What’s missing from a recipe

Last week I made pistachio gelato (post coming soon), a type of recipe I had not tried before. It frustrated me because it included guidance to remove from the heat “when the mixture approaches a simmer”, but no explanation of why this specific heat was needed, nor what would happen if you let it actually simmer. I like to know why I am doing what I’m doing, and in this case, the information was missing.

This is a subject that has been occupying me for some time. The current standard format for recipes was developed during the 19th Century by domestic cookery writers like Eliza Acton and Isabella Beeton. They were the first to write a separate list of ingredients, followed by the method. Before that, the instructions would be very brief, intended as a reminder for those who had already learnt about cooking from their mother or as an apprentice to a cook.

So Hannah Glasse, writing The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy in 1774, could write this recipe for tart pastry:

One pound of flour, three quarters of a pound of butter; mix up together and beat well with a rolling pin.

Recipes like this were never intended to be a replacement for the teaching of cookery. They are still a very limited format. However, they are a popular one, and virtually standardised over the past 100 years, so that most people recognise a recipe layout if they see one, and know what to expect. They also work fairly well as a compromise – something that can be reproduced easily in many different media, and something that strikes a balance between too much and too little information.

However, as a teaching tool for learning to cook they definitely err on the side of too little information. Worse, because they form the main body of most cookbooks, it would be natural for those learning to cook from a book that everything you need to know would be contained in them. This is very far from the case.

It is hard to find information on which parts of the recipe are important, and which are more flexible. Where is it safe to deviate and where is it not? To compound the problem, few experienced cooks know which parts of a recipe are most important to follow. If you always follow recipes, how would you know what happens if you don’t? Or how to fix it if the recipe turns out to be wrong?

What is missing from most recipes is the context-sensitive techniques that allow you to exert your own judgement about the recipe. The understanding you need to decide if something is done, if it has gone wrong or if you should add more or less of something. By implying that the recipe contains everything, we remove people’s capability to make the adaptations that are always necessary, because the circumstances in which we cook are always unique.

In the next few posts, I am going to try and pick out the parts of a recipe that are missing, the bits to pay attention to, and those you can be more relaxed about. Hopefully, this sort of information can then be applied to any similar recipe you come across, rather than being specific to the one you’re looking at. And that sort of knowledge should be more enduring.

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I’m Louise, and I’m a compulsive baker, cookbook hoarder and a bit of a food geek. I learnt to cook at home, and later at Tante Marie’s cooking school in San Francisco. With a science degree and a background in IT analysis, I like to understand why a recipe works, not just how to do it. Why the rules are there and when they can be broken.

3 thoughts on “What’s missing from a recipe

  1. Well Louise, what can I say here? Since I’m the queen of putting too much information on my posts. Blogs are good for having the space to expand on why particular things are necessary or pitfalls to look out for.

    Cookery books do fall into standards of here’s the ingredients and follow these steps, you’re right. Publishers are also at fault not just the cook because I’ve heard from those who want to put together a well informed book not to, as the public will want the simple format. Publishers want to produce a well know formula, as they believe most of us will put down a cookery book if it looks too nerdy or recipes not in easy steps.

    As you’ve seen from the popularity of Dan’s latest book, which does have lots of notes at the beginning of the chapters, those books are so welcome.

    I also think most cooks don’t know why? themselves and often just do it in particular way because that’s what works or how it was shown to them.

    I hate not knowing why? I can also see when writing out a recipe there are so many notes you could be adding to help you have to make a decision what not to put in otherwise it would be a novel…and as you point out leave room for exploration.

    1. I thought of you when writing this post! A great number of the bloggers I follow are interested in that question of what’s happening, and they have the space and word count to explore it properly.
      I think Dan Lepard is one of those cooks who knows completely what each part of his recipe is there for, but he doesn’t always have the space to explain in a book or magazine column.
      Keep up your investigations, Azelia – I rely on them!

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