5 Recipe-Writing Quirks That Bug a Professional (& Maybe You, Too?)

February 21, 2017

Great recipes come in all shapes and sizes. They can be brief and to-the-point, like the emergency exit instructions printed on the windows of a bus (“Lift latch to open. Push out at bottom.”) or they can be as vague and flexible as a horoscope, leaving space for the reader to take what she will and apply it to her own life (and her own kitchen). Or, they can be meandering and intricately detailed.

Each approach to recipe writing has real potential to be successful and I believe there’s room in our lives for them all. In fact, our lives are immeasurably richer when we are surrounded by a diversity of voices and styles. The more, the merrier.

Within those many approaches, are there any commonly-accepted phrases we could do without? I am certainly guilty of falling into the trap of familiar wording, even when I know the writing is problematic or confusing.

Here are a few recipe writing norms I’ve been reconsidering lately:

1. The passive voice
Every English teacher admonishes students to avoid writing in passive voice and instead use active voice, wherein the subject of a sentence is doing the action. I notice passive voice in recipes all the time, however, and even though I try to eradicate it from my own writing, it creeps up on me. (“Bake until the potatoes can be pierced easily with a fork” instead of “Bake the potatoes until you can easily pierce them with a fork,” for example—or “Cook the risotto until all of the broth has been absorbed” as opposed to “Cook the risotto until you’ve added all the broth.”)

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2. “Combine”
Judith Jones famously despises the use of this verb in a recipe. Instead of “combine the ingredients in a bowl,” she’d prefer more precise language, such as “whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt” or “stir the wet ingredients into the dry.” I have written many sentences beginning with the word “combine,” and I’m going to make an effort to stop, because if Judith Jones teaches it, I listen.

To write a good recipe, and I feel this very strongly, you have to express exactly what you do. You have to be able to explain well.
Legendary Editor Judith Jones

3. “Set aside”
If I had one pet peeve about recipe writing, the direction “set aside” would be it. It's never necessary; you can simply go on with the recipe. (And if the next step isn’t clear, then there’s some other issue with the instructions.) For those moments when a component must actually be physically set aside, better to choose a descriptive verb: chill in the refrigerator; freeze until solid; cover and place in a warm spot to rise.

4. “Season to taste”
I don’t mind using this phrase, although I realize it’s a controversial one. Telling a cook to season a dish to taste is absolutely bouncing the ball into his or her court. It can be helpful in some instances to give a guideline or a starting point, perhaps by writing, “Stir in 1 teaspoon of salt, and then taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt if needed.” It’s also crucial to clarify what you should taste for, because “season” doesn’t always mean with salt. A recipe should specify whether more lemon juice or vinegar might be necessary, or if another pinch of a ground spice used earlier in the recipe could be added.

5. “Preheat the oven”
Recently, I fell down a rabbit hole of existential thought about this common phrase, and I’m not sure I’ve emerged. Do we preheat an oven or simply heat an oven? When a recipe instructs a cook to bring a pot of oil to 350° F for frying, the line is usually: “Heat the oil to 350° F.” Why should an oven be any different?

How about you? Are there certain phrases that bug you when you’re writing a recipe or following one? I’d love to know.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • DylanTonic
  • Brooke
  • SweetiePetitti
  • Bascula
  • Marsha Mc
    Marsha Mc
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.


DylanTonic September 3, 2018
RE Preheat; I'm OK with this. I think it's a nice subtle way to remind less experienced (or forgetful) cooks that ovens take time to come to temperature.
Brooke March 14, 2018
When ingredients aren't listed in the order in which you use them.
SweetiePetitti March 11, 2018
When the recipe ingredient list says 1/2 cup water but buried in the recipe it says add 1/4 cup and reserve the remaining water to be used later. Dang it. I’ve probably already dumped it all in.....
Bascula March 10, 2018
“Marinate overnight”, when you not going to cook it in the morning- it should say ‘marinate for x hours’ instead. Too many recipes tell me to chill or marinate or let sit ‘overnight ‘.
Marsha M. March 10, 2018
A HUGE one for me: pourover. "when you are done whisking the eggs, pourover the flour and stir in" (ingredients completely random and off the top of my head). First, pourover isn't a word. next, are we to pour the eggs over the flour, or the flour over the eggs? In many cases, it matters.
Anne-Marie April 13, 2017
Preheat hearkens back to the days when stoves were either wood or the scary kind of gas (you risked life and limb to light). As for passive voice - there is a useless you added when it's implied already. Change the verb tense to create a more dynamic flow (Boil potatoes until easily pierced with a fork; boil potatoes until a fork pierces easily) - the you is implied, and the active verb is actually boil). The season to taste makes me crazy, personally; my husband LOVES salty, while I prefer the delicate tang of salt to enhance my meal, so "to taste" happens after the meal is plated (because seriously, his plates are gritty afterwards and that's just gross - ha, ha).
Alison T. February 26, 2017
Just out of curiousity, why wouldn't you consider pepper to be a seasoning? I might describe seasoning as an element that while has an impact on the finished flavour of a dish, actually performs no function in a dish, as might salt, sugar or an acid. I'm NOT trying to get up your nose but to clarify. If, for example, we're talking baking, well, then salt and sugar (and maybe an acid) actually perform a function. In savoury cooking, one might argue that both acid and sugar perform a function. And we all know that it's impossible to add salt to pasta after it has been boiled. Pepper? Frankly, I think you're on thin ice there but I'm more than willing to hear your side. Convince me!
Jeremy B. February 26, 2017
I too, unfortunately am a pedant. I have enough chutzpah to not have to measure and weigh with implements, but "season" tickles my pickle. Pepper is NOT a seasoning. Salt and sugar and an acid of your preference (vinegar or citrus) ARE. Learn your basics .
Alison T. February 26, 2017
Ok, I'm going to go crazy when I can't edit my own comments...
1. Mass OR volumetric not both
2. Don't start the oven
Alison T. February 26, 2017
Generally, I think we're all in agreement:
1. Mass or weight or volumetric works better (’an apple' - which apple?)
2. Read the recipe and if you're going to be chilling for 12+hrs, don't start the just yet
3. Passive voice? Meh, we're divided.
4. Listing ingredients should be in the order they are used in the description. AND, if using the same ingredient several times, should be noted as 'separated'. This way ALL the butter doesn't end up in the fry pan AND if something is missing in the instructions you stand a chance of seeing it and putting it in in the right place. Even the very best writers make the odd mistake...
arielcooks February 26, 2017
This should go without saying, but the ingredients should be listed in the order in which you use them in the directions. It's crazy-making to follow instructions when they cite the ingredients out of order!

Also, volumetric measurements are fine, but for some recipes equivalent weights are most helpful.

Good possibilities for the word 'combine' are 'distribute' and 'homogenize', especially when you want everything that you "combine" to produce a consistent combination throughout.
Katileigh February 26, 2017
Stephanie... interesting perspective on the use of "your." I think that when we write, we are sometimes listening to the language we would say if we were speaking, but sometimes that colloquial usage doesn't hold up in print. Ms. Mahoney... I'm with you. I love recipes that use language to summon the senses... and make me want to make that food!
Ms. M. February 26, 2017
If I can head in a slightly different direction: I love recipes -- reading and executing -- that invite the reader in, marrying experience and technique with the steps. Even though I'm not a huge oatmeal fan, I love making it because of Cook's Illustrated description of toasting raw oatmeal in butter "until golden and fragrant with butterscotch-like aroma." Which also makes for perfect results every time!
Stephanie R. February 26, 2017
"Preheat the oven" doesn't bother me, but "Preheat your oven" sends me through the roof. "Add your garlic", "chop your onions", "stir your dry ingredients"... Why do recipes these days strive so hard to flatter the cook rather than what's being cooked?
Beth M. February 26, 2017
Please, please break your recipe into simple steps. A tomato sauce with 14 ingredients and 2 steps is an invitation to disaster. It is far too easy to miss what gets added when.
I find it interesting the number of comments mentioning rewriting a recipe. I do it all the time and thought I was just too persnickety wanting everything spelled out logically.
marc510 February 26, 2017
Thanks for the your thoughts about recipe writing style. I'll certainly consider them in my next recipe writing projects.

For all of our complaints about recipe writing and cookbooks, it used to be far, far worse. Take, for example, the recipe below from page 9 of the 1818 "The Universal Receipt Book" by Priscilla Homespun (full text at Google Books.). Ingredients are buried in the text and often in vague quantities. (note the call-out for "mushroom catsup" -- in 1818, catsup wasn't always tomato, but made in many varieties, including oyster, walnut, fruit.)

An excellent French Fricasee of Beans so as to resemble the taste of Meat

Take Lima or frost beans and after boiling them sufficiently to eat, brown some butter, taking care to season it well with salt, in an iron bake pan or spider, previously warmed or heated. Put into it your beans, after letting them drain a few moments, and fry them till they begin to turn brown then mix with them a few onions finely chopped or shredded, and continue the frying for a short time longer, adding some parsley. When the beans appear to be nearly cooked, put to them a very little water, and sprinkle them over well with flour from a dredging box, some salt, and a little black pepper, and let them stew for a few minutes. When done stir into them the yolk of an egg beat up with a spoonful of water, to which add a like quantity of vinegar. (A spoonful of mushroom catsup will likewise be found to improve their taste greatly but it should be added when the flour is put to them.)
Katileigh February 26, 2017
Hmm. I was an English teacher, but now work in the corporate world. I agree in part with the comments about the use of the "passive voice" in instructions. However, just removing the passive voice doesn't ensure that you are conveying the meaning that you intend. Specifically: Cook the risotto until all of the broth has been absorbed” is different than “Cook the risotto until you’ve added all the broth.” It's more important to clearly describe the desired outcome (absorbed broth) than to describe an action in the active voice that may or may not result in perfectly creamy risotto.
Nancy V. February 26, 2017
You must have been a very fine English teacher!
mela February 26, 2017
Sue F. February 26, 2017
My pet peeve is "do not overmix". Is under-mixing equally as ominous? So unclear.
liz S. February 26, 2017
I read and try recipes to learn new ways to cook. If the ingredients are awkwardly listed or instructions seem either too wordy or confusing, I re-write them using my preferred way to list or shorthand. That way, I already have the game-plan in my head.
Wandee February 26, 2017
A stalk of celery? No, A RIB of celery is one section of the entire stalk. Maybe twice I've seen the correct term used. RIB! Be precise.
Joseph B. February 26, 2017
I think you are confused. A stalk and a rib are the same thing. The whole thing is called a head of celery like a head of cabbage or a head of lettuce.