Thursday, December 13, 2007

Writing Recipes

If you're a regular reader here, then you will probably notice by the end of this post that I have broken almost every rule set forth in it, and still do so on a regular basis. I'm trying to get better. Whenever I get around to setting up an actual database of recipes from my blog, I hope to have time to rewrite them in accordance with these guidelines.

Consider the following set of instructions:

Mix together 2 pounds of cream cheese with a cup of sugar, using the paddle attachment. Add four eggs, 1 at a time, with 2 tsp vanilla. Pour into crust, bake at 275 degrees for 1 hour, then turn off oven and let cool inside for another hour. Chill for no less than 6 hours before serving.

Many of you might recognize this as a recipe for a pretty basic cheesecake. But it (the recipe) has a lot of problems, especially for commercial use. Ignoring for now the lack of instructions for the crust itself, let's take a look at a few of the problems.

First of all, there is no ingredient list. This is reminiscent of my earlier posts, where my intent was to tell a story, not necessarily provide a reference of any sort. If you want to find out what to shop for, you need to read the entire recipe and make your own list. Granted, you should read the recipe anyway before doing anything with it, but this adds an extra layer of work.

You may also notice that in some places numbers are spelled out, whereas in other places actual numerals are used. This makes it difficult for somebody to pick out measurements in a hurry. Speaking of measurements, you may also notice that full spellings and abbreviations are intermixed. This causes the same problem. It may be okay for emailing to cousin Vinny, but it'll never fly in a professional operation. "275 degrees"? Fahrenheit or Celsius? Probably Fahrenheit, but they should have specified.

"...Using the paddle attachment..."? Those of you with stand mixers know what's going on here, but what about everyone else? Most of these instructions are pretty vague. Who knows how that vanilla is really supposed to be added? In fact, it's almost like a reminder for somebody that's made this recipe hundreds of times, rather than a helpful set of instructions for somebody who's never made it before. It's almost as bad as some of the old Unix/Linux man pages. Then again, I've also seen some recipes who's instructions are little more than "creaming method".

Let's examine another version of the recipe:

2 lbs cream cheese
1c sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp vanilla

1. Cream together the cream cheese and sugar. Add eggs one at a time.
2. Slowly add in the vanilla with the eggs.
3. Pour into crust and bake at 275F for one hour.
4. After an hour, give the pan a shake. If it still looks liquid in the center, close the door and check again in a few minutes. When it just barely wobbles in the center, turn the oven off. Leave the cheesecake in the oven for another hour as the oven is cooling.
5. Let chill for at least 6 hours before cutting and serving.

Well, at least we have an ingredient list now. But what the heck is "1c sugar"? Probably a cup. Most people can figure that out. I say most, because some people (especially a more timid cook) may be confused and/or intimidated by that notation. Everything else in the ingredient list looks good though.

Step 1 already presents a problem. It should have been divided into two steps. And Step 2 isn't really any clearer than before. Step 3 should also be divided into separate steps, one of which should have started the recipe: "1. Preheat oven to 275F." By Step 4, we've pretty much given up on trying to divide up steps. The cook might have thought that it was pretty clear as one step, but when a single step is more than three times longer than any other single step, there's a good chance it needs to be rethought.

The recipe, unfortunately, still tends to be vague in some places and somewhat clearer in others. When you write a recipe, you should assume that the next person who looks at it has never seen it before. Don't try to give a cooking lesson in the recipe itself. If you need to tell a story, make sure you list the recipe outside the story as a separate entity. But if there is some subtle nuance, make sure to note it. Too many recipes have caveats that the creator knew about, and then assumed everyone else knew about too.

Let's consider a more properly-written recipe:

2 lbs (four 8 oz pkgs) cream cheese
1 cup white, granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 275F.
2. Allow the cream cheese to warm up to room temperature.
3. In a mixer, cream together the cream cheese and the sugar with the mixer's paddle attachment until light and fluffy.
4. Add the vanilla.
5. Add one egg and mix on low speed. When it is fully integrated, stop the mixer and scrape down the sides and the paddle with a rubber spatula.
6. Continue adding eggs the same way, one by one.
7. When the mixture is smooth and there are no lumps, pour it into a prepared 9-inch round cake pan.
8. Move to a 275F oven and set the timer for 1 hour.
9. After an hour, jiggle the pan a little. If the center still seems liquid, close the door and wait a few minutes before checking again.
10. When the center is only a little wiggly (but no longer liquid), turn the oven off.
11. Leave the oven door open for 1 minute, and then close it again.
12. Allow the cheesecake to sit in the oven for 1 more hour as both the cheesecake and the oven cool.
13. Move the cheesecake to the refrigerator and chill for at least 6 hours (overnight is better) before attempting to cut and serve.

This recipe is a lot easier to handle. The ingredients are clear, and specific. The steps are all reasonably small, and have only one actual instruction per step. Each step is reasonably clear, and while it does not explain what might go wrong if you ignore the instructions (that's what cooking classes are for), it does give you the proper instructions with the nuances noted (such as scraping the bowl and the paddle). It could probably still use a bit of improvement, but at this point it's in pretty good shape.

Like I said, most of the recipes on my blog are not this well-written. It's pretty painful for me to go back and look at a lot of my earlier material. But it's even more painful for me to think about changing an entry, at least without some sort of revision control to save the old format, as a reminder of how I used to write. But one day I do plan on rewriting as many recipes as possible and making them available in a much easier-to-use database.

When you start publishing recipes of your own, you'll want to take these guidelines into consideration. I'll refer to them in upcoming posts, which will make them just that much more relevant.

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