How to Write — and Read — Recipes Better

It’s a two-way street toward clarity and comprehension

Photo: Dan Gold via Unsplash

Seems straightforward, this randomly chosen ingredient line. Yet the way it’s written bugs me like no-see-ums at dusk:

“1 medium white onion, finely chopped (about 2 ounces)”

It represents issues rife in the Covid-concentrated era of online recipes. More substantive points about the shortcomings of food media have been raised of late. But here is something we can immediately change for the better.

Let’s start with a two-part premise: A recipe writer wants to impart the methods that lead to successful re-creation. A reader can choose to follow that lead to the letter or regard it as a jumping-off point. When it’s a #RecipeFail — a hashtag so broadly applied — the solutions lie in less ambiguity from the writer and greater comprehension by the reader. The combined result could even net fewer cranky online comments.

Writers of recipes for American audiences long ago kept things brief, assuming basic knowledge and standard, limited equipment. Minimalists decry the verbiage of current recipes even though generations of technology, “non-cooking,” and inclusiveness demand it. When the comments bemoan such exposition, though, I revisit Rozanne Gold’s smart, minimalist recipes of the 1990s and wonder whether the naysayers have a point. Each dish costs 140 words or less.

“I look back and think, ‘I made assumptions, too,’ ” said the accomplished chef, author, food activist, and podcast host. “And I can tell you that three-ingredient recipes are not forgiving at all,” which is another way of saying she relied on the best-quality foodstuffs and tested till the recipes were rock-solid. Gold then considered factors that affect a home cook’s effort: the size and shape of a pan; the taste and heft of today’s chicken breasts versus those of a decade ago. As a result, she found a way to make her recipes more specific while staying true to her brand. (For her Sweet Tomato-Watermelon Soup, instead of just “add salt to taste,” the directions continue with “the amount will depend completely on the flavor and ripeness of the fruit.”)

A universal standard for recipe language seems impractical. The general reading public, however, has come to expect that the order of ingredients will be reflected in the order of directions (with the exception of blurb-type recipes). Checking one against the other is an editing tool that experienced recipe users know about, and less-confident cooks should employ. By way of introductory material, cookbook authors urge their readers to first scan all the way through a recipe. They don’t always tell you what you’re looking for.

Say you’ve given a recipe the once-over. Is the sheer number of ingredients or steps a turnoff? It shouldn’t be, especially for dishes that rely on several spices. Length doesn’t necessarily reflect difficulty. Does the oven need preheating that soon? Is the rest of that divided ingredient used later on? Is water added in the directions but not called for as an ingredient? Why the hell not? Are weights given, temperatures in Fahrenheit or Celsius? Get out a kitchen scale and a digital thermometer. Precision increases good outcomes. No scale? Download an app that does metric conversions.

Next, think things through. The following applies to writers as well as readers: Is a lemon juiced, with its zest requested separately, farther down the list? Scraping a spent citrus half against a grater . . . there’s no joy in that. Do the directions maximize your time spent in the kitchen, as in, can you identify steps doable in advance — toasting nuts, chopping vegetables — or handled while another is underway? Do they minimize cleanup, as in, provide ways to use fewer bowls and pans? Does the recipe headnote offer guidance about special ingredients, or what to do with extra sauce? Are suitable and/or unacceptable substitutions mentioned?

“It’s interesting to talk to new cooks about what is confusing about the way recipes are written today,” Alice Medrich said. “What comes before and after the comma [1 cup olives, chopped vs. 1 cup chopped olives] . . . do people know?” The veteran chef and cookbook author is peeved by the notion that her recipes are perceived as open to interpretation. Baking is not the same as cooking, she noted, which is a statement I’m sure 2020’s sourdough alums would agree with. Bakers who come to know ingredient ratios can spot recipe problems on a first pass.

Once Medrich understood how various percentages of cacao affected flavor, she no longer called for simply “bittersweet” or “semisweet” chocolate. She advised home bakers not to use chocolate chips when bar chocolate was called for because their melting properties are different. Details like those earned her legendary status.

The task of editing factors into those details. An independent review of any recipe ought to be mandatory, harkening back to the goal of successful sharing. Formats and style guides are designed to reduce reader confusion, and, ideally, kitchen testing is required. Sarah Leah Chase’s recipe writing has remained admirably consistent, honed during the production of The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook in the mid-1980s. The reason? “I challenged myself to write recipes that didn’t come back with any questions,” she said. “I’m always thinking of a way to do something that makes sense.”

But when the questions bump up against original intent, a writer should push back. Nik Sharma (author of Season, 2018, and The Flavor Equation, October 2020) refuses to define a recipe as obscure or difficult. He acknowledged that “simple” can be a loaded term when applied to non-Western/European recipes; “it implies everyone else’s aren’t,” he said. A friend of mine who co-authors chef cookbooks is heartened by the burgeoning call to action for inclusivity. Publishers’ and agents’ arguments that “it won’t play in Iowa” should be set aside.

Back to the opening ingredient line, and its potential pain points: “Medium” is subjective, or it prompts further explanation/corroboration/context. Does the onion have to be white, or will a different color suffice; is its color the key characteristic? Does “2 ounces” refer to the onion’s entire weight or to its finely chopped yield? Which is the more relevant measure: pre- or post-prep? If it’s the latter, which could be presumed by its placement, why not also express that for those without a scale?

With the benefit of its author’s input, a re-edit:

“About 1¼ cups finely chopped onion (from ¾ large white onion; do not use yellow).”

I’m the former deputy editor/recipe editor of The Washington Post Food section. Find me on Instagram (bbenwick), and at bonniesbenwick.com.

Sign up for Heated with Mark Bittman

By Heated

Food from every angle. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store