Last weekend my husband and I saw Julie and Julia, a movie about a blogger who cooked her way through Julia Child's classic French cookbook and wrote about it. I loved the movie because it includes so many of my favorite things: cooking, eating, writing, and Paris. It got me thinking about cookbooks, recipes, and learning to cook.
I learned to cook by watching and helping my mom in the kitchen. When I moved out on my own, I picked up a few cookbooks or found recipes online and experimented a good deal. What I found out was that not all cookbooks or recipes are equal—some work better than others. It turns out that there is an art to writing cooking instructions.
The first thing a cookbook writer, like any other writer, must consider is audience. Is this book for beginners or experienced chefs? Julia Child's cookbook, despite containing some difficult recipes, is easy for beginners to use because it includes instruction on basic cooking techniques, such as poaching an egg or sauteing mushrooms (don't crowd them!). I learned an important lesson about audience when I gave a friend my recipe for vegetarian chili. After making it, she complained that the chili was too watery. We eventually figured out that she had not drained the cans of beans but poured them into the pot, water and all. I had thought anyone would know to drain the beans, so I did not include that step in my instructions!
A cookbook for beginners might contain tips about grocery shopping, choosing produce, stocking your pantry, as well as a list of cooking terminology. What does it mean to blanch something? How do you zest a lemon? It would probably also have colorful photos with each recipe and short, easy-to-follow steps. A cookbook for more experienced chefs would look dull in comparison, containing mostly text to allow more room for numerous recipes. These chefs don't need a picture to tell them how a meal should look.
One of the most important aspects of cooking is measurement. Too little baking powder, and your cake won't rise. Too much salt, and the meal is inedible. A cookbook writer must consider audience here, too. Should the measurements be based on the metric system or on U.S. customary units? Should people put in a pinch of nutmeg or 1/4 tsp?
Over time, and a few disasters later, I have become an experienced cook. I can usually tell just by looking at a recipe if it will be good, and I don't hesitate to alter a recipe even the first time I make it. But would I make a good recipe-writer?
What makes a well-written recipe? What are some recipe writing no-nos that would make you put down a cookbook? And how, if at all, is writing cooking instructions different from writing instructions in general?