How Precise Do Recipes Need to Be?

scale and measuring spoons

I’ve been doing a lot of work on recipes lately, and at the same time, thinking about the way recipe-writing has evolved, especially since the internet has taken a role in the process of cooking. At the same time, someone interviewed me about the difference between writing recipes for a cookbook versus a blog and I gave a somewhat long-winded answer (which I’m still editing before I send it back to them.) But the short answer is that when I started writing books, I had to envision who the readers would be. Julia Child wrote for Mastering the Art of French Cooking for Americans who had perhaps a little knowledge of French cooking but not a lot of access to the same ingredients. And she got it right.

When one writes a book proposal, the first thing a publisher wants to know is “Who is going to buy it?” So you sit down and think about the audience; The dedicated home baker? The weekend cook? The person who will tackle a forty-page recipe on making a loaf of bread? Someone with a tiny city kitchen? Then, when you write the book, you need to figure out what equipment people will – or won’t, have. Stand mixers, food processors, 12-quart Dutch ovens, 8-inch square cake pans, candy thermometers, bundt pans, and so forth, are all questions that pop up when working on recipes.

When I write a book, I assume a certain level or knowledge and/or commitment because people have made an effort to obtain the book. Writing for the internet is more interactive and I can write about subjects that are diverse and the interaction makes me think about the possibilities of a recipe. And I can see questions that might arise or need clarification in real-time. So both are interesting to me.

As one of many recipe writers out there, we all want people to have good results. So I spend a good amount of time testing recipes over-and-over, using various ingredients and techniques, then refining and revisiting them over the course of working on the book (or blog post), until I’m satisfied that it works just like I want it to. Then, because of the long publication period for a book, I have time to step back from a recipe, then usually revisit it later again.

Yet the variables keep increasing. People used to just buy regular all-purpose flour, Hershey’s cocoa powder, and supermarket butter, which are all very standardized products. Now there are “European-style” butters in America with higher fat content and bean-to-bar chocolates with more acidity than “baking” bars that used to be what everyone bought at the grocery store. And home appliances have changed; one of my ovens has eight different settings (!), some depending on which direction you want to heat to go, and the other oven has so many functions that I can only commit to learning one a month.

And speaking of ovens, restaurant-style ovens are now more common in home kitchens, which change the game as well, especially with the high-heat burners which cook things much more quickly (ie: one minute over high heat on a restaurant range is a lot different from one minute on an inexpensive electric stove.)

So I’ve been thinking about all of this, where some people are irked by phrases like “season with salt, to taste”, when in fact, taste is subjective and 1 teaspoon of salt may be just right for me, but too much for someone else. Or someone may only have table salt on hand (which is bitter-salty) or decide to use that in spite of what the recipe says, leading to bad results. So does one call for a specific type of salt? And what to do if, say, kosher salt isn’t available in Australia, where a number of readers may be. Or fleur de sel isn’t easily available (or affordable) where other readers may be?

(Personally, I only call for a specific brand or product if I feel that it really does make a noticeable difference in a recipe.)

I write recipes in grams and standard measurements for a variety of reasons, and because there are even sub-sets within those sets of measurements, I use what I call the “French standard” and list things in weights, and leave small quantities in teaspoons (cuillère à café) and tablespoons (cuillière à soupe), which are how metric recipes are expressed in France.

Even those between those two series of measurements, I get a number of questions about the weights of everything from an apple, to a cup of flour, depending on which method is used for measuring it. Which is a good argument in favor of adopting the metric system. (However when the battery on your scale dies on a Sunday, and you live in a country were a majority of the stores are closed on Sunday, those measuring cups sure do come in handy.)

So I’ve been wondering: How exact do things need to be? And should they be? Cooking is an intuitive act and except for the pastry kitchen, I’ve rarely seen a restaurant cook peering into a cookbook while plating up food. Are instructions “season to taste” too vague for you, or are you comfortable tasting a dressing and adding a little more salt or a squirt of lemon juice – if necessary – for your taste?

What do readers expect from cookbooks? How precise should they be?

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  • Erika
    November 18, 2012 3:07pm

    ‘Season to taste’
    I’m ok with this for something like soup where it is easy to taste along the way. What really drives me crazy is when dealing with raw meat and the recipe says season to taste- really?! I think in those situations or others where tasting would leave a visible hole in the dish, the author should give an estimated starting point and then you can make notes and adjust the recipe the next time you make it.

  • Sophie
    November 18, 2012 3:10pm

    I have a friend who absolutely will not buy a cookbook unless it has tons of photographs. I somehow ended up with two copies of Deborah Madison’s The Green’s Cookbook(a classic from the highly successful Greens restaurant in San Francisco) and offered her one since she is vegetarian. She didn’t want it because it had no photos — weird…I mean don’t people have imaginations? How hard it it to put sauteed spinach on a plate?

    • November 18, 2012 3:34pm
      David Lebovitz

      So many of the great, classic cookbooks don’t have photographs, from Julia Child to Richard Olney and Marcella Hazan. Technique-oriented books, like some of those from Jacques Pépin, do benefit from photos. Although I like photos in certain books, other books I find them not as important. Sometimes the recipe tells a story just fine. I remember being completely captivated by the first Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook which had just recipe and words, rather than pictures.

      I do think that blogs like Pioneer Woman, Simply Recipes, and Smitten Kitchen are successful because they use the ability of the internet to have as many pictures as you want, and can show step-by-step instructions. (Plus they are talented bloggers in general!) I know here on my blog, I can put a picture of whatever part of a recipe that I feel is important. I will often add pictures to show the size I cut something, an ingredient, or just show the process of making a recipe, without economic constraints. Although it does take a while to edit all those photos down! : )

  • November 18, 2012 3:20pm

    Great question David. One thing I feel could be more precise is the explanation and use of timing especially on multi-step recipes. A lot of the times new cooks get turned off by sitting around waiting for step three to finish while they could’ve been told ‘go ahead and start step seven and eight to save time. I always tell my friends READ the entire recipe first and figure out if there are things you can start ahead to save time. In today’s world time efficiency is the grand differentiator between making a pot of chili or opting for a can of Hormel.


  • farmerpam
    November 18, 2012 3:54pm

    I prefer both options when reading a recipe, weight and measurments, I know my way around the kitchen and usually can spot when something doesn’t sound right. Pictures? Yeah, they’re nice, however some of the lamest cookbooks I own are the ones with the beautiful pics. I’m thinking of one cheesemaking book in particular, complete crap, lovely pics though. Some of the best cookbooks I own are old and out of print ( for cheesemaking, that is). If I’m about to embark on a recipe that is completely new and foreign then I’ll research and compare many versions of the same recipe. Then give it a go, sometimes with a combination of recipes. “Salt to taste” does not bother me.

    • November 18, 2012 3:57pm
      David Lebovitz

      I like food stylists but sometimes they get their hands on a book and have no connection or communication with the author, and they take liberties with things. (On the other hand, I’ve heard from a few food stylists that they often have to “make do” because they had trouble with the recipe they were supposed to make. And that includes food magazines, too.) But you’re right that sometimes beautiful pictures don’t really show how the recipe is supposed to turn out and can be deceiving.

  • November 18, 2012 4:13pm

    Joy of Cooking’s retro illustrations come to mind when reading through these comments. They are so charming.

    There’s definitely a limit to the amount of info you give in a recipe but yes, things like “1 stick of butter” or “1 can of condensed milk” are maddening. I bake almost every day for a living and I still have to google the weight every time one of these terms come up.

    Where I think you can do no wrong is testing the recipes themselves. For those of us who follow your blog,we can see every step of your dishes – it’s obvious you are actually making these foods and sharing the recipes versus making them up. I have several cookbooks where the recipes never come out properly and it really does make me question if the author ever made the dish themselves!

  • November 18, 2012 4:42pm

    From both reader and writer perspectives, I feel the pain! I have, many times, had to adapt a previously untried recipe to make use of what was on hand; which shouldn’t be difficult for an experienced home cook. As for seasoning, well, I’ve never understood why everyone doesn’t change up the spicing to meet their own tastes.

    Funny, I’ve been working a post like this myself, as sort of a refutation of the idea that all recipes must be adhered to like gospel (which I frankly don’t believe in either!), down to the last tsp of cinnamon.

  • White
    November 18, 2012 5:15pm

    I think the best comment was from Barbara (9:11 AM):

    “…tell me what to look for, what it should smell like, how it feels-so much of what we do is by our senses…”

    In a way, that is why photos are used, but they can also be deceptive. Tell me about what I should be expecting in texture, consistency, appearance, etc. at crucial points in the process.

    I can’t understand the critiques of the “salt to taste” instruction. “Give me a starting point”, they say. Well, how about “start with none”, then “add a little”. Taste, then adjust. That is the whole point! My pinch is different from your pinch.

    The American ‘stick of butter’ does not bother me. When I buy butter, I usually cut it into sticks, wrap them and freeze them, and leave one out at room temperature. I find it a convenient size and shape. When I churn my own (for a lark), then that’s different.

  • Tags
    November 18, 2012 5:37pm

    Anyone reading this who hasn’t bought a copy of Michael Ruhlman’s “Ratio” should buy it now.

  • Mark Searles
    November 18, 2012 6:22pm

    Cooking is an art and, as an art, requires subjective interpretation. I expect the recipe, if followed faithfully, to yield good results. I also expect that I will need to participate in the recipe – i.e., salt to taste. A suggested quantity is useful but not always necessary. If ‘salt to taste’ is the best amount, some might shy away from salting to taste if a recommended quantity were provided.

    Despite being very much part of the Internet age, I still like using paper cookbooks. That being said, I often will go to the author website to look for supplemental info – updates/comments/videos/etc. Buying a cookbook is generally based on the cookbook itself, and then the supplemental info is a bonus. Hmmm. That being said, I bought ‘The Perfect Scoop’ after trying a few recipes posted on your web site.

  • Bebe
    November 18, 2012 9:36pm

    This may have been mentioned, but my real gripe, other than just a bad recipe – I prefer recipes from relatives and friends who have used them for years and I’ve admired the end result – is the recipe in book, magazine or newspaper that has an omission or an error of some kind that materially affects the result. The correction- if it turns up at all – comes far too late, in a later-published Errata or a later issue of the magazine or paper. This used to happen in even Gourmet. And more frequently than seemed acceptable.

    The notion that every recipe printed in a book or article has been tested is sometimes folly. It’s not necessarily true.

  • Mary Askew
    November 18, 2012 9:44pm

    More and more, I prefer recipe writers to use weights for measurements especially when fruit or vegetables are involved. I find recipes requiring 3 “medium” apples or 1 “small” butternut squash maddening. How big is a “large” Spanish onion? Is it roughly two “small” or two “medium”?

    A small kitchen scale is as useful as my microplane and I would not part with either.

  • Sheri
    November 18, 2012 9:56pm

    I tend to read cookbooks like other people read novels. I like the in depth information but may make my own “translations”. I will use a recipe as a guide the first time I make something but have been cooking since the dark ages so often make adjustments and changes without thinking about it. Pastry is, of course, different. I want exact weights and measures until I have the recipe memorized, then some adaptions will likely occur. I too prefer weights as they provide significantly more consistency. I have always had wonderful results with any recipe of yours!! I have especially enjoyed “The Sweet Life”, as have appreciative friends and family!!

  • Michelle
    November 18, 2012 10:31pm

    I could probably be considered a weekend warrior cook… I cook quite a bit during the evenings and not much during the week. As such, sometimes I just don’t have time to experiment. I like my recipes to be clear and precise. I may still decide to fiddle with quantities myself, but I like that to be an option rather than be forced to figure something out.

  • Gavrielle
    November 18, 2012 11:53pm

    It’s a complex queastion, isn’t it! With your recipes I like your precision as it’s clear you’ve tested everything carefully (unlike a famous Nigella cake recipe which sinks for everyone!) – I was particularly taken by your comments on how most people don’t cook caramel long enough. That was really useful information, and it’s especially good to know when you’re using expensive ingredients (like my pricey Valrhona cocoa powder) that you can rely on the recipe to work. Love the weights plus the cups, too – I made your banana cake recently and knew to use twice the bananas you gave as a guide because it took that many to fill up the cups.

    On the other hand, a lot of detail can make recipes look intimidating when they actually aren’t. My particular bete noire is recipes that go over the page, because I use a plastic book holder in the kitchen and have to wash my hands, fish the book out, turn the page and put it back, trying to remember what the other page said. A lot of detail also makes it easier to kind of get lost in the middle when you’re cooking. As a result, I often after reading the recipe carefully end up rewriting it leaving out the detail I don’t need to cook it so it’s clearer to follow and is on one page. Maybe when all books are electronic (not that I’m hoping for that day to arrive soon) we could have both the longer and the simple version side by side.

    November 19, 2012 1:23am

    I love that you contemplate all the variables seriously in writing your books and your recipes on your blog.

    You are not only talented, but able to communicate your talent so well. So many good chefs can cook, but have no idea how to get their methods and ideas over to the audience ! Thank you, Suzanne

  • Sandra
    November 19, 2012 2:05am

    Love your blog and recipes, David, thank you, and this is a great post and dialogue. But I hate, hate recipes that over-use canned and pre-prepared ingredients. America, I’m looking at you!

  • November 19, 2012 2:13am

    I prefer measurements in grams, and not just because I live in Australia – there are so many different definitions of 1 cup (or 1 tablespoon, even) – it’s just safer.

    The question of audience is an interesting one – I’m currently in the planning stages of a cookbook which would mostly be about the fine art of altering recipes to work around food allergies and other dietary requirements (which leads to a whole different set of questions about precision in recipes, really), but it’s difficult to know what level of culinary ease I am looking at in my audience…


  • Kate
    November 19, 2012 2:32am

    When it comes to cooking, I do not care about precision. To taste, a dab of this, etc. is totally fine with me. When it comes to baking, however, I love precision! I will not try out a baking recipe if, for example (as someone mentioned above), it calls for 1 medium banana. Now, this recipe may turn out perfectly but there’s too many other good looking recipes on my “to bake” list to try to waste time and ingredients on something like that. So, in baking, I prefer it to be as precise as possible! Not to mention, my lazy side loves to just dump things in a bowl set atop a scale instead of dragging out all my measuring cups.

  • November 19, 2012 4:32am

    After I started blogging, I really started to realize how difficult recipe-writing is. A lot of times, you could write a paragraph at every ingredient/step. I usually try to include as much as is necessary, and assume people will ask questions if they have them. I expect book recipes to be much more precise for some reason. I often pull up blog recipes, read them once, and follow them vaguely by memory. Cookbooks are something you pore over for every last detail.

  • patricia
    November 19, 2012 6:48am

    To answer this as simply as possible, I will tell an anecdote. I am a recipe developer and occasional cooking teacher. When I take cakes to my friend Tom’s house, he always marvels at how they come out. He says he can never get his cakes to turn out so well! We chat for awhile, and I find out that he takes great pride in never following a recipe exactly, and he never uses an altitude adjustment (we lives at 5K ft.). His cakes are lousy, yet he continues what he’s doing.

    My point is that baking is a science. Yes, throw things together (I do!) when you’re making a stew, salad, anything but a cake or most other kinds of baked goods. Even bread, which can be made from feel and texture, must reflect a certain proportion and technique to come out as one intends.

    So please, give exact measurements and precise details. Tell us what texture we’re looking for and what something should look like! BTW, I do love your recipes. You do a great job!

  • November 19, 2012 7:13am

    This is a tough question to answer but I think it all depends on how skilled the reader of the recipe is and whether they plan to use the recipe exactly as written or just use the concept for inspiration. But also, being a good recipe writer has a lot to do with being a good writer and editor in general. A good writer should be able to describe a particular type of stirring, for instance, in a few words, and not have to take up an entire paragraph for one step.

  • Joanne
    November 19, 2012 9:07am

    I like enough precision to make the prep brainless (weights are great for this) – with notes telling me where things may vary within a range.

    More importantly, I appreciate efficient and concise directions. Even if I’ve read a recipe multiple times before diving in – with all ingredients in place – I’m constantly checking back to make sure I’m carrying out the proper steps in the proper order. And it is incredibly frustrating to wade through paragraphs of observations and details while the caramel burns.

    I do like details and extra guidance – but as an intro or Note (Understanding the Recipe section), keeping the key Method steps clean and minimal.

  • November 19, 2012 9:58am

    If I use a recipe, I want it to be as precise as it can possibly be. And yes, that means 10ml lemon juice and 8g salt.

    Because if I use someone else’s recipe, I want to be able to replicate exactly what they were cooking, and I do not have the time or the nerves for guesswork. I am using someone else’s recipe exactly for the reason that I do NOT know how it’s going to taste exactly, and I am trying to learn something new.

    If I have a strong opinion about any part of the recipe (i.e. not wanting to wash 80 small bowls or laughing at the ludicrously low amount of salt) I can decide to make it differently. But until then, I love to get recipies that are as precise and metric as they can be.

  • November 19, 2012 10:18am

    This is an age-old question: but how much more precise it will be if American recipes use metric instead of cup measurements!

  • November 19, 2012 1:31pm

    Personally, I prefer when recipes say, “season to taste.” Obviously it’s going to be different for every person, so it’s not worth writing precise measurements for seasoning. I considered starting a food blog until I realized I would have to write measurements for food, and when I cook I eyeball basically everything (not when I bake, of course.) As you get more experienced you need much less direction I find.

  • November 19, 2012 1:31pm

    Also I REALLY wish we used metric in America. It’s universal and much easier.

  • Olawale Taiwo
    November 19, 2012 3:12pm

    Hello David,

    Thanks for a wonderful post. As a Cake Artist, I feel strongly about precision in measuring. Owing to my background in science/engineering, I’m very comfortable with metric measurement and for those quantities that are so small like, baking soda/powder, salt, spices…the teaspoon and tablespoon will suffice, except for large/voluminous baking, where I have to employ the weight of this products.

    Sometimes, I think the best insulation is to be in the ball park, e.g 1oz could be between 28 – 30g. As long as one is in the ball park, there will always be success in the baked outcome.

    Cookbook authors should have it at the back of their minds that their book could reach the hands of a home baker far away in the hills of Africa, and such baker should be given the benefit of doubt that whatever measurement used, or stated, will work out.

    I love Maida Heatter Books, but she uses cups, sticks and Ounces. The only stress for me is to go further ad convert all this into metric i.e. grams.

    Now for savory cooking….its very difficult to properly execute the phrase…“season to taste”.

    Some people uses small salt or seasoning due to health, some totally leave out salt, while some uses it in full. I think, one needs to train his/her palate very well and understand the audience he/she is cooking for.


  • Ana in Chicago
    November 19, 2012 3:15pm

    I have just received Ready for Dessert and I am reading it like a novel. I just love your writing — and your recipes!

  • Ana
    November 19, 2012 3:31pm

    First let me tell you that I just love your blog and that I am eternally grateful for your using the metric system in your recipes.Personally I am ok with season to taste. In fact I taste everything.and also I know the usual amount of salt, pepper etc that I normally use.
    Now what really infuriates me is the cup measurements. A cup of flour (or something else) never weights the same. In this global world we live in, where everybody has access to everything, it is importantthat the writer realizes that is read everywhere, not only in US (who is one of the five countries in the world that does not uses the metric system). Also here butter is sold in 250g packages. So how much is a stick??
    But what really distresses me is the yeast measurements. I do not have dry yeast. so when you say for instance 1 TBS of dry yeast, how much should I use of fresh yeast??

  • Eva
    November 19, 2012 4:54pm

    Being from continental Europe I am grateful that you use the metric system: I am not sure how to use cups correctly, especially with flour. Or all things chopped: The finer one chops, the more fits in a cup …
    Regarding the precision of recipes: I am perfectly content with “salt to taste”. What really helps me though, is, if possible, kind of a description of how the result should be/taste/look like – like e.g. with your Kougin Amman recipe: You get a quite good idea what it should taste like just from reading. And I am always thankful for tips or explanations (which most Indian recipes lack, to my infinite regret: Why do some spices have to be fried for 30 seconds, others for a minute, and what happens if you mess up your timing?). But I agree with Joanna: They are best as a note at the beginning or end of a recipe.
    PS: Thank you for this great blog and your very foolproof recipes – everything I tried so far worked very well and was utterly delicious.

  • CHN
    November 19, 2012 5:36pm

    “In general, I think people have to use their own judgement about many susbstitutes. I’ve often called for cookies to have “walnuts or pecans” added to them. And invariably, someone will ask if they can use almonds. So sometimes I’ll say “Walnuts, pecans, almonds, or macadamias” and someone will then ask “Can I use cashews?” so it’s hard to include them all. (If you say “any nut”, then someone will ask if they can leave the nuts out…!)”

    LOL — yes, I can sympathize with that. I guess the flip side of wanting cookbooks (especially baking) to be more precise is that the cook/baker must be willing to take chances (and fail sometimes). That’s where the real lessons are learned. I’ve had to dump my fair share of things in the trash, but I learned valuable lessons as a result of those failures.

  • j.J.
    November 19, 2012 5:40pm

    I understand the desire for precision weights, but I can more easily memorize shapes than decimal points. I start transposing numbers in my mind when there are too many together. (I can do calculus, not arithmatic.)

    I also come from a legacy of proportional methods. One grandmother just used her hands to measure or random kitchen implements. The other one measured everything with an old tin measuring cup with lines embossed on the inside, and I loved her cakes.

    And tell me to add something to taste. Most likely, I’ve got other spices in there than what’s in the recipe.

  • LAR
    November 19, 2012 6:07pm

    Unambiguous amounts are what I want. I made a recipe from a star chef’s cookbook that called for a cup of grated cheese. I used a microplane grater which produced light and fluffy cheese, and the recipe didn’t work. It should have said “8 oz. of cheese, grated”. For other ingredients, like table salt, sugar, etc., weight or volume is fine.

    Then there’s the issue of education. A family member was making another cheese-based recipe that called for “2 ounces of cheese, grated”, so she grated some cheese and put it in a measuring cup until it reached the 2 ounce mark. I had to give her a class on the difference between weight and volume.

  • Mary
    November 19, 2012 9:30pm

    I must say, I am living in Eastern Europe for a short period where I cannot find a lot of things that I read in others’ recipes, but that doesn’t keep me from trying! Part of cooking is taking a risk and often I end up with things I just cannot eat or wouldn’t want another to eat. It doesn’t mean I fail all the time or stop taking the risk…I just try again…maybe with something else or a whole new dish. I currently work with an oven that’s numbered 1-10! What did I do? Looked at a neighbor’s oven dials, counted how many settings, compared with mine…did a little math and I have a rough estimate of what each number 1-10 corresponds with what degree. Cooking is an adventure…a writer should let that be apart of each dish they concoct for their readers, because you can never guess all the various circumstances, like making a cheesecake from individually wrapped cheeses that remind you of Laughing Cow Cheese and somehow it turns out like magic!

  • November 19, 2012 10:52pm

    I’m a lover of the intuitive kitchen, but I know that’s very much a question of character on one hand and experience on the other. Your recipes are always amazing and easy to follow – I still have to learn a lot!

  • Monica Schultz
    November 19, 2012 11:06pm

    Maybe it’s just me but I have the biggest problem with cream. Heavy, double, single, pouring… Is someone else’s heavy or double cream the same as in Australia where the heavy cream has a 45-50% fat content (but soooo good oozing over a warm pudding). If the fat content of the cream (10%, 30% etc) was listed it would save the hours of googling looking for the nutritional breakdown and names of creams depending of where the recipe was published to try to prevent overly greasy outcomes from using the wrong cream.

  • Lindsey C.
    November 19, 2012 11:13pm

    The best piece of cooking advice my mother gave to me which I find useful every time I crack a recipe, is-

    Always follow the recipe as strict as possible the first time around. Then make notes and fix it.

    This helped me this past weekend when I pre-made a bunch of holiday food for thanksgiving and some of the recipes didn’t turn out so I had to figure out what went wrong and adjust. Also, I am still adjusting to cooking/baking in Texas humidity after spending most of my life in L.A. You need a lot more water than the recipes call for. I don’t know exactly why, it seems counter intuitive.

    I commend you for being thoughtful enough to attempt finding the line between explaining things correctly and allowing for variance in consumer local.

  • Sandy
    November 19, 2012 11:21pm

    People have stong feelings about food… some like to experiment, others like to create a perfect dish. There are times when precision is important (i.e. baking)however it is also fun to experiment and learn from mistakes. I like a good mix of both. Either way, we are very fortunate to have the luxury to “play” with our food as we do.

    • November 20, 2012 9:55am
      David Lebovitz

      That’s right. Many of us are lucky to have refrigerators and cupboard (and supermarkets) full of food, when so many people don’t. That’s why I try not to take cooking & baking too seriously – it’s all supposed to be a way to nourish ourselves first, and be enjoyable as well as educational. The good thing about the internet is we can be more “international” and see first-hand how many different cultures cook and eat, and even though some of our differences are perplexing (sticks of butter, sachets of baking powder) we are so fortunate to be able to have access to those things in the first place, those of us who do.

  • Millie
    November 20, 2012 2:03am

    I’m fine with seasoning something to taste but only if I can conveniently taste it. Seasoning soup to taste is fine, but instructions that tell me to put a dash of cloves in my cookies cause me to roll my eyes. How will I know if I’ve used an appropriate amount until it’s too late?

  • Lisa
    November 20, 2012 2:05am

    “Season to taste” type instructions are fine, but follow it up with what you would do, e.g. “I usually add one tsp of salt”. I don’t cook very often and I think additional information would help not to over or under season.

  • thk
    November 20, 2012 4:28am

    I have to admit that as Australian, i have always wondered what kosher salt is?! The one measurement that does drive me nuts in US cookbooks are sticks of butter or tablespoons of butter – I am always looking up the conversions on the internet. And don’t get me started on the old imperial weigh of measuring – I only know metric!

  • November 20, 2012 4:46am

    More than precision, I appreciate when recipes explain “why” to (or not to) do something. Specifically with baking, for me. If a recipe for cookies says to cut the cookies and then place tray in fridge for 10 minutes before baking, I want to know why that’s necessary. I want the instructions to say that will help keep their shape, etc. Or why do I need to alternate dry and wet ingredients when making a cake? What if I’m in a hurry and I want to take a short cut and just throw it all together and mix it? What will happen? Will it not be as good? Sometimes when recipes don’t explain the why, even if the instructions are detailed, it could attribute to results not as the author intended.

    • November 20, 2012 9:50am
      David Lebovitz

      I think there are those kinds of cookbooks, but they fall into a separate category. People like Shirley Cooriher (of Bakewise) tells folks the hows and whys of baking, and why things work the way they do. But in a regular baking book, to add all that information would expand a recipe to such an extent that it might be people wary because it would be so wordy.

      So it’s good that books like hers exist, to explain all those things. Although one has to sacrifice the number of recipes, and photos, to that information.

  • Juan Carlos
    November 20, 2012 1:34pm

    For those of us who are multi-national, I have found this iPhone app indispensible when I bake:

  • November 20, 2012 10:03pm

    Didn’t you know? 1/4 teaspoon salt actually means : season to taste.

  • mary
    November 21, 2012 1:09am

    I love this discussion. I think the 200+ comments here make it clear that it’s impossible to please everyone.

    From my perspective, I want weights (metric) and volume. I have a scale that I prefer to use, but sometimes the battery is dying and it gets wonky and I just use measuring cups. Plus, for Americans cups are still the standard, for better or worse. I understand that when it gets down to teaspoons and things that weigh less than 5 grams or so volume ends up being about as precise as many kitchen scales

    In a baking book that relies on volume, I like it when the front matter includes preferences for measuring (e.g. do you use the measuring cup to scoop the flour or spoon flour into the cup and then level it, if sifting is the volume pre-sifting or post-sifting, etc.). I think the front matter is a great place to address other general preferences like say, for kosher salt with a note to reduce the quantity for finely ground table salt or dutch processed cocoa powder except where otherwise specified. I realize that lots of inexperienced cooks don’t read that stuff though.

    I hate measuring lemon zest or freshly grated nutmeg (though I guess I can eyeball a 1/4 teaspoon). So I prefer “zest of one lemon,” to one tablespoon of lemon zest. I’ve also never come across a recipe where the natural variation in lemon size would ruin a recipe. But doubling the salt might, so I guess I’d like a guideline even though I’m experienced enough at this point to know about how much I’m going to want and adjust it if it looks wrong.

    I agree with the general antipathy toward recipes calling for sticks of butter–my own pet peeve is packets of yeast.

    I like extra instructions at places where my intuition is likely to lead me astray. If a batter looks curdled after I add the buttermilk, I like to be reassured that it’s supposed to do that. I like to know if it’s supposed to really jiggle in the middle when it’s ready to come out of the oven because if I wait until it looks set it’ll be over done. I also want clear visual cues on how to tell when something is done–just golden around the edges or deep brown all the way through?

    But then I look back at my own history of learning to cook and I was drawn in by really loose, unstructured recipes from someone like Jamie Oliver or Donna Hay or Nigella Lawson because they didn’t intimidate me, and then I spent a lot of time with writers more like Marcella Hazan or Alice Medrich or Judy Rodgers who give you tons of details on technique, and I became a better cook. I think there’s value in both kinds of books. And that’s without getting to the Cook’s Illustrated approach, which I appreciate but also find tedious.

  • Shannon
    November 21, 2012 1:11am

    I prefer American measurements. As for “season to taste,” I like at least a general guideline. I really like the little introductory blurbs for the recipes in your cookbooks.

  • Michael Duffy
    November 21, 2012 6:46am

    Thanks for asking, David. I think recipes that get passed along by “professionals” need to be pretty accurate. You have to assume that the person trying to replicate what you have created is a novice in every sense of the word. Every detail matters.

    But once someone has duplicated your masterpiece, they are free to experiment a bit with their second, third, or seventeenth rendition. While the writer has to assume that the novice is truly a novice, in fact the reader might be as seasoned a chef as the writer.

    Thanks for sharing, and thanks for being so concerned about your readers’ realities.

  • November 21, 2012 9:32am

    It’s interesting to read this post because I do most of my baking from your recipes and hold them up as a standard for how precise recipes should be :)
    The way I see it, precision can’t hurt – it helps a novice a great deal and as for seasoned cooks, they can always choose to modify as much as they want.
    Seems like a win-win, unless I’m missing something.
    Cheers from India!

  • Christine
    November 21, 2012 3:54pm

    Hi there!

    I know you’ve received a ton of comments already, but I thought I might just add my own two cents.

    As someone who self-taught how to cook and bake and with a number of friends who have no idea how, I believe precise measurements are best for a cookbook. When a novice, we rely on those specifics to help us turn out something edible. Then, with more practice and experience, the precise measurements become less important and we judge based on those to be served and our own sense of what’s good.

    I understand that many learned with mothers and grandmothers who never measured, but how many people nowadays make time to watch and learn? My own mother passed away young, and so I relied very heavily on those types of cookbooks until I could stand on my own two feet. Nowadays, recipes are “general ideas and recommendations” for me, but you reach a wider audience with more specifics than less. Imagine, how frustrating would it be to get a recipe for a delicious dish and then have no idea what a “dash” or “pinch” is?

  • Juanita
    November 21, 2012 5:32pm

    I have been collecting and cooking from recipes and cookbooks for (my gosh) sixty-five years. I have learned so much in the past few years from reading blogs such as yours and others, I have evolved into someone who likes recipes that include weights. My scale is just like yours so works for both grams and ounces. It is so much quicker to weigh ingredients and creates fewer utensils to wash.
    One of my observations is that my older cookbooks include much less verbiage per recipe so,for example, Betty Crocker recipes were much shorter. The results for her baking recipes are good. Older cookbooks assumed people knew how to cook so didn’t describe every step. It shouldn’t take a whole page for a recipe. But I do love looking at the beautiful pictures even though it seems an extravagance.

  • Fernando
    November 22, 2012 1:57am

    I agree with Candice about the timing.

    Pack/stick/box/can/sheet: NO
    Grams: YES
    Cups/volume: OK

    And for pastry cookbook writers:
    It would be great to know the average weights for egg whites/yolks as is common to have leftovers from ice creams/meringues, etc.

    Also David:
    You can use your own blog to show pictures of your cookbook’s recipes that couldn’t be included in print (and put the url in your book, also good for erratas). I think people would appreciate the reference and your own photos are good enough. I like the author own photos cause I think they know what is more important to highlight for reference and not just for aesthetics.

    All that said, I’m unemployed and couldn’t yet buy any of your books. But your blog alone is better than almost every book on pastry I read :)

  • Martin
    November 22, 2012 2:30am

    Happy Thanksgiving, David. You’re one of the sites I visit almost daily–so I’d be remiss if I didn’t say thanks.

    Martin Sovik

  • November 22, 2012 10:27am
    David Lebovitz

    Martin: Thanks! Happy Thanksgiving to you as well, and appreciate your kind words!
    Don’t eat too much today : )

    Fernando: The copyright for photographs is almost always held by the photographer and you need to get permission, and often pay, for the rights to use them elsewhere – other than in the book. While most would likely be fine with granting me permission to use a few of the photos, I prefer to only use my own pictures on the site because the blog is meant to be sort of a “personal notebook” for me.

    But for reasons that you mentioned, I do take photos as I test recipes for my books and post them on my Flickr pages, and I’ve made photo sets for The Sweet Life in Paris and Ready for Dessert there for some of the reasons that you mentioned.

    Juanita: A lot of those older cookbooks did assume that folks didn’t have so many questions (Can this be frozen? What does “cream” butter and sugar mean?, etc..) but also some magazines and newspapers shorten instructions because words=space, and space is revenue, so they need to economize on words. So some magazines will just say “Combine the first 5 ingredients” rather than “Use a flexible rubber spatula to mix together the sugar, flour, eggs, water, and vanilla extract.”

    In books, I do like the recipes on one page if possible. I was just making a recipe from a book and the ingredients were on the previous page and I had to keep flipping back and forth between the pages, although book design can be tricky because there are so many variables that go into it.

  • November 22, 2012 8:37pm

    That’s true! I also like (or need, I’d say) the recipe (ingredients and text) appearing on the same page, because I am one of those people who goes into the kitchen with the book! It may be the cutest book in the world, mine will have a few drops of water, some flour and a splash of milk on it!

    And, about the measures, I didn’t mentioned, but now I have read another comment, I say the same. I don’t like ingredients specifications as a can, a box, a brick or a packet of. Especially when the world of cookbooks has become so international, we buy worldwide a book to cook in kitchens of so many countries… The condensed milk tin, packet of biscuits or packet of bakinng powder can vary greatly!

  • Jade
    November 23, 2012 4:27pm

    Baked goods such as breads and cakes require recipe precision, the same is true for much of candy making. This is because the process is more chemistry than cooking. In cooking, such as saute, roasting, grilling, the fundamental cooking methods should be followed, but the rest is really a matter of taste. Rule of thumb when cooking, taste as you go.

  • Melissa
    November 23, 2012 7:15pm

    As a student in baking school, I’m used to both measuring by weight when I’m at school and by volume when at home. The more I learn though, the more confused I get by the measurement-by-volume recipes. For beginners though, measurements by weight may prevent them from buying the book or trying the recipe because it may seem fussy or advanced (because they may not have a scale). And while cooking, I generally do seasonings to taste anyway.

    What if there was a “push yourself” or “take it another notch!” blurb at the bottom of a recipe that could take a great, but more simple, dish and use another technique that maybe not everyone would have the confidence/time/equipment to try?

    I’m sure these aren’t things you haven’t already thought of… just my

  • Catherine
    November 23, 2012 9:40pm

    It certainly seems impossible to make everyone happy when writing a cookbook!

    In baking, I won’t buy a cookbook without weight measurements. It’s too hard to try and scoop and level everything in my tiny kitchen for mediocre results. I also live at 3500 ft in a desert, so the fewer variables, the better. As a side note, maybe it’s just me, but in both Texas and Kansas (where I’ve lived the last 2 years) it seems that the yolks in supermarket eggs are shrinking while a whole large egg still weighs around 1.75 oz. I find that I must consistently use around 1.5x as many egg yolks to get the weight as required in my very early copy of Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible, as well as The Pie and Pastry Bible. Being able to weigh my ingredients means that I can be sure my pecan pie has enough egg in it.

    In most recipes, I feel that photos are luxurious, but not necessary. If something requires complicated assembly, I actually prefer a diagram, because its simplicity makes it easier to read. While a picture may be worth a thousand words, sometimes words are more economical, and, as an additional benefit, draw attention to the points that matter instead of awe.

    As for the “season to taste” debate, I’ve never minded it in recipes. I’ll taste raw egg mixtures without hesitation, even if a salt amount is listed. (You can’t fix salty eggs.) If it involves raw, ground meat, I always make a test patty. Braises can be seasoned after cooking. I always have a salt and pepper shaker on the table, and usually offer lemons or vinegar on the side. My husband’s army training has left him chronically immune to saltiness, sweetness, and spiciness, and I would ruin the dish for everyone else if I always seasoned to his taste. (Even though I hardly ever want extra seasoning, I get mad if a restaurant doesn’t offer salt and pepper shakers.)

    I always read the preface and introduction in a cookbook, because I expect it will explain questions I will have about ingredients or techniques that would be redundant printed over and over in each recipe. I also expect it will have recommendations for things like altitude, convection ovens, pan substitutions, etc. If the introduction isn’t worth reading, I look at the rest of the book a bit more suspiciously.

    Finally, if the book doesn’t teach me something, it’s hard to justify buying or keeping it. If I just want a good recipe, I can borrow it from the library, or resell my copy after writing down one or two. I keep books that help me evaluate other recipes, or offer a good explanation of technique. Some are great because they explain historical links or cultural differences in the food or preparation.

    This ended up a little longer than I planned. Good thing I don’t write recipes for a living – they’d never end up on one page!

  • Vicki D
    November 25, 2012 12:53am

    You are one of my food bloggers for whom I give thanks…all the time!

  • November 25, 2012 8:23pm

    it’s funny, what you said about holding onto those measuring cups–i am in the process of buillding a baker’s kitchen in my home in hope, nj and find an enormous amount of duplicate and or outdated equipment. but when it came to the ancient cuisinart and pelouze scales i thought i better hold onto them in case of inevitable power failures–at least until we put the generators in.

    did i tell you how much i love your blog?

    • November 25, 2012 9:03pm
      David Lebovitz

      I think a lot of the attachments to measuring cups is visceral; it’s something cultural for home bakers and many people (still) use their mother’s or grandmother’s measuring cups. Some folks complain about that system, but there are some amazing bakers out there that use cups & tablespoons. I actually did have a scale break on me on a Sunday when I was working hard on a project, so even though folks recommend back-up batteries, good to keep those ancient scales around.

      Good luck with the kitchen – and glad you like the blog : )

      • November 25, 2012 9:31pm

        thanks david–i have to admit that i have several sets of measuring cups and spoons handing in my kitchen and occasionally even used!

  • Jared
    November 26, 2012 9:42pm

    As an analytical chemist I learned that all measurements are necessarily approximations because all methods of measuring are inexact to some degree. Small weights are notoriously hard to measure accurately. The most accurate measurements are liquids by volume (so if a chemist needs 10 grams of salt he dissolves 100 grams of salt into 100 mL and uses 10 mL of the solution and throws the rest away). As long as it is a liquid you should stick to a volumetric measurement.

    I have a recipe for alfajores I am dying to try, but all the measurements are in metric, and how do you measure 10 grams of sodium bicarbonate? My scale isn’t that accurate. I haven’t seen a scale that accurate since I left my chemistry lab job. on the other hand it is fairly easy to measure 1/4 tsp of baking soda with reasonable accuracy. 100 grams of honey? The density of honey doesn’t change from one day to another, one baker to another, and since I have to scoop it anyway I might as well scoop it with a measuring cup, so it would sure be useful if it was listed by volume. (I’d have made the recipe a long time ago but a couple ingredients will need to be special ordered)

    The only thing that really has a big difference in density from day to day is fine powders (flour, powdered sugar, etc) and most of that is corrected by having a single person do all of the measurements. When I scoop four cups of flour I can guarantee that it will turn out to 22 oz because it always does when I scoop flour. Besides that, I spend a lot of time making breads and ALL BREAD RECIPES EVER WRITTEN require you to adjust the dough by feel at the end. So why does it matter if you start by measuring with a cup or a scale? Personally I think scoop-measuring is faster, so that’s the method I use.

    But accuracy aside, recipes aren’t written in stone (and it bothers me to hear chefs complaining about strict baking formulas). Do I measure 1/4 cup of lemon zest? Never! I zest three lemons, because I needed the juice of three lemons. For salt and seasoning etc, I think it should be understood, whether written explicitly or not, that it is done to taste (as you put David, this is highly subjective) and the measurement written is a suggestion.

  • Chocolatesa
    November 26, 2012 9:52pm

    No “season to taste” is never too vague with me, I often re-adjust seasonings in a recipe anyways. And as for measurements I don’t mind either volume or weight measurements, I’m not picky.

  • November 27, 2012 12:08am

    here is one question about measurements i have been thinking about before:
    if you use tablespoon or teaspoon as a measurement, doest it means flattened or little piled?
    logically id say flattened, because you cannot measure lemon juice with a pile.
    so it has to work the same for different ingredients.
    but practically i really doubt if lots of people flatten flour or sugar if measuring it by spoon.
    so with a pile? how big then? (:

    (i hope this text is not too confusing, english not being my first language)

  • Jared
    November 27, 2012 1:03am


    spoon and cup measurements always need to be flattened unless the recipe says otherwise (“scant” means a little less, “heaping” means a little more). For powders (flour or powdered sugar especially) it is usually thought best to scrape it off to flatten, not press it down.

    When I measure by spoon I scoop a heaping spoon full, and then tilt and lightly shake the spoon to get the excess off. It is very fast, faster than it takes a scale to balance.

    actually, now that I think about it, maybe the perceived benefits of one version or the other all boil down to we don’t see how the other team does it. I once saw a friend from Chile remark about how silly and useless a carrot peeler was, but when he saw how I used it he was shocked and said, “I had no idea you could use it like that!”

    I can make a cake with a half dozen ingredients using volumetric methods and only get a half-cup measure dirty, yet several of the posters who have commented on the benefits of weight measuring have said something to the effect of “stacks of dirty measuring spoons.” If I do it right I can use one or two spoons that only need to be rinsed off and put away for most recipes.

    Maybe if i saw how you used your scale i would be able to accurately evaluate its pros and cons.

  • Anne
    November 29, 2012 11:36am

    Being French, the first times I saw American recipes with “3 cups of sugar”, I was like “Whaaaaat? I have like 15 cups in my cupboard and they’re all different size”. Until I learnt later that there were specific measuring cups and spoons out there. hehehe.

    Now that I bought measuring cups, I can get by but I still prefer recipes with weighted ingredients. Force of habit and it’s more practical sometimes (don’t have to wash and dry the same measuring cup all the time for one recipe). And I feel I’m less likely to screw up with a scale.

    As I said, I can get by with measuring cup based recipes… Except for ONE thing : the BUTTER. I was always weirded out by those “1 cup of butter” instructions. How am I supposed to scoop a cup of butter? Who even got the idea of measuring butter with cups in the first place? It’s a good thing that google converts cups of butter into grams. (French butter don’t have cup marks on the package, only gram marks).

    I can understand the “add salt to taste” but I usually like to have an approximate idea of how much salt I’m supposed to put in. A pinch? a teaspoon? a handful? Sometimes recipes say stuff like “a pinch of salt or to taste” so I get an idea how much I’m supposed to start with.

  • November 29, 2012 11:41am
    David Lebovitz

    Anne: It’s interesting you mention the ‘cups’ because I see French recipes that often call for “a wine glass”, or just une verre, of vinegar – or “a soupspoon” of baking powder, which to me, are even more imprecise than the American system, since those can vary wildly.

    And my wine glasses are extra-large, too!
    ; )

    • November 29, 2012 3:55pm

      on my first trip to paris many years ago my friend who lives there introduced me to a ‘glass’ that had markings for different types of ingredients from water to rice. i was amazed how accurate it was and promptly bought one for traveling in case i went somewhere without a scale.

  • another David
    November 29, 2012 4:10pm

    After being brought up with pounds and ounces (English, not American) I now use metric almost exclusively because it is more precise. I do use cups when they are called for but I never know whether to compress the contents or not. I don’t know sticks – I think it is 4 oz but …… I hate fluid ounces etc because my measures start at 2.5 fl oz or 50ml which is too big a gap when you need 10ml. For David; please check your weights; my backup (I use electronic normally) half kilogram is marginally over two times 200g weights and way under the two 200g plus a 100g weight.
    IMHO you need to do a recipe several times to get it right. One original recipe from Paris in the French original book I have just followed religiously is almost inedible so next time I will cut the gorgonzola by 60%. As you write, ingredients differ; a retired chef from Paris has told me to have 17% rye flour added to my type 45 – a tip which works for my local mill but elsewhere???
    How precise measures? I think that for meat you don’t need great precision but for patisserie the mix must be near perfect – imagine macarons with too little almond flour or the wrong quantity of egg white!
    A last problem is in translations; one published English translation of a French classic recipe has the quantity of water increased by 100 times!
    It all comes back to doing the recipe and, based on the results, adjusting to your materials, oven/salamander and measuring equipment. Even the level of humidity in your kitchen can affect some recipes

  • Anne
    November 29, 2012 4:48pm

    To David : yeah, those wine glass can be tricky too :op . But at least, when you pour a glass of wine or vinegar into something, it’s usually some sauce (bourguignon… yummmy) or savory dish… Not a pastry. So there’s no exact measurement required and it’s also a bit to taste. Unlike pastry and their cups of flour, sugar, milk… OK, there’s still the matter of rum and other liquor to add flavor in custards and stuff… but then they go by the tablespoons and it’s ok to be a bit approximate for that I guess… (But to be fair, when I see “a glass of wine” for fondue or something… I’m always a bit puzzled as to which glass I’m going to choose, hehehe)

    For the baking powder : usually the recipes I find call for a “pack of baking powder”, since they are usually standart size. Or sometimes they call for grams of baking powder. But you probably have looked a lot more recipes than I have.

  • November 30, 2012 9:02pm

    I think different recipes have are for different people. Those who bake and passionate about it whip out scales, and are very precise. Someone who considers a boxed cake mix adventure baking I don’t think spends much time measuring precisely. I have walked into people’s homes who have no measuring spoons and cups, and wondered how they get by, they do ;) Some of them even like to cook.

    Your book/recipe isn’t for everyone, it is for your audience. I think you need to write to your audience, but that means knowing your audience. I have gotten comments like I didn’t have any baking powder, so I used baking soda. Their second sentence was it didn’t turn out correctly, why?

    Personally, I have tried to refrain from writing any more recipes that state 1 onion, I now state 3/4 cup of chopped onion. While I personally may enjoy being much more technical with my cooking, I know my audience isn’t so I try to write things like you can do it this way, but measuring by weight is better.

  • Martha in KS
    December 1, 2012 2:21am

    Is that an OXO scale? I received a Williams-Sonoma gift card & that’s what I ordered. It arrived today & I’ve yet to take it out of the box. There are some things that I weigh – such as pasta for portion control. I’m looking forward to having accurate measurements for more recipes. I “usually” follow a recipe the first time when I’m baking, then make notes in my Living Cookbook for the next time. When cooking, anything goes. I can pretty much taste a recipe by reading it, so I’m good at judging changes I want to make. For instance I don’t eat any type of peppers so they have to be eliminated or replaced.

    David, are there any foods that you won’t eat?

  • December 1, 2012 4:10pm

    Recipes from books should be specific. I’m not a recipe maker. I’m not a professional chef. I’m a housewife who likes to cook. And when I get a cookbook, I expect for the recipes to be exact in their measurements. I see it as a guide. Then once I’m familiar with the recipe, I can tweak it to my liking. More or less salt or whatever. I also find cookbooks with tips, notes, ideas, etc. to be extremely helpful. Tell me what you did, and if I can do the same, then I will. But if I can’t, then no worries.

    • another David
      December 1, 2012 5:03pm

      Nichole; quantities are a matter of personal taste in recipes. The great Ferdinand Point gave no measures nor proportions in his recipes (a bit too basic for me), Paul Bocuse writes “if I write 12 onions this does not mean that the dish will not turn out right if you use 9 or 14″. He then says that 2 oz of flour in flaky pastry does not mean much because it depends on the source of the flour. (for pastry I normally use type 45 – soft flour but with a dash of breadmaking flour – but I see French recipes using pure type 65 which is breadmaking flour). Whatever your view about him Thomas Keller sometimes omits quantities on some ingredients in some of his recipes (with reference to six ears of corn, oil, butter and the one in front of me – another recipe calls for ” 4 to 6 tablespoons” butter). Another writer asks for a pinch of this, a dash of that.
      Some materials can be unobtainable – American recipes call for Kosher salt which I have never seen so I have to experiment; a detailed number of grains would be useless.
      Yes, a recipe is a GUIDE and it is your skill, experience and knowledge of your ingredients which will make the dish right. You personally like exact quantities so you look for precise recipes; fine by me but if I were a writer I would know you are not in my target audience.

  • December 2, 2012 2:55am

    “Season to taste” is a good example of failing in the amount of precision required; it’s either superfluous or insufficient. For a cookbook aimed at experienced cooks, the phrase is unnecessary; an experienced cook knows to taste and season just before serving, and you couldn’t prevent her from doing so if you wanted to. For an inexperienced cook, it’s insufficient; season with what? How much?

    So, for an advanced cookbook, omit the phrase. For a beginner’s cookbook — including a cookbook for people who are new to that specific cuisine — be more detailed. For example “Add additional lemon juice and/or salt to taste. The dish should have just a hint of lemon flavor and acidity, and not be salty.”

  • December 2, 2012 11:13pm

    Hi David.
    I especially like this post because, you’re right: cooking is an intuitive art/skill and taste is subjective. What works for some people just doesn’t work for others and I think that partially answers your inquiry.

    Julia Child was an exactitude beast. Her patience for finding “perfect” recipe measurements is unmatched, but that is because she was doing a very specific conversion of a very specific cuisine.

    I would say that for the most part (besides many baking recipes) the quality of ingredients, temperature and techniques used are far more important than exact quantities. A “handful” or “pinch” as a measurement, though inexact, has meaning for most humans because ….well… most of us have hands and fingers. We have a sense of what fits in them. Just sayin’.

    Those who lack the intuition and/or are too intimidated by rough measurements can practice and see what they like best.

  • Martina
    December 3, 2012 8:23pm

    Thank you, David, for asking for your readers’ thoughts!
    Most of the time I use a recipe as a guideline, making adjustments as I go, except in baking, where I follow recipes pretty carefully – although I rarely level the dry ingredients precisely in the measuring cup.
    I definitely appreciate when ingredients are given in both volume and weight, if it’s important. For example, a stew or casserole recipe, or a braised meat dish does not need to be precise at all. However, I like to brine my turkey for Thanksgiving. Proper salinity of the brine is important. When a brine recipe calls for 1 cup of salt, does it mean Diamond Kosher salt? Morton Canning and Pickling salt? The difference in the density of these two salts is vast, and I had to search the internet for a long time before I found an answer to how many grams/ounces of salt to use.
    Another thing that is nice is a recipe that gives an internal temperature for done-ness. A meatloaf may look and smell wonderful, but I like to know I’m not going to cut into a rare meatloaf!
    I bought an inexpensive digital scale on Amazon that weighs in ounces, pounds, kilos, and grams and I am so glad I have it.

    • December 4, 2012 1:58am
      David Lebovitz

      Martina: Thanks for your thoughts on the salt. It’s something a number of cookbook authors, including myself, are grappling with.

      So it seems that you like when a recipe calls for specific brand of salt? If so, I’m always concerned because people live in different places and can’t get certain brand, or things like kosher salt (I sometimes call for fleur de sel, which is exported but kosher or brining salts aren’t.) So I’m wondering how – as a cookbook reader – you’d imagine (and any other readers who want to chime in!) the salt issue gets addressed.

  • Martina
    December 4, 2012 3:08am

    Hmmm… I don’t think I need a brand or type of salt, per se – I mean, if a recipe calls for salt, even when I’m baking a cake, I rarely measure it – I always assume, for no particular reason, that the recipe was tested using salted butter, so I often compensate by adding a pinch more salt than is called for, since I always use unsalted butter.
    I wonder how important it is to get the right amount of salt in a recipe – for example, in The Perfect Scoop you call for “a big pinch of salt” in the vanilla ice cream recipe. How big a pinch isn’t really vital to the recipe, and I just reach into my salt cellar and add whatever my fingers pull out. But when it is important, like getting the right salinity of a brine, and the recipe says “use one cup of salt” it would be really great to know how many grams of salt that is. One quarter cup of Morton Kosher salt weighs 67gm, while 1/4 cup of Diamond Kosher salt weighs 35gm.
    But as for other recipes, if I’m making a chicken dish and the recipe calls for a “handful of dried cranberries” I just figure I’ll add what I want, depending on how cranberry-y I want my chicken to be. I still remember, about 20 years, ago a boyfriend and I were cooking together and I had a recipe that called for “zucchini cut into matchstick pieces” to be added and cooked for something like 20 minutes. I cooked it for about 2 minutes, not wanting to have a pile of zucchini mush, but my then-boyfriend was having serious anxiety because I changed the recipe! (we’re not together anymore) I use your recipe, from this website, for blue cheese dressing all the time and I have never followed your measurements for the ingredients, rather, I use the recipe as a guideline and make it so it tastes good to me, and has the consistency I want for my salad.
    Thank you again for asking what cookbook readers want…!

  • Martina
    December 4, 2012 3:15am

    Oh, and as for specific types of salt, if a recipe calls for Fleur de Sel and I happen to be running low, it is nice to have an alternative (Celtic Grey Salt, or Peruvian Pink Salt, or something) (yes, I do have about 10 different types of salt in my home at this very moment ;-) ), but again, only IF it’s going to really affect my enjoyment of the finished product

  • Kelly
    December 4, 2012 7:31am

    For me, recipes can be less exact. For my boyfriend, who left to his own devices will make bizarrely inedible decisions, clear instructions are important. I think its a matter of experience- I grew up cooking with my father. My boyfriend had very little experience growing up; I find his willingness to take chances a heartening sign that he hasn’t been scared off.

    I am very grateful for your blog! It is awesome! Wishing you well.

  • Deborah
    December 4, 2012 4:00pm

    A recipe can be quite precise, for example, your Racine’s Cake. I know it by heart.Wrote it on a chalkboard wall in a restroom in Milwaukee… symmetry. I have used it in many permutations, currently in a layered mini torte with a milk chocolate almond praline, feuilletine layer. You get the idea. I love that little cake. But, here is the catch. No matter how precise, there is always “feel”. How cool is the melted chocolate? How stiff are the beaten egg whites? Too much? Too little? And then there are the myriad variations of ovens.. Witness a tiny kitchen in the 15th in a typical rental versus the 100k American kitchen with high end cook stove where the owner might fire up the microwave once in a while.

    When I am trying a new recipe, I submit to the process; going forward fearlessly and taking risks. Some results will be better than others. We Americans obsess too much about rules and directions. I always loved the answer at Le Cordon Bleu about how much time to bake something. “Until it is done” was the stock answer. Cooking is an art; not a feat of engineering. Enjoy being in the creative process. It’s better than therapy. Although not necessarily cheaper!

    And seriously… discussions about salt? Read Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky.

    Relax. I love all your cookbooks. I expect the next one will be great and look forward to purchasing one. Good luck with the process and THANK YOU for your inspiration!

    • another David
      December 4, 2012 7:48pm

      Deborah wrote “And then there are the myriad variations of ovens”.

      Very much Yes! I have just got rid of my high end German oven because temperature control was so lousy.

      Imagine making Macarons (if you haven’t already). Split your eggs and leave the whites for five days before proceeding. When you have gone through the procedure – remember that measurements have to be right to the gramme – you then fire up the oven which must stay at the precise temperature throughout the baking procedure. The book says and I tried to use145°C* and I have seen agony aunts recommend after a failure that the temperature be raised by 5°C (that’s 8°F). A failure after waiting five days for the whites to mature ……..
      (* José Maréchal)

      I haven’t dared try macarons since I got the new oven – I can’t turn the fan off so I have a year’s retraining to do.

      I have two oven thermometers – and they differ from the oven thermostat and each other!

      David; despite what I might seem to write I don’t look for absolute measurements except when they are totally and inescapeably necessary; just keep on as you are and I will remain a very happy cook.

  • Heather
    December 5, 2012 10:48am

    David: Deborah’s comment finally crystalized for me what it matter how precise cookbook recipes need to be: I don’t have the luxury or resources to attend Le Corden Bleu cooking school or CIA, nor do the opportunities to sit at the counter of a world class chef and watch and absorb their techniques come around often–if at all. I am a competent home cook whose expatriate life adds a level of complexity to my love of cooking. When I buy a cookbook, I would like a cookbook that is a pale, but adequate, substitute for sitting at the counter of a world class chef and learning from the master. As much as gorgeous food porn photos make my heart go pitter-patter, ultimately if the text is inadequate or poorly written, the book goes back on the shelf.

    For example, I was looking for a new basic roll recipe for Thanksgiving a few weeks ago and stumbled across Alex Guarnaschelli’s Parker House Roll recipe. The clarity and simplicity of the directions won me over–it was beautifully written. I don’t know if Chef Guarnaschelli wrote her own recipe, but it turned out to be a good one that was quite idiot proof (which is necessary in my case because of a lousy oven and “meh” baking sheets).

    This is why Ready for Dessert is a godsend. It is the right balance of teaching (without being condescending), well-written, clear instructions and enough specificity to be secure in the recipe’s outcome. I hate to make a dessert for company and discover the recipe is an epic fail. I would use Ready for Dessert as an example of all the “to dos” if someone wanted a cookbook writing example. Michael Ruhlman also does a good job for a well-written savory recipe.

    And one last note on salt: the only thing I need to know is texture and purpose.Is the salt to season? Is the salt to finish? In Germany, I have different types of sea salt–I have a “Meersalz” fine and coarse in my regular grocery store. I can buy French Fleur de Sel and Maldon at my fancy grocer. When I read a recipe, I don’t need a brand–I just need enough information in a recipe to know that I’m not oversalting something (because a coarse ground, kosher type salt is going to be different than a fine, small flake sea salt or a larger flake finishing salt).

    I discovered, for example, in a recent April Bloomfield recipe that “salty” was a taste profile she wanted in the dish so knowing that ahead of time, I used a scant teaspoon in recipe instead of a heaping one because I wanted a more modest salty as opposed to a puckering one. Her recipe was a good example of stating, upfront, “salty is one of the flavors in this recipe. proceed accordingly.” That was good information for me to have so I could adjust to my taste.

  • Sandra
    December 7, 2012 1:04am

    Rose LB– I smiled at your post about so many measuring cups etc. I keep a zillion measuring spoons in my drawer so i don’t have to rinse or wash the “1 tsp” while I’m making a recipe. And I also keep a 1c measure in each flour canister (I have one canister/container for each type of flour–cake, bread,pastry,king arthur), and 1/2c in the sugar canister,1/4c in the brown sugar. I also keep duplicate sizes of pyrex measuring cups for pre-mixing eggs and vanilla so it’s faster to add them to the mixer. (And I use my walkin pantry closet for baking pans etc on shelves spaced as little as 2″ apart so there aren’t too many stacked inside each other.It looks like wall-to-wall shelves and I can see everything instantly.)
    Most importantly– I want to say KEEP THAT ANCIENT CUISINART! When I owned the Urban Gourmet I acquired so many extra machines that I ended up giving away my oldest Cuisinart and my oldest Kitchenaid mixer. I have regretted it ever since. With its yellowed, cracked base the old Cuisi was still far superior to any of the new ones. Same with the old Kitchenaid.
    Still using all your books and loving them. And reading David’s blog for the beautiful photos and French inspiration.

  • December 9, 2012 12:33am

    David, you deserve a considerable amount of credit in this area. I recently received an ice cream machine and a copy of the perfect scoop. I have made at least 12 different ice creams from your book and every single one has turned out. 100% success. Even the custard ones.

    My brother-in-law has the same machine and tried three recipes that came with the machine – all failures.

    I think every home cook understands that some recipes might work, and some wont. Every time I try a recipe, I first commit to making it exactly as printed. Afterwards, I will make notes about the recipe and what I would change for next time. Second attempts are usually the best.

    The only time I make changes on the first attempt is if I know I am making a substitution because of an ingredient I don’t like, or have substituted that ingrediant before with good results.

    I have atleast 100 cookbooks, mostly by professional chefs, and I buy them with the expectation to elevate my cooking skills. I don’t want you to dumb recipes down or make them too easy. If I want an easy croissant recipe, I’ll buy a frozen can of pillsbury (gross, i would never do that) – but if it means failing 6 times before I master the croissant, well I’ll do it. I have loads of recipes I need to wait on until I feel I can master them. That’s the whole fun in buying pro chef cookbooks. You are the pros. I just make note of too many failed attempts and maybe I’ll skip that chef’s next book when I see it.

    • Deborah
      December 9, 2012 7:40am

      Speaking of Pillsbury (not gross)… I have a 50’s cookbook by Pillsbury with some of the most foolproof recipes which I adapt to use my ancient Cuisinart (not yellowed) and ancient Kitchenaid. ( How did 30 years fly by?) Look to vintage cookbooks for inspiration. Read between the lines and go with it. Speaking of Cuisinart… rhetorical question… How fine is fine when processing almonds for macaroons, for example. Just making the point about “feel” and just go with it. It becomes a failure if you view it that way.

      Just because you are not happy with your results does not mean your intended “audience” won’t appreciate your efforts.

  • Rob B
    December 9, 2012 4:12pm

    If the recipe is for something baked (cake, pastry, etc.), I will follow it closely. Otherwise, I will use the recipe as inspiration and won’t follow it closely.

  • December 12, 2012 1:35am

    To those wishing to measure small units of weight, e.g. 10 grams of baking soda, may I suggest an digital jeweler’s scale? You can buy these scales quite inexpensively online. Usually they have different units (grains/grams/pennyweight/ounces) and a tare function, so you can tare the cup weight, then measure your 10 grams. Jeweler’s scales usually claim accuracy to 0.01 gram and have a maximum weight between 200 grams and 1 kilogram, depending on the scale.