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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260 comments

  • November 16, 2012 11:52pm

    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.

  • Thomas
    November 16, 2012 11:55pm

    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?)

  • November 17, 2012 12:05am

    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. : )

    • November 17, 2012 12:12am
      David Lebovitz

      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? : )

  • November 17, 2012 12:08am

    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.

  • Claire
    November 17, 2012 12:11am

    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.

  • Hanananah
    November 17, 2012 12:12am

    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.”

  • Aude
    November 17, 2012 12:13am

    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!

  • Dina
    November 17, 2012 12:14am

    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… :/

  • November 17, 2012 12:14am

    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. :)

  • November 17, 2012 12:15am

    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.

    • November 17, 2012 12:39am
      David Lebovitz

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

  • Heather
    November 17, 2012 12:20am

    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.

  • Allison L
    November 17, 2012 12:23am

    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.

  • sandy
    November 17, 2012 12:24am

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 12:27am

    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.

    • November 17, 2012 12:39am
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks, Eileen. Glad you’re enjoying the book!

  • Chelin
    November 17, 2012 12:31am

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 12:32am

    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.

    • November 17, 2012 12:38am
      David Lebovitz

      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!

  • Jay
    November 17, 2012 12:34am

    Hi David, any recommendations for a digital weighing scale?

    • November 17, 2012 12:36am
      David Lebovitz

      Hi Jay: I’m very (very) happy with my scale.

  • KC
    November 17, 2012 12:40am

    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.”

  • November 17, 2012 12:42am

    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….

  • Rhonda
    November 17, 2012 12:46am

    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!

  • Lyndon Hinton
    November 17, 2012 12:54am

    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.

  • Sally
    November 17, 2012 12:56am

    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.

  • kate graham
    November 17, 2012 1:06am

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 1:07am

    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!

  • Sarvi
    November 17, 2012 1:11am

    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.

  • James in Seattle
    November 17, 2012 1:20am

    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.

  • statgirl
    November 17, 2012 1:33am

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 1:37am

    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.

    • November 17, 2012 9:49am
      David Lebovitz

      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.

  • MeganM
    November 17, 2012 1:43am

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 2:00am

    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.

  • Amber
    November 17, 2012 2:02am

    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.

  • Kelley
    November 17, 2012 2:09am

    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!

    • November 17, 2012 9:45am
      David Lebovitz

      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.

  • hanmeng
    November 17, 2012 2:16am

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

  • November 17, 2012 2:20am

    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

  • KG
    November 17, 2012 2:46am

    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.

  • Lindsay Beyerstein
    November 17, 2012 2:55am

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 3:06am

    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.

  • tsaiching heiner
    November 17, 2012 3:08am

    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).

  • Sophie
    November 17, 2012 3:34am

    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.

  • Rosa
    November 17, 2012 3:43am

    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!

  • November 17, 2012 3:47am

    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!

  • Catherine
    November 17, 2012 4:06am

    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.

    • November 17, 2012 9:43am
      David Lebovitz

      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!

  • November 17, 2012 4:39am

    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.

  • Kirstin
    November 17, 2012 5:56am

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 6:13am

    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.

  • April C
    November 17, 2012 6:36am

    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.

  • Norine
    November 17, 2012 7:02am

    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.

    • November 17, 2012 9:40am
      David Lebovitz

      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.

  • November 17, 2012 7:16am

    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.

  • Ellen
    November 17, 2012 7:48am

    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!

  • November 17, 2012 8:24am

    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!

  • Katie K
    November 17, 2012 8:38am

    Weights are nice.

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

  • Anna
    November 17, 2012 8:41am

    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?

  • Claire
    November 17, 2012 8:50am

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 8:57am

    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.

  • Kirsten
    November 17, 2012 9:10am

    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!)

    • November 17, 2012 9:36am
      David Lebovitz

      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.

  • Berit
    November 17, 2012 10:01am

    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

  • Heather
    November 17, 2012 10:53am

    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!

    • November 17, 2012 11:15am
      David Lebovitz

      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.)

  • Linn
    November 17, 2012 11:17am

    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?

  • November 17, 2012 11:44am

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 12:01pm

    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.

  • Linn
    November 17, 2012 12:07pm

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

  • Hanne
    November 17, 2012 12:14pm

    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.

  • ary
    November 17, 2012 1:43pm

    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!!

  • Michael Connor
    November 17, 2012 3:02pm

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 3:02pm

    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?!

    • November 17, 2012 4:17pm
      David Lebovitz

      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..

  • November 17, 2012 3:19pm

    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:)

  • Mike
    November 17, 2012 3:21pm

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 3:47pm

    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!

  • November 17, 2012 4:19pm

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 4:31pm

    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 ;)

  • Chenyze
    November 17, 2012 4:34pm

    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.

  • naomi
    November 17, 2012 5:30pm

    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.

  • mac
    November 17, 2012 5:34pm

    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.

  • Eric Yendall
    November 17, 2012 5:50pm

    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!

  • November 17, 2012 6:01pm

    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

  • Larri
    November 17, 2012 6:04pm

    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.

  • Martha
    November 17, 2012 6:04pm

    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.

  • Dana
    November 17, 2012 6:07pm

    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. :)

  • Frances E
    November 17, 2012 6:08pm

    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.

  • Gloria
    November 17, 2012 6:13pm

    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.

  • Vicki B
    November 17, 2012 6:16pm

    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.

  • Folly
    November 17, 2012 6:16pm

    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!

  • Iris
    November 17, 2012 6:17pm

    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.

  • Katy
    November 17, 2012 6:19pm

    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 ;-)

  • November 17, 2012 6:26pm

    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.

  • Janet Stewart Sweeting
    November 17, 2012 6:31pm

    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.

  • Cissy in Albuquerque, NM, USA
    November 17, 2012 6:37pm

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 6:37pm

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

  • November 17, 2012 6:40pm

    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.

  • Sheila
    November 17, 2012 6:42pm

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 6:58pm

    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.

  • Barb
    November 17, 2012 7:15pm

    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.

  • Nosizwe, Portugal
    November 17, 2012 7:24pm

    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.

  • Sarahb1313
    November 17, 2012 7:33pm

    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.

  • Nick
    November 17, 2012 7:47pm

    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?

  • Robin
    November 17, 2012 8:17pm

    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.

  • epic
    November 17, 2012 8:39pm

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 8:39pm

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 8:44pm

    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.

  • Sarah
    November 17, 2012 8:54pm

    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.

  • November 17, 2012 8:54pm

    Your comment about the author imagining a target audience is right on–and also covers a topic I’ve been mulling over right now. An experienced cook or baker will want something different from a newbie. Because I named my new book SIMPLY Sensational Cookies, I deliberately designed the recipes so novice home bakers could have success (with even sophisticated cookies) without a scales or any “fancy” equipment; each recipe indicates in great detail what the correct consistency should be and includes instructions to correct with more liquid or flour as needed. I want to encourage the legions who have been too intimidated to bake at all to join us in the fun. Some American home recipe testers (even some who are long-time home bakers) have told me they don’t like the weights and metric measures listed as they’re confusing and make ingredient lists look cluttered and hard to read. Of course, those who do use scales–like a lot of your readers– feel the weight measures need to be there. It’s a dilemma for sure!

  • November 17, 2012 9:09pm

    This post is both so timely and a great reminder. Like you when I develop a recipe I usually unconsciously imagine the end maker to have similar knowledge of cooking to mine. Fortunately I try to err on the side of over description in the event the person really does not have much experience.

    I just had an experience with a local restaurant who approached me about my interest in sharing some of their Thanksgiving recipes. They sounded fantastic with a specific unique culinary angle that I felt my readers would find interesting. It was a complete scramble to make it happen and since I take all my own photos I made the dish first. Thank goodness as it was a total bomb! In the end it turned out the chef (who was not new) delegated the reduction of the recipe from restaurant quantities to ‘real people’ volumes to a non culinary clerk who confused cups and pounds! All I could think of was if I’d printed the recipe without testing myself it really would have done what we are writers fear most; be a complete failure and disappointment to our readers (and in this case on Thanksgiving of all time). I appreciate your reminder to be as specific about quantities as required to ensure a successful result.

  • Barbara
    November 17, 2012 9:11pm

    I love a well-written recipe. Give me weights please, I like consistency and I know the weight of flour for example can fluctuate-oh and PLEASE use a font I don’t need glasses to read! Too many good books are so artsy that the recipe is microscopic…tell me what to look for, what it should smell like, how it feels-so much of what we do is by our senses, and as you said, 1 minute on my stove will not be the same as on yours.

  • Margo
    November 17, 2012 9:14pm

    For me, I think that the amount of precision that I desire from a recipe depends on the type of recipe. For instance, with a soup or stew, having an exact amount of meat, chopped vegetables, or broth, is not always crucial, and slight disparities can even create subtle flavor differences that make a recipe unique to the cook. On the other hand, when it comes to baking, exact precision with regard to measurements of flour, salt and baking soda can make the difference between a delicious treat and a disaster. One thing that I really appreciate in a cookbook is if the recipe calls for, say, mashed banana or chopped apples, and the author makes a note such as “approximately one cup.” This helps to ensure that the recipe will be made as intended, despite the fact that the size of a fruit may vary depending upon the region and the season.

  • Barbara
    November 17, 2012 9:18pm

    I agree Margo-I live in Hawaii and we have so many types of bananas that “1 medium” is meaningless-I won’t use a recipe that doesn’t give specifics on baking ingredients.

  • November 17, 2012 9:29pm

    Having learned nothing about cooking from a mother who never measured, and then having learned to cook from Mastering the Art, I want a lot of precision. I do want to know how much salt and pepper. I like standard measurements and weights both. I also appreciate it when people take classic dishes and redo them to take into account the fact that chickens don’t taste the way they did in the sixties! I’ve been doing some research on Elizabeth David and, as part of the research, I’ve been cooking from French Provincial Cooking. It drives me bonkers when I read that I need a large coffee cup of one thing, a claret glass of another, and that the oven should be “hot but not too hot”! The Brits who learned to cook from her were tough!

  • November 17, 2012 9:33pm

    I use a scale for nearly everything but if the recipe is Canadian I have to convert volume measurements to weights.

    This is because when we adopted the metric system the powers-that-be decided that scales were too complicated for us, so they decided that quantities should be expressed in millilitres (which they decided to spell mL).

    So that instead of weighing the butter, we still have to jam it inside a spoon or a measuring cup!

  • Joanna Ryan
    November 17, 2012 9:40pm

    So many ideas! I too, like to experiment, and seldom follow a recipe religiously, unless perhaps, it is the first time I am making a cake or something where chemistry is an element to be considered in the outcome. Also, I just don’t really have a handle on salt, and I would like some sort of guidelines. Just the salt. I recently made some focaccia, and the recipe said 2.5 tsp salt. I was skeptical, as this seemed like way too much, but I obeyed, and the result was fabulous. Had I followed my instinct, it would have tasted like something from the salt-free store. So at least a hint about the salt is what I need. Of course, with soup or something like that, you can just add, taste, add taste, etc. until it is right, but with other things, you have to get it right at the outset.

  • Lisa
    November 17, 2012 9:45pm

    Maybe I’m in the minority here. I never measure anything exactly, not even when baking or making bread or sauces, etc. If a recipe calls for 3 cups of flour, I’ll scoop it out of the bag three times and eyeball it. Level it off with a knife?? Never. I cut recipes in half or double them all the time too.

    If I see measurements by weight, I take it as a proportion. 300g of flour, 100g of sugar – then I use 3 cups of flour and 1 cup of sugar. (You get the point) Yes, I understand the weights of certain substances vary so that I’m off a bit, but how much can it be for a home cook???

    But I know what dough is supposed to look like, or how thick I want a sauce, and I taste things a little along the way.

  • Katka
    November 17, 2012 10:15pm

    ‘Season to taste’ it what it should be for me. As I’ve already cooked and baked my share, I’m experienced enough to see if I need to adapt it and how. I usually add things I have on hand or replace some of them, and usually it works fine. I’m used to cook/bake according to recipes from different countries (US, France, Slovakia), so I’ve even started to convert measures ‘by eyes’.
    But I admit, when I started to bake, recipes from my mum were confusing (the method was described as: “Mix eggs and sugar, then add flour and prepare liquid dough. Bake in an oven until done” – the cook was clearly supposed to know how to bake!!)

  • adrian
    November 17, 2012 10:21pm

    Hi David,
    Interesting to see all you have to consider when writing a recipe. Who would’ve known.
    I am very grateful that you give your measurements in metrics as well as standard because I simply have a scale here at home and would be lost with all the cups and such. Like you say, cooking is more of an intuitive process and it’s much up to experience and personal taste, though it is always great to be pulled in new directions by a good cookbook. That will always influence my cooking and give me more flexibility. Baking needs to be more precise and I think a baker has to know a good deal more about how ingredients react than a regular cook, or at least in a different way. A cook can always change what is happening as it happens and save a dish, a baker can’t and will have to live with the results or make something out of a bad result.
    So, what I’m saying is: Your baking recipes are great because they are so precise and your other recipes are good inspiration, things I have fiddled with.
    Thanks!
    Adrian

  • GB
    November 17, 2012 10:26pm

    While my small cooking school (in our home) was still open, I stressed measuring by weight especially in a baking class. We all want our students or readers to be successful and to make it for them to be so. A scale was always on the “top ten list” for a kitchen no matter the size or location.

  • christine
    November 17, 2012 10:26pm

    I’m with Lisa- rarely measure anything exactly- learned to cook from a grandmother who never did. I think a lot of it is after you have cooked for a while you realize the differences in flours-for example and go more by the look and feel of a dough than the measure. Cakes call for more precision. Helps that I am not a production baker so each batch of cookie or cake our bread does not need to be a clone of the one before.
    Savory recipes are based more on what I have on hand than the recipe- which I see as more of a guide.

  • Christina
    November 17, 2012 10:36pm

    I agree with everything Barbara said above (weights, precise description of what to expect and aim for, readable font size,) and I would like to add: please give me weights on everything above tablespoons, metric please, even on stuff that might also have a volume measurement. I appreciate when items that might be measured volumetrically have both volumetric (cups, ml) and weight, but weights too please! I also appreciate that some people would like to have pounds and ounces, but metric is so much more precise and it’s all I use unless I don’t have time to convert the recipe from volume or pounds/ounces.

    I am sorry if people say they get confused if there’s more than one measurement option given, say metric weights and pounds/ounces, or Celsius and Fahrenheit temperatures, but I also say get used to it, it’s better! For me, more information is always better. I would love it if someone said “season to taste, I used about 1 tsp” or something like “Dutch process cocoa, I used brand XYZ” or “Butter, it’s better if you can use European Style Cultured butter.” And that’s how I write my own recipes.

    An idea for Gina, I use so many different resources from so many different places that I cook with conversion tables next to me… well that’s not exactly true, it’s more like I have conversion tables on the computer, ever expanding with new information that I have had to look up, and I almost always convert my target recipe in an excel spreadsheet from whatever it is, to grams, possibly using tsp/Tbsp for smaller amounts. I also have a very precise scale for measuring small amounts if necessary.

  • debora dale
    November 17, 2012 10:53pm

    What a great article! I have to say that I’ve always found your recipes to be very accurate, except for the Fresh Ginger Cake recipe…I adore this and the ingredients are spot on, but you say to pour into a 9″ round cake pan, which is not large enough (deep enough) so it ran its gooey, loaded-with-molasses self all over the inside of my oven, out the door, across the floor, etc. the first time I made it…Needless to say, I’ve since baked it in a springform pan to absolutely rave reviews!

  • November 17, 2012 11:27pm

    I’ve always cooked by taste, and it has been a huge learning experience for me as I try to write out my recipes to share with others. I really would rather be able to teach others how to experiment and adjust recipes to meet their own needs!

  • November 17, 2012 11:33pm

    Well, If the language of cooking is measurement and method, and neither of these is precise, how can we communicate what we mean to? When I use a recipe for the first time, I make it to the letter so I can understand what the recipe writer wants me to experience. So if the recipe is vague, how would I know what the writer intended me to know? To me, a recipe that’s not precise is like conversing with someone who’s not forthcoming.

  • jackie m
    November 17, 2012 11:41pm

    I love this article! Cookbooks have changed a lot over the years. Some of my old cookbook recipes are more guidelines than actual recipes with ingredient quantities. I remember cooking with my grandma…a wonderful old fashioned cook who could prepare a supper for 10 or more family members on the spur of the moment. And it was wonderful plain food mostly from her garden. She never followed a recipe…we didn’t ever find a personal recipe book when we cleaned out her house, only a couple of church “circle” cookbooks with a few notes next to a few recipes. When I cooked with her it seemed she never measured anything or looked at a recipe (even when using a box cake mix). She taught me to cook by taste and I suppose by sight, feel, smell and intuition. Now I am not confident to do that kind of cooking with some of my cooking, especially new to me dishes. I do start with a recipe, but many times it is a starting point…I am comfortable with instinctively tasting as I go and sight measuring ingrediets…using my fingers for pinches and the palm of my hand for larger quantities. I agree that pastry cooking is a much more exacting science, which is probably why I am no good at it.

  • November 17, 2012 11:49pm

    I often think that depending on the dish, the measurements don’t need to be exact. Say for a stew: I’m going to add as many carrots and cloves of garlic as I like, thank you very much. I may even add a few other vegetables not on the list.

    But as for process, that really needs to be detailed. I want to know when, where and how, and for how long to cook something so that I don’t over or under do it and get the desired texture (moistness, stew-y-ness etc).

    I have an ancient French cookbook (Le Grand Livre de la France à Table) that doesn’t give precise measurements at all. Unfortunately, I’ve found it maddeningly difficult to use because there are no precise cooking instructions given either. Often just a line or two on “Cook the rabbit in the sauce” with nothing on how to assemble the sauce, where to cook the rabbit and for how long.

    Or maybe I should have more of an imagination…

  • November 17, 2012 11:49pm

    “To taste” infuriates me every time I see it. I understand that tastes differ, but can you give me something to start with. Maybe “0.5-1.5 teaspoons salt, too taste”, instead of just “salt, to taste”. It’s fine for a soup, maybe, but not when you’re baking, or making a marinade, or a breading. Tell me how much you would use (you’re the expert, after all); just make it clear that it’s OK if I want a different amount.

  • November 18, 2012 12:11am

    I think the biggest difficulty with recipes or more particularly, ingredient, is the ability to write it in language that the world understand. e.g.: stick of butter seems very USA. There are many examples. Mind you having said that, I applaud the difference and hope that the world never becomes smooth.

    • November 18, 2012 11:28am
      David Lebovitz

      When I started writing cookbooks, the copy editors kept changing my measurements of butter into “sticks” and having cooked professionally, I had no idea what they were and didn’t think people baked that way. So I stick with either tablespoons or ounces, and grams. Fortunately most sticks of butter are marked so that folks can lop off what they want without needing a scale.

  • Krystal
    November 18, 2012 12:18am

    I couldn’t agree more with the commentor who said its helpful when measurements are given in both precise and non-precise ways. I really like “one medium onion, about 1 cup.” I like weight measurements now that I bought a scale but I do understand why this is harder for Americans. Still, I use it all the time.

    I also agree with the idea that descriptions are good. I want to know how to tell if I’m not doing it right. As someone who is still learning cooking basics, but likes to try different and even difficult recipes, I find it helpful if there is enough instruction for me to clearly know what I’m supposed to do and what’s supposed to be happening. Oh and “salt to taste” is great when finishing a dish or a soup, useless in making a quiche.

  • nic miller
    November 18, 2012 12:18am

    The best advice I can give to novice cooks is to first taste, taste and taste again as you go and check the temperature calibration of your oven. Even ‘fresh from the store’ ovens vary in this.
    Also buy Harold MacGee’s book ‘On Science & Cooking” as a basic comprehension of the science behind cooking (and baking especially) will radically improve your skills, confidence and success rate.

    Get out to markets and learn about ingredients and what to do with them. Try to grow some yourself even if it only a few potted herbs. Read about food and it’s production and you will develop a feel for putting ingredients together and confidence in adapting recipes. You will then not get flustered if a recipe doesn’t stipulate what the size of a banana should be.

  • Ileen Cuccaro
    November 18, 2012 12:31am

    I personally like it when the measurements lists both weight and cup

  • Nancy Eddy
    November 18, 2012 12:32am

    As a former editor, I also urge you to consider the type size. More things seem to be printed in what I would have considered more suitable to footnotes. And don’t let your cookbook designer talk you in to fancy type fonts and pages in color with the type “reversed out” in white. Your “Room For Dessert” was very well done: black on white, very readable, which is what you want after all.

  • ranchodeluxe
    November 18, 2012 1:01am

    Nothing more frustrating than a big ol’ cookbook w itty bitty print. Talk about form over substance! I do love me some good ‘after’ photos too , thank you very much.

  • Bebe
    November 18, 2012 1:09am

    Baking recipes are basically chemistry, so imprecision in the basic ingredients – shortening, leavening, liquid, sugar, eggs, mixing technique and baking temperature and time (the latter within a range to allow for ovens that are not precise) can bring a world of disappointment.

    And substitutions are tricky. Some work, some materially change the end result.

    Regular cooking can be a little more free-wheeling.

    I recommend that anyone learning to cook and bake (or even those who are more “experienced” but not always happy with their results, go through a good basic cooking and baking tutorial. I was fortunate in that my late Mother was not only a good cook and baker, but a smart one as to ingredients and techniques. Not everyone has that advantage.

    Julia Child’s television programs were good. So were many of Martha Stewart’s. And Jacques Pepin’s.

    A really good cookbook is well-organized, clearly yet simply written (you are pretty good at that, David) and then produced in a readable, useable form. I will have nothing to do with recipes written in tiny print or printed in beige or pale yellow or green or gray on white paper. Plain old black on white is still the best and in a decent typeface and size.

  • Laurie
    November 18, 2012 1:12am

    I appreciate a cookbook writer that tells a story about the recipes he or she is using.
    I first came across this concept in the cookbook by Alice B. Toklas, back in 1970.
    If it is important for each measurement to be precise, that would be told in the story,
    ditto for the ingredients.

    A GLOSSERY OF TERMS that a writer uses and what they mean in the recipes, is most helpful.
    A GLOSSERY OF INGREDIENTS and possible substitutions is very helpful as well.

  • Carol S.
    November 18, 2012 1:44am

    David, I follow all the baking rules that my mother taught me. I like our Standard measures and I measure as exactly as any human can. Leveling the ingredients that are supposed to be leveled. I scrape my bowl. I like knowing what part of a cup each stick of butter equals and that the stick is marked in good old TABLESPOONS. I like knowing I can use a bag semi-sweet morsels and that it is just right for my cookie recipe. And I like Baker’s Baking Chocolate which is called for in my all-time favorite chocolate cake recipe. I absolutely hate when manufacturers tinker with the measurements and heights of standard baking pans. I use Morton’s salt in baking because I can count on its performance. But, I have kosher salt, Sicilian salt and Fleur de Sel from the Camargue and other fine salts in my kitchen. Frankly some recipes are just for reading. I am a person who follows the recipe. I use our old family recipes which do not disappoint but, I do look for new ones. New recipes are not as reliable in my experience. Whether it is baking or cooking, I do not like a plethora of ingredients. Keep it simple.

    I buy the best ingredients possible. I like all-purpose unbleached flour–Ceresota or King Arthur. Domino sugar–no substitute sweeteners except honey. Light brown sugar unless dark is specified. The best vanilla. I buy tons of gourmet ingredients but, I will butter my perfect bread and muffins that I baked with Land’o’Lakes with French or Irish butter and have the best of all possible worlds.

    I can judge from the look and feel of a banana or a lemon or a lime, how much of an ingredient it is going to provide.

  • November 18, 2012 2:10am

    My oldest cookbook from my grandmother has recipes that call for heaping tea cups of flour. I use a scale and I have a second one stored away in the off chance the one I use every day dies. I don’t want to guess the first time I make a recipe. After the first time I’ll play with it and the results are almost always successful.

    I find your books and recipes really easy to follow and I have never had a failure. Not one.

  • Michelle
    November 18, 2012 2:37am

    Absolutely a timely post – as we all source our inspiration and cookbooks internationally there are times when “translation” “substitution” “interpretation” are all required even when the recipes are all in English. From my point of view in Australia having recipes which refer to precise weights for baking removes the stress as our cups and teaspoons etc differ slightly to US ones but I removed that stress by buying a set of each. I hate references to a stick of butter as this is not a familiar term to us and so am forever googling the weight- just can’t get that weght to stick in my brain. Bananas and “juice of one/ three lemons are more pet hates of mine because of the vast discrepancies in the quantity of product able to be extracted from particular fruit and the inability to judge until you have experimented once- just put the ideal volume please!! Season to taste is fine by me but I agree with those who have commented on the annoying fonts insome recipe books – a lovely large clear font is such a joy! Great to have an opportunity to comment on these things – I often don’t follow a recipe precisely but I want a preciseand easy to read recipe!!!!!!

    • November 18, 2012 11:25am
      David Lebovitz

      My issue with calling for exact quantities of certain things, like lemon juice (and zest) and pepper, is that it’s a lot more work (and dishes!) to get out the juicer, juice into a cup (that’s 2 things to wash…) then add it. Or zest, because if you zest onto a cutting board, you lose all the lovely citrus oils that fly all over the place. Unless it’s a cake or ice cream recipe, exact quantities on those things aren’t always necessary.

  • annoyedwabbit
    November 18, 2012 2:43am

    I received a kitchen scale as a gift two years ago, and I love it! I weigh everything I possibly can, because I find it’s quicker and easier than fussing with volume measurements.Thus I really appreciate it when recipes include weight measurements and volume measurements.

    That said, I am an inveterate meddler. I almost never follow recipes exactly – only when making fussy things like cake or layered pastry doughs. Ingredients get changed according to whim or what’s in my kitchen, so I don’t really care whether the recipe describes every step in minute detail, or, like most of my family recipes, say to mix until it looks right. As long as the recipe works, it’s fine by me.

  • November 18, 2012 2:53am

    I love knowing when I don’t have to be precise. And I follow carefully when one says I should be. I make notes in cookbooks according to my taste after cooking something for the first time. I know I will always want more basil, usually more garlic – that sort of thing. I love when recipe writers describe a stage in the cooking process (seize, thicken, shiny, etc) because time is very variable with different ovens.

  • CHN
    November 18, 2012 3:14am

    As others have mentioned, cooking recipes can stand to be more imprecise than baking recipes. But in cooking, the one area where I prefer more guidance is in salting food. “Salt to taste” is not an instruction, it’s a cop-out. Suggest a minimum for the dish, tell me if you’re using kosher salt or table salt, and then I can play around with “to taste.”

    Baking is another world altogether. I prefer both volume and weight measures (grams, not ounces). It is helpful to know what the consistency of the batter should be (runny, stiff, etc.). Tell me whether you used Dutch process or natural cocoa powder, or if it does not matter for that particular recipe. (Alice Medrich has spoiled me rotten.) Tell me what types of flour you used when you tested the recipes. Tell me if I can (or cannot) use substitutes.

    This type of information does not tell me only how to “make” the recipe. It teaches me about how the ingredients work together, and that information is applicable to other recipes or to the creation of my own, however simple and basic they may be. I guess that’s the main thing for me. I don’t buy cookbooks only to learn how to make particular recipes (although that is certainly a part of it). I buy cookbooks so I can learn about cooking, baking, food. If the author is not willing to help with this process, then I am skeptical (at best) of his/her expertise.

    • November 18, 2012 11:19am
      David Lebovitz

      The problem with listing the brand of flour is that folks often don’t have access to certain brands. As for types of flour, if not listed, it’s always all-purpose flour (at least in American cookbooks.) However with the internet, you never know who is making your recipe and where. In France, most people use T55 flour, which is available at supermarkets, however I use T65 because it’s organic and it’s closer to American all-purpose flour.

      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…!)

      As for cocoa powder, I always specifiy one or the other, or if either is okay. It then prompts people to ask “What’s the difference?” So as much as I want to let people know that either is acceptable, if I have to explain the difference is each recipe, it gets cumbersome. Fortunately with the website, I have a post on that which I link to, for people to read. But in books, I usually just mention it in the forematter.

  • November 18, 2012 3:58am

    Although I am an experienced chef, I like recipes to be specific especially when its comes to weights. I also do not like “season to taste”. Give me how much salt and pepper you use and I can make adjustments as I taste it.

  • Nancy Lee
    November 18, 2012 4:03am

    A truly great cookbook HAS to have a color photo of the finished product of each and every recipe. I recently purchased Room For Desert, and so far, this is my only critique of the book. I adore the little ‘story’ that precedes the recipe, but as nice as a recipe might sound, I tend to skip it if there’s no photo. A picture is worth a thousand words. If you’ve never made it, how do you know what it’s supposed to look like?
    Another thing that’s missing from almost all cookbooks are the really juicy tips that only the seasoned cook would know about. Those little secret tidbits from the author are priceless gems.
    In the long run, a recipe is a suggestion, nothing is written in stone, and as anyone familiar with computers knows, theres’ always at least 3 ways to do anything.

    • November 18, 2012 11:23am
      David Lebovitz

      Folks love photos, but aren’t always aware of the costs. When I wrote my first book, the cost per photo was around $1000 each. So we capped it at 35 photos. Now with digital, things are a little cheaper, but photographers are expensive (which isn’t a complaint – they deserve to be compensated for their work) but it drives up the price of the book. Also when a book has 150 recipes, like my last book has, if each recipe was photographed, that’s 150 extra pages which makes the book much more expensive.

      Many of the newer books have step-by-step photos which are great, but I just bought a wonderful book on bread-making that has then, although there are only about 35 recipes in the book. Which is fine because I was just looking for something basic, but the book was thin and costs $27,95.

  • Harry Dickinson
    November 18, 2012 4:30am

    Weights every time, including liquids by weight. I’ve baked professionally and this system seems to work best. A bit of commonsense helps. I bake in Australia and have to deal with local, US, UK and French recipes. Just watch how much variation there is in measurements used by tv cooks. The biggest difference, apart from moisture laden Australian supermarket butter seems to be in oven temperatures. We have a modern convection oven that we always use on it’s non convection setting. It’s quite different from the ovens, different brands, we used to have in Sydney (which is 4000 feet lower, 7 degrees Celsius hotter and a lot more humid than where we now live).

  • Drena Paulson
    November 18, 2012 4:40am

    David,
    I truly appreciate your blog. I am a Pastry Chef and therefore buy an enormous number of cookbooks. I like weights and measures, both metric and imperial as I find myself at times in unusual situations and its helpful. The average piece of equipment is a good judge of how precise to be. Even as a professional I measure things like salt and spices. That way I can judge where I am and in cooking can then adjust it to my personal palate. I always measure salt as I tend to be heavy handed and it keeps me out of the oops over range.
    My biggest beef is purchasing a book, following the recipe, and it doesn’t work. I am more than aware enough to not have it happen much, but I still see things in print that are obviously wrong. Sometimes I try it anyway, thinking, it’s just me, but no…it was wrong. ACCURACY is SO important. Misprints are horrible, and it ruins the book.
    Testing recipes and making sure what’s printed is what you really intended is really important.
    I also write a lot of recipes and I do leave a note on any unusual ingredients as to where to get them, replacements as needed etc. I find that helpful, especially when sourcing weird foreign ingredients (my most recent was gochuchang till I found out I had it in the house but never knew its name, not reading. Korean and all).
    Photos of the finished product is a must. Not for things like a bowl of icing or a caramel but of a finished pie or cake? It’s why some of us buy the book. I would rather pay extra and get a picture.
    In the beginning of a book, if you are testing in a foreign country, a comparison of your usual stuff vs what is in the US market has for most of us is all that is probably necessary. It is helpful if I have to make any adjustments.
    If you ever need US help testing stuff don’t hesitate to ask.

  • November 18, 2012 6:09am

    i was amazed when i started professional bakery work to see that their ‘recipes’ were just lists of quantities of ingredients, because they assume you already know the process of putting them together. and of course, even though the quantities were there, the really good bakers could just eyeball it. that is the kind of cook i want to be. but since i’m not there yet, a little precision is nice :)

  • Sharon
    November 18, 2012 6:28am

    I love measuring by weight. Flour is much less messy when weighed.

    But it gets really important in other cases: example, your recipe for fresh mint ice cream which I made last summer. My memory may be fuzzy, but I think I started with the recipe on your website, “2 cups lightly packed mint leaves”. That could be a widely varied amount, depending on the cook’s idea of ‘lightly packed’. Concerned, I also looked into The Perfect Scoop, and was so glad to find the 80 grams measurement alongside the cup measure.

    Of course, I turned my thumb and index finger brown for over a week stripping all those mint leaves! :D

  • Joan
    November 18, 2012 7:42am

    My husband cooks. I bake.

    If he wants to make a particular dish for dinner, he’ll look at 4-5 recipes, then go to the kitchen and start cooking. Not a measuring spoon or cup in sight. He totally wings it at the stove and it’s really a beautiful thing to watch.

    When I bake, I follow the recipe to the letter. Too much salt or not enough baking soda or powder could mean the difference between success and utter failure. Substitutions can be like playing Russian Roulette.

    You can adjust as you go along while cooking, but once the cake is in the oven, it’s in the hands of the baking gods.

    Cooking is an art and baking is a science … specifically – chemistry. Baking recipes need to be pretty precise.

    Count me among those who go crazy when I see the words, “salt to taste”.

  • Susan
    November 18, 2012 8:06am

    A few examples of different types of cookbook writing and what I think of them:
    The Cake Bible and Mastering the Art of French Cooking look daunting with detailed instruction. They leave no doubt in the cooks mind that the recipe should work as long as you follow the detailed instruction. I can wade through them and make pretty much anylthing from those books, but I have to be committed to the recipe and have the time and the ability to concentrate on some of them. It’s mostly a chore.
    Joy of Cooking is readable for an intermediate cook and you can find plenty of technique detail to accomplish any recipe in it. Joy is written with a lot of cross references to other recipes that are components for some of the recipes in the book. It’s kind of confusing for a newbie and cumbersome to anyone who has to flip back and forth in the book to complete a recipe. Big drag.
    Betty Crocker is complete with basic “from scratch” recipes and cooking and baking techniques. It’s easy to follow and easy to use for the beginner. Many recipes use convenience products. Not my thing anymore, but it helped me get cooking.

    I’ve learned a lot since I’ve gotten more interesed in cooking. I appreciate a well written recipe with enough detail to help me get the job done but not so much that it looks fussier than it really needs to be. Most cooks have different ways of doing things so you have to learn to be able to know if you can translate their method to your own It just takes experience with success and failure with man;y types of recipes and techniques to know when you can adjust techniques, ingredients or measurements. Home cooks can do this. Bakeries and restaurants needing to turn our the exact outcomes ((sometimes for years and through many different employees) and have to be more precise.

  • Debbie
    November 18, 2012 8:16am

    Hi David,

    I believe accuracy is the key. I remember when I was learning how to make Indian curries, I would always buy the most expensive big cookbooks simply because I thought they looked better and were more ‘serious’. How wrong was I? Most of those recipes had failed simply because of how they were written! They first had encouraged the reader to brown the meat and only after doing this to add the spices. I used to wonder for so long why the meat in my curries was never spicy but the liquid around it was! I then went on to do many Indian cooking courses (even though I am not Indian) which taught me how important it is to fry or dry fry the spices first and/or get the spices in direct contact with the raw meat before sealing the meat! This made the world of difference. Because of this experience it has taught me to develop the ability to be able to read a recipe before making it and determine whether the recipe will work or fail. Now that I have this ability of knowing if a recipe will work before cooking, it has saved me a lot of time, money and effort and has guaranteed successful meals each time!

  • Anita Jacob
    November 18, 2012 10:11am

    I totally agree with Joan -” Cooking is an art and baking is a science … specifically – chemistry. Baking recipes need to be pretty precise”.

    It would be really lovely if possible substitutes could be mentioned as I keep wondering what could be the best substitute due to nonavailability of the same product.Weights in ounces is quite difficult for me !

  • Michelle
    November 18, 2012 10:36am

    Not sure whether this is on point but when I was really starting to bake rather than cook I was given a copy of a book called Patisserie – the cook’s book by Loretta Sartori – it is mainly in black and white with lots of diagrams – lacks pretty pictures but is a mine of info and everything is in amazingly precise detail and weight – even the eggs- it os hard to source but used a great deal by trainee pastry chefs so is sometimes available on ebay. It seems to me to be a fantastic book yet when I have in turn given it to people they have complained about the lack of colour pictures!! My copy looks like I have actually cooked it it has been used so much for really special occasion cakes like a Japonais or if I am making paris brest or a new pastry- I wish I had been more careful with it.

  • Margaret
    November 18, 2012 11:31am

    The other thing you mentioned is specifying the pans for baking. The real difference in style I noticed is Delia Smith wrote a book and said for this book you need these pans and baking trays – a set amount 4-5 max. She also says for baking it matters to use the correct size.

    Nigella Lawson “how to be a domestic Goddess” uses a different pan for every single recipe. The sheer investment in cost and kitchen space would be huge to make every recipe but for her market cost is not an issue…

  • Sacha Fisher
    November 18, 2012 12:21pm

    I’m Australian and find recurring stumbling points in American cookbooks.
    Most maddening is ‘a stick of butter’ (with no weight listed; we don’t get butter in sticks here, a block of butter is 250gm) or, quite popularly, a cup measurement for butter. Drives me mad smearing butter into a cup and then spatula-ing it out again. Weights for butter is a must.

    Also there will often be a cup measure for flour with a weight beside it. But when I have tested it, this the weight is often no a match for the volume of a cup. So which way to go?

    Assuming cooking is intuitive is also folly. I am surrounded by people who cook a lot but cannot make any adjustments if they do not have exactly what the recipe requires. They have no intuitive or logical base for thinking that coriander/mint/basil may substitute for parsley in a recipe, or how to cope if they run short of self raising flour, with a cupboard full of plain and baking powder.

    I look for great photos and real talent in the ideas (not silly fashion food), new tips, solids basics and only then will I notice how the recipe is laid out. My own recipe book is often just lists of ingredients and only gives a method when it’s different to the norm. Can you imagine if it were published….?

    • November 18, 2012 12:45pm
      David Lebovitz

      Yes, it’s frustrating when things like “sticks of butter” are used, if they aren’t packaged that way where you are. In France, they say “one sachet of baking powder” or “one sachet of yeast” and since I buy those things in tins, not individual packets, I have no idea how much those are or if they are standardized.

      A few years back, a cooking magazine in the states weighed out packets of gelatin, which is how it’s usually sold in America, and found each one varied. So I no longer call for gelatin by “packets” and instead use a teaspoon or other measurement for granules of gelatin.

      (Speaking of which, in Europe, gelatin is sold in sheets, and recipes call for things like “three sheets of gelatin” – however each sheet varies in size, according to the brand. And there are different strengths as well! Am not sure how French folks deal with that, but I think they’re not as persnickety about those things when cooking/baking.)

  • Michelle
    November 18, 2012 12:57pm

    Very sensitive to the lemon issue as we are just out of a decade of drought here and our lemons have gone from being miniscule producers of a teaspoon of rind and juice to as big as an outstretched large hand happily imparting 200ml of juice. I hear what you say about dishes and lemon oils but if the recipe accurately specifies the quantity then often the user of the recipe can simply squeeze or microplane the amount intelligently straight into their bowl without having to measure and know they have got it right and are not miles off because of the fruit they are using

  • Michelle
    November 18, 2012 12:58pm

    Have been so interested to read all the posts – you have really hit a nerve David!

  • Janet
    November 18, 2012 2:15pm

    Hear hear Sacha .. I’m an Aussi too and have exactly the same frustrations with American recipes.