The Perfect Instruction

So, over my years as a cookbook reviewer, I've come to realize there is actually a word formula for the kind of recipe that works for me.

The ingredients list doesn't matter that much - unless there's a bunch of callouts in the list, like "Saba vinaigrette (see p. 289)" and "48-hour croutons (see p. 311-313)".  

No, for me, what makes or breaks a recipe is the way the instructions are written.  What I like to see looks like this, in what I will call, for lack of a better term, Mad Libs form:

"[ACTIVE VERB] [INGREDIENT] [ADVERB] over [TEMPERATURE], for about [X-Y MINUTES], until [VIVID VISUAL DESCRIPTION].  You should [SEE/HEAR/SMELL/FEEL] [DETAIL] ["-ing" VERB]."

I'll make up an example:

"Sweat the shallots and shiitakes gently over very low heat, for about 4-5 minutes, until the shallots give up their rigidity and the mushrooms start to curl a bit on the edges.  You should hear the mixture start to hiss a little as it begins to dry out."

Sometimes it's not exactly that formula.  But I know it when I see it.  Here, for example, are several examples from Dorie Greenspan's new Baking Chez Moi:   "As the bubbles grow big, be on the lookout for the sugar to start changing color around the edges."   Or  "You'll think that there isn't enough liquid to coat all the dry ingredients, but keep stirring..."  Or  "Don't be discouraged if the mixture curdles; it will be fine as soon as you add the flour."

Even a little single-subject book can be a giant in the details department. In The Banh Mi Handbook, Andrea Nguyen keeps track of the small stuff with both eyes and nose:  "Add the pepper and sugar, then grind to a fragrant, sandy mixture."  And - I love this one about portobellos - "Steam will shoot from under the caps as they cook gill sides down."

We talked a couple weeks ago about the way some authors make you use your judgement, with subjective terms like "squidgy" and "dollop". Sometimes I enjoy that too.  But by and large, I like my hand held.  It can make for a wordier recipe, but I always feel like I'm in good hands when someone's watching out for the tiniest signs and symptoms.  It forces me to pay attention too, and, I'm pretty sure, that makes me a better cook and a better writer, too.

4 Comments

  • wester  on  10/21/2014 at 2:29 AM

    Yes! You want both the "exact" features (time, temperature, etc.) and the vivid description that lets you know what is supposed to happen and how you should tell it is happening. Only one of them will not do.

  • veronicafrance  on  10/21/2014 at 12:48 PM

    I think Elizabeth David would be a big fat fail on these criteria! I often find US-written recipes to be a bit "needy" -- specifying exact times and processes for each step of the recipe. I think there's room for both approaches though. Once you're a confident cook in a particular cuisine, David-style vague instructions, or Nigel Slater-style glugs and bunches, let you sail along adding your own personal touch. But for less familiar recipes the hand-holding is reassuring!

  • PiaOC  on  10/22/2014 at 1:50 AM

    Yes indeed! Marcella Hazan, in one of her wonderful books, I can't remember which one now - instructs to truss the chicken and put the needle away immediately. Pretty basic one would think but imagine if you didn't and it got misplaced. Love the detail and explanations in her recipies.

  • PiaOC  on  10/22/2014 at 1:51 AM

    Yes indeed! Marcella Hazan, in one of her wonderful books, I can't remember which one now - instructs to truss the chicken and put the needle away immediately. Pretty basic one would think but imagine if you didn't and it got misplaced. Love the detail and explanations in her recipies.

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