Thursday, August 27, 2009

Writing Cooking Instructions

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?


Hayley @ When I Grow UP said...

The first thing my mother taught me when she taught me to cook was to read the recipe the entire way through from beginning to end in order to ensure that I had all of the ingredients and tools necessary for the job.

She explained that a good recipe will list the ingredients in the order that they would be used. I learned quickly that how the recipe was written determined how the meal would turn out.

Over the years, I learned that my interpretation of the writing was an important aspect too. A simple comma can make a difference. One cup of chopped nuts IS NOT one cup of nuts, chopped.

In regard to your watery chili, I too would have neglected to drain the beans if you did not specify. Since I don’t cook that often, I find that I follow the instructions to the letter. If the imperative instruction to drain the beans was not there, I would not do it. I guess this means we should not assume anything about our audience’s knowledge.

I think recipe instructions should be treated as any set of instructions. They should be written clearly with step-by-step instructions.

Erika said...

Oh gosh I’ll never live that down. Let me just say it wasn’t that I didn’t think about it. I decided not to drain them through deductive reasoning—I didn’t quite understand how there would be any liquid in the chili with so little water added. :P

Yes, Jarrett and I often encounter things we don’t understand in recipes. Ironically, I usually know a lot more than him—which I assume I learned from my mom from watching and helping her cook. I guess boys don’t tend to spend much time in the kitchen with their mothers. If I have a son he is not going to be catered to or served while he plays video games or watches TV on the couch. Oh no, he will learn to do women’s work so he grows up with it being the norm (don’t tell your dad). Oh, his future wife will thank me.

But, back to the cooking—so yeah, we usually end up calling one of our mothers for answers to things, or I look it up in the JOY of Cooking book—it has a very extensive appendix.

Please continue to feature me in your blogs!

Zea said...

Just so Erika doesn't feel too bad, there are other recipes for chili that require that the beans not be drained. I guess that is why it is important for the recipe writer to know her audience, as Yana has so eloquently explained.

Only other little tidbit: I didn't know that about mushrooms, that they shouldn't be crowded. How cute sounding, and something I will certainly implement, as I love mushrooms and do want to cook them perfectly. Thanks!