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

  • I agree with Candice about the timing.

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

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

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

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

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

    Martin Sovik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    did i tell you how much i love your blog?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Zinta:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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