Three Recipe Phrases Judith Jones Can't Stand

Jan 312010
 
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Knopf Senior Editor Judith Jones in her well-appointed kitchen. She's still cooking.

Last week I was on a phone call with book editor Judith Jones about recipes. Her comments reminded me of an essay of hers I use as a handout, some of which is quoted below.

Here are the top three things she can’t stand to see in recipes:

1. In a bowl, combine… No one talks like that, so why write like that? She doesn’t like “combine,” either. She wants to know: “With a fork, a whisk, your hands, and for how long?”

2. Set aside. “What else would you do with it? Throw it out?” When I am editing recipes, I always edit out both that phrase and the word “reserve.” If you’re looking for brevity, here’s an easy way to start.

3. Put the mixture… This one really gets her going. “Why not call the component parts of a recipe by real names, such as batter, dough, or a custard, or a base? There was nothing wrong with the old-fashioned usage of ‘the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients.’”

“But no, you so much as add salt to your eggs and it becomes an egg mixture, and pretty soon you are mixing the first mixture with the second mixture, and the cook is having a hard time following which mixture is which.”

What do you think? Are any of these terms defensible? And what are your pet peeves in recipe writing?

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  54 Responses to “Three Recipe Phrases Judith Jones Can't Stand”

  1. Interesting! These are things that stand out as ‘duh’ to chefs, yet we accept them as a part of everyday recipes.

    I am bookmarking this post to keep myself in check for future recipes.

    Thanks for a simple & wonderful post!

  2. I most heartedly agree with the “mixture” statement. There are names for component parts of recipes, and we should use them! It is one reason I refuse to “dumb down” recipes I write. I use culinary terms, such as “sweat”, “braise”, or “deglaze”, rather than explain them long-hand every time. I do take care of explaining the terms clearly on my website. But not every time in the recipes.

    As for point #1, that does sound a bit contrived.

    However, on the word “reserve”, I do believe it is justifiable to use it. If you are preparing a dish involving several groups of steps, and need to *set aside* one component, for instance a marinade, until you have completed another group of steps, for instance boning a chicken, it is appropriate to use the word “reserve”. It indicates that you are done with the making of the marinade and should “forget about it” while you prepare another part of the recipe.

    My 2 devalued kiwi cents :) Your mileage may vary!

    • Nic, it depends on who you’re writing for. If your readers know how to braise, no problem.

      I don’t agree about reserving. If you tell readers to make a marinade, it’s pretty obvious that they’re going to use it later.

      • Yes, it’s obvious they’ll be using it later. But to telling them to put it aside is a big flag that lets them know that this particular “group” is done and they should move on.

        Likely one of these things where we’ll never agree :)

        And you’re right, there is a question of knowing your audience. Not everyone knows how to braise. But i think we have a responsibility to educate people about these terms. We have the luxury of free space on the web. Let’s use it! Why not use the right culinary terms, with a link to an explanation of the word/technique.

        It saddens me to see the rich culinary vocabulary, which can be quite exact and descriptive, being lost under pretext “the audience” doesn’t know those terms. How will they learn if they are not used? It’s a vicious circle, isn’t it? :)

        • Yeah, we can agree to disagree. i think there’s still room for a rich culinary vocabulary. Some books have a glossary in the back. Others use those words because readers understand them.

  3. What I love about writing recipes for the web is that I don’t have to feel constrained, “looking for brevity”. I’m not looking for brevity. I have no print costs. I’m looking for useful detail. I use “set aside” all the time. Because that’s exactly what you do when you are cooking. You mix something to use in a future step and you set it aside until you use it. As for “put the mixture”, if it’s a mixture, it’s a mixture, what’s the big deal? Same for “in a bowl combine”. We know what it means. Sometimes you just combine the ingredients. Makes no difference if you use a fork, a spoon, or a spatula. When it does make a difference how you combine, then specify.

    • Elise,

      LOL, you set aside the mixture? Oy.

      The big deal is: use a specific word instead of a general one. “Mixture” is general.

      I like your last point, about only saying how to combine when necessary.

      • I’m a big fan of Judith Jones, but I find a lot of ‘rules’ about writing (not just hers) to be too-restrictive, and not encompassing the various voices out there, as well as the diverse kinds of food writing that people are doing. As Elise points out, she uses terms that she, as a cook, finds appropriate to the recipe process, whether it be ‘set aside’ or ‘combine’.

        Also because in a recipe, it’s hard to use words like ‘dough’, ‘custard’ and ‘batter’ over and over again, words like ‘mixture’ need to be called into play. It’s a bit repetitive to read, “Pour the custard into the custard cups making sure the custard reaches 3/4rds up the up sides the custard cups. Bake the custards until the custards feel just firm in the center.” etc…) Sometimes other words need to be called into play.

        • Hi David,

          Re writing as a cook, do you mean Elise (and other bloggers, by extension) writes as a home cook? I’m hoping recipe writers know how to do this as well.

          Since I’m an editor, I would do this with your example: “Pour the liquid into the custard cups until it reaches 3/4ths up the side. Bake until the custard feels just firm in the center.” Seems easy enough. I’m using other words (liquid and it), as you suggest, although I admit that “it” is less than perfect.

          • I meant as a cook, in general (my aging eyes have trouble with small fonts!) Elise is an example of a regular home cook, and the terms she uses appeal to other home cooks. Hence her success! Judith remarks that some of these phrases she can’t stand, and my point is that although Judith is a great editor and writer, there’s a lot of different styles out there and just because these terms and phrases don’t work for her, that they’re bad or unacceptable. (Spoken as someone not afraid to tangle with editors…who sometimes even wins.)

            I was using the custard as an extreme example. But when you melt chocolate in the cream, then use it for tempering the eggs, you can’t call it custard, since it’s not custard yet. And you can’t say “Add the chocolate and cream”, since it’s more than that…it’s a mixture.

            The point is that one should use her admonishments as guidelines. But if the word ‘combine’ feels right to you, you should use it. I don’t use it often (because every time I do, I hear Judith saying not to!) But I have on occasion, even though I feel guilty about it.

          • Okay, yes, I see your point. And I will see if I can move to a larger font!

            Custard is a good example because, as you say, there are these in-between liquids where it’s not custard yet. I have tangled with this issue myself, as an editor. If there are minor ingredients in the chocolate and cream, however, I think it’s okay to say “chocolate cream.” Readers will know what you’re talking about.

  4. But when I’m working on two different components, I sometimes have “to set one aside”. Should I write “set the red bowl on the wooden counter”?

    • I don’t think so. If you asked people to make a glaze, they know they’re going to use it later. Otherwise why would they have made it?

  5. I agree, and the rules work if you are Judith Jones or the final editor of tbe recipe. In my experience, more and more often, the line editor, copy editor and proofreader have no idea about cooking or recipes and so insist upon redundancies. It is especially true at newspapers that are transitioning to “universal” desks, where editors work on all content from sports to food. I was lucky with my first cookbook and had a cook for an editor. Not so with Nos. 2 and 3.

    • That’s a shame, Gwin, since there are tons of editors who specialize in food writing. Me included.

  6. Is it possible to read the complete essay online?

  7. Dianne, Thanks for these. At least one publication I know of specifies putting the ‘in a bowl, combine…” at the head of a sentence in its guidelines (a pet peeve of my own.) I suppose it may be necessary for brevity in tight spaces like newspapers and mags, but if I read a recipe in a book, I want to feel like the author is talking to me. Thank you Judith Jones!

    • Wow. I had no idea that a pub would actually specify that. Yes, exactly! One of Judith Jones’ points is that the reader should feel like you’re right there in the kitchen with him or her.

  8. Here is an editor that has completely lost touch with her audience. Not everyone is as experienced as she is.

    I always want to know whether I’m supposed to put things in a bowl, or a skillet, or a saucepan. And what’s wrong with combine? Isn’t a recipe a combination of ingredients?

    If something isn’t going to be used in the next step of a recipe, of course it has to be “set aside.” Otherwise, I’m going to think it’s somehow part of the next step.

    And while I’ve been cooking for years, I’m not sure I could distinguish between “batter” and “dough” (though I assume the former has more liquid). If a recipe has multiple components, I don’t want to stand there and try and figure out which is which. But believe me, I know what I’ve just mixed together.

    I want recipes to be short and simple and clear. Using logical, non-technical terms makes a recipe accessible for both chefs and dilletantes.

    • Howard, I respectfully disagree. Jones cut her teeth editing Julia Child, who could not be more patient with inexperienced chefs.

      Re combine, she suggests telling readers readers HOW to combine it. Not just “combine.”

    • [quote]If something isn’t going to be used in the next step of a recipe, of course it has to be “set aside.” Otherwise, I’m going to think it’s somehow part of the next step.[/quote]

      My point exactly. That’s what I was attempting to convey, but you phrased it much better than me. Thank you :)

  9. Ugh, I use these all the time! I guess it’s time to take a closer look when I write. This is a good check.

    • Cheryl, hey, if you read the comments, many people think there’s nothing wrong with these terms!

  10. I had not thought of the ” set aside” as an unnecessary term, but I can see the point. If you make the pie crust, of course it’s going to be used. I think it is more of a transitional term. Sometimes (maybe beciase I am used to seeing it in other recipes) stopping at the end of the instructions seems abrupt.

    But I would be interested in an alternative for reserve. I use that term generally for something that might get discarded if it weren’t for the instructions. If you are cooking a dish that starts with homemade stock and want to reserve the meat or vegetables for later in the recipe. or if you use a marinade for basting after the marinating process.

    • Hey Perre, hi. It seems logical to tell them to save something they might otherwise might throw away. In this case, I think you have a point.

  11. As a writer, I agree with the three points, but I will say this about that. On ‘mixture’ I agree comletely, but…

    …when a recipe says ‘set aside’ it’s like a little jot mark in my brain – mainly it says, ‘stop for second.’ Somehow it functions to keep the recipe more orderly in my quite dis-orderly brain!

    As for ‘reserve’…I’ve had times I thought it should be in bold and caps. How many times have I thrown out liquid I should reserve, just totally not thinking (not often but enough to remember the OH NOOOOOO feeling even as it is going down the drain)? ‘Reserve’ is like another little *hey, wake up* notation for me.

    Maybe this is due to incipient dementia or maybe it is because I often cook without a recipe and reminders can be helpful.

    • Re reserve, as mentioned by Runaway Spoon, if readers might otherwise throw it out, then it makes sense.

  12. Dianne, I’ve enjoyed the thoughtful discussions about recipe writing—what is necessary, what is extraneous, what is appropriate.

    After a long stint in technical writing, I see much common ground with writing recipes. In fact, recipe writing is a form of tech writing, which—when successful—includes all the information necessary for a reader/product user to accomplish the task they’re trying to accomplish, presented concisely and without ambiguity. It’s about including everything that needs to be there and not a syllable more. No room in tech writing for wit or creativity; what readers care about is following clear and complete instructions to get the job done with minimum frustration.

    The challenge for writers is constantly evaluating their work in such terms as: Did I leave out anything critical? Is anything ambiguous, leaving room for doubt, error, or misinterpretation? Have I wasted space and distracted readers with words that even a novice doesn’t need (“In a bowl…”).

    Obviously, the hardest part is making correct assumptions about what a reader does or doesn’t know; how much explanation is truly necessary and when it becomes extraneous and tedious. When your mixed audience possesses a vast range of knowledge, how to negotiate enough info without too much?

    One solution is structuring instructions so that detailed explanations are simultaneously available for those who need them but not forced on those who don’t. Online writers can accomplish this through links. “Braise” is a useful example. Recipe readers who know what it means simply do it and move on to the next step. For those who don’t know (or want to verify), linking “braise” to a definition/description provides them with the info to perform the step successfully, without distracting or slowing down more experienced readers.

    • Welcome, Mary Margaret! Nice to see you here. Thanks for a thoughtful comment. Recipe writing IS a form of technical writing, to my mind.

      Agreed, there are ways to avoid detailed explanations for those who don’t need it. In print we use sidebars. Ex. explaining why braising is one of the best ways to cook meat, or why it needs to be browned first, would fit perfectly into a side box, so that those who already know wouldn’t have to read it.

  13. Hrmm, good points on the use of “mixture” – I’m guilty of overusing it myself. I have to disagree with her opinion on “set aside,” because I like to know if I can set it out of the way or if I’m going to need that particular component within the next two minutes.

  14. After reading this and Cheryl’s 5 Second Rule post on same, I’m just sorry I missed the Judith Jones conference call.

    She seems to generate a lot of food for thought on the recipe writing front.

    I’ll look over future posts that include recipes with a much more discerning eye.

    • You could also read the cookbooks she’s edited, by Julia Child, Joan Nathan, and Lydia Bastianich. And if Cheryl didn’t say so, the teleforum is a monthly feature of membership in the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

  15. I’m writing for the web, in my own voice, and I’m editing my own content. So if I want to use “mixture”, “set aside”, or “in a bowl, combine” then I’m gonna let it through. I’ll probably never get published by Knopf but oh well.

  16. I love reading the banter going on here – it reminds me of my days as a high school biology teacher, discussing the details that should be included when writing lab reports! Descriptive writing is a crucial skill to a scientist.

    I agree with many of the people here that we tend to write for our respective audiences. Because I work with families who cook with their children, I tend to give options (such as “you can mix this with a spoon or with clean hands).

    Time for me to start paying more attention to my wording – that’s for sure. Thanks for the reminder and the fun discussion!

    • Michelle, yes, this is the best thing about my blog: getting a discussion going where people comment on other people’s comments, and it’s kind of like a moderated forum.

      Descriptive writing is a crucial skill to any kind of writer. I’m sure your lab reports were quite detailed!

  17. I recall cooking out of an Italian cookbook that had me “set aside” part of the preparation never to mention it again. As I recall I finished the dish and looked over to see that an unused onion mixture (pardon the term ;-) was still sitting on my counter. That cookbook had a surprising number of such problems (which they hopefully fixed in the second printing)… it made me wonder if they had people other than the author testing the recipes (and whether doing so was standard procedure).

    • That’s funny! A “set aside” ingredient never used. Sounds like the copy editor was MIA. Thanks, Ethan.

  18. This is great advice. I used to write software manuals and found that I could make material much more readable and approachable if I read it aloud, and then revised it to be more conversational based on how it sounded. Somehow I never tried that trick when writing a recipe and see now that it is a must.

  19. Oh dear, I’ve 2 strikes out of 3 of these rules. I use “Set aside” a lot, mainly because it’s a point of confusion for me sometimes when there are different components to a recipe. I just don’t want to leave people hanging when we’re moving on to another component, as Howard and Nic pointed above. I’ll keep “reserve” in mind next time. The Recipe Writer’s Handbook mentions its use, too, but ah…I’m a creature of habit.

    As for “mixture”…how I love to use that word, and I think this stems from my science background. I have to stop myself from using “compound” numerous times. I use “mixture” when I really don’t know what to call a mixture of ingredients, especially flour with the other dry ingredients (but not all dry ingredients). What else can I call a “flour mixture”?

    • Yes, many votes here to keep using “set aside,” but I don’t see why. You could use it every time you’re done with something for the time being. Ex. in baking: butter the pan. Set aside. Sift together the dry ingredients. Set aside. Etc.

      I’m not sure I get it, Joy, about what to call flour mixed with dry ingredients. Why not dry ingredients? If incorporating liquid, why not batter? Is this what you mean?

      • For example, flour, sugar, and salt are mixed. What do I call them later when I ask the reader to add this to something else? I’m torn between saying “flour mixture” and “dry ingredients”, fearing that the latter might make people think that I’m referring to all the dry ingredients, when there could be more dry ingredients to incorporate at the end. Does that make sense?

        • If you have put them in a bowl, and then you will add them to something else, they are dry ingredients. If you add a dry ingredient later, just call it by name.

  20. I was just looking at her new book today and scribbling down a recipe idea.,,I loved her last book and gave it out to friends.
    Whatever Judith says is right.
    It’s that simple.
    She’s terrific!

  21. As fewer and fewer people know how to cook from scratch this advice has never been more important. My definition of success is making a recipe so approachable that people will go home and cook it for friends and family.

    • Agreed, but how you get there may not have much to do with her method suggestions. Inducement happens in the headnote too.

  22. What a great reminder. It’s always so fascinating to find out what words really irk food editors. I’ll be sure to take them off my list! Thanks for this valuable article.

  23. Hi Dianne,

    Did you write about Judith Jones’ pet peeves in a post some time ago? I feel like I read about these “bothersome” phrases not too long ago!

    Like many other commenters, I have no issues with those phrases. I use the terms she can’t stand in recipes all the time. These terms were perfectly acceptable in a recipe writing course I took at NYU.

    I do think that “In a bowl combine” needs something else to make it easy to understand: “In a bowl combine the dry ingredients by stirring with a whisk.”

    “Mixture” is just fine for me. If you add salt and vanilla to eggs, it is no longer appropriate to say “Now add milk to the eggs” because the eggs are no longer just eggs. It is a mixture because specific phrases such as batter, dough, sauce, marinade, etc. do not apply to this type of MIXTURE!

    “Set aside” is actually helpful. “Reserve” tends to give people the idea that they have to wrap up the item and store it for use 2 days later or something. Set aside means that you will be using that item momentarily.

    My pet peeve is recipes that assume people know specific culinary terms without any explanation. I was taught that the #1 rule of recipe writing is that you can never explain too much. You want your readers to feel comfortable with the language of your recipe, and it is always better to explain in detail than to assume the reader knows what “braise” “deglaze” or “proof” means. Unless you are writing for professional cooks, recipes should be written in a way that is encouraging to new cooks, not intimidating.

    Then again, if you don’t mind alienating a lot of potential readers/cookbook buyers, you should feel free to write your recipes however you like.

    • Maybe you were reading my book. I quote Jones in my chapter on recipe writing. I interviewed her three times!

      Okay, you’re entitled to your opinion. Curious about who taught the recipe writing class at NYU.

      I agree about your pet peeve, especially deglaze. I have a list of terms that need explaining in the recipe chapter.

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