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.
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.