Saturday, November 14, 2009

A few notes on the paradox of recipe writing and reading

Writing recipes can be a very tough thing.
Why do we do it?
Ideally it’s a template that can be recreated over and over with perfect consistency, but nature doesn’t give us perfectly consistent ingredients to work with. So in reality it’s just a guideline, a rough draft of a dish that one must edit.

In writing recipes, I try hard to find the best middle ground. Giving the cook enough info for inspiration, but with room for preferential variation. Please know that I think of my recipes as foundations on which to build. Read them knowing that I hope you take license, and let me know if it works (or if it doesn’t). My goal with Grill-A-Chef is to encourage people to cook, and that takes a little experimentation and awareness. As the cook it’s your job to adjust for nature’s inconsistency.

Back to the recipes:
The trickiest part is in the quantities. They’re where every recipe starts, but how does one decide whether to list a whole ingredient or a processed (cut, cooked, grated, etc.) ingredient?
One recipe might say “4 medium potatoes”. In this instance, the quantity used can vary greatly with the size of the potato. Not to mention the problem that the word “medium” poses. How big is medium potato? And is that relative to all potatoes in the world, or just in the pile of potatoes at your market?
Another recipe might say “3 cups of potatoes, cut into ½ inch cubes.” This is a much more specific quantity, but how many potatoes will this require? And what do I do with the extra potato?
You may have noticed that my recipes vary completely in how they are written. How I choose to write it is purely circumstantial. If I say “4 medium potatoes” the required amount is somewhat elastic, though I’ll usually follow that up with an approximation of volume. If I say, “3 cups of potatoes, cut into ½ inch cubes,” then you need that amount.
**** I realize that I sometimes stray from my own rules.

Next on my list of peaves is the ingredient that you have to buy a whole bottle of for just one teaspoon. I’m a cook, so my pantry has a plethora of rare items that I use regularly. Still, I try to recognize these when they come up and isolate them as optional.
In other words, I try to avoid putting the cook in a position where she has buy something she’ll never use again.

Execution of a recipe can vary exponentially. People have different stovetops, different pots and pans, even different lighting under which they see the food. Over time my goal has become describe what the final product of each step should be, and then lay a map of how to get there. Including times and heat ranges that are only approximate.

I usually end a recipe with some ideas for substitutions, interesting additions, and general advice. Which I hope is helpful.

Please let me know an thoughts or questions on this subject.
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Grill-a-Chef by Joshua Stokes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.