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?

Categories:

Uncategorized

Tags:

260 comments

  • These are all very interesting questions. I personally don’t have any problem with the “season to taste” instruction. For baking recipes I always specify (I will say 1/4 tsp salt instead of a pinch, since a pinch will vary for people), but for cooking recipes where there’s a bit of leeway, I think specifically instructing people to season to taste gets them in the habit of repeatedly tasting the food and using their own senses to figure out what’s going on, and helps them develop their palate.

  • Dear David,

    To me most of your recipes are spot on; i’ve not yet had one fail.

    I think the precision it’s a matter of preference.
    I tend to do lots of things by “feel” but have found out that baking goods are more sensitive to errors than say “the amount of beer in a stew” (and have made my fair share of “off” batches of dough).
    As a belgian i’ve always found the american way with “cups” and so forth terribly confusing, especially when scaling recipes. Then again, i’m not used to using them.

    as a conclusion: as precise as they need to be (maybe expressed as a range?)

  • For savory dishes, I definitely don’t mind “season to taste” type instructions but to be honest, I think the more precise the instructions are, the more motivated I’d be to make a recipe. I know you don’t generally tell us what specific brand of say, butter or cocoa, to use but I actually would love to know. If it’s accessible and I get it, I’d feel more confident that the dish is going to come out tasting the way you intend (i.e., good…). In other words, I’d feel like I have a bigger chance of “succeeding.” It’s definitely helpful if you give alternatives too (say, what to use if I don’t have fleur de sel….Can’t wait for your next cookbook – I’ll take your recipes however you want to present it. : )

    • It’s funny because Fleur de sel is one of the few ingredients I don’t really know a substitution for (and there isn’t really a great alternative, except perhaps Maldon salt, which is likely as hard-to-get for some as fleur de sel) – maybe I should offer a little packet with my cookbooks in the future, sewn into the binding? : )

  • I don’t think it’s too much to ask that someone decide on their own how much salt, lemon juice, etc. should finish a recipe when it does not have any effect on the structure of the final product. Sometimes when I write a recipe, I advise to start at a conservative measurement, and add more if they prefer it to be tangier/thicker/saltier etc.

    I do think it’s also important to note when things might change. I grew up in the Midwest, where it is humid, and now live in the Pacific Northwest, where the air is extremely dry (despite the rain). I find that I need to add more of the liquid ingredients to baked goods out here to get an ideal texture. So I try to include that it might vary, and what ideal texture they should shoot for and how to get there.

  • When it comes to baking, I much prefer weight measurements as I find they are more accurate than volume measures, however with a savory recipe guidelines are fine – I rarely follow a savory recipe precisely as I am confident enough to know how a ‘tweak’ will ensure a recipe is to my taste. I feel that blog readers are more likely to have a sense of cooking than cookbook readers – cookbooks are more likely to be a gift for a cooks of all levels and so precision may be far more useful. That’s probably a gross generalisation, so apologies if I’ve offended anyone.

  • When I first started cooking I used to get so angry and frustrated with recipes that were written for a more experienced cook, and so grateful for helpful, specific recipes that pointed me in the right direction. And I still look to specific bloggers or cookbooks when trying out new techniques because I know they will help me along. Even now that I’ve become a pretty decent cook, I’ve never been upset at a recipe for being too detailed. I like recipes that say “season to taste” with a side note like “I added about 1 tsp, but I’m not a big salt/sweet/whatever person” or “start with 1 tsp. and add more later if you’d like” or “I use kosher salt, decrease this if you’re using regular.”

  • To me, the main issue is not quantity but technique. Whenever I make slightly complicated recipes, the writer tends to gloss over techniques and gestures that are far from obvious to the slightly less experienced cook. I bothers me much more than “season to taste”.

    Otherwise, when it comes to baking, I like recipes in grams, mostly because measuring cups of butter is insanely annoying, and also because it seems more precise. I’ve always been very happy with your recipes by the way!

  • I find that when baking, when starting the recipe I want to have the right measurements, but not so much for savoury dishes…. But even with baking, if I see that even if I did the right amounts, something’s not right, I’d play with more/less flour and/or more less liquid. So the correct i.e. “required” (?) measurements are a good starting point. And when it comes to spices, yes, I find it is to taste. I can’t imagine making something and not tasting it while making it! I can see your dilemma having to write the books though… :/

  • I think it depends on your audience. :) Experienced home cooks will season to taste and adjust cooking times automatically, but inexperienced cooks may be intimidated by recipes that rely on their own judgement rather than a set of measuring spoons. My own recipes often call for a “pinch” (or even a “handful” or a “glug”!), so you can see that I’m biased here–but I like using the less-dictatorial style of recipe because it assumes that the recipe writer and the home cook are collaborating to create something delicious. :)

  • I wish there were easy answers to these questions, but because so many people are afraid to stray from the precise instructions given in a recipe and adapt things to their taste, there will always be those who will follow your recipes to the letter. But that doesn’t mean that the hours you spend on recipe testing is going to please them either.
    There will always be those who want the ease of cooking from recipes produced by Rachel Ray, Sandra Lee or Ree Drummond, who I doubt spend the amount of time (or should I say their assistants do) on their recipes as you do. So you do the best you can and know that there will always be some who won’t be satisfied. Unfortunately.
    Your recipes are loaded with practical information and are not intimidating, You can always be sure of the fact that there are far more of us who know how hard you work and how fabulous your recipes are.

    • Well, you’ve seen the madness (and some of the method!) – thanks, and thanks for the salted Normandy butter. It’s amazing!

  • Outside of baking, I’m really only looking for flavor profiles and proportions of ingredients. Within baking, I’m looking for the same thing really; it just fails a lot more often when I disregard recipes. I generally find following recipes restrictive, but I love reading blogs and cookbooks for ideas.

  • There’s something so scientific about following a recipe precisely (baking, especially, where temperatures and weights yield more consistent results). I usually follow recipes to an exact measure the first time, and if I make it again, I will made modifications or be more lenient on my measuring. I feel that salt and pepper–or any finishing spices for that matter–are always acceptable to leave as a “to taste” variable. On the other hand, I feel that my palate isn’t refined enough to know how much thyme I want to taste in my soup, or how much lemon zest to have in a cupcake, since flavors can change so much during cooking time. It’s helpful to have a good starting point.

  • As a reasonably experienced cook, I don’t really expect exact measurements from a recipe. Season to taste, one medium apple, a heaping cup of sugar, etc, are just fine. I don’t even know the fat-liquids-proportions logic but have somehow always had good luck with recipes. Perhaps I know how to pick good recipes…such as yours.

  • The only time that I have a problem with “season to taste” instructions are when the thing being seasoned is raw meat, which I’m clearly not going to be able to taste before it cooks. As long as it’s something that I CAN taste, that instruction doesn’t bother me.

    For what it’s worth, Ready for Dessert is the most consistently delicious, failure-free dessert book that I’ve baked out of, so whatever level of detail you’ve used to this point has worked perfectly for me.

  • My ideal cookbook has a personal story to each of the recipes, a little aside of how a certain technique or particular ingredient contributes to the overall success and teaches me something I didn’t know before.

    It has the measurements in cups, tablespoons and teaspoons + metric, contains helpful pictures of any critical stages in the recipe and end result, (the texture, the color, shape, wetness of dough, etc.) as well as any optional variations and how they can be worked in. It contains some info on what can be prep work can be done days or hours in advance and what is done last minute.

    For the novice user I’d say very detailed and exact instructions, a preliminary explanation of fundamental techniques and basic equipment plus a glossary of cooking terms and enough detailed and helpful pictures of any of the critical stages of the recipe plus the end result.

  • I find myself one of those people who are absolutely incapable of following recipes word for word — even baking recipes; so it’s not a bother to me when I read vague instructions like “season to taste.” Plus, I feel that it’s almost always impossible to replicate exactly what the recipe writer may call for anyway, only because the way anyone does anything is so personal. If a recipe requires, say, a cup of cream, does that mean I measure out the cream then pour it into the bowl, or do I have to scrape out every single drop in the measuring cup as well? Or if I need to separate an egg and use the egg yolk, exactly how much of the white still clinging to the yolk is acceptable? I can certainly appreciate the practicality of detailed step-by-step instructions, but at the same time also think that recipes should merely be guidance to nudge you in the right direction as you cook.

    • No recipe is that precise and if you’re using measuring cups, there are even variations on how much they hold – so I wouldn’t worry too much about scraping bits of cream out of them. Although it’s good not to waste any!

  • Hi David, any recommendations for a digital weighing scale?

  • I really enjoy it when recipes that include a variable ingredient, such as peaches, acknowledge that variability and give, for instance, an approximate range of how much tapioca to put in based on how juicy the peaches are, or how much sugar to add based on how sweet your apples are (and how sweet you like things). And I often tweak recipes anyway when I know that my tastes tend toward a particular direction (I like soups with extra broth; I like sauce with extra meatballs; I like less-sweet quick breads [although that also messes with the texture, so it's hazardous...]). So it’s nice to explicitly put some room in recipes for adjustment or substitutions.

    On the other hand, if I’ve never eaten a particular foreign dish before, “season to taste” or “cook until sauce is thick enough” or “form dumplings” without any additional guidance isn’t very helpful, since I don’t know what I’m aiming for (and “season to taste” sometimes means “salt to taste” but sometimes includes other ingredients like vinegar, pepper, herbs, etc.).

    And, of course, you poor recipe authors have to deal with an incredibly diverse audience; people who don’t know you have to peel garlic (or the difference between a clove and a head thereof) all the way to the “yeah, yeah, dutch-processed cocoa, get on with it” crowd. And then, when it gets to eating, people who like things saltier or sweeter or spicier or fluffier or fudgier or lighter or heartier or crispier or chewier… and those whose grandmother’s recipe is The Only Legitimate Version and how dare you add cinnamon!

    So… good work on successfully navigating that minefield. :-) And thank you for thinking it through and making sensible compromises, rather than giving up and simply posting The Master Recipe: “Combine ingredients to taste. Cook until done.”

  • I find myself very irritated indeed by people who try to specify exactly how much salt or pepper (or herbs, or soya sauce, or Worcestershire sauce) I should use in a recipe – I have been cooking for well over 40 years and I think I know how much to use! On the other hand, someone asked, quite seriously, what I meant when I said “season to taste” – did I mean salt and pepper or what? Which is a fair question when you are just starting out cooking, as you don’t know what goes with what.

    I’m the sort of cook who tends to use a recipe as a starting-point (I have used several of your recipes in this way to great effect, but if I publish them on my blog I always credit you!), and think that a sloosh of this or that works a lot better than a tablespoonful! My grandmother was the same – but my mother is uncomfortable without a set of scales and a recipe book! My daughter is somewhere in the middle, I think…. but all four of us are, or were, great cooks, so….

  • Hi David, I’ve been reading this blog for a while but this is the first time commenting. For baking, I also tend to prefer more precise directions, and weight rather than volume measurements (as an Australian, I always forget how much is in a ‘stick’ of butter!). Even if I tweak a baking recipe, it helps to know the ratios or why a particular ingredient is important/can’t be replaced (setting the boundaries, if you like). For savoury cooking, I play around based on what I have in the pantry on a Wednesday night, though for special occasions, I can be obsessive in researching the origins of a recipe and getting the right ingredients (Maldive fish, where art thou?).
    Your recipes usually work out perfectly, and are easy for an Antipodean to follow. Thanks!

  • As a professional cook, recipes are guidelines on the savory side. When it comes to baking I use a digital scale because it is chemistry, and I don’t want to waste products or time. So be as precise as you want.

  • When I am trying a new dish, I generally refer to several recipe sources to get an idea of how different folks have made it. I then choose the recipe that seems most solid to me and then tweek it based on what I read in the other recipes and my own knowledge.

    While I’m not bothered by “season to taste,” I agree with a previous commenter that knowing how much the writer added gives me an idea of where I’m headed.

  • I am a chemist. We are not precise when running reactions. I am also not that precise when baking (except candy). I hate “fussy” recipes.

  • I know that for some people that don’t have very much experience cooking, don’t have a good palate, or aren’t confident in the kitchen, the term “to taste” when it comes to salt and spices and herbs, is frustrating! It makes me think of my mom, who has cooked her whole life, but doesn’t consider herself good at “layering” flavors or knowing which spice to pair with what spice, or exactly how much salt to add. So saying to her, “to taste” is like telling her to make a recipe she’s never made before – daunting. I think having a base amount like 1 tsp or 3 Tbsp for salt or pepper is important, and then having a “season to taste” invitation, which will give the unconfident cook a solid taste base (may need a little bit more but may not) that they don’t feel like they will have to judge and guess, so at the end of a recipe they can be confident for their family and guests that the food is seasoned fine, if they chose not to “season to taste.” I hope this makes sense!

  • I always prefer the maximum precision possible. I can adjust a precise recipe to suit what I have at hand, but if I hit a vague recipe that gives me little guidance and involves a technique or ingredient with which I am unfamiliar, I get upset. If I knew what I was doing already, I wouldn’t need a book! I don’t mind an instruction on ‘add salt to taste’ when it is presented that any amount from a a quarter tablespoon on up might be enough to work for my particular taste — but often it seems this instruction is given at an odd point. I just put raw chicken into that pot, am I really supposed to taste it *now*?

    Some of my favorite elements from past cookbooks have included photos of too dark, too light, and just right (for example), notes on substitutions (“if you don’t have X, you can use Y or Z”), and tips on where something might be counterintuitive (“it may seem like it’s not coming together, but keep going for 5 more minutes and you’ll see it start to form”).

    I do have cookbooks that I bought thinking they would be inspiring, and those are the ones that are being donated to Goodwill now that I’ve moved. The books I use with the greatest frequency are the ones that are substantial, info-packed references, with clear explications of tools, techniques, and materials. Turns out that knowledge is the most inspiring thing of all.

  • When baking, I subscribe to Julia Child’s method of placing all ingredients on a tray before I begin, then removing each item from the tray as it gets measured into the mixing bowls. If I end up with something left on the tray at the end, it’s an easy matter to check if I’ve missed a step. I prefer measuring dry ingredients like flour and sugar by metric weight, and usually convert measurements given in cups to grams in the border of a recipe before I start working. For liquid measurements, I just use measuring cups and spoons, either metric or American, depending on the recipe.

    When I’m not baking, where proportions aren’t as important, I tend to use recipes as general guidelines, not bothering with measurements, just “eyeballing” quantities or amounts. Of course, I’ve been cooking for around 50 years, so experience helps.

    I can’t tell you how many people I know who think they hate cooking, mainly because they’re slaves to the tedium of exact measurements, even when following the most mundane recipe. The other day, I stopped by a young neighbor’s place and found her exactly measuring chopped onion and dried thyme for a meatloaf! I suggested she could probably just estimate, but I don’t think she was convinced.

  • I’m actually one of those people that is bugged by “season to taste”. Yes, for savory recipes I like to taste as I go, and am getting pretty good at finding the right balance of spices, but I find it extremely helpful if the recipe gives a basic guide. Something like “start with 1/2 tsp salt, and add more to taste if necessary” or “season to taste (I used 1/2 tsp salt)”.

    I have a recipe for a chard tart that is wonderful, but it has always bugged me that they have me whisk in raw eggs and then “season to taste”, with no suggestion given for how much salt might be necessary. I know that a lot of other cultures are much less squeamish about eating raw or undercooked eggs, but as an American I don’t have any desire to taste the raw egg mixture, nor is my palate enough used to the taste of raw eggs to even know if enough salt has been added. Fortunately I’ve made the recipe enough times that I know exactly how much salt to add for my taste.

  • My ideal cookbook would be both informal and precise, as follows: the recipes would be written informally — a small pinch of this, a nice amount of that chopped up quite finely, add such-and-such to taste, etc. — but there’d be notes, in smaller type and easily ignored, saying “that would be about 1 gram” and “my chopped-up bits were about 1mm across”.

    I’d prefer weights rather than volumes for everything other than not-too-viscous liquids, by the way. Even things like salt: 1tsp of Maldon salt isn’t at all the same amount as 1tsp of finely granulated salt.

    Having said that, like others here I’ve found your recipes very reliable indeed, even without footnotes.

    • Personally, I wish everyone would throw out their table salt in their kitchen. With apologies to the salt companies that produce it, it’s really awful stuff and really ruins a recipe if you use too much. It’s so salty and harsh!

      Kosher salt, or another flaky salt, is very inexpensive – I buy sea salt for €1,50/kilo, or about 60 cents/pound. And I think kosher salt or similar salt isn’t all that expensive in the US (unless you’re doing a ton of brining!) – but it’s a very small amount of money to spend for something that you only use a pinch or a teaspoonful at a time.

  • I switched to measuring things in grams when I finally realized how much easier (and less dishes to wash!) it was to knock out a batch of cookies when weighing vs measuring cups. And the gas stove at my new place leaves things to be desired in terms of trustworthiness, so I’ve become more adept at judging doneness. For baking that is; I’m still frightened to death that I’m undercooking chicken. I do like visual guidelines about when things are done.
    For specific product recommendations, I like what I think of as the Cook’s Illustrated method where they tell you what they used at the end of the recipe so you have an idea of what they used but that assumes a relatively high cooking confidence level.
    Salt is to taste, but I appreciate being told when to salt.

  • Years ago, when I used to cook much less frequently, I used to get irritated by even a benign ingredient like “1 medium onion.” How was I to know how big a medium onion was? I’m a scientist, a math geek: I want the data. Somewhere along the way, as I became a more confident & comfortable cook, I had an epiphany: it doesn’t really *matter* exactly how big the onion is, because that little variation in the amount of onion is unlikely to have a huge impact on the overall flavor of the dish. If it would, the author would include a more precise measurement.

    Because I am a fan of precision, now when I write recipes for my blog, I will often include something more specific, a la “1 medium onion, approximately baseball-sized”, or if it is a canning recipe where safety/acidity is of concern, I’ll include a weight. But I no longer get frustrated with somewhat vague ingredient lists in savory cooking, as I rarely follow a recipe exactly anyway. But I think the key thing is *understanding* that the vagueness is not going to ruin your dish: perhaps that type of thing could be explained, once, in an upfront introduction section?

    For particular ingredients or brands, my writing is focused on local eating in New York, so I will often point out local providers of whatever ingredient I am using. But I, too, will generally specify if a certain ingredient is key, like “use the best butter you can find, here as the flavor really comes through.”

    As for baking recipes, well: you can’t give me too much data. I’m a big fan of Rose Levy Beranbaum: each of her recipes include volume & weight of nearly every ingredient, she writes very specifically about technique and exactly how each step should look, feel or taste. She also includes an “understanding” section that discusses what the main keys are too success of that particular recipe. So much information is probably overkill for a lot of readers, but especially for the more finicky recipes on the pastry side, I find it extremely helpful.

  • When I first started cooking on my own, seeing “salt and pepper to taste” was *so* frustrating! Did that mean 1 tsp, plus or minus 1/4 tsp, or 3 tsps, plus or minus 1 tsp, or just a sprinkling? I had no idea. I’ve had a lot of practice now so I have a better handle on what I and my family enjoy, and it doesn’t bother me so much.

    But still, if I am reading your book of recipes, there’s a good chance I enjoy your “taste” of things, so I think it would be great to have at least a starting point to reference. After all, I’m probably looking at this recipe for the first time and you’ve made it dozens and dozens of times, so I enjoy notes on ranges and variations, etc. Maybe that’s why I spend more time trying new online recipes than buying new cookbooks – I like reading the various reactions and experiences other people had and I like reading the background and process that went into creating the recipes.

    And when it comes to baking, give me weights, at least as an option. Please.

    Side note: I’ve yet to have a less than stellar outcome with one of your recipes. This is one of my favorite spots on the web.

  • I like to use a free hand for spices/salt in my savoury cooking, but with sweet dishes, I prefer some exact quantities for the first time I try a recipe. Then subsequently, if I make it again, I will usually adjust flavours to taste.

    That being said, I came across a recipe the other day for a savoury custard dish. After beating egg yolks and adding the other necessary ingredients, the instructions were to season to taste. I thought that was a little too vague considering I’m not going to eat raw egg yolks.

    I also prefer weights! It makes baking soooo much easier without all the dirty measuring cups, and the annoyance of measuring out butter, shortening, peanut butter, etc.

    Looking forward to your next book!

    • Yes, it’s interesting trying to say “season to taste” when using raw ingredients. I’ve been doing some meat and charcuterie recipes and you can’t tell people to “season to taste” a ground pork mix. Some folks test the mixture by frying a bit or poaching some, but in those cases, I always give an exact amount for spices and salt.

  • I think Hanananah gave the perfect answer. (Also I think it’s great that you test your recipes with slightly different ingredients.)

  • Hi David,

    I like precision and accuracy. The fact that you test your recipes and think about your readership is wonderful. I was impressed that you also mentioned us in Australia :-)

    When I say I like precision and accuracy what I appreciate from cook book writers and bloggers is the contextual background and expression of confidence limits in terms of variation. If you say 220 °C ± 10 °C in a fan-forced oven that is really helpful. If you something an ingredient must be 50 g that too is appreciated.

    Gary

  • I like precision. I used to ask my mom how to make certain comfort foods that I had as a kid growing up, and she’d always respond with something like, “some chicken, a blob of this, a dash of that….” Then I would demand, “Pounds? Teaspoons?? One cup or one quarter cup?!” I’ve gotten more comfortable overtime, but I still like to have an idea of what I should start with.

    I live in a mindset where I’m comfortable completely adapting a recipe to something else, but if a recipe says, “Season to taste with salt and pepper,” my eye starts twitching. I have issues with “to taste,” and I feel that it’s a lot more helpful it when someone will say, “season…starting with 1/2 teaspoon,” or, “season…I thought it was perfect with 3/4 tsp.” If you’re going to all the trouble to give me a recipe, at least give me an idea for the salt or pepper, otherwise I might start by adding too much and ruin a dish, or too little and not realize it and be disappointed.

  • I like cookbook authors who say “1/2 tsp of salt, or to taste,” where the measurement is a conservative estimate. That gives me a convenient place to start. It’s not always obvious how much salt you’re going to need to flavor a whole pot of soup, or whatever. It’s more convenient if the author gives you a lower bound and you can adjust from there.

  • The thing I find most difficult are the instructions like “heat until just before boiling” or “cook on low heat until it forms a custard.” Help! I wish cookbook authors would find better ways to describe some of these techniques for those of us who have never had the benefit of in person instruction.

  • i don’t think cookbooks need to be precise but they need to be tested by several people to make sure the flavor comes out the way (in terms of savory and scent and etc) the author intended when he/she wrote it.

    for baking cookcbook, they need to be extremely precise. i think it affects the way the cake fluffs and cooks and tastes, especially a delicate cake. with pointers for success (for newbie bakers). one of the best written cookbooks i have seen is by rose beranbaum – her cake bible – it is precise to the gram with instructions on prepping the ingredient to be weighed (make sure you sift the flour first and not weigh the packed flour right out of the box because you get a different amount. and weigh the eggs, they should weigh this much because eggs are of all different sizes and component make up across continents and states).

  • I am comfortable with “season to taste” and like to taste my food as I cook so I can adjust the seasonings or whatever I think it needs. My favorite cooking salt is kosher salt — I discovered it a few years ago and love the taste much more than table salt. I’ve found that I need more kosher salt than table salt so make my own adjustments. I always like the pages at the beginning of a cookbook that talk about what kind of ingredients are recommended and where to buy, etc. If you have any preferences
    for salt please post your ideas! Thanks.

  • What your doing with precision has worked really well for me. I like that there is a general degree of precision, but more importantly that you provide such good descriptions and pictures for what I should be seeing/smelling etc. so that rather than knowing I cooked something for the specified 13.45 minutes, I can tell that it looks the way it should, whether that be at 10 or 15 minutes. Your candied peanut recipe is what immediately comes to mind on this one. I have yet to make one of your recipes and have it turn out badly, which certainly can’t be said for many blogs or cookbooks. When I’m looking for a recipe for something, I always check here first!

  • I agree with Lyndon – precision of weights for the chemistry of baking, pinches, dashes and glugs for cooking. Being deathly allergic to gluten, corn and dairy (yes, it sucks), plus living at over a mile high, and using a convection oven, making precise measurements and subsequent precise substitutions are critical to successfully baking anything. Most of the time when I used volume instead of weight the baked goods turn out too dense, too heavy or flat or unappetizing. Enter the Oxo digital scale and I’ve never looked back.
    Working by weight also means your cookbooks work, consistently, which is a huge, rare, delicious treat. Even the ice creams substituting coconut milk and coconut cream. You gave me back homemade ice cream!

  • No joke – this week I have made three types of cookies from Ready for Dessert; the Chocolate-Chocolate Cookies with toasted pecans, the Chocolate Chip (I used Valrhona Guanaja pieces) with toasted walnuts, and the Coconut Macaroons dipped in chocolate (Valrhona Manjari). Not only do I depend on your recipes to give me outstanding results, I love that you include measurements by weight. This method is super quick and gives me perfect results every time. I believe that in baking, there are specific things that are necessary to achieve consistent excellence; accurate measurements, the quality of ingredients, and method.

    Batteries dying on a weekend with no stores open? Simple fix – keep a spare battery or two around at all times, then it’s never a problem.

    As far as salt goes, what I find most important in baking is not if it’s Fleur de Sel or Kosher, but how coarse or fine the grain of the salt is. In baking, salt should be as fine as possible, otherwise you end up with coarse pieces of salt in your end product. In savoury cooking, I have fun with it. I’ll choose one from a variety of different salts, adding to taste, and enjoying the interesting differences that each one contributes to the end result.

    • I choose to use both types of measurements in all my books and fortunately my publisher is happy to let me do that. Sometimes it’s not the authors fault if recipes in US cookbooks aren’t metric as some publishers are wary of losing readers because too much information or type of the page can make a recipe look more confusing. (Or so they say.) But I think with globalization and so forth, everyone should write their recipes in both formats.

      And glad you enjoyed all the cookies. I love the macaroons because I always have tons of egg whites leftover, and there are a great – and delicious – way to use ‘em up!

  • David, thanks for asking what we think…oddly enough too often this side of the equation seems to be overlooked or assumed.
    Precision is my quest when it comes to pastry items. Savory, not so much because it’s a more ‘forgiving’ or personal interpretation.
    Formula’s intrigue, but scare the heck out of me. Had it not been for some recipe testing (working through a network of extremely helpful mates, both novice and advanced), would I have come to appreciate the value of everyone’s input.
    Again, thanks for asking us what we think.

  • I like to have precise instructions available to me, even if I don’t always follow them. If I’m trying out a dish that I’ve never eaten before or an unfamiliar cooking technique, it gives me confidence that if I follow the instructions precisely, I’ll come up with something that tastes like it’s supposed to. On the other hand, when I’m making a variation on a dish I’m more familiar with, I’m more likely to take the recipe as a general guideline.

  • Could it really be possible that I happen to be using the same scale as the David Lebovitz? Oh my goodness this has to be the greatest discovery of my life.

  • I try to be as precise as possible. It’s the best way to get consistent results. And if I’m putting my time, energy and heart into a dish, I want to know I can rely on the outcome – more times than not anyway.

  • Nobody seems to be mentioning ingredient/product consistency. I use only one brand of all purpose flour because it is a religiously consistent blend of winter and spring wheats and absorbs the same amount of water in pastries every time. I will only use Gold Medal flour for that reason. There may be others on the market that behave well, but one of the biggest names in flour does not have a predictible AP flour. Precision in baking is necessary, but so is consistency. One cannot exchange bread, pastry and all purpose flours.

    Likewise I don’t hear any discourse on the values of glass vs metal baking dishes. The results can vary widely – and of course, nobody says to lower the oven temps for a glass pan – and maybe increase the baking time.

    • That’s one of the issues that I brought up, because there are so many variable – flour type/brand, cookware, oven performance, etc.. that it’s hard, if not impossible, to write a recipe that covers each and every situation. My ovens both have convection features, which bake faster than regular ovens, so I don’t use them when testing recipes for publication because the baking times are different.

      Am not sure how one would or could write a recipe for all the different variables nowadays without the recipe become unwieldy. That’s why I tend to use “supermarket” flour and butter for recipe testing; because those are what the majority of people use.

  • I don’t mind season to taste at all. I think it really all comes down to experience. The more time I spend in the kitchen the more comfortable I feel seasoning things and experimenting with flavours – adapting recipes to make them my own. With baking I definitely prefer weights, especially since I bake gluten-free so I’m often adapting the flours.

  • This is why I’m not a baker. I’d rather stand in front of my stove with a skillet throwing in whatever I have until it smells so good I can’t resist!

  • Like you said, you have to pick your target audience. It would probably drive you mad if you had to be so precise that you couldn’t even say ‘season to taste’!
    Far too many variables anyway. There are plenty of books out there for beginners who don’t know anything at all. I think as long as you state your basic methods/ measures at the beginning of the book or add a glossary, you can appeal to most people to use common sense. It is useful in baking to be more accurate, handy to know size of eggs used (that varies so much from place to place in regards to L,M or Small eggs) and protein level of flour. For books with bread making, it is handy to give some basics on flour types and yeast. I know, for example through much reading, that American flours are usually harder than European, and thus since I am in Spain, any flour I get will probably not absorb as much liquid. My flour, labelled 10% is fine for breads but even friends in the UK have to add more liquid than I would. Even with spoon measures you need to be careful, metric being 15ml, some others as high as 18ml!

  • Weights are nice.

    I wish that cookbook writers would take more care figuring out the most efficient order of operations in each recipe.

  • I’ve lived both in US and Europe and the one thing that comes to mind right now is why would anyone call for “half a cup of carrots/onios” instead of plainly saying 1 medium carrot or one small onion?

  • I’m a garden-variety home cook, those who’d buy cookbooks because the recipes are such that they convince me that I am able to do it from my garden-variety kitchen. So, in regards to precision, I loathe cookbooks that specifies “2 tablespoons Parsley, chopped” or “1.5 teaspoons minced bell pepper” as if we, home cooks, have sous-chefs who chopped and minced all the ingredients and all we do is scoop the necessary amount. The most precise instruction to me would be the dried spices measured in teaspoons (1/2, 1/4 or subsequent increments), or for produce, something like “one medium bell pepper,” or “2 inches of ginger root.” Seasoned to taste is also precise enough for me.

  • I am terrible at following recipes, I usually just use the measurement as guides.I find most recipes never have enough garlic and often i double the amount of cumin or paprika. I think when it comes to spices a really depends on how old your supply is.

    When I am baking i tend to follow the amounts a bit closely but I still don’t really do it properly.

    Generally anything I cook following a recipe turns out pretty nice, when I make something up completely that’s where the problems start.

  • I’m a baker, so I’m used to the idea of following a recipe as written, at least the first time. I assume the amount and instructions and order are there because they have an effect on the structure of the final product.With that in mind, I assume, then, that if a recipe writer is NOT precise about something, then it’s not going to make the cake collapse, or the frosting fall apart. “Season to taste” doesn’t bother me.

    I’m always curious about the purpose of everything–if a recipe says light brown sugar, is there a reason why I can’t use dark brown? Is it a matter just of flavor or does dark brown add too much moisture? If a recipe says use 5 oz of semi sweet chocolate and 2 oz of unsweetened, is here any reason why I can’t just use 7 oz of bittersweet?

    I do also appreciate it if the writer notes when there is flexibility in measurement, preferably with an explanation from his or her own testing (e.g., “3 Tbsp of water, but I’ve found that in dry cool weather you may need to add up to 1 Tbsp more”).

    Finally, the one thing that really drives me crazy is the assumption that everyone has a food processor or stand mixer. I’m not asking for a whole set of instructions, but tell me what something should look like when it’s ready for the next step, not just “put everything in the bowl of your mixer and mix at high for 2 minutes.” Of course part of the reason why this assumption irritates me so much is because I so desperately wish I had these pieces of equipment).

    (Apologies for writing so much!)

    • Usually dark and light brown sugar are interchangable – it’s often just a matter of taste. However brown sugar is acidic and can provoke a reaction in certain things, so I always advise to use what the recipe writer or author indicates for that reason.

  • Wow, a good question! Personally, when I try recipes I go a lot by feel and am prepared that things might go wrong, as I feel this makes me a better cook, because I then know from experience how things work and not only from a book. So, I take the recipe as a rough guideline and that’s it

  • As an American expat formerly living in Russia and now living in Germany, I find having a foot planted in both the metric and volume/Imperial world makes a difference in how successful my recipes are. I have had to learn how to think in both types of units while I work so having both in a cookbook is invaluable to me.

    I have been an avid cook since I was a child, but as an adult living outside the US, I’ve had to relearn how to cook–different size oven, tiny kitchen, different kitchen chemistry with ingredients I thought I understood like flour, salt and butter that have European variants. Thanks to recipe writers like you, I have become more confident in both adapting US recipes to fit European ingredients and utilizing non-American cookbooks. There have been times when I have been faced with making something I thought impossible but I will think, “David Lebovitz figured out how to do this in his tiny apartment in Paris. I can make this work.”

    What has helped me most is when cookbook writers include both specific measurements in volume/metric, but sometimes, when it is relevant, why a specific technique or ingredient makes a difference. For example, when Ottolenghi specifies “Maldon salt” vs. sea salt or table salt, I take note and pay attention to how the salt works within a recipe so I can apply the knowledge to other recipes. At the same time, it drives me crazy when a recipe writer will say something like “red chili.” I realize for most people they will find the red chili that is available in their local store, but for me in Munich, I will have Portugese, Hungarian, Spanish and Italian chilies and if I go to my Turkish market, a wall of various chilies–labeled in Turkish–and I find myself trying to translate Turkish to German to English to figure out which “red chili” I should use. This is a great problem to have, I realize, but in this case, I usually leave out the ingredient because I’d rather go without the heat than make a recipe that is inedible because I used one whole chili that was too hot. If there is a particular taste a recipe should have, include the relevant information i.e. a tart cooking apple vs. a softer eating apple and perhaps suggestions of varieties to try.

    The same issue goes for “small, medium and large” specifications–it is more useful for me to have approximate weights. “Use 1 kg apples” allows me to adapt whatever type and size of apple I have available as opposed to saying 4 apples when clearly, 4 apples is not going to fill my pie dish. Size is so often a matter of perception. Having grown up with a garden that produced zucchinis as big as my arm, a large zucchini to me is not the same as a zucchini for someone who is accustomed to zucchini the length of a unsharpened pencil.

    Speaking of pie dishes, equipment is another issue that recipe writers need to be mindful of. I would love, for example, to have my beautiful Kitchen Aid stand mixer with me in Germany, but I don’t. I make my bread by hand. I make my meringue with a whisk or a hand mixer and sometimes, I can’t find the specific size, type or style of dish a recipe calls for (tart pan vs. springform pan vs. pie dish vs. bundt pan etc). Usually I take it as a challenge to find a way to adapt a recipe, but sometimes, I spend hours/days searching stores or Amazon.de/Amazon.uk/Amazon.fr to find the style of pan that will make a recipe work, particularly if it is a special occasion recipe for Thanksgiving or Christmas. If a recipe absolutely has to use certain equipment, say so but if the recipe is adaptable and can be done by hand vs. a mixer, or in a 9×13 vs. a bundt–say that too–or include the information in a reference section in the cookbook so people like me can adapt the contents of the cookbook to suit the equipment we have.

    Pictures are great–if you are introducing a new technique or if it is challenging to explain how thick something needs to be–illustrate it.

    Finally, I love it when cookbook writers include lists of websites, stores, basic pantry items and lists of specialized ingredients in the appendix sections of their books. So helpful!

    A good cookbook teaches me so I gain confidence in my cooking knowledge that I can apply to other recipes. I love your cookbooks because they help me become a better cook!

    • Heather: That’s a great point you bring up about using various (and foreign) ingredients, which makes us have to think more about how things like flour, pan sizes, and not having an arsenal of equipment (or tin kitchens) makes us learn more about the ingredients and equipment we’re using, so we can adjust, if necessary. Making things by hand, without mixers and ice cream-makers, also make you realize how things work. For example, ice cream machines minimize ice crystals, so what to do if you don’t have one? And I lived a few years without a stand mixer, so I try to write recipes for people that don’t have one as well, in addition to those of us who do.

      (I do bring back pie dishes, cake pans, etc. from the US because I’m testing recipes for folks in America, and I have folks in the US recipes for my books, too.)

  • I’m wondering what the difference is in Maldon Sea Salt and Kosher salt as far as taste and usability? Is one used more as a cooking salt vs. a finishing salt? What salt do you use in savory cooking and do you use a different salt for baking?

  • I think for baking, the recipes should offer measurements for everything. For savory dishes, “to taste” is fine for me (or say, “1/4 tsp or to taste”).

    I prefer weight measurements. It’s just easier. No pile of cup measures to wash at the end. I’ve made a table of weight equivalents for a bunch of different ingredients and tend to write the grams in to my cookbooks before cooking. It’s easier for me, but I hate writing in my cookbooks.

  • I like this article, it’s really interesting! So I wanted to answer, even if my English is not the best, I dare.

    Although I prefer weighting my ingredients, I see that now, most cooking books use both indications, grams, ounces and cups, for example, and that is very useful.
    But there are things, as the one you mention, apples, or other fruits and nuts, that change a lot, depending on the size of the piece (or, using cups, how you put them into the cup) At that point, I sometimes find the instructions a bit vague (if not a lot), and I’d rather have the number of pieces, as guidance, and its weight in grams.
    Sometimes you read: 2 shredded carrots, and you can think, how were your carrots? And in some recipes, this can be very very important, and ruin the result of the recipe.

    But some other things, such as salt, pepper, season a sauce, a splash of juice, or the time to reduce a sauce or thicken a custard base, I think
    it’s not necessary being so specific and it’s enought with a aproximate indication or a “to taste”.

    And now, if I can butter you up, I have to say, I use your book to make most of my ice creams, and I have never had any problems with quantities nor indications! So, I look forwart to buy Ready for dessert and The great book of chocolate, I’m sure they won’t disappoint me.

  • The food network website has a good article on the differences in sea salt, kosher salt and table salt and when to use each.

  • Cooking may be an intuitive art, but in my opinion, baking is chemistry. In chemistry, one must be rather precise in order to obtain the desired results.

    I loathe using volumes for expressing amounts in recipes. Of course, being an engineer with a touch of OCD I’m hardly representative, but I have weighed a series of cups (and decilitres) of several different flours and sugars in order to determine the average yield in grams. There are of course drawbacks of using mass as well – the mass of a cup of flour varies based on elevation and climate – but at least I am now fairly certain that I know the weight of a cup of all-purpose flour in my apartment. This, I suppose, is a long-winded way of stating that I prefer recipes where the amounts are given by grams.

    How accurate the amounts should be is another question. I am a novice hobby baker (and only that – I am utterly incapable of cooking a decent dinner), but when I do make up my own recipes, I note down the amounts I use by the gram (including for spices and liquids), and the oven temperature by the exact degree (we have an infrared thermometer gun-thingy). Though most cookie or cake recipes aren’t overly sensitive to a few grams more or less of a certain ingredient (making me seem a bit silly when I measure out exactly 113 g butter, etc), other products do require a more exact ratio between the ingredients. Also, the weighing makes it more probable that my recipe results in a consistent product – if I pack the cup of flour just a little bit more together, I may suddenly have added quite a bit more flour than usual to a recipe, yielding a dry and boring cookie in stead of the soft and chewy one that I want. I also (again, the OCD) weigh my eggs – they vary quite a bit in size, so for certain recipes I add them in grams in stead of just counting them.

    I agree with the commenter above suggesting that ingredients that affect the structure of the end product should be given accurately, whereas ingredients such as spices could be left to the individual taste of the readers.

  • I’m used to the metric weight (I live in Switzerland) but I do love american recopies, so I bought cups for those recipes.
    I love when recipes are precise, I follow them to the letter the first time. Then I change sugar/salt/spices content the next times until I find the taste and the result I was searching for!
    The biggest difficulty with non-european recipes are the ingredients. I often find myself spending half hours in internet in search of comments that give me a possible ingredient !substitute.
    In Switzerland it’s difficult to find big quantities of cornstarch (we unfortunately don’t have cake flour!), and a lot of recipes call for different kinds of brown sugar (I have a sweet tooth, a huge one :-DDD) that aren’t sold in here. We just have one type of brown sugar but it’s dry!!

  • I love this post, David. It’s a tough call. Most of the time when I write a recipe it’s to remind me of how I made something a year later. Like a lot of bakers, I will make a recipe exactly as written the first time (maybe varying the flavoring ingredients, but not the structural ones). After that, all bets are off.
    When reading your post, I was thinking about the permanence of writing recipes for books, and the fact that it doesn’t really allow for the cook/baker/writer’s thinking to evolve about a dish over time. It’s as if it’s set in stone, whereas when writing for the internet, you can always go back and edit or publish a follow-up revision if you want.
    The reason I’m thinking this way is that sometimes I’ll write a recipe and feel that the way I’ve written it is definitive (for me). But after making the dish 10 more times until I can reliably produce a satisfying version of it every time, I’ll go back and look up the recipe I’ve written and find that it’s not even close to the way the dish has evolved since that moment in time when I “defined” it.
    One other thing I want to add, about the “light vs dark” brown sugar controversy. American brown sugar any more is not “unrefined”; they’ve just taken refined sugar and added molasses back into it at some pre-determined level to approximate either light or dark brown sugar. So if I run across brown sugar in a recipe, I replace it with evaporated cane juice (i.e., Florida Crystals”) and add a dollop (large or small) of unsulphured blackstrap molasses. That way I have perfect control over the level of darkness, and obviate the problem of brown sugar bricks in my cabinet.

  • Oh this is one of my pet peeves! I grew up in the UK with all my recipes in weights, but now that I have access to recipes around the world from online, I get really irked when I get totally ludicrous measurements like 1 cup carrot batons – really? How on earth am I meant to know when I walk into the supermarket how many carrots will constitute a cup? And carrot batons can at least be packed in, but how about broccoli florets and the like?

    For cooking like this it’s never that important to be strictly accurate, but for baking it is, hence I tend to avoid recipes where odd shaped ingredients or eggs are measured in cups.

    Don’t even get me started on people that require 1/2 pack of x ingredient – and how much would that be then?!

    • I hear you on those recipes that call for ingredients like 1/2-bag of rice, or something. I was making a recipe last year that called for “1 can of tomatoes” Um, okay.

      The point you bring up about vegetables in “cup” measurements makes me think whenever I write up a salad recipe. A head of lettuce isn’t standardized, and who wants to weigh lettuce leaves? But saying “4 handfuls of lettuce” is awkward as well. But when you make a salad and a specific amount of dressing, you want it to be the right amount to dress the salad. So I’m still searching for that way on that one..

  • I suppose the idea of being precise is to give uniform results. I’ve noticed that different table salts vary in strength, same with baking powder, baking soda, soy sauce…so even specifying precise measures will give varied results. And there are also factors like humidity, altitude…
    I think the recipe writer should give precise results but also explain (though its common sense) that different factors will affect results. After all recipes are for humans not robots:)

  • For baking, I prefer recipes to be very precise. For pretty much anything else, I use recipes more as a guide and proof of concept for flavor combinations, and only need general amounts of ingredients, cooking temps, etc.

  • I can always rely on you David to lead the way. You are The Champ when writing recipes! As many other comments have said, your recipes work. Period.

    What I find difficult is writing down the nuances of cooking: how to know when something is done; when and why a transformation takes place; judging the taste of a dish when you have never eaten it in its point of origin with original ingredients. I’ve just cooked beans for cassoulet that took double the amount of time than normal. Why? I have my suspicions (hard bean syndrome!) but had I not known the texture I was looking for, and knew that I could continue cooking them, I would have ruined the dish.

    Teaching confidence in the kitchen is the cookbook writer’s job- by all possible means. Bravo!

  • I think the audience is all important here. A beginner’s book and a book for an accomplished cook — I’m looking at KNEAD IT, PUNCH IT, BAKE IT by Judith and Evan Jones and PARIS SWEETS by Dorie Greenspan, for instance–have totally different purposes because they’re for two very distinct groups of people. (Though even the Jones’ book might require an adult for help and/or interpretation. There is, however, a great page on proper measuring.)

    On the other hand, I’m very cognizant of readers whose salt intake must be lower than mine (I have no blood pressure to speak of.) and so usually give a smaller precise measure to begin with and end with the message to taste and re-season as necessary. Because really, you must account for variety and quality of ingredients (homemade broth or cartons from the store?) as well as tastebuds and health. And, of course, you want people to rely-or begin to rely- on their own taste; they must do so in order to learn how to cook.
    The other huge factor, I think, is the greater than ever sharing of recipes between countries. Wouldn’t it be loverly to join hands and agree on a measuring system worldwide? (There’s a goal.) You’d still have the problems with local ingredients, but food and recipes would become even more of a vehicle to bring people together.

  • I”m a new cooking blogger and I discovered all what you’re saying ;)
    I mean, at the beginning, it was very strange for me to measure olive oil or how many onion I really needed for this or this recipe !
    And, my blog is from a french cook to foreign ones, so I have to adapt my measures too.
    For example, I made some yogurt cake recipe without saying the capacity of the pot, because in france, a yogurt pot are generally 125 grammes.
    And “un sachet de sucre vanillé” or “un sachet de levure chimique” is always a problem for me ;)

  • For cooking, I’m a little more flexible since most dishes are amenable but for baking, exact measurements on the weighing scale would be really impt!

    But as a novice cook here are some frustrations that often turn up:
    For baking: shld flour be weighed before or after sifting?

    When recipes say tbs or tps, would that be level or heaped? Those precise measuring spoons or your everyday dining utensils?

    And things like vegetables get really annoying because diff countries might have diff norms for what constitutes a medium-sized potato etc. Argh!

    But at the end of the day, I’d like recipes in cookbooks to be as precise as possible and leave it to me, the reader, to adjust to taste. Then at least that takes the guesstimation out.

  • My first “fancy” cake was a disaster. When I pulled it from the pan trying to figure out how to slice it into the required three parts – as it was only 3/4 inches wide – it slipped from my hands, skipped several times across the floor before attempting to roll away from the kitchen. It knew I was a novice and should escape. Unnecessary. Though I attacked it with a knife I only cut myself. (Perhaps I should make gingerbread men for the military.) In my defense, I was barely a teenager. That experience did put me off from baking for years, despite that I buy and read numerous cookbooks. They relax me.

    I began working in clay a while back, making my own glazes too. The measurements are quite precise, as are the ingredients specific. I found out in my first class that slight changes could cause major disasters. A too thick glaze can pour off a piece, running down one shelf to the next, destroying others’ pieces. Horrible lesson, but it was one as much for my teacher, as we beginners were told nothing about how glazes worked. (See why I make my own glazes?) Now I know a fair amount about the periodic elements, molecules, eutectic, and the like. I’ve also lost my fear of baking. If I can “cook” something at 2264º F, I can bake a cake. I’ve also learned ingredients do not need to be exact, both for baking and glazing. Close works.

    I do like knowing what size container is needed, how much a recipe will make (after another blog gave an incorrect recipe for a cake – nine inch round, two layer cakes should have around five and a half cups of batter), and, still, the measurements of ingredients. I can’t weigh when baking as I haven’t a scale here. You, and Maida Heatter, and others, have greatly added to my knowledge. As I can’t weigh, I do as Mrs. Heatter recommends: sift the flour, preferably three times (well, perhaps I only do it twice), then spoon into a measuring cup.

    Baking intimidates many people, even those who do all sorts of other types of cooking. Yet somehow, bread – and cakes, tarts, and cookies – have been made for centuries. Precision finesses our results, but it’s not critical. A good cookbook gives the information a beginner needs to be comfortable while being a pleasurable read for more experienced cooks (or those who need to relax). Thanks for indulging me with this overly long comment, but thank you even more for your great cookbooks, and for caring. It shows in all your writing, whether the blog or books or newsletters. The world is a better place with you in it.

  • I understand the precision of weighing ingredients, but having used volume techniques for decades; I find it is the best way for me to “grok” what is actually happening in the recipe , even as I read it. As for “to taste”, I much prefer to know how you did it and deviate from there, if need be. I can’t think of a great example, but I have used recipes that called for “to taste” that left me stranded in a salt-less sea.
    ….and how chem lab is baking really? Think of the great mistakes!….something missing muffins, three layer cornbread, my French meringue speaks Italian!
    Thanks for the A+ post.

  • I often play fast and lose with recipes once I am familiar with the dish but I tend to ignore recipes which talk about cups of this or that. Weigh everything. I particularly loathe those that say something like “one can of X-brand tomato sauce”. What the hell is that? How many grams/ounces for god’s sake!

  • Hah! Cousin tasted my lime mist pie, begged for recipe. As I started telling her, I got these comments: Oh, that’s way too much cream. Oh, fresh limes are too expensive. Oh, I only have an eggbeater, but I’ve never had a problem. Shouldn’t you put in some gelatin? That hazelnut crust is too much trouble, I always use the frozen ones. And finally, after having made it for a (hopefully) potential boyfriend, You gave me the wrong recipe, that pie was gummy and sticky and runny. How could you! So, no, I don’t share recipes any more

  • Wow! So many comments here. At the risk of repeating, sorry but really haven’t read all that has been said, I find details in cookbooks reassuring.Not necessarily an over emphasis on salt /pepper seasonings but more so on flavour combinations, i.e. pork with fennel, etc.

    I have to admit that I fing measuring cups reassuring and have never steered me wrong in the past until moving to France. But I’m slowly coming to grips with my scale…grudgingly.The problem I’ve discovered since living here, is that there is a notable difference in American cookbooks versus European ones. Wherein decent American books will provide details from medium/low heat to 1/8 tsps, I find that UK cookbook authors tend to gloss over these details even in complicated recipes.

    Particulary blatant to me now as I have only just made Molten Chocolate cakes with a caramel centre from a recipe by an English/French chef and it was a hellish experience. I think I’m a pretty good home cook and baker but the lack of details on the dry caramelization process of the sugar made me almost…U know the rest. I put it down to economizing on text/ picture publication costs. But I had to reach for your cookbook with a reassuring 4 page detailed appendix explanation of making caramel…;-)Thanx. Just wished I’d started there first.

  • Inexperienced cooks tend to want specific instructions and help with methods. I review comments on a chef’s recipes on a food forum. The number one comment from inexperienced cooks is that they want more specific instructions.

  • You have poised some really intetesting challenges one needs to wrestle with when writing recipes. As I was reading your article, and I kept thinking: I also try to please everyone! While it’s great to be all things to all people, it’s also impossible. However, I’m really happy I am part of your targeted audience. :)

  • I think that it precision of measurements becomes less and less important as one gains more cooking experience, with both cooking and even baking (yes, I don’t need to measure as much).

    When I write recipes, I include ranges of measurements, like 2-4 tablespoons, as opposed to one exact measurement. How can something that precise even be that precise if say one person is using larger flatter chicken breasts, as opposed to smaller and thicker breasts. There is always going to be some variable.

    But you generally learn through trial and error, what ingredients are more critical to measure than others. With baking for instance, I can eyeball salt, vanilla, and even some wet ingredients, but it is critical to measure flours, sugars, and leavening agents.

  • David, this is such an interesting discussion. I don’t have anything to add except my thanks for all your work. Makes me more appreciative of what you do.

  • Having grown up in California during the baby boomer years, the women in my family used measuring cups and spoons, so that is all I was exposed to. A couple years ago, I joined in a blog bake along with Rose Levy Berenabaum’s new book, Heavenly Cakes.
    It nearly made my brain explode learning to to weigh and precisely measure ingredients, as well as, pay attention to how ingredients influenced a recipe. I’m now more comfortable with scale weighing. That said, it continues to surprise me how ingredients may influence, positively and occasionally negatively, a recipe. I appreciate specific brand choices for ingredients that may alter the outcome. That way, if I don’t have access to them I can choose another recipe. I also appreciate books that offer different types of measurement for the same recipe.

  • A British acquaintance once gave me her recipe for fruitcake which she boasted was the absolutely best. One of the ingredients called for a dessert-spoonful, which she declined to translate. Fortunately, it wasnt one of the ingredients that would throw off the chemistry of the cake. I used a heaping tablespoon (another one of those entirely subjective terms), substituted the dried cranberries and golden raisins for the sultanas and such, and now I make the absolutely best fruitcake!

  • David Rosengarten’s Dean and DeLuca’s cookbook is great because he talks to you about a recipe. The gazpacho has a lot of olive oil and he explains why. I love to cook and have way too many cookbooks. A cookbook author made a great statement about recipe books…..send a book back to the publisher if the recipes don’t work because of poor editing.
    Yes, I want weights in all my recipes.

  • I always read the recipe carefully, but then I never follow it religously.
    Heck, if someone specifies 6 black peppercorns, I just throw in a handful. Yes, I failed, but so what? Cooking is meant to be fun and adventurous… at least for me. And so I never, ever am able to duplicate a recipe – which can be a blessing at times ;-)

  • When I write, either for my blogs or a book, I would rather give too much information and let those who are comfortable with cooking gloss over some of it but have it there for those just getting into cooking which is why I use an abundance of photos. I remember when I first became interested in cooking and needed help with every aspect. As a baker, I have found that even experienced home bakers prefer as much guidance as they can get. With more people becoming interested in cooking/baking again (yea!!!), I guess it comes down to how much assistance you want to provide and who you feel your audience is. I think yours David is more established cooks and bakers so they might need as much. I’m looking to write for those that want to learn and have little knowledge now.

  • I have collected cookbooks for years, read them repeatedly. Even when I read the the authors introductions and (sometimes warning to follow exactly what is written) It is the recipe that tells me (generally) if precision is the key. As with other comments I follow them precisely the first time, but I also take into consideration what country they were written in, and the ingrediant list based on what is available here in the midwest.

    As for “small” onion vs cup of chopped onion, Looking at piles of onions in the market we could stand and debate which one was the “small” one. I do not think that it needs to be precise.

  • I agree that one person’s level of recipe precision is overload for another. Some recipes seem to require more exact proportions than others. When I moved to Albuquerque (a mile-high city), I tried to make the basic 1-2-3-4 Cake that I had been making all my life and it failed every time no matter how I adjusted the flour and baking powder, etc. I finally gave up and found other cake recipes that worked. I also bought some high altitude cookbooks. (The best baking book for high altitudes I have found is Susan Purdy’s Pie In the Sky – which is where I found the perfect altitude adjustment for a 1-2-3-4 Cake.) I do try cake recipes not formulated for high altitudes, and have a lot of success. But It’s always in the back of my mind that it is a wild card factor. That said, ingredients vary and so do conditions. My mother used to say, “Never make lemon meringue pie on a humid day because the meringue may not set up properly”. Cooking is always going to be variable, depending on conditions that may not be under one’s control.

  • Inspiration and guidance !;-) and for that I thank you. You give me both.

  • Well bless you David for being so exact – my absolute pet hate are beautifully illustrated magazine recipes that are sloppily or not at all edited. The reader is tempted, buys ingredients, puts in a lot of effort and then the recipe just doesn’t work – more than annoying.

  • Thanks for asking David. I went to weighing most dry baking ingredients a long time ago (except small amounts that require a measuring spoon). It doesn’t matter to me if the recipe is in volume measurements or weights because I am still going to weigh using a conversion table that came with my first baking scale from Salton.

    What is usually missing for me is the type of oven heat method recommended for the recipe. I would love all cookbooks written with instructions on when to use the straight bake option (creme brulee for sure!) and when to use convection (baking cookies). I have a hard time picking the right one sometimes.

  • from the bits I’ve seen above, you seem to being doing exactly what we all would expect – but I smiled a few times over questions I never asked myself. I’m a ‘wild card’ and could never write a cookery book (not that I intend to!) – with me it’s nearly all the way intuition so I never worry about ‘seasoning to taste’, it’s normal.
    One bit really had me laugh out loud: The two salts I always make sure to have at hand are Marldon salt from England and Fleurs de sel from France – I go as far as buying the little cardboard boxes with a fake wooden lid as presents for my cookery inclined friends because they really do make a difference to me. On the other hand, I never have salted butter in the house because IF I do need some, I always have salt… Thank you for this wonderful and quite inspiring and always very interesting post, David.

  • I can see how recipe writing these days must be a daunting task! I tend to follow recipes exactly the first go around. And I will go to great lengths to find the exact ingredients (Internet is very helpful) hoping the recipe will make it into my “Great Recipe” file.
    But what I would like to see more of are footnotes in recipes stating i.e. what substitutions can be made for certain hard to find ingredients, what the timing should be if you have a convection oven, and if something can be made ahead of time and finished off later.
    I’m surprised with the popularity of convection ovens that recipe don’t give times and temperatures for them. It is always a guessing game for me when I use mine.

  • It’s very interesting to read the previous comments, which have made me analyse my own cooking method.
    In general, I think a cookery writer will write recipes for those who are experienced cooks , as in “season to taste”, or novices, as in ” 1tsp salt, 1/4tsp pepper”. I like photos, as those give you an idea of what you’re aiming for, which means that when I read a recipe and it says 2 garlic cloves, I know that I could use 6 or 10, as I know the flavour softens as it cooks and, in any case, I like more garlic than is generally used.
    It’s also good to know what substitutions you can use when, for instance, a recipe calls for artichoke hearts and you don’t have or can’t find any.
    I feel that being an experienced home cook means that one knows, more or less, how to “manage” a recipe, taking into account all the variables that the writer cannot, such as how your oven works, how salty is the salt you use, flour quality, butter flavour, availability of ingredients, freshness of same, pan sizes and quality etc. For myself, I’ve landed in Europe from central Africa, where, generally the fruit, veg and meat has more flavour, but where we could not get fresh sea fish. Cooking here means that I’ve had to adjust to new ingredients such as the different qualities of sea salt, for example, tho we’ve had metric measuring for years in Africa. I like the cup measuring alternatives, as sometimes it’s easier to measure that way than to pull out my scales-depends on my mood!
    We installed an Aga in our kitchen, tho we have a summer side, too. This means that I have to take into account cooking the Aga way, which does not include exact temperatures in the ovens. Both top and bottom ovens will have different temps at the same time. You could use a hanging oven thermometer, but if you use one or both top plates that affects the ovens, too, rendering the thermometer useless. I have adapted recipes from all my cookbooks, tho the biggest challenge is to remember that there’s something in there, as there no cooking smells eminating from an Aga!
    In baking, I’m inclined to follow a recipe more rigorously, tho still not slavishly. I’ve been baking since I was 8yrs old, so know how to adjust or deviate from a recipe. I used to live in Israel and when I baked for a religious friend I could only use glass to bake in, after I’d followed her instructions to “kosher” my utensils. I learnt pretty quickly how to adjust baking times with glass dishes. In short, I believe experience matters when it comes to home cooking, which affects how one uses a recipe.
    I always look forward to your blogs, David. Thank you for making them interesting.

  • I have been baking since I was 7. It almost always came out great. I didn’t get too fancy and was always known for bringing a great dessert.
    I would share what I thiught were incredibly basic and easy fool proof recipes only to be told that their outcomes didn’t match at all to mine.
    I was never precise as one should be when baking. I have always wondered then how I was successsful…? I can’t answer.

    With a measure cup until my recent scale purchase I was painfully inaccurate- dipping into the flour bag, if my first cup were heaping, I would put a little less in the second- ARE YOU GASPING IN HORROR YET?!

    So I much prefer to weigh things, because it forces me to be more precise. It perhaps allows me to make more complex dessert, maybe….

    I do like to know if a particular salt is listed the why’s- because I may then decide to invest in having it at home. I may otherwise then know to proceed carefully with the one I have, if not.
    Cocoa powder I can add a pinch of soda, if the one I have enough of is the natural. Now I resent having no specification to which cocoa powder in a recipe as I learn the intricacies.

    So, if a chef used a particular type of item, I would like it listed, and then in a footnote a very very brief description of why. But will get frustrated if options to sub are not offered. I made a dish in which ancho chili powder was listed- I went to every supermarket and gourmet shop in a 30 mile radius and no such thing was found. Took me extra time to toast and grind my own… I bet cayenne could have been used in a smaller quantity… Perhaps not the same, but ok.

    I love your recipes. They have elevated my desserts to new levels. They are understandable and executable. I love the background stories. It is part of what is so enjoyable about cooking from blog posts over cookbooks. But I do use cookbooks as well when I need to dig up something specific- like, I need a chocolate cake, index to chocolate cake.

    So thank you for both the blog and books. I really love them both.

  • So to summarise, cook a lot of stuff. The mistakes you did make, you tend not to make now. You make up your own mind how much seasoning, what you can leave out or subsitute, because you forgot to get some in.
    I cook in three countries, UK, Germany and France. In England I have everything I deem necessary, digital scale, nice wooden spoon and a copper bowl for beating egg whites.
    At my sisters in Germany, she has a weird Dr Oetker measuring jug thing. Tiny marks on the outside denoting levels for rice, flour or milk. But she gets on and cooks fantastic food.
    In France I am at the vagaries of various house letters. I always take my knives and chipping board, seasonings and even a few herbs to get me started. I occasionally go out and buy a cheap, but better than their, pan. There is a preponderance of nasty micro ovens. Differences in cooking time? You bet.
    As others have mentioned, ingredients vary across the continent too, but that can be nice too.
    Just last week, I made a Nigel Slater cake recipe from his new series. Lemon and Thyme cake, which turned out brilliantly – gets a solid recommendation from me – but it took double the time to cook. I’ll know next time of course, but how could it have been so far out?

  • For me, measurements have to be fairly precise.
    Because when I started cooking, the recipe was my teacher. I needed to figure out how things were supposed to taste, look and act when I cook them.

    Now I can look at a recipe and know which instructions I need fallow precisely. But the measurements are still there, when I’m unsure.

    I like it when the recipe has suggested alterations, they remind me I can customize it, and points a direction.

    One excellent cook book, I have, has an index of every pan and equipment you need for all its recipes. That pretty illustrated list, reassured me I could handle its recipes. Might not work for a less basic book though.

  • yeah i’m going to stick with the simplest method – list everything by weight in grams(liquids too) along with listing by common measurement(c, tsp, tbsp) with the audience taken into account…taking out a instrument to measure each dry, wet, sticky, non-Newtonian fluids etc is just a pain when you can just hit Tare and measure out the exact amount into the vessel you intend it to go in… Modernist Cuisine also has a good approach for scaling a recipe by including scale factors that take into account how each ingredient functions and illustrates why “just add twice as much” does not always work out. I wouldn’t expect a consumer level cookbook aimed a home chefs to be this exacting but i think Nathan Myhrvold and his team have set the standard for exacting measurements and fixing editing mistakes by providing an errata resource.

  • I am much more troubled by equipment than measurements. I have enough experience with baking that I can cut a wedge of butter that weighs exactly an ounce, without even thinking about it. And, I know which ingredients can be fudged a little, substituted, or poured into a little heap in my palm and tipped into the mixing bowl.

    But, recipes that rely on electric appliances are frustrating. I live in a small space, I don’t earn a lot, and what I do spend on my recipes seems far more wisely allocated to high-end chocolate than to a $500 stand mixer.

    I appreciate that technique has evolved and in some cases can integral to achieving some of our recipes today (much like milling standards and baking powder transforming “cake” so it no longer resembles the tough puck it was hundreds of years ago), but I think our hands are often missing from our baked goods these days, and I tend to push aside recipes that only work out nicely if I have a tool that does the beating work for me while set on “high” for 6.5 minutes.

  • When I was new to cooking, and especially baking, I wanted more exact measurements but as I got a feel for the dough and the textures of things, it becomes less important. I think it depends exactly on your audience, as you suggested.

  • Like many of the commenters, it very much depends on the type of recipe. Baking, I MUCH prefer metric measurements, partly because I have a husband who’s a scientist, so my kitchen has good scales and graduated cylinders so accuracy is easy, but mostly because I live at 3000+ feet in a desert micro-climate. My ambient humidity is measured in single percentages, and that makes things odd. A cup of flour here, no matter how well sifted, weighs more than 125g – the closest I’ve gotten, after triple sifting and careful spooning, is 138g. The fact is, weight is consistent, volume is consistent, and things work better when I don’t have to figure out how much I have to compensate. I still have to mess with the adjustments for altitude, but with a couple of exceptions, I’ve discovered that not a lot of adjustment is required on metric recipes – the closer I get to the ‘intended’ measurements, the fewer adjustments they require.