Why are recipes so hard to use?

Yesterday I baked (with help from my daughter) the citrus-almond cake from Mark Bittman and Sam Sifton’s Feast in a Day, which ran in the New York Times Sunday Magazine the week before Christmas. We had a third of a very large gift box of oranges and grapefruit that needs not to be wasted, and, well, enough with the cookies, you know? It intrigued me; it’s made with ground almonds, olive oil, and a whole puréed orange and lemon. And it was wonderful. In fact this might be my ideal cake: It’s got a complex, fruity flavor (I prefer fruit and nut desserts to cakes generally anyway), the sweetness is balanced by the slight bitterness of the orange peel, and it’s dense and moist without being at all heavy.

But I found the recipe itself, at least in the print magazine, annoying. It was printed in tiny type and crammed off to the side of the page to make room for photos of, I don’t know, olives or something. (I know what an olive looks like. I’m not impressed.) I had trouble figuring it out initially, and it was picky without explaining anything. I had the distinct impression that while the point of the article was that you could cook a feast in eight hours, nobody thought you actually would try to cook any of this.

The more I thought about it, though, the problems with this recipe are the problems with practically every published recipe these days. They’re too wordy and dense to be skimmed or consulted quickly by an experienced cook, but they don’t give a real beginner enough help to be successful. They’re didactic without teaching. The problem isn’t Bittman and Sifton (Bittman, when he has the space, does an excellent job explaining why you’re doing what you’re doing and what you really need to pay attention to); this is the standard way recipes are written.

Here’s the first problem: Instructions ought to be skimmable, so that experienced cooks and global thinkers can take them in quickly. But as they’re nearly always written, recipes must be read, linearly, carefully, and thoroughly, in order to be used. It’s possible recipe writers overestimate the literary merits of their work: if people read cookbooks by a roaring fire on a winter’s night, it isn’t the step-by-step instructions they’re reading. Yet you can’t easily skim recipes, either; they’re written too linearly for skimming. Important information isn’t highlighted or placed in a sidebar but buried in the instructions, and it’s anyone’s guess where. In the recipe for this citrus-almond cake, I initially just wanted to know how the cake was constructed — specifically, whether the eggs were separated before beating — and then had a moment’s trouble finding the baking temperature, because it was in a “preheat” step sandwiched between two other instructions. It was far from disastrous, but it was annoying. I had even more trouble trying to use a fruitcake recipe from Fine Cooking; I wanted to change the fruit, and I had an awful time figuring out how much fruit there actually was in the thing because the ingredients were in three separate lists and the instructions were spread over four short columns. Figuring baking time was even worse: all I wanted to know was whether I had time to make the fruitcake that evening, but I had to add up three separate times from two different columns to find out.

One could argue that skimming requires expertise. A century ago, nobody had to tell cooks to preheat the oven. (Of course, ovens were trickier to preheat then, too.) They had, presumably, enough context for cooking that they could skim the recipe first, find out how hot the oven ought to be, and deal with that in its own time. I am certain that there are people out there who do not know that an oven needs to be preheated – but because they don’t cook, and therefore aren’t using the recipes printed in the Times Sunday Magazine. Skimming recipes requires only the expertise common to people who use them. And even if you’ve read the whole thing from start to finish, you need to be able to refer back to it quickly when you’re actually working from it. Even beginners have a need to skim.

The second problem is the insistence on scientific-sounding precision, the notion that giving people exact numbers makes a recipe foolproof, particularly at the expense of sensory feedback. Take this instruction, for example, from the citrus cake recipe: “Bring [the orange and lemon] to a boil over medium-high heat; then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.” The purpose of the boiling is to soften the fruit thoroughly, until it can easily be pierced with a knife, which will take about a half an hour, depending, I think, on the size, variety, and age of your orange. Simply to say “half an hour” would suggest a realistically approximate time frame; “half” is a division we make mentally and casually. But recipe writers aren’t allowed to say that; instead they have to sound scientific and say “30 minutes,” which implies that 27 or 32 minutes might be wrong and that 35 would quite possibly screw up your cake. It’s false precision, and if it doesn’t actively confuse learning cooks, it certainly doesn’t do them any favors, and it doesn’t help experts, either. It gets worse when the authors are forced to list a time range for which there will, necessarily, be : “Bake the almonds 10 to 15 minutes.” Why would I pick 10 or 15, or 12 or 14? The recipe doesn’t say; perhaps the explanation was cut by an editor trying to fit in more photos. If you haven’t toasted almonds before, you won’t know what you’re looking and smelling for, and the time range, though necessarily vague, won’t help you. “Until lightly browned and fragrant” would help.

Again, I don’t really mean to pick on this recipe or its authors in particular; it just happens to be the most recent recipe I tried to cook from. (I credit Bittman, in fact, for the cake’s being so easy to make; it’s Minimalist with flair.) What bothers me is that this is the industry standard. It’s what editors demand and readers expect.
Ideally, a recipe ought to be written so allowing experienced cooks to get what they need from it quickly, while giving a relative neophyte what he needs—as much of a beginner, at least, as is actually likely to attempt the recipe; writers and editors need to know their audiences. This recipe, in any case, doesn’t serve anybody well: an expert can’t swallow it whole, yet it wouldn’t satisfy a beginner. I think what’s needed is some combination of better writing, better design (visual design, I mean, layout and typography), and an acceptance that home cooking is a variable experience, even for something as necessarily fussy as a cake. I’ve got some ideas on this, but I’ll save them for a future post.

In the meantime: Are there cookbooks that are really easy to cook from, for beginners or experienced cooks or for both? My first job out of grad school was instructional writing, so I’m really picky about this kind of thing, and I’m terrible about following instructions anyway, so I don’t know how typical I am. I’d be curious to hear from some others of you who actually cook.

4 thoughts on “Why are recipes so hard to use?”

  1. I think the problem with recipes is that there are things you can’t teach with just writing. Especially with something as tactile as cooking. It took me years to get good at pancakes. To know just how thick the batter needs to be. Just what temperature the pan needs to be. What it looks like when the bottom is nutty brown, and not too light or too dark. It’s really hard to write that down someway that won’t scare off someone who has never cooked it. I didn’t really know how to do knead bread dough well and how long to do it until I took a hands-on class on bread making. I really like the book “Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking” (http://www.amazon.com/Ratio-Simple-Behind-Everyday-Cooking/dp/1416571728), it has recipes, but they are more geared towards the reason behind why certain amounts of ingredients are needed, and less like an instruction manual.

  2. I’ve found Bittman’s Food Matters recipes to be very well-written: they give straightforward instructions along with rationale. Another of my favorites is Leanne Ely of saving dinner.com. Her recipes are always compact but give me everything I need to get the job done. In particular, she does a good job of indicating both time estimates and what it is you’re looking for – she might, for example, say to cook something until it is lightly browned, but add that this will take about 5 minutes. She benefits from self-publishing many of her recipes, thus freeing her from editorial restrictions.

  3. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one with this recipe problem. I rarely pull recipes out of magazines anymore and I haven’t purchased a cookbook in years, primarily because of the reasons you mention. My best recipes are those handed down from my grandmother or found in the dog-eared pages of church cookbooks, where instructions include a particular state or attribute you are seeking in the final product – until “milk just begins to curdle” or “the top springs back when pressed lightly”. Granted these are often accompanied by my handwritten estimate of elapsed time, but even that seems to change with each new oven I use.

  4. I actually often find Bittman sketchy, in a way that’s useful for recipes that don’t rely heavily on time and amount precision (like those nice roundups of simple hot weather food and so on he does for the Times) and irritating when there are key techniques or timing. The few times I have made desserts or baked goods using his recipes, they haven’t worked. I think of him as primarily an idea person and not a real recipe writer.

    For baking I go to Fannie Farmer, or Dorie Greenspan, or even Smitten Kitchen which doesn’t always have the most perfect recipe but is good about textures and pitfalls. I think also of the little “Truc!” hints in Susan Herrman Loomis’s French Farmhouse Cookbook: it’s possible that like tech docs, recipes should be heavy on the defensive tips and tell you where you might go wrong or lose heart, and how not to.

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