Presenting Pearls of Wisdom -- in conjunction with FOOD52's Recipe Writing Week, we'll be bringing you pro tips from the food world's best chefs and writers. Stay tuned for more every day this week at 11:00 AM.
Today's recipe-writing wisdom comes from JJ Goode. With cookbook co-authoring credits with all-stars such as April Bloomfield (A Girl and Her Pig) and Roberto Santibanez (the 2012 Piglet contender Truly Mexican) -- and that's in addition to his writing in such storied food publications as Gourmet, Food & Wine, and New York Times Dining, among others -- Goode definitely has experience in recipe writing from all over the spectrum.
We love Goode's advice that if a recipe's instructions should be not just explanatory, but also descriptive:
I only really help chefs write their recipes, so my take might be a little different, though I've tried to stick to tips that could apply to any kind of recipe writing. In general, I come from the dummy school of recipe writing. Unlike you guys, I'm still a dense, amateur cook. Even though I've helped with a bunch of cookbooks, I've still never roasted a rack of lamb or made hollandaise. I try to embrace my ignorance. Because if I have a question, chances are the reader of the book will have the same one.
1. Tell readers not just what to do but why to do it. Everyone's stove is different. Everyone has different pots and pans. If you know why you're doing something, you can easily adapt. For instance, when a recipe tells me to "bring something to a boil over high heat then reduce the heat to medium," I want to know why I'm reducing the heat. So instead, why not say, "Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer" or "a vigorous simmer"? That way, the stove (and your notion of what "medium" means) doesn't matter.
2. Always be encouraging. As an ambitious but decidedly amateur home cook, I know that when I'm following a recipe for something I've never made before, I'm really anxious that I'm going to mess it up. So I love recipes that don't just guide me toward the right result, but also prepare me for events that might otherwise freak me out: "Don't be alarmed if the seeds begin to pop." "The sides of your pot will be very dark; that's ok." "The sauce will splatter."
3. Pot and pan sizes matter, but you don't want to be too precise ("In an 8.25 inch by 10.75 inch pan..."), because that's just discouraging. I look at some recipes and think, Damn, I don't have that pan so I guess I shouldn't try to make this cake. I like to give the reader an idea of why a recipe requires a particular pan size, either emphasizing that it's necessary to be precise or explaining the size in a way that encourages flexibility. Maybe: "Put the pork in a baking dish or Dutch oven large enough to fit it in more or less one layer."
4. Sometimes the best thing about a recipe is that it takes you to a new place, to some flavor you've never experienced. Since no two tomatoes or chiles taste exactly the same, there's naturally going to be seasoning to taste happening. But I like recipes that explain what the result should taste like. For instance, I work with a Mexican chef who makes the most incredible salsas. When I cook them at home, I always wonder: Did I get it right? Is it supposed to be this spicy and tart and salty? He'll occasionally say, "No, no, it should be even more intensely flavored, because just a small spoonful is meant to electrify a taco." Aha, so I should add even more chile or lime or salt!
Tomorrow we'll be featuring the advice of Rose Levy Beranbaum, dessert maker and baker extraordinaire. Her advice is particularly aimed at you fellow cake- and bread-bakers!