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Credit: Zoe Burnett
personal essay

The Two Signs of a Great Recipe

published May 26, 2020
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After I graduated culinary school as a naive 21-year-old, I thought I could handle anything that came at me in the kitchen. My expectations of my cooking skills were wildly inflated. So, as you might imagine, it came as a great shock when my first few attempts at a new recipe did not end well — how could it be, when I knew how to cook, right?

After dusting myself off from multiple incidents of concave cakes, dry braises, and stomach-tearing pickles, I saw the central point of my Venn diagram struggle in the kitchen: I didn’t know what to look for when I was choosing a recipe. What makes one chicken recipe better than another? Why did one shakshuka recipe leave me with rubbery eggs, and another recipe didn’t? It was only over time that I began to notice patterns in what differentiated the bad recipes from the mediocre, and the average from the truly excellent.

Summed into just two questions, the path to writing a good recipe seems surprisingly straightforward: How thorough and detailed is the recipe in its path to the end result? And how well does this recipe explain the rationale behind why things are carried out in the recipe the way they are?

Here’s how I discovered these two lessons through my own cooking (and what a few experts have to say about the makings of a “good” recipe).

Spotting a Good Recipe, Part 1: Look for Specificity

A preliminary skim of most recipes will show the lengths a recipe writer went to ensure specificity and accuracy. Perhaps the most obvious way this is shown is with multiple points of reference per ingredient — for example, a weight (60 grams), a volume measurement (1/3 cup) and a general “rule of thumb” (1 Roma tomato) while shopping — to help readers from all backgrounds and all types of kitchens find consistency.

This thoughtful method of recipe writing transcends just cooking — when recipes “list ingredients the way you’d find them in the grocery store … [such as] ‘1 large chopped onion, about 1 1/2 cups,’ I know what to pick up when I’m shopping,” says Grace Elkus, Kitchn’s deputy food director.

I’m primarily a savory chef, so at the beginning of my journey I would shrug off weight measurements as mere suggestions (or ignore them because I thought they were only relevant in pastry-based recipes). It was only a matter of time before my unbalanced spice blends and odd-tasting braises proved me wrong.

The natural variation of raw ingredients can be tricky to balance in recipes. If my idea of a “large” onion is much larger than that of the recipe writer, but my sizing of a “large” tomato is much smaller, then my end result will be different than intended. Or, perhaps, if a recipe wants me to juice one lime but I have a particularly dry one so I eyeball the juice of a few limes, the amount of acidity can impact the final taste and texture of what I’m making.

The universal standard of weighted amounts (especially with the precision of grams) “solves a lot of problems,” says Daniel Gritzer, culinary director of Serious Eats, “because those weights aren’t up for interpretation.” Not only do specific weights help prevent problems under conditions where ongoing adjustments are not viable (for example, long braises in the oven), but they also give concrete numbers for the maker to understand which ratios are at play.

“Understanding metrics is about knowing the primary ingredients versus the supporting ingredients,” says Elle Simone, culinary producer at America’s Test Kitchen. If you need to adjust a recipe, knowing ratios like this is crucial. Especially if you do need to adjust recipes to suit what’s available at the store or in your pantry, being able to rebalance a recipe (for example, recalculating the amount of milk you need for a rice pudding when you only had 60% of the rice asked for) is far more intuitive with numbers than with volume measurements.

Beyond the ingredients, context clues indicate a recipe’s commitment to detail. As Michael Laiskonis, culinary director at the Institute of Culinary Education, puts it, “not everything is objective” — especially when it comes to timing. When recipes can offer better descriptors (looks, smell, etc.) as to what is correct and what isn’t, it helps everyone end up at the same final result. 

These context clues are essential for my kitchen. I have a sad, cheap apartment oven with strange hot spots that can’t keep temperature well, so I often rely on doneness cues, not times, when baking or roasting. A recipe that assures me a sponge cake is ready when it has risen to three times its original level and flattened at the top is far more useful than one with a “bake for 45 minutes” step.

Spotting a Good Recipe, Part 2: Look for a Recipe That Helps You Answer “Why”

How to think proactively while cooking is where art and science begin to blur in recipe writing. Recipes committed to helping cooks should take an educational approach over the course of the instructions, noting things like why tough meats need to be cooked at a certain temperature or a certain amount of time (to break down its collagen into gelatin), or why heavy cream is used for a creamy accent to a ganache and not milk (it’s to avoid separation and seizing when chocolate’s solid and fat particles come into contact with water). Naturally, there’s a limit to how much we can mentally digest in one recipe-reading session, so good recipes must strike the difficult balance of clear, thorough information with conciseness and brevity.

I learned this best with trials of pasta dough recipes, where I mistakenly attempted to shortcut the resting period by rolling the dough out immediately after the kneading, and squeeze it through the sheeter quickly. I didn’t understand why I ended up with short, broken bits of linguine until I learned how the gluten worked within the dough. The water needed to be absorbed by the flour, so the strands of gluten could develop slowly to be long and supple enough to withstand the force of the sheeter. Armed with this knowledge, I’ve now reorganized my prep schedule to allow for resting time with a much longer period allocated for rolling out thin pastas, and the consistency of my output has improved significantly.

Conscientious recipe writing also lays the groundwork for respectful iterations of dishes from cuisines we may be unfamiliar with. Take, for example, romesco sauce — Gritzer of Serious Eats recently broke down the sauce into three major parts. By explaining why traditional versions opt to roast tomatoes and garlic, the effects of using certain local dried peppers, and the impact of a mortar-and-pestle approach, readers can appreciate the recipe’s nuance — and gain perspective on where and what substitutions are valid. Simone at America’s Test Kitchen does this as well: “We will get as close to the original source as we can, so when we adapt anything it’s from the original perspective and we can preserve the integrity of the flavor profile, the history of the food,” she explains. 

Ultimately, all my interview subjects agreed on one thing: that recipes are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. And a good recipe helps you “pull the levers of cooking to achieve what you want,” as Gritzer says. Every “why” in the recipe functions to explain the priorities of the writer, editor, or publication for a recipe — but if they do not align with the final cook, these also become jumping-off points to “offer multiple ways of making one thing,” as Elkus says. Gritzer describes his approach as an educated choose-your-own adventure: “Learning to cook is about having the awareness to make adjustments.”

How Learning to Read a Recipe Made Me a Way Better Cook

Reshaping my understanding of recipes has changed what felt like a minefield of information online to a game of exciting — and achievable — challenges. Now that I know what makes a recipe work, I’m able to tweak it to my liking. I can pinpoint what sites are setting me up with a foundation for success through their recipe development. And I can identify which recipe developers I particularly like because of their detailed explanations that showcase how much they explain why every piece of the recipe needs to be completed as written, with no frivolous or unnecessary steps. As a chef, this has been essential for my planning and execution in the kitchen. I can now mentally map out in advance what ingredients are the main versus supporting players, and what sort of pressure or temperature is being enacted on them and why. I’ve found a level of confidence in experimentation I never had before.

The idea of mise en place (French for “everything in its place”) has been drilled into every culinary student since the first day of school. Learning how to read and evaluate a recipe helped me do this for my mind, not just my tangible ingredients.

My Cheat Sheet for Identifying a Good Recipe

Look for recipes that have the following:

  • Ingredient measurements in multiple formats (weight, volume, size).
  • Context clues for timing of each relevant piece of cooking instruction.
  • Explanations on why certain steps are important to the recipe process.
  • Additional historical and cultural explanations on why the recipe is composed as is.
  • Bonus: Sustainability tips for what to do with leftover ingredients.