The Problem with Recipes

cw: food, meat.

The problem I have with recipes is all of the back and forth.

The contemporary recipe format (for home cooks) first lists ingredients and their measures, and then a list of steps for the procedure. But this design means that, as you cook, you have to keep jumping between the two sections.

It works if you practice mise en place, I suppose, if you have the kitchen space and prep bowls and patience. I do not.

And I realize this seems minor, but it’s a little more pressing when the vegetables are already in the pan and you need to add the garlic, mirin, and shoyu—uhh, 2 cloves of garlic, so double that to 4, two tablespoons of mirin, what was the third thing? shoyu, right—but now the timer is beeping because the noodles need to be pulled off before they’re overcooked, and, where were you again?

Also, it seems like a problem that doesn’t need to exist. And so: Designing a Better Recipe

A recipe in an eBook reader. The ingredients and measures, and then several paragraphs of procedure. Each ingredient has been annotated with a number, both in the ingredients list and in the procedure list, and lines connect each pair. They criss cross in a complicated web.

Yotam Ottolenghi. Plenty. 2010.

Consider this recipe for Pasta and Fried Zucchini Salad (which is delicious, and I make it regularly; I don’t really mean to pick on Yotam Ottolenghi here. I only have an eBook copy of Plenty so please excuse the formatting.)

I’ve drawn on it all the places where you have track from the procedure back to the list of ingredients. You’re constantly scanning across the page, losing your place each time.

Several recipes on one magazine page. The last begins just a few inches before the end of the page.

Dominic Smith. “Pots of Gold”. Delicious, May 2021.

Here’s an especially awful example. This recipe for Beef & Black Pepper Stew with Toasted Pearl Barley lists the ingredients and just part of the first sentence on one page...

A full page photo of the dishes in the article.
More photos.
Finally, the recipe continues.w

…and then continues on the next spread! So if you were cooking this, you’d be flipping back and forth the whole time! Even though the only reason this is split between spreads is because of the photos!

(This happens a lot with dense cookbooks, like The Joy of Cooking. I usually end up copying the recipe out before starting.)

This bothers me a lot! So much so that, when cooking more complicated meals, for the holidays for example, I’ll rewrite everything I’m planning on making in a different format that won’t need all of that back and forth.

Sources

  1. Yotam Ottolenghi. Plenty. 2010.
  2. Dominic Smith. “Pots of Gold”. Delicious, May 2021.