Long Reads

Foolproof Recipes Don't (& Can't) Exist

September 28, 2016

It is my job, as a writer who works mostly on cookbooks, to create recipes that can be easily followed. That doesn’t mean that the recipes themselves are always easy, of course. But it does mean that the directions should be clear, concise, and accurate, whether they describe how to make ratatouille or how to boil rice.

A well-written recipe is like a reliable map in that it sparks excitement and adventure yet also provides a sense of comfort, which comes from the knowledge that others have embarked on the same journey. You may be headed to a new place or following a new route, but you have a guide leading the way.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Fundamentally, a recipe should deliver on what it promises: something delicious to eat. If a recipe is a story, then the ending should always be a happy one. Along the way, we can count on accuracy in the ingredient list, cooking times, and yield. Recipe writing conventions and style will dictate details like whether or not a serial comma is used and if garlic should be listed as “1 clove garlic” or “1 garlic clove.”

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There are many ways recipe writing can go wrong. We’ve all encountered a faulty recipe, one that is confusing, exhaustingly verbose, or just plain erroneous. It’s frustrating and disappointing, and can even be enough to convince a person to say something crazy like “Baking isn’t really my thing.”

One person’s most loved and trusted recipe isn’t necessarily going to work for everyone.

On the other side of the spectrum is The Recipe That Works Every Single Time, a rare wonder. A truly great recipe is one that burrows its way into your life and finds a permanent home. It shows up on your table at Thanksgiving. It saves the day when you’re looking for a special dish to cheer up a friend.

Here’s the tricky part: One person’s most loved and trusted recipe isn’t necessarily going to work for everyone. In other words, I am not convinced that a universally foolproof recipe exists.

There are some recipes that come impressively close: Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter, Marion Cunningham’s Yeast-Raised Waffles, and Marian Burros’s Plum Torte. And there are cooks and writers who are known for creating trustworthy, meticulously tested recipes: Ina Garten, Dorie Greenspan, Judy Rodgers, and David Tanis, just to name a few.

What do these exceptional recipes have in common? For one, they embrace the reality that each of our kitchens is unique, that we don’t all own the same exact tools and equipment. The plum torte will work equally well in an 8-, 9-, or 10-inch cake pan. By not requiring a specific pan, it’s almost as if Marian Burros is saying “Come one, come all” and inviting everyone to the table. Secondly, these recipes either call for few ingredients (the tomato sauce has only three plus salt) or are practically poetic in their repetition of whole, easy-to-recount numbers (2 cups milk, 2 cups flour, and 2 eggs make up the foundation of the waffles).

While versatility and simplicity can help to make recipes great, they don’t necessarily guarantee excellence (or preclude it—even a recipe with a lengthy ingredient list that requires many pots and pans can still be terrific). In recipe writing, as in all writing, excellence is a cloud that can’t be pinned down.

Photo by James Ransom

A lot of work goes into crafting a recipe—adjusting for the endless variations among ingredients and equipment, trying to bring it as close to perfection as possible. Once a recipe has been developed and written, it then hopscotches down a particular path, sometimes circling back to the drawing board when revisions are significant. Depending on its final destination, a recipe may need to be tested by a number of cooks of varying skill levels, retested by the author, copy-edited, formatted in a prescribed style, edited again, designed, and so on.

I feel a swell of gratitude any time someone tells me that he or she has followed a recipe I’ve written. The biggest compliment of all is when a reader turns to a recipe time and time again. I especially love to hear that someone has substituted blackberries for blueberries in a streusel-topped crumble, or added a splash of red wine vinegar to a tomato salad even though the recipe didn’t call for it. Readers are often sheepish to share these modifications, as if somehow changing the recipe takes away from its worth. But I don’t believe the goal is a foolproof set of instructions. A modification is the best evidence that my recipe has become a part of another cook’s life.

I don’t believe the goal is a foolproof set of instructions.

Recipes don’t exist in a vacuum. The cook is the key ingredient. His or her hand affects every step of the process. Your pinch of salt is not the same as mine. The medium-high setting on my stove is nearly indistinguishable from the high setting. We all have our own quirks.

I think one of the best things a writer can do is imbue a recipe with as much voice and personality as possible. Tell me exactly how you know the cornmeal ricotta cake is done baking—forget that rote line about a toothpick inserted in the center coming out clean. I am curious to know about the peculiarities of your kitchen, the story behind the cake pan you always use, and the way you wait until the edges of the cake are the same color as your parents’ cat. Those details breathe life into the recipe. They make it memorable.

Photo by Linda Xiao

Rather than a “foolproof” recipe, I want to hear the recipe that only you can tell. Then I want to re-create it in my own kitchen, mirroring your actions and thinking of you the whole time.

It may not be the exact same cake you would bake in your home—actually, it definitely won’t be. But a thoughtful, unique recipe you created might be the next best thing.

Are there any recipes you really do consider foolproof? Tell us in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Starmade
  • Betty
  • TJ
  • Smaug
Maria Zizka is a cookbook writer and recipe developer who has collaborated with leading chefs, including Elisabeth Prueitt, Jessica Koslow, and Suzanne Goin. She has co-authored numerous award-winning cookbooks, most recently Tartine All Day, Everything I Want to Eat, and This Is Camino. Her first solo cookbook, THE NEWLYWED TABLE, will be published on April 2, 2019.


Starmade September 30, 2016
I'm also grateful for these open-minded forgiving thoughts about what recipes are really supposed to do. I am always bamboozled by the fact that my own recipe for banana bread, which works beautifully for me here, does not work in my mother's house at all, where it always comes out heavier and drier and less special. Possible factors include the fact I have a better insulated oven here with an internal oven thermometer so it cooks faster (in her house it always seems to take longer to test done and the end result is less palatable); I make it here in Houston with grated piloncillo which I can't source in her part of Massachusetts so I use dark brown sugar. But those are just the things I *know* are different; what about the generally more humid air in Houston? or the distance from the growing region of one's bananas? The bottom line is that recipes need to be in part about locale, the home and cooking circumstances of the writer, the personal view and kinetic sense of the ingredients coming together. It's true: the voice and personality of the cook matter; it's a kind of darshan.
Betty September 30, 2016
This was a great article. For several years, I have been frustrated by what I call the "recipe review police), who insist that every detail has to be used as you cook. For me this is an anti-cook perspective: I am not a professional recipe reviewer, and want to share with others what worked for me; I live outside of the US, and therefore cant source many ingredients - does this mean that I shouldn't describe what worked for me with what I could find in the local markets; I see know reason why I shouldn't suggest additional ingredients, especially spices and herbs. Really, I believe we should be supporting one another here!
TJ September 30, 2016
What a wonderful article! Thank you for knowing and sharing the fact that all of us who prepare food are not equally talented. It is such a pleasure to read that there really is no such thing as perfection in cooking. You gave me great relief in knowing that I am not alone in my failure to achieve excellence in every recipe.
Smaug September 28, 2016
You can't stop progress- as we keep producing more and better fools, the recipes will never catch up. This is a very optimistic take on recipe modifications.