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

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • ‘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!!)

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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…

  • “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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!!!!!!

    • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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).

  • 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.

  • 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 :)

  • 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

  • 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”.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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 !

  • 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.

  • 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…

  • 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….?

    • 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.)

  • 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    -Candice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Catherine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Hello David,

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    http://bit.ly/UQLdBZ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Hi there!

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

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

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

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