What's the Right Length for a Recipe?

Jan 262010
 

measurementJust read 5 Second Rule’s excellent post about whether recipes are boring, and it generated some thoughts about recipe length. (Isn’t it fantastic when an blog post idea arrives on a platter? Thank you, Cheryl.)

Now, some writers like to go long. They like to hold the reader’s hand and explain. Sometimes I’m surprised about how much handholding, though.

I edited a recipe recently that said: “If necessary, rearrange the oven racks to accommodate the large pot.” Otherwise people might not know how to fit the pot in the oven? Really?

At the other end is the trend of short-attention span recipe writing. Sunset just received an edict from parent Time Inc. that recipes must be shortened to 75 words. Can’t wait to see what that looks like. What does it mean for readers? That they already know how to cook? Or that they don’t cook anyway so it doesn’t matter? 

I had my own epiphany Friday night about short recipes, while cooking  Poulet Aux Olives from Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food. The instruction said, “Fry the onion in the oil til soft.” Looking for further guidance, I found none and panicked, momentarily. On what heat, in what size pan, for how long, I wondered? After all, when I edit recipes, I look for those clues.

Then I realized I have been sauteing onions for years. I know how to cook them until they’re soft. And I relaxed. It was the right amount of information for me.

What do you think about the length of recipes? What is the right balance of length versus explaining, and how long is too long? What should be the deciding factor about length?

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  36 Responses to “What's the Right Length for a Recipe?”

  1. I think it depends on your audience. My audience is people who aren’t very comfortable in the kitchen so I’m realizing I need to have more explanations, or do a post on certain terms I tend to use that I can link to. My husband cooked from one of my recipes tonight, and there were a couple things that made perfect sense to me that he had questions about. It really helped me to look at my recipe through new eyes.

    • I agree, Diana. You have to know what level your readers are at. How handy that you have a built-in tester who asks the questions before you post!

  2. I think a lot of it depends on the audience and your assumptions about their knowledge as well as the complexity of a recipe and familarity with technique.

    I don’t usually explain relatively basic terms such as saute but a friend recently had no idea was braise meant. Or how about having to explain to novices how to make tamales?

    I think recipe instruction should be concise but clear and true to your audience. I shudder to think how the 75-word rule is going to affect Sunset recipes. I always recommend them to novice cooks.

    Bloggers have an advantage — we can use photos or videos to demonstrate techniques (although sometimes I think the step-by-step photos can be over done as well.) But some times we just need to use our words.

    • Great point, Faith, about the instructional opportunities available to bloggers through photography. Magazine and cookbook authors don’t have that luxury.

      Re teaching novice cooks to make tamales, oh boy. That’s going to be a very long recipe. No way around it.

  3. I’m with Diana and Faith. I know that many of my readers who actually cook and bake from my recipes are novices in the kitchen (including some of my son’s friends!) or cook but have never baked or who have never baked yeast breads before so I try and write my recipes with them in mind. I try and write my recipes for a whole range of readers (informative enough for those I mentioned above as well as the experienced). I get a lot of mail thanking me for the detail and especially thanking me for the step-by-step photos which I wasn’t doing when I started my blog. (Recently I have cut back a bit on this leaving out photos of the too obvious.) It is important not only to know your followers but to listen to them as well. (friends and my sister all give me feedback, send e-mails with questions, etc, and that really helps).

    And taking your example of the Poulet Aux Olives: when I am following a recipe for something that I have never done before I really want an explanation or (better!) photos of what the batter or dough or onion or whatever should look like before and after so I feel more confident doing it myself. Case in point: French macarons. So if I look for that in a recipe then I want, in turn, to offer it to my readers.

    • That’s great that you get feedback and questions from your readers and it guides you on how much detail to offer. Print certainly can’t compete with that!

  4. In the count of 75 words, is it included the story behind the recipe?
    A similar limitation will limit the possibility to present recipes in a different format than the usual one.
    I’m working on new ways to present recipes. Being a foodblogger, I’d like to differentiate myself and give a somehow personal approach to kitchen. It’s very difficult nowadays.

    Anyway, as “customer” short recipes give me the idea of a cheap cooking magazine. It is very useful for daily cooking, not so much if you want upgrade your cooking abilities and learning something new.

    • I don’t think there’s going to be much of a headnote with only 75 words. Maybe none, don’t you think?

      I’m curious about your new ways to present recipes. Maybe we can learn something.

  5. I like to hold people’s hands. But I don’t like to cuddle or get too intimate either! I like complete sentences, and which size pot, how hot of heat. I like things clear and easy, but not offensive (as if I think they are stupid or something).

    I also LOVE to give cooking tips and nutrition tips. I generally have a section at the tops (vs at the bottom like most “notes” for a basic cooking lesson or advice on nutrition that relates to the recipe.

  6. I find that when I write for magazines, I try to keep the recipes relatively brief, but writing for my websites, I give lots of detail. As much as possible, I put details in the headnotes to (slightly) de-clutter the body of the recipe, but I’ve realized just how nervous so many home bakers are and how much they want it all spelled out.

    • That makes sense, since with websites you have unlimited space. I like the idea of keeping the method uncluttered by putting lots of info in the headnote.

  7. Dianne, thanks for the link, and for taking the thread in a new direction.

    A few months after starting 5 Second Rule, I instituted a one-page rule: if I can’t fit the recipe on a single page (or its virtual equivalent), I’ve decided it’s unlikely anyone will actually make the dish. I have no idea if this is true or not, but as someone who tends to ramble, I felt like I had to draw a line in the sand, and that’s where I drew it.

    • Sensible! I guess you won’t be making tamales, as Faith suggests below.

      • Oh I’ll *make* more complicated recipes, for sure — I make complicated recipes all the time. (Well, some of the time.) I just won’t offer up especially lengthy recipes on my blog for others to make. Given my blog’s name, I try to keep everything (the writing and the recipes) relatively quick and snappy anyway.

        By the way, I thought of this post today when I saw this direction on a Bittman recipe in the NYT: “Reduce heat under skillet to medium-low…” Really? “Under skillet?” As opposed to…?

        • As opposed to over the skillet, if you were using a blowtorch, I guess! I also don’t like medium-low. I like low, medium or high. Why make it more confusing?

  8. As I’m someone who absolutely detests those Twitter versions of recipes, I would much rather see a lengthier recipe with more explanation—and dare I say poetry?—in its text. Faith’s right, we bloggers can easily link to definitions of “braise” and “saute” in our recipes, but sometimes it’s more fun to say “loosen the browned bits” instead of “deglaze.” And I’d rather take the extra characters to say it in my voice/style than be overly concerned with brevity.

    • Sounds like a good decision to me, Casey. I noticed that you said extra “characters,” not words, so you are still concerned with brevity — and that’s a good thing.

  9. 75 words? Are you serious? How can you learn anything in 75 words? I imagine that the quality of their recipes will suffer in this new Twitter-like edict. Can you imagine if they start using that silly text-speak?

    “Brn ur onions 4 2min ovr lw ht.”

  10. I think it helps to have a particular person in mind when you write a recipe, someone you know (a sibling, a friend…) who has the skill level that you feel represents your average reader, and give as much information as he/she would need to succeed.

    When in doubt, I try to err on the side of more detail: I figure even the more experienced cooks/bakers may be interested in knowing how I go about a particular step. And every once in a while, as I cook, I’ll notice some aspect of things that is seldom described in recipes that use a similar technique, and I’ll make sure I include it.

    And while I agree that the recipe itself is not the place to wax lyrical about anything, I enjoy leaving what I think of as “Easter eggs” (a little joke, an unexpected simile or turn of phrase) here or there, if I’m inspired, in the hope that it will make the reader smile.

    • Hey Clotilde, thanks for discussing your techniques. Obviously, they’ve been very successful.

      Now you’ve got me curious…I’m gonna go look for those Easter eggs.

  11. I err on the safe side on my website, anticipating the questions that I know I’ll get in the comments if I leave out small details that knowledgeable cooks might find unnecessary. Usually I offer tips at the end of my recipe that further explain things. I get quite the variety of cooks visiting my site, so I feel like I have to cover all bases. Now… in writing a cookbook- I might do something similar in offering tips in sidenotes or in the recipe introductions.

    • Hey Lori, I like that idea, of offering tips after the recipe to less experienced cooks. Unless, of course, there’s something they should know before beginning the recipe. You know how people are about reading recipes the whole way through.

  12. I feel like I am still developing my recipe writing voice, so I love these discussions. It is wonderful to read all the opinions. I err on the side of brevity, but I will now be rereading things to make sure I haven’t gone a little too crazy with the red pen.

    • Hi Cheryl, yes, isn’t it fun? I so much satisfying information from the comments. Brevity is good — please keep that up.

  13. After reading this post and all the attendant comments, I felt compelled to dig up my ancient copy of The Gourmet Cookbook, a hefty brown volume published by Gourmet in 1950. All of its recipes are in narrative form, presented paragraph by paragraph with no verbal clutter of any kind. But it’s notable that quite a few of the recipes are barely one paragraph at all, and some are absolute models of brevity. Here’s a three-sentence example of what I mean, for a recipe called “Fried Oyster Crabs” . . .

    “Wash and wipe dry 3 dozen oyster crabs. Roll them in seasoned flour and fry, a few at a time, in hot deep fat (395 F). Drain and serve on a heated platter, garnished with fried parsley and lemon wedges, with remoulade sauce.”

    That complete recipe is all of about 65 words. Imagine.

    What I find at the same time astonishing, poignant, and perhaps even humbling about this old cookbook, is the way it blithely assumes a healthy modicum of prior culinary knowledge on the part of its readers. The editors were able to take it for granted in 1950 that most women (and, let’s face it, probably 99 percent of the book’s purchasers were women) already knew full well how to go about deep frying, knew backwards and forwards which herbs and spices would probably work well in a flour coating, and dog-gone if those ladies didn’t also have a pretty good idea of just what the heck constituted a decent remoulade sauce! And for those few who weren’t so savvy with a fry pan? Heck, the editors apparently had sufficient faith that they, too, would muddle through and figure it out on their own.

    I don’t advocate we go back to those days, in part because that kind of cookbookery leaves far too much margin for error with modern cooks, but isn’t it fascinating to see how far we’ve migrated away from being able to handle that kind of simplicity?

    Have we been molly-coddled and hand held into the ground? Hmm . . .

    Casey, one of the commenters above, mentioned the desire for a little “poetry” within the text of recipes. I agree with her wholeheartedly. In the yellowed pages of The Gourmet Cookbook, the small poetic flourishes that appear are quaint and charming. The chapter titles alone are whimsical. My favorites are Cult of the Chafing Dish, Song of the Soup Kettle, and The Egg and the Epicure.

    I love a cookbook with a quiet sense of humor, and the willingness to at least allow whimsy a foot in the door. Just like people, I want a cookbook with a little poetry in its soul.

    • What a lovely post, Jane. It reminds me that we didn’t just invent recipe writing. It’s been alive and well and doing quite nicely, and the Gourmet cookbook from 1950 is a terrific example.

  14. Long recipes definitely have their place, I wouldn’t wish for Paula Wolfert’s recipes to be one word shorter, nor Nancy Silverton’s 30-page basic sourdough recipe, nor any of the epic, wonderful headnotes of Richard Olney. I’m fine with the couple of sentences in the typical Escoffier recipe, but I love to see the process.

    Btw, the early Gourmet editors were distinctly not expecting a 99 percent-female readership – it was started not many years previously, in 1941, as a men’s hobbyist magazine, and in 1950 it was much, much closer to Esquire than it was to the Seven Sisters.

    • Hey Jonathan, thanks for chiming in. I had no idea Gourmet began as a hobby magazine for men.

      Re long recipes, perhaps you see the recipes of some famous writers as works of literature.

  15. I’m no recipe wizard and this discussion about what and how to tell folks about cooking something new is making me realize what an art it is to write a good recipe.

    As a rambler, i like Ms. Rule’s one-page rule for online readers.

    When i post recipes, which i tend to do at the end of long blog posts, i tend to be all business, figuring that’s what people want at that stage. perhaps there’s a happy medium (not, please note, medium-low;).

    • Well that’s your recipe style, I guess. If you want to be lyrical or funny or tell a story, a good place to do so is in the headnote. it’s awfully hard to do so in the method!

  16. Recently, I have started thinking about writing recipes as if my children (when they grow up) will ask me how I cook a dish. I would want them to succeed, so I have to give all the details and all the secrets, right?!

  17. Another lovely post!!! Way to go ladies!!!

  18. We thank you for great particulars, actually help us. I am going to revisit your site.

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