Are personal recipes more usable?

When I asked last week which cookbooks and authors offer the most usable recipes, I got some interesting responses. Some people listed cookbooks that really are teaching cookbooks for true beginners, while others listed authors whose recipes are easy to refer to and cook from once you know what you’re doing. It should be fairly easy to identify the former sort, though there aren’t many — assuming it’s possible to learn to cook from a book at all. But I had a harder time seeing what the easy-reference, quick-idea works have in common.

Then a friend pointed out that Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook is one of her favorites in part because Katzen doesn’t lock a cook in; she gives a basic formula and then, usually, offers variations. Flipping through the cookbook again, I realized that it isn’t just that Katzen offers specific variations; it’s that her entire style encourages you to go your own way. She handwrote her recipes and decorated the margins of the pages, and her tone is that of a friend passing on her recipes. You couldn’t possibly think you were meant to take her advice as gospel — not that she isn’t reliable, but that she doesn’t come off as remotely prescriptive.

What’s more, though, she doesn’t even consistently offer linear instructions. Look at, for example, this recipe for lentil soup:

page from the Moosewood cookbook

Look how open the page design is — look at all that white space! And that, too, is friendly. The recipes are written by hand, yes, but a straight do-this-do-that recipe copied out by hand wouldn’t have the same effect. Her recipes actually look a fair bit like my recipe cards:

recipe card

We have the same shorthand layout, with curly brackets grouping the ingredients and pointing to instructions. I do this in part because it’s the best way to get a recipe to fit on a 4×6 card, in part because I’m too lazy to want to write out any more than that, and this is all I need — but also because it’s the most usable format when I’m actually cooking. The steps are set out visually, so I can take in the whole process at a glance. Instead of “whisk this, that, and the other thing” and then having to hunt down the amounts from further up the page, each step is all in one place on the page. And I can find my place quickly when I’m between, say, whisking the dry ingredients and beating the eggs.

Back in the days when type was set by hand, printers occasionally used the curly bracket for that purpose in cookbooks. Here’s Eliza Leslie’s recipe for mince pies from Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats (1828):

Eliza Leslie's recipe for mince pies

The rest of the recipe is very linear, though, typeset in long paragraphs, and the tone of Leslie’s writing makes it very clear that her instructions are not to be trifled with. So I don’t think it has the same effect.

Certainly if you don’t know a sauté pan from your rear end neither The Moosewood Cookbook nor my recipe cards are going to help you, but so what? Does every cookbook have to assume utter incompetence? A lot of people might well be better cooks if they were only given more credit for not being idiots. A more open page might help beginners relax, and a more effective visual layout ought to help even a beginner.

With digital design software, it would be fairly easy to lay out a cookbook like Katzen’s, yet I haven’t seen anyone try. The problem may be that while a cook might flip through a cookbook before buying it and thus be attracted by pretty pictures or interesting typography, he or she won’t know how usable it is until the money’s already spent. Like all products, books compete to be sold, not to be used. There’s no incentive for a publisher to take a risk with innovative design.

Anyway, I’m glad Ten Speed Press didn’t know any better when they published Moosewood. Sometimes ignorance is genius.