Emme RE: sandylc May 27, 2012 12:31 AM

                                            drives me NUTS. i hate the thought of the waste.

                                            1. re: Emme
                                              sandylc RE: Emme May 27, 2012 08:49 AM

                                              I always wonder what else they messed up in their cookbook. It's just sloppy.

                                        2. melpy RE: sandylc May 25, 2012 08:25 AM

                                          I personally prefer the ingredient including things like water etc. first. Then I want my steps numbered not narrative style. Any narrative extra info should come before te recipe. I like tbsp instead of T. And tsp instead if t. Ingredient that need pre prep I like listed as such. Example 3 carrots, diced. Things that don't come in cup amounts like carrots should say one cup carrots approximately 2 carrots or whatever te equivalent may be.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: melpy
                                            Emme RE: melpy May 25, 2012 08:48 PM

                                            numbered yes! i am not interested in reading "The Tale of Baking Brownies;" i just want them clean and concise. oh, and within each, don't stack 16 million components into each step. Add x, then y, then z... fine. But if you sandwich and smash too much in, I'll be annoyed that I have to keep fishing through the step to see where I am at... A recipe should be written like a song; there should be punctuation; I should be able to see easily where I am to stop and take a breath.

                                            the carrot thing is easily handled by including weights...

                                          2. sunshine842 RE: sandylc May 27, 2012 09:02 AM

                                            Thinking back and glancing over my favorites -- I don't seem to have a favorite style, as long as it's clear --

                                            I have books and recipes collected from all over two continents - most are in English, some are in French, a few are in German and Spanish. They range from being printed in high-end cookbooks with gorgeous glossy photos, to recipes printed from Cooking for Engineers, to recipes written in my grandmother's painfully arthritic scrawl on the back of a church-offering envelope.

                                            I love them all -- but I've never re-written a single one to make it easier for me to understand. And no, I don't know why this doesn't bother me.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: sunshine842
                                              DGresh RE: sunshine842 May 27, 2012 01:04 PM

                                              I've rewritten two; Goin's chicken and bread salad (because hers extends over some 3 or 4 pages!) and a bibinbap recipe from the NY Times because it has so many steps with different combinations of garlic/soy/sesame oil that I rewrote it in shorthand.

                                            2. hal2010 RE: sandylc May 27, 2012 07:19 PM

                                              Read one of Delia Smith's recipes.
                                              Write yours the exact opposite of that.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: hal2010
                                                sandylc RE: hal2010 May 27, 2012 09:39 PM

                                                Ha. OK.

                                              2. Bill Hunt RE: sandylc May 27, 2012 07:20 PM

                                                I would say "legibly."


                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: Bill Hunt
                                                  sandylc RE: Bill Hunt May 27, 2012 09:39 PM

                                                  Ah, a minimalist.

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