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Kitchen Nightmares

Why poorly written recipes drive me nuts.

Image by Slate. Portrait by Charlie Powell, photo by Kim Love/Flickr Creative Commons.

A few weeks ago, I made a tres leches cake for my mom’s birthday. Although I have made several tres leches cakes in my life, I don’t have a go-to recipe, so I Googled “tres leches cake recipe,” confident I’d find a decent version of the Latin American dessert, whose distinguishing feature is the extremely sweet mixture of evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and milk or cream that’s poured over the cake after it’s baked.

Instead, I got distracted by the fact that randomly Googled recipes are, as a rule, terribly written. The recipes I found told me to “Combine the whole milk, condensed milk, and evaporated milk together.” (As opposed to combining them apart, I suppose.) I was instructed to cool the cake and then “fill with milk filling,” by which the writer apparently meant to pour the three-milks mixture over the cake. (How that constitutes “filling” I cannot tell you.)

I’m a jerk about recipes. Or rather: I have very specific ideas about how recipes should be written, and often the recipes I encounter in the wild do not conform to my ideas. A few of the standards that I think should be obvious, and yet are often flouted, include:

  • Listing the ingredients in the order in which they will be used (and, if several ingredients are added at once, listing those in descending order by quantity)
  • Listing the ingredients together instead of separating them into sections, to make it easier to transfer them to a shopping list
  • Describing vegetables as discrete units—e.g., “1 medium onion, chopped”—to prevent people from stressing out whether they’re buying enough onions for “1 cup chopped onion”
  • Giving both times and visual cues for each step (e.g., “Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until they begin to soften, 3 to 5 minutes”)

I also get punctilious about arguably meaningless style choices, such as the need to spell out words like “teaspoon,” “tablespoon,” “ounce,” and “pound” instead of using abbreviations, or to use articles when referring to ingredients and utensils (e.g., “Transfer the onions to the skillet” instead of “Transfer onions to skillet”).

How did I get to be such a pedant? Great question. Before I started at Slate I worked as a recipe developer and tester for Mark Bittman, who is renowned for his straightforward, easy-to-understand recipes. Adam Gopnik once wrote, accurately, “Bittman assumes that you have no idea how to chop an onion, or boil a potato, much less how chopping differs from slicing or from dicing. … Grammars teach foreign tongues, and the advantage of Bittman’s approach is that it can teach you how to cook.” I internalized Bittman’s philosophy, scouring his cookbook manuscripts for inconsistencies, and I guess I drank a little too much Kool-Aid. Here’s one of nine queries I sent to Bittman’s editor while proofreading the Food Matters Cookbook in 2009: “Should time lines say ‘1 hour, plus time to cool’ or ‘1 hour, plus at least 1 hour to cool’ ”?

When I started writing Slate’s recipe column, You’re Doing It Wrong, I strove for a Bittmanesque clarity and consistency from one week to the next. Flour would always be “all-purpose flour,” butter would always be “unsalted butter” (with quantities given in both cups and sticks), a large pan would always be a “9- by 13-inch pan” and not, God forbid, a “13- by 9-inch pan.”

Does any of this stuff matter? On a granular level, maybe not. But on a macro level, I’d argue that it does. The purpose of a recipe is to be accessible. A home cook ought to be able to replicate the writer’s results by following the instructions. When those instructions aren’t clear, the risk of something going wrong increases—especially when home cooks aren’t experienced enough to be confident in their ability to ward off disasters. And while messing up a recipe isn’t a matter of life or death, it can have profound consequences for someone’s culinary self-conception. Inexperienced cooks are often intimidated in the kitchen, and a few bad recipe experiences can confirm their sense that cooking is hard, or that they are not cut out for it. I don’t belong to the school of thought that says everyone should cook regularly—some people don’t like to cook, and that’s fine—but everyone should feel confident that they can cook if called upon to do so. A poorly written recipe can mangle that confidence.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but a good recipe is written under the assumption that the people who read it are idiots. These days, with home-ec classes an endangered species, you can’t take any level of kitchen literacy for granted. And why would you want to discourage a huge swath of readers—the ones who don’t cook much—with needlessly obscure instructions? Specifying “all-purpose flour” might seem fussy to you, but imagine a novice seeing “2 cups flour” in a cake recipe and using bread flour or whole-wheat flour: he’d end up with a cake that’s edible but unpleasantly bricklike.

Granted, exactly how clear is clear enough is subject to debate. The tres leches cake recipe I ended up using obviously satisfied the editors of Epicurious, even though it says to “whip” the three-milks mixture (I assumed that meant “whisk,” but the recipe doesn’t give any texture cues, so I second-guessed myself a bit) and fails to define “soft ball stage.” (It’s when a caramel reaches 235 to 240 degrees Fahrenheit.) The recipe turned out fine, if a little too sweet. I guess if I want the perfect tres leches cake recipe, I’ll have to write it myself.