Recipe Design

Over the years of writing and using recipes, I have observed a number of principles that make recipes easier to use. While not all of my recipes conform to these principles because I have not yet updated old ones, I do stick to them for new ones. I am surprised by how many published recipes don't follow these principles, because the recipe is so much easier to follow top to bottom. Specific points to pay attention to:

  • Consistent use of units: recipes should pick a measurement system and use it consistenly. My newer recipes use metric mass measurements, with Imperial volume units as alternatives. It is sometimes tempting to use the most convenient measure, such as mass for larger measures and volume for smaller measures, but I worry this is inconsistent, confusing, and harder to scale. I have also seen a number of recipes that call for, e.g., 4 tbs of one ingredient and 1/4 cup of another, even though those measures are the same. While this may be because of measuring convenience of certain commercial packages, I still find this awkward and try to avoid it.
  • No "pre-process" steps: a lot of recipes call for pre-processing steps, such as "onions, chopped", "butter, melted", "milk, scalded", etc. When these refer to ingredients obtained in the preprocessed form, such as chopped nuts, that is ok. But mostly these are steps the cook is expected to carry out before beginning the listed steps in the recipe, or interleaved with them. This makes it much harder to follow the recipe from beginning to end. I have also seen that many recipe authors (particularly ones used to having sous-chefs to perform these steps) exclude time to perform these steps from their published time estimates, and the reader's own estimate can also be thrown off. Including these steps directly in the instructions of the recipe, at a time they are likely to be carried out, make the recipe much more straightforward.
  • Steps in order of execution: steps in a recipe should be listed in the order they will be carried out. This can be complicated when recipes have concurrent processes, but is particularly important then. For instance, many recipes call for preheating an oven at the beginning of the recipe, even though it will be much longer than the oven's preheat cycle before the dish is ready to be baked. Steps like scalding and cooling milk, melting butter, or chopping ingredients may need to be carried out first before the mainline "interesting" steps can begin. When a recipe will have some waiting time, such as waiting for ingredients to cool or yeast to act, working steps into those spaces optimizes the cook's time.
  • Granular steps: many recipes list a few steps, with a great deal of activity in each step. I find it better to break each step down into a discrete action the cook will undertake. This helps separate the skills, equipment, and timing. There is some subjectivity to how granular to break things down, but in general steps that are clearly different from what happens before or after should be listed as a separate step.
  • Minimal background knowledge: for recipes aimed at non-professional cooks, reliance on specialized knowledge should be minimized. Ultimately a fair amount of kitchen knowledge is required, and it is not practical for all recipes to repeat every bit of knowledge required. For this reason information about procedures and ingredients is available, and it is a goal to include on-demand expandability of information. Within a recipe, avoiding jargon and describing in more detail than a professional would require, while still keeping the recipe brief, is still a goal.
  • Observation description, not time: recipes that instruct the cook to carry on an activity until a condition is met should descripe the what the cook should observe, not simply the amount of time expected to carry out the step. Procedures like whipping eggs, kneading bread, browning meat often include time estimates. While those are useful, variations in the cook's technique causes the time to vary. It is important to provide information about what the cook will look for--how well whipped the eggs are, how well kneaded, how brown the meat, etc.
  • Scale around packaged measures: recipes are given at a particular scale. There are many factors influencing this, including convenience for the home cook, amounts that can be worked, requirements of specific preparation or serving dishes, etc. Another factor that is useful to consider is the convenience of using a packaged measure in its entirety. A recipe calling for 7 tbs of butter may be more reasonable scaled up to 8 tbs. A recipe calling for 3 1/2 cups of milk may be more reasonable scaled up to a quart. Certainly most recipes should be scaled around entire eggs rather than partial eggs.