The eatyourbooks blog recently had a post about the most aggravating mistakes in printed recipes. I agree with many of the items in their list, but not all of them. Below are my top complaints.
- Imprecise quantities, especially for produce that can differ radically in size or that’s bulky and hard to measure accurately by volume. How big is a head of cauliflower or one head of celery root? How much juice should I expect to get our of one lemon? Is a cup of chopped cilantro packed or not? What is meant by 15 cups of lettuce or a large potato? Recipe writers should ideally specify weight and volume, in a way that’s as easy-as-possible to measure.
- Burying steps in the ingredient list or in the instructions step. I know you’re supposed to read the ingredient list before starting, but as an extra safety measure couldn’t the recipe writer also put the steps into the instructions themselves? First of all, it gives you a better sense of how much work is actually involved in the recipe. Secondly, it prevents mistakes. For example, if the recipe calls for zest and juice of one lemon, I’d prefer it if somewhere in the instructions it said to zest and then juice the lemon, rather than relying on you to notice that you need to zest the lemon first. And if you were supposed to divide an ingredient into two portions and reserve part for later, don’t just say it in the ingredients. Mention it in the instructions as well: e.g., “Add 1 cup of the broth, reserving the remaining 1/2 cup for later.” Alternatively, sometimes the ingredient list says “2.25 teaspoon salt” and you’re supposed to use 2 teaspoons in the blanching water and 1/4 tsp. in the vinaigrette, but it’s not so obvious. We made a recipe recently where the first step ended with “add x, y, z and salt and pepper to taste.” But there was a line break after salt, and so Derek added 2 tsp. of salt to the vinaigrette by mistake! This could have been avoided if the ingredient list explicitly mentioned the two salt amounts. Even better is if the recipe was divided into sub-sections, one with ingredients for the vinaigrette and one for the ingredients for the rest of the recipe.
- Leaving water out of the ingredient list. Yes, it’s not something we will need to go out and buy, but neither is salt or pepper or many other standard pantry ingredients. Often when making a recipe I’ve made before, I will ignore the instructions and just read the ingredient list, but then I have to go searching for the water amount. If I’m boiling water for pasta then I can figure out a reasonable amount, but when I’m adding water to a sauce, I want it to be listed in the ingredients.
- Specifying the cooking time only, without saying how to tell when the dish is done. Oven temperatures and stovetops can vary a lot. It’s important to give some visual or other sensory cues to help the cook figure out if the dish is truly done or not.
- Not giving a precise pot size. Many recipes call for a medium-size pot, but some mean a 2-quart pot and some a 4-quart pot. And when they say a large pot do they mean 4-quart or 6-quart? It makes a difference, so be precise.
- Not specifying a yield, or specifying yield in vague quantities like number of servings. If I make a rice pilaf and I see that it makes 8 servings is that eight 1/2-cup side servings or eight 3-cup restaurant-sized main course servings? I have no idea.
- Recipes that claim to be seasonal and use all fall/winter ingredients, except they call for three fresh tomatoes or a cup of fresh basil!
- Not specifying a salt amount, and instead saying “salt to taste.” I know salt preferences are very individual, but can’t recipe writers just make a recommendation based on their own preferences, and then we at least have a starting point. Once we learn how their taste compares to ours it will be easy to adjust the salt amount for all future recipes by the same author. What’s even worse than saying salt to taste, is when the recipe instructs you to salt to taste at a stage in the process when you can’t actually taste the dish yet. For example, I’ve made several recipes for baked egg dishes that instruct you to “salt to taste.” Who’s going to taste a raw egg dish for salt?
- Not explaining their choices. I don’t just want a series of steps, I want to understand why those ingredients and steps were chosen. For example, some recipes call for some expensive or hard-to-get ingredient, but never explain whether it’s essential to the dish, or whether it can be substituted or left out. Others have a weird or labor-intensive step, but never explain why they want you to do it, or how bad the result will be if you skip the step.
- Errors. I have a number of cookbooks that have ingredients or cooking-methods in the title that are never actually used. For example, a “baked” dish that never uses the oven, or “… with basil” when actually cilantro is used. I understand that mistakes happen, but isn’t that what recipe testers and editors are for? When the title is misleading, it’s doubly embarrassing.