Just how long should a recipe be?

For some years I've been an advocate of more explicit recipes - you know, recipes that tell you not just time and temperature ("3-5 minutes over a medium flame"), but what to look, listen, smell, and taste for - the telltale blistering of the skin, the moment when the spice releases its aromatic oils, the squeaking sound the dough makes when it's absorbed just enough liquid.

But there are a lot of other factors involved in recipe design and construction.  The pressure to condense is pretty clear: designers need to meet a particular page count, marketing and sales wants a nice-looking, uncrowded format, and everybody wants there to be room for a picture.  The pressure to expand comes from authors and editorial: an urge to explain and foolproof, to charm in the headnotes and to enlighten in the sidebars.

What are some of the tricks publishers use to save space?  Here's a few:

Nested recipes:  Open up Clotilde Dusoulier's The French Market Cookbook  to the recipe for "Strawberry Tartlets with Breton Shortbread Crust" and you'll see 4 ingredients.  Easy, right?  But 2 of them - "Lemon Pastry Cream" and "Breton Shortbread Tart Dough" are separate recipes you'll need to go elsewhere in the book for.  Is it worth it to enjoy the spacious 2-page layout here, with the picture on one side and a brief recipe on the other, but have to hunt through the book to get the other steps?  Or would you rather have a less compact but possibly more practical 4-page spread? [To be fair, most of the recipes in this book don't make use of nesting - I just happened to open up to this one.]

Process photos.  In some books, like Ruhlman's Twenty and The Pioneer Woman Cooks (which otherwise have little in common), step-by-step photos strike a compromise, letting each picture shoulder some of the explanatory burden and reducing the word count (though maybe not by as much as 1000 words a picture!)

Narrative format or action format.  "Standard format" recipes are the ones we all know: ingredients list, followed by instructions.  But narrative format and action format save space by calling out the ingredients within the text. (In action format, the ingredients are called out with bullet points after the first part of the sentence, as in "In a large bowl, toss together: ..." In narrative format, the ingredients might be called out in the middle of the sentence - it's just a difference in syntax.) The best-known example is probably The Joy of Cooking.

Many of these issues disappear in e-cookbooks and recipe apps, thanks to the magic of hyperlinking.  Yet paper still gives you physical benefits in the very physical act of cooking.

Personally , I like best of all a two or three-page recipe with a picture, lots of sensory cues, and maybe an anecdote in the headnote or a sidebar with tips.  I don't mind turning the page back and forth to check the ingredients.  I get a little impatient with cutesy digressions within the recipe ("I toss the scraps to my adorable schnauzer Lestrade, and he goes wild over them!") but I generally like catching glimpses of the author's personality in the language.

Do you prefer your recipes condensed and telegraphic?  Or do you like them spelled out?  Do you have a subconcious recipe page-limit beyond which you will not go?  (I think mine's 4.)  Or are you suspicious of short recipes?  I'm curious to know whether there's a consensus on what's the ideal length of recipe, or whether it's varies widely and subjectively...


  • Rebecca McLeod  on  6/26/2013 at 2:22 AM

    Love this post. I too have often wondered what other's might think of the written recipe. I know, I love a good picture. That makes or breaks it for me really. How shallow. I think for me 4 pages would be the limit as well, but I'm not sure if everyone might feel that way. Bec

  • BethNH  on  6/26/2013 at 2:50 PM

    I don't really care for long recipes. I prefer the ingredients and recipe to be on the same page as much as possible because I hate flipping back and forth. A two page spread is ideal. I don't want the directions to be wordy. Simple. Numbered or bulleted with as few words as possible.

  • TrishaCP  on  6/27/2013 at 9:10 AM

    I absolutely loathe "nested" recipes- particularly when page numbers aren't cited. (I see a lack of page numbers a lot in older books- I am indexing one right now and it is driving me up the wall!) I can understand why it is done, but as more cookbooks are available as e-books- it is even more unwieldy to go back and forth to see what you need.

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