When I was working on my first cookbook, Pasta Improvvisata, which was about improvising in the kitchen, I decided to take a fresh approach to recipe writing. I was going to list all the main ingredients in one column and all the seasoning ingredients, such as herbs, wine, spices, shallot, and garlic, in another. I thought that would illustrate how easily you could fiddle with flavorings while still holding onto a core recipe. It was not the accepted way to write a recipe. The standard is to list the ingredients in order of use. Maria Guarnaschelli, my editor, had a fit when she saw my manuscript, and she made me change everything to the conventional style. Also, and I truly feel she did this as punishment, she told me I had to include weight measurements, which I don’t think are in the heads of most cooks and that seem more British than American to me. Most Americans don’t do home cooking with scales. Well, I did what she said, partly. I changed to the standard order-of-use listing. But I didn’t change my “1 medium baking potato” to “1 ¾-pound baking potato.” I don’t weigh vegetables; I eyeball them. Most cooks do. Would you know what a ¾ pound potato looked like and be able to grab one off the shelf? And would it matter all that much if your potato were a few ounces heavier or lighter than prescribed? So when I handed the manuscript back to her, she said, “I see you didn’t include the weights.” But that was the end of it. Strange. I do, however, understand how my two-column approach would have been highly confusing. She was right about that.
Elizabeth David, in her groundbreaking book Italian Food, published in 1963, just talked her way through her recipes, presenting them in one big block, barely even breaking them into paragraphs. I say the book was groundbreaking because it was written for a British audience that at the time had had little exposure to Italian cooking. That made her unorthodox recipe style even more surprising. Here’s her recipe for Fegato di Vitello alla Milanese:
Cut the liver into slices about ¼ inch thick. Season them with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and leave them for about an hour. Dip them in beaten egg, coat them with breadcrumbs, and fry them in butter. Before serving them add a little cut parsley to the butter, and garnish the dish with halves of lemon.
That’s a good recipe, but it’s for a cook who has done something like it before. You’ve got to have some knowledge of “frying,” meaning what I would call sautéing. How many does the dish serve? As many as you like, would be her answer. Add a little cut parsley to the butter? I assume she means the butter left in the pan after “frying,” and I suppose it’s implied that you’re supposed to pour it over the cutlets. I get this, many cooks would, but some, even accomplished cooks, are put off when things aren’t spelled out. It might be infuriating for new cooks, or cooks who aren’t familiar with the flavors of the cuisine. I think most of David’s readers would have had no flavor memories to use in interpreting many of her Italian recipes. And she didn’t really say what things should taste like (sweet with just a hint of sour, or gently garlicky with basil prevailing, for instance). She did give more detailed instructions and measurements for complicated recipes such as Tagliatelle alla Bolognese, at least. I love the book, but I know Italian food. I can see where confusion could arise.
Alice Waters, or whoever actually writes her recipes, takes a similar talk-your-way-through-in-paragraphs approach in her vegetable and fruit books, although only with very simple preparations. It works well because she explains so much about each vegetable or fruit she’s using that once you get to the recipe, you can pretty much taste what it should be like. Here’s her recipe for stuffed dates:
Once pitted, dates can be stuffed with cheese (we use Parmesan, pecorino, or mascarpone) and with nuts. The first walnuts of the season are a favorite, lightly toasted before insertion; when almonds come into season, we use them too.
For another nice filling, knead grated orange zest and a few drops of orange liqueur into almond paste. Fill the cavity of each date with the paste, smoothing over the exposed bit with your finger.
Okay. I feel I know how to make those.
I generally like this talking-writing style very much. It’s comforting as long as it’s not too vague. And it can make even a novice cook a bit more relaxed in the kitchen. It’s the anti–Julia Child approach to recipe writing. As much as I love Julia Child, I must admit I find many of her recipes too detailed. When I was a teenager just starting to look at cookbooks, some of her recipes actually gave me anxiety attacks. Am I doing this correctly? I forgot to shake the excess crumbs from my soufflé pan! Is my soufflé now ruined? Did I turn the heat down exactly 15 minutes after the thing entered the oven, or did I wait 17? Will my soufflé now be burnt on top and raw inside? Yes? No? I’ll have to just wait in agony. It’s funny that she wrote that way, since her TV shows were so casual. They were, for me, a better learning experience.
In The Talisman Italian Cookbook, published in 1950, a little book my mother always had hanging around the house, Ada Boni used a spare style, not as whimsical as Elizabeth David’s but more military. She gave very specific amounts, even down to salt and pepper, but her instructions were as brief as they come. Here’s her Duck in Salmi:
Place duck in a large pan with onion spiked with cloves, sage leaves, bay leaf, liver, heart, and gizzard. Add oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Put pan cover on and cook over a very moderate fire about ½ hour. When meat is done, place in serving dish, strain gravy and serve on toasted bread.
Is half an hour long enough to cook a whole duck? I can’t imagine it would be. I’ve never made the recipe, so I’m not entirely certain. She doesn’t mention about carving the duck, but I’m sure you’d want to.
She offered plenty of interesting recipes for wild game, fresh sardines, and artichokes, things that weren’t on the minds of most 1950s American housewives. As a kid I’d drift through the tiny but tightly packed book wondering how I could get my hands on a wild boar. Boni, like David, was assuming a level of familiarity with the kitchen. Most older cookbooks did. When did cookbook writers decide that most people didn’t even know how to bake a potato? Was it when men began to take an interest in cooking? Most women, back then, grew up learning at least some basics from their mothers. Men learned how to hammer things.
And then there’s the New York Times style, short, direct, no-nonsense, and, even though the recipes are as spare as can be, usually easy to follow if you’ve got a little cooking experience. The one thing they do that I’m not crazy about is numbering steps in a recipe, as in:
- Cut the head of radicchio in half lengthwise. Remove and discard the core.
- Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat.
- Add the garlic clove.
To me that’s like the directions for putting together an IKEA dresser, which I’ve never been able to manage. The numbers put on the brakes for me. They’re perfectly functional, but they seem cramped to me. I guess I’m a go-with-the-flow kind of recipe reader.
I don’t know about you, but I occasionally pick up a patronizing tone from some recipe writers, sometimes in their recipes proper but more often in their head notes. I’d have to put Marcella Hazan and Mark Bittman in this category. Is it just me? Many cooks admire these people immensely, but I almost never look at their recipes. I want to feel a nurturing vibe, or even neutrality, not a subtle undertone of condescension. That just shuts me down.
My recipe writing style is always evolving. At the moment I tend toward the straightforward list of ingredients presented in order of use, but with somewhat relaxed quantities. Then I like getting friendly and maybe a bit too involved in the directions. I describe how the dish will look, smell, how the ingredients should sound sizzling or bubbling in the pan, and change during each stage of the preparation. And I give an approximation of the time any given step will take, such as “until just softening and giving off a gentle aroma of garlic, about 3 minutes.” I think a description of what you should see and smell in the pan, plus a general idea about how long it’ll take you to get there, is helpful.
Some writers like to tell a big story about a recipe, as I often do, and then go into a fairly cut-and-dried recipe, as I never do. This can work, but it can be mood-altering. Just when everything is getting intimate, you get hit with a list of very precise measurements, even for things like salt and pepper. I think David Tanis, the New York Times writer, strikes a good balance here, despite the confines of the style he has to work with. I always know what he’s telling me to do.
Knowing my readers fairly well by now, I find myself getting looser with my measurements. A splash of wine or a palmful of capers are descriptions most of my readers are comfortable with. But, of course, that depends on where I’m writing. When I was doing a monthly column for Curves, a diet magazine, everything had to be tallied, each grain of salt, drop of oil, and teaspoon of chopped herbs, even though chopped herbs contained almost zero calories. Curves kept to a strict, rigid style. They calculated the precise amounts of fat, salt, carbohydrate, and protein in every dish, with inflexible limits. It was an interesting exercise for me, and I’m glad I did it, but left to my own culinary head, it’s not what I’m about.
There are many recipe writing styles out there, and the longer you write, the more individual yours will become. I’m always reading blogs and cookbooks not only for recipe ideas but also to see how others write them down. I can’t say it’s an art form, exactly. It’s more of a craft. No, more of a journey, your personal way of getting from beginning to end. And with any luck, along the way you will teach your readers to make some really good food.