Websites like Pinterest make it easy to discover recipes from small, lesser-known food blogs — recipes that are potentially more interesting than those from big-name food sites, but also a little more risky. Cookbooks and magazines have recipe testers and test kitchens, but how do you judge the reliability of a recipe that comes from a new-to-you source?
I asked some experienced food writers and recipe developers what they look for when browsing new recipes online, and they shared their best advice, including what red flags to watch out for, and why you should look beyond the recipe itself when judging its reliability.
Read the comments.
The first — and arguably most important — step in judging the potential success of a new recipe? Look at the comments! "Not just the number of them, but what they actually say," advises Joy Manning, Kitchn contributor and author of Almost Meatless: Recipes That Are Better for Your Health and the Planet. Ask yourself: "Do I get the feeling multiple people really tried this out with success?"
Make sure the ingredient list matches the recipe instructions.
Always read through a recipe and check that all of the ingredients are accounted for in the body of the recipe. There is nothing worse than getting halfway through a recipe and suddenly realizing a key ingredient was left off the list. Likewise, make sure the instructions tell you what to do with everything on the ingredient list.
And while it may be less important for the success of a recipe, the proper way to write a recipe is to list the ingredients in the order in which they are added. Recipes not formatted this way are typically written by less experienced writers. "The recipe can still be good but I proceed with caution," says Dana Velden, longtime Kitchn contributor and author of the upcoming book, Finding Yourself in the Kitchen: Kitchen Meditations and Inspired Recipes from a Mindful Cook.
Look for specificity, both in the ingredients and the instructions.
A good recipe writer knows that readers need some level of detail in order to successfully replicate their dishes. "I look for specifics in the ingredients," says Stephanie Weaver of Recipe Renovator. "Not just 1 carrot, but 1 medium carrot, or better, 1 cup chopped carrots (300 grams). That tells me the recipe developer is actually paying attention, and that they made it more than once."
Likewise, an experienced recipe writer will pay close attention to the words they choose in the instructions, to make sure they are clear and specific, and provide enough explanation to help even novice cooks. Emma Christensen, The Kitchn's recipe editor and author of Brew Better Beer, says that when she writes recipes, she purposely chooses language that is less "cheffy" and more approachable, even if it means a slightly longer recipe. "Like saying 'add the wine and scrape the browned bits from the bottom of the pan as it bubbles' rather than just 'deglaze,'" she explains. "Saying 'deglaze' assumes the reader knows what that means and it can make a simple recipe sound fussier because people see it as a 'chef' word — sometimes it's fine to use, but often, I prefer the more detailed explanation."
Look for visual and other sensory cues in the instructions, not just measurements of time.
A recipe writer has no idea if you are using a gas or electric stove, how thick your pan is, what elevation you are cooking at, and a myriad of other factors that can affect cooking time. A recipe has more potential for success when it tells you that the onions should be translucent, the cake should spring back when pressed, or the garlic should sizzle and smell fragrant, rather than relying only on cooking time.
Go beyond the recipe when looking at a new food blog.
Read the whole post and note how the writer talks about the recipe. Does it sound like she only made it once before posting it? Or does she discuss the process of tweaking and developing the recipe? Does it sound like this recipe is truly a dish worth making, and not just blog filler? "If the blogger can really describe the recipe in vivid detail, as to how it smelled coming out of the oven, or how the guests loved the recipe at the party, then I know the recipe was actually prepared, consumed, and loved enough to write about," says Anne Byrn, author of Anne Byrn Saves the Day! Cookbook: 125 Guaranteed-to-Please, Go-To Recipes to Rescue Any Occasion.
You can also poke around the rest of the blog to get a better sense of the recipe writer's level of experience. Although frequent posting might seem like an encouraging sign, remember that thorough recipe testing takes a lot of time. "Someone who is putting up five [or more] recipes per week on their own is probably not testing their recipes, but just jotting down notes of their first attempt at a dish," says Kathleen Flinn, author of Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good: A Memoir of Food and Love from an American Midwest Family.
Another tip from Kathleen Flinn: Check out the About page. "Read their bio to see if they've got any specific training," she advises. Have they written books? Taught cooking classes? Gone to culinary school? This will give you some idea of their level of experience.
In the end, of course, even recipes that come from big magazine test kitchens can flop, and a recipe from an unassuming little food blog can become your new favorite dinner. But when scrolling through page after page of appealing new recipes from unknown sources, it's worth it to be a little more savvy.
Do you have any tips for figuring out if a new recipe will be a success? Are there any red flags you watch out for?
(Image credits: Emma Christensen; Amy Herr)