How Recipe Writing is Changing, and How It's Influencing Our Cooking | cooks & books (2024)

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How Recipe Writing is Changing, and How It's Influencing Our Cooking | cooks & books (1)

Jarrett and I made a pumpkin pie on Sunday night, even though I have all the finesse of a muppet when it comes to baking. We have pumpkin pureeon the ceiling to prove it and everything.

I was nervous about making this recipe, because I could not, for the life of me, figure out how we were supposed to time it so that the filling would be freshly pureed and still warm at the exact moment that the crust would emergefrom the oven, also still warm. I don’t blame the recipe—I blame myself.

Just kidding. I totally blame the recipe. I’m not going to say what cookbook it was, because I’ll end up with a pitchfork-wielding mob at my front door. But honestly, it shouldn’t take mental acrobatics and five re-readings to figure out how to time the prep and cooking of different components. This is exactly why I hate baking—every little step or misstep makes me paranoid that we’re headed straight for Doomsville. And even worse, so many recipe writers wipe their hands clean of sad sackslike me, who can’t unravel the mysteries of how to soften butter in the microwave without melting it. (I’ve decided I’m going to commission an entire book on this. Who wants a copy!?)

If you like to cook (and even if you don’t), you’ve probably read dozens of recipes in your lifetime. Hand-scrawled recipes, Googled recipes, carefully copyedited cookbook recipes, no-recipe recipes, lost-and-found recipes, recipes that don’t make any sense but that you’re going to try anyway, so help you god.

So,how should recipes be written? Is there a style guide? An editor-and-agent preferred format? Astrictsequence of ingredient-listing and step-taking?

A recipe is two simple things: ingredients and information on how to use those ingredients. Most often, the recipe writer will politely list out the ingredients and their exact measurements for your shopping ease. Some classic books, like The Joy of Cooking, just sort of hit you with ingredients as you go. (You better have that ¼ cup of ricotta, or your whole night is over.) Other times, the measuring spoons are jettisoned and the just-eyeball-it method takes over. Because, really, a glug of olive oil is pretty darn close to a tablespoon, and who can even find the tablespoon measure in the gadget drawer anyway? (If anyone has tips on how to keep gadgets drawers organized, please send to

Same goes with the directions—you can either have carefully segmented instructions (where pasta-cooking is covered from start to finish in one step) or more timeline-oriented instructions, where a few things are happening at once.

And this is why I’m so glad that people are finally talking about how recipe writing could stand to loosen up a little. Recipe writing needs to get out of the house, have a beer, maybe even talk to people like a human, instead of a robot, for once. As Kim Severson writes in her New YorkTimesarticle on how written recipes are undergoing a makeover, “Personal perspective needs to infuse every part, not just the headnotes.”

“The shift may seem subtle to someone who rarely picks up a pan, but editors, professional cooks and booksellers and others say recipes have become more open-ended and broader in their approach. Instructions have shifted away from formulas toward deeper explanations of technique, offering context and lyricism in ways Fannie Farmer could not have imagined.

The best recipes still get dinner on the table, but they also teach the reader to be a more intuitive cook, a cultural change that reflects a nation that is cooking better than it has in decades.”

It’s true, and it is good. Recipe writing is getting fuller, with more asides, more hints, more encouragement, and more voicethroughout, not just in the headnotes. I love it. I’ve been drawn lately to cookbooks that speak to me like I’m standing in the kitchen with the author, kibitzing about our favorite pasta producers. I’m tired of reading the same pre-packaged instructions forhow to cook pasta. After all, we don’t live in a world anymore where there’s one brand of pasta at the store and one way to cook it. Special ingredients come with special instructions, and those have to always override the methods and cooking times of standard recipes.

And really, what is a standard recipe anymore? Standardization in the food world has had its reign, and I think we’re all ready to move back to ingredients that have a story and recipes that tell a story.

So, in honor of scrapping our standardized recipes, here’s Sam Sifton with a riveting story about what you should make for dinner tonight:

“Let’s make … quick-broiled pork chops in a kind-of-Korean sauce today, the chops cut as thin as you can find them in the store.

First, take a few handfuls of dry-roasted peanuts and put them in a pan with a glug of sesame oil. Heat the nuts through until they’re fragrant and going brown, then pull them off the heat and toss with a few shakes of chile powder. Set those aside while the broiler heats. Line a baking sheet with foil. Salt and pepper the chops and slide them into the heat. They’ll go about four minutes a side. Meanwhile, make a mixture with a tablespoon or so of gochujang, the Korean red pepper paste, a healthy splash of orange juice and a wisp of mirin. Then, when the chops are well crusted and brown, slide them into the sauce for a toss. Top with the peanuts and some chopped scallion if you have any. Goes great with rice.”

Write Like You Talk (Paul Graham): I’m always pushing authors (not just cookbook authors, but all of them!) to write like they’d talk to a friend, and here’s Paul Graham backing me up: “Ok, so written and spoken language are different. Does that make written language worse? If you want people to read and understand what you write, yes. Written language is more complex, which makes it more work to read. It’s also more formal and distant, which gives the reader’s attention permission to drift. But perhaps worst of all, the complex sentences and fancy words give you, the writer, the false impression that you’re saying more than you actually are. You don’t need complex sentences to express complex ideas.”

An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar (Vijith Assar for McSweeney’s):What happens when we veer away from the active voice of recipe writing and mine the depths of the passive voice? Well, it starts to sound like culpability-dodging, lawyer-friendly police report writing. (This is worth a look for the animated sentence revisions alone!)

24 Hilarious Tweets Every Grammar Nerd Will Appreciate (Jarry Lee for Buzzfeed): And a fun one, if you could use a giggle.

Happy mid-week cooking to everyone!

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