To my friends who are stopping by to find something delicious to make, check back in a couple days for an autumnal quince cake, or feel free to stick around if you want a little behind the scenes look into recipe developing. And to my fellow recipe developers, this post is for us! I’ve been reading and thinking a lot lately about what makes a recipe reliable, so I thought I’d throw in my two cents. Plus I’ve shared my own process at the end of this post, for anyone who’s interested.
I’ll start by saying the most important thing: There is more than one right way to write a recipe. Everyone’s process is different, but you can pretty much split things into two categories, which I’m calling the quantifiable approach and the instructional approach.
Folks who take a more quantifiable approach opt for something similar to the kinds of recipes you’d find in a conventional cookbook. On the other hand, some folks take a more instructional approach—for instance, consider the kinds of recipes you might learn orally from a family member, what you might find on a technique-focused cooking show like Lidia Bastianich’s, or a brilliantly conceptual illustrated guide like Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
And I’m here to tell you: neither the quantifiable nor the instructional approach is inherently better or more accurate. And neither is mutually exclusive. There are reliable and unreliable versions of each, and writing a reliable recipe is simply a matter of communicating well.
It’s completely possible to write an absolutely inaccurate and unhelpful recipe that’s got plenty of measurements, times, temperatures, and all sorts of quantifiable information up the wazoo. For instance, let’s say you find a macaron recipe that lists everything in grams, but it just happens to be very poorly tested. You can follow that recipe as carefully as you want—it will always be a disaster.
It’s also possible to create an unhelpful instructional recipe that’s vague and confusing. We’ve all had that experience where we call our grandmother, asking for that cherished family recipe, but we don’t really know exactly what questions to ask, and she only has a few minutes to talk, so it just doesn’t end up translating in the kitchen. The problem is not that your grandmother isn’t providing precise enough measurements—it’s just that actually teaching that intuitive know-how takes a lot of time and effort and is an art form all its own.
But, lucky for us all, it’s absolutely possible to do both kinds of recipe developing well. In fact, we should all probably be doing some combination of both. So even if you find yourself on one side of the spectrum, there’s a lot that can be learned from the other side. Moreover, there are a few very general goals we recipe writers all* share in common, no matter how we get there:
universal recipe-writing goals:
- Ingredient quantities: The recipe must give readers the right idea of how much of each ingredient to use. This can be done either by providing a list of ingredients with accurate quantities, or by giving readers the tools and know-how they will need to decide the quantities for themselves (or both!).
- Techniques and process: The recipe must communicate or demonstrate cooking techniques so that readers feel comfortable performing them at home. It must also communicate the whole process, leaving no step out. This can be done in a number of ways, not limited to conventionally written recipes.
- Doneness: The recipe must explain how to know when something is done. This might be a set amount of time or an internal temperature, or it might be a description of what to look/smell/feel for to know when something is done (again, or both!).
- Accuracy. This does not necessarily mean you must provide a list of precise measurements and temperatures and times. It simply means that whatever information you have given (whether it’s quantities or descriptions or both) is true. A lot more on that in a minute.
- Notes (bonus): While not absolutely necessary, it can be really useful to include some notes about substitutions, solutions to potential pitfalls, words to the wise, etc. Any context you can give is best left for the headnote or end notes.
Ok so! We all want to achieve the same thing: We want to communicate something true and useful, to give people whatever tools they’ll need to create something delicious. But depending on our preferred recipe-writing style, there are better and worse ways to get there. Quantifiable and instructional recipes each have their own rules and expectations; you’ve just got to know what yours are and then commit to them:
the quantifiable way
Let’s say that you want to write a recipe where you give a list of ingredient quantities, with very precise measurements given for everything. There are effective and ineffective ways to go about doing this. I’m going to use bechamel sauce as an example, because mac and cheese sounds really good right now.
The bottom line: Numbers are only useful if they’re based in reality (especially if they’re representing weight). If you’re going to provide a number, make sure it’s actually accurate, or make it clear that it’s an estimation.
🚫 A less effective way: You head to the kitchen, cook the dish, taste it, and decide it’s delicious. You then sit down, and approximate how much you used of everything after the fact. Let’s say you think maybe you used about 240g/1 cup of milk in your bechamel sauce, and you think you let the roux sizzle for about 5 minutes. You write these numbers into the recipe, without any indication that they are approximations. If you didn’t actually measure and record it carefully, whatever number you write down is not going to be super helpful to the reader.
✅ A more effective way: You write up a recipe draft with quantities, times, temperatures, and descriptions of the method and technique. You head to the kitchen, and you carefully measure each ingredient, time, and temperature as you go. You make a few changes to the recipe as you go, but you record those changes to make sure they’re reflected in the final recipe. For example: Maybe you originally thought you’d use 60g/1/2 cup of shredded cheese in your bechamel, but it turns out you actually needed 120g/1 cup, so you made sure to record that change. Or maybe you thought the roux would need 5 minutes, but it actually only needed 3, so you recorded the new number. You also include some helpful descriptions of how to know when something is done, how to adjust for mistakes or inconsistencies, etc. (some of these details might be in the headnote or foot notes of the recipe).
🚫 Another less effective way: You write up a recipe with volumetric measurements in cups and tablespoons/teaspoons, you test it carefully, but then decide you want to include grams later on, so you decide to backwards engineer gram estimations from cups. Here’s the problem: if you’re going to include a precise weight, it has to be 100% accurate—volume is always somewhat of an estimation, but there’s no wiggle room with grams. So while you can absolutely translate grams into volumetric measurements after the fact (with the help of an accurate conversion chart), you can’t translate cups into to grams after the fact and still maintain accuracy.
the instructional way
Let’s say that super specific times, temperatures, and quantities aren’t really your thing. You might’ve even read the above descriptions and been super stressed out by the idea of recipe developing in such a restrictive way. That’s ok! There is more than one right way to teach someone how to cook something, and sometimes a more instructional approach works even better.
The bottom line: Instructional recipes are not just standard recipes minus the measurements—without precise measurements, you must do a lot more teaching and demonstrating to make sure your reader walks away with the tools they’ll need to improvise and estimate.
Let’s stick with the bechamel example, and explore how that would look from a more instructional perspective:
✅ One effective way: You make a video where you show how much of each ingredient you use, you demonstrate and explain all the necessary techniques and steps (e.g., making a roux, “folding in the cheese,” etc.), and you show exactly how the sauce’s texture should look when it has the right amount of flour, butter, and cheese. You also explain things like how to correct for too much flour, and you give the viewer enough guidance that they feel comfortable making the dish without having to measure anything.
✅ Another effective way: You write up a guide that outlines all of the important above features of making bechamel sauce, and you perhaps even include illustrative photos, so that your reader can try it on their own with confidence. If you give any approximated numbers, you give them explicitly as an estimation, and you put more emphasis on what to look/listen/feel for.
For example: “Melt about 2 to 3 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Once it melts, gradually stir in enough flour so that it forms a thick and bubbly paste (about 2 to 3 tablespoons). It should start out about the consistency of pancake batter: if you drag your spoon across the bottom, it should take a couple seconds to fill back in, but it shouldn’t be super thick and doughy either. If it’s super thin to start with, add a little more flour, and if it’s too thick and gluey, add a little more butter until it reaches the right consistency. After a few minutes of cooking while stirring constantly, the bubbles will start to subside a bit and it will thin out significantly; it should become runny enough that it quickly fills in the gap when you drag your spoon across the bottom of the pan, and it will start to smell nutty. At this point, start to gradually pour in about 2 to 3 cups of milk while you whisk constantly. Stop adding milk once the sauce is still quite thick, but no longer gloopy; it should be pourable, but not thin.”
Since you’re not providing precisely tested measurements for a roux, you’re sure to give the reader the tools they need to figure out how much flour, butter, and milk to add for themselves.
🚫 A less effective way: You give a vague account of how to make something, but you leave out some key concepts and steps. You don’t give enough detail about how to know when something is done, how to determine about how much of an ingredient to add, or how to correct for adding too much of one ingredient or not enough of another. You don’t give much of a description or demonstration of what the dish should look/smell/feel like when it’s made correctly. You provide some untested quantity/time/temperature approximations, but you don’t specify that they’re only estimations and not meant to be followed to a tee.
my recipe writing process
The funny thing is, the way you cook for fun or necessity might have nothing to do with the way you write a recipe. For instance, when I cook for fun, I almost never measure anything. Whenever I follow a recipe for fun, I can’t help but use my own intuition, I eyeball pretty much everything, and I often end up spontaneously making major changes.
But when I’m writing a recipe, I tend much more toward the quantifiable side. However, I also try to include as much instructional detail as possible so that readers feel like they can use their intuition if they want to. I try to include these details in the notes (either the headnote or foot notes), especially if they’re longer. So, like most recipe developers, I like to include a bit of both.
While I test my recipes in grams (yes, including the garlic!), I absolutely do not expect that readers will carefully measure every single ingredient. It’s just that if I provide a specific amount, it’s important that it’s an accurate number that I didn’t just pull out of nowhere. That way, when readers do improvise, they have more information to work with and can do their own thing with more confidence.
So I thought I might as well share my own method with you here today. This isn’t the method I’ve always used, but I’ve developed it over the years, and it’s what I do these days. If you want more information about how to find inspiration to create your own recipe/how to credit others, read that post first. But here is the step-by-step of what I do after the point of inspiration:
- I write the ingredient list: I jot all the ingredients down in my notebook, then I write down the quantities I think I’ll use. I try not to get hung up on formatting and accuracy yet. It’s just to get a rough outline down on paper. Once I’ve finished sketching things out, making adjustments, and thinking it through, I transfer it to a doc on my computer, putting them in the order they’ll be added to the recipe.
- I format the ingredient list: If I’m including both weight and volume, I make sure every ingredient has both and that they’re formatted consistently. If I start by saying “1 cup milk (240g),” the rest of the recipe should read with grams in parentheses at the end and volume or number of items at the front. For some recipes, it’s really important that the reader uses a very specific amount of something. In those cases, I try to avoid giving the number of items, and instead I just say how many cups or grams to use (grams will always be more accurate, but cup of prepped ingredients are still more accurate than number of items). So for my carrot cake recipe, I say to use “325g grated carrots (3 cups),” rather than saying how many carrots you should use, since carrots vary in size and the cake could get messed up from using too few or too many. Alternatively, if the preparation is complicated, sometimes I say something more like “about 5 medium carrots” in the ingredients, then I describe how to prep them in the recipe in detail, and I note their weight/volume after prepping within the recipe itself. In some cases, the quantity doesn’t matter quite as much, and I will just say the number of items instead of an exact measurement. So, for instance, in a carrot slaw, I might just say to use “6 medium carrots, shredded” instead of specifying the exact cups/grams of shredded carrots. Any ingredients that can be listed in their prepped form should be. And anytime you’re listing the number of cups or spoons of something, make sure it’s of the prepped ingredient. Never write “3 cups of carrots”—always write something like “3 cups of 1/2-inch diced carrots” instead, since you can’t measure 3 cups of whole carrots. If you want to explain how to prep something within the recipe instructions, say either “6 medium carrots” or “6 medium carrots (390g)” and then explain how to prep them in the instructions. With this whole prepped ingredients thing in mind, always remember to be careful where you place the comma. For example, “4 medium carrots, 1/2-inch diced” works just fine. You’ve got 4 medium carrots, *comma*, and now you’re gonna dice them. Likewise, “2 cups of 1/2-inch diced carrots” works great as well. Or even “2 cups of 1/2-inch diced carrots, from about 4 medium carrots (260g)” if you want to get really specific. But you’d never want to say something like “2 cups of carrots, 1/2-inch diced” because (as you now know) you can’t measure 2 cups of whole carrots. This reads as though you’re asking the reader to measure 2 cups of whole carrots and then dice them, which is super confusing. It might seem really nit-picky, but it’s a recipe-writing standard practice for a reason—readers will not necessarily notice when it’s done correctly, but placing the comma incorrectly will give some careful recipe-followers a moment of unclarity. Where do these numbers all come from? I have a calibrated chart that tells me how much average volumes of different ingredients weigh. I came up with this chart with a painstaking process a while ago, and it’s got just about everything listed accurately in numbers, cups, and grams. I often include volume, weight, and number of items in the recipe, but when I take the recipe into the kitchen I test exclusively in grams. More on that when we get to number 4.
- I write up the cooking method: I make sure that every step is accounted for, and whenever I can explain what to look/listen/feel for (more instructional details), I add that detail. I also include estimates of temperatures, times, and heat intensity, and I’m careful to note what equipment to use when it comes up in the recipe. I like to split my method up into numbered steps, but some recipe writers prefer longer paragraphs instead. My recipes tend to run a little long, but some writers like to keep things short and to the point. I want even a novice to be able to make each of my recipes, so I assume no advanced cooking knowledge and tend to explain just about everything in detail, but some recipe writers take for granted that their readers will have more advanced cooking knowledge. For instance, I might describe the whole process of pan-frying something (what kind of pan to use, how much oil, what kind of oil, how hot the oil should be, etc.), while another recipe developer might just simply say “pan fry the croquettes.” All of this is a matter of preference and depends on who you are writing for. I also like to add any notes on troubleshooting, substitutions, and extra helpful information to the foot notes at the bottom of the recipe, using asterisks to indicate when there’s more information. I generally think of the foot notes as things readers don’t necessarily need to know while they’re cooking, but that they might want to know while they’re reading the recipe ahead of time. You know, the kinds of things where if you included them in the recipe, readers would be standing over a hot stove, their eyes frantically darting back and forth skimming for relevant information, while they mutter “ok but how long will it take before I have to flip them?!” No one needs to know exactly how to make a buttermilk substitute while they’re just trying to get through a pancake recipe, but a note at the bottom is super useful to anyone who needs it.
- I take the recipe to the kitchen: I follow the recipe exactly as written. I measure everything in grams, I use timers, and I make sure I’m following every single step I’ve outlined for myself. Whenever something seems not quite right, I make a change and then note that change in the recipe. E.g., something might take longer than I think, or I might need to use more of something. This is to be expected, and it a crucial part of the process. It’s important to think on your feet, but you’ve absolutely got to record those changes. Since weight is the most accurate way of measuring, I test everything exclusively in grams. That way, when I test it again later, I can make adjustments and know that I didn’t accidentally add too much or too little last time or this time. It takes out a lot of the mystery of recipe developing and gives me maximum control. I do this even when I’m only planning on listing the number of items or the volume in the final recipe, because it keeps things consistent. For instance: Some days, my idea of a “medium clove of garlic” might be bigger than other days, but when I measure 10g of garlic crushed through a press, my calibrated chart tells me I should write 3 medium cloves [10g]. That way, most people will end up with just about the same amount I used, even if they don’t measure carefully. Some days 10g might look like 5 cloves, and some days it might look like 1 clove. Some non-measurers will add 5 cloves, some will add 1, but at least they won’t be so far off since I told them 3. I start with accuracy, so readers don’t have to.
- Once I’m done, I do a taste test, and then take notes on what I should change for next time. I edit the recipe, make a note at the top that it needs to be re-tested, and head back to the kitchen to try again (sometimes another day). Usually the problems are clear, and the answers are even clearer, but other times it’s not so obvious. Identifying the issues just takes a lot of tasting and thinking it through. And if I’m ever not sure how to solve a particular problem, I research it by reading lots of other recipes to compare mine to, and I even sometimes reach out to my community of recipe developing friends for help. Some things take trial after trial, some things you get right on the first try, but once you get the hang of it, most things take about 2 tries (when I first started, most things took 3 or 4 tries to get just right).
* I will say, it’s much, much harder to write a good baking recipe in the instructional tradition. It makes sense that bakers tend to generally be in the quantifiable camp. But I don’t think it’s impossible, and I do feel like there might just be some genius out there who has the special ability to teach people how to bake with intuition and without measuring, times, or temperatures. There are certainly people who can bake a perfect cake without measuring anything, but actually teaching that intuitive skill to another person is a whole other endeavor.