The Top 10 Terms to Avoid in Recipes

by diannejacob on March 3, 2010

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While the public seems obsessed with cooking right now, their understanding of the craft has not improved. Here’s an example from cookbook author David Leite: He told me a reader questioned his use of the term “separate the eggs.” She asked if he meant to move the eggs further apart.

Editors say people know less about cooking than ever before, so recipe writers have to explain more or use terms that everyone understands, such as “cook” instead of saute.” 

What are the terms most likely to make readers nervous? Here’s my Top 10:

  1. Blanch
  2. Braise
  3. Cream
  4. Deglaze
  5. Dice
  6. Dredge
  7. Fold
  8. Julienne
  9. Poach
  10. Reduce.

Do you agree? Are we dumbing down recipes by avoiding these terms, or doing readers a service? What other terms have I left off the list?

Photo credit: CC BY 2.0

{ 110 comments }

Kathleen Flinn March 3, 2010 at 4:43 pm

I agree completely that all food writers have to “dumb down” their recipes, especially companies developing product-related recipes. I did quite a bit of research on this for my second book, and you’ve pretty well nailed the list. It’s amazing to see the vast differences between recipes published today and those even 30 years ago.

diannejacob March 3, 2010 at 4:49 pm

Thanks Kathleen. Ooh, a second book! Looking forward to hearing more. I’ve got your first one right behind me on my bookshelf.

Nate @ House of Annie March 3, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Here’s a chance to educate the culinarily impaired. Create short videos on how to do something like deglaze, fold or julienne. It shouldn’t take more than 30 seconds to demonstrate. Then post them up on YouTube. Whenever you use the term in a recipe, you can mention that you have the how-to video up on YouTube and provide a link or embed it in your post.

For example, I did a demo video on how to zest a lemon.

Another benefit: you can link back to your blog or recipes from the YouTube page!

diannejacob March 3, 2010 at 10:03 pm

That is a really good idea, Nate. Those who need the information can find it. And you have shorter recipes as a result.

Sandra Gutierrez March 3, 2010 at 6:01 pm

Dianne,
I encounter this at my cooking classes and I insist on teaching the proper terms during those–once they see the technique in action, they lose their fear of it.

However, as I write my book, I am simplfying recipes by ommitting the terms and explaining them, just like you write: “cook for x minutes, while stirring” instead of saute.

As long as people are not being taught how to cook by other cooks (teachers or family members, for the sake of argument) and as long as they do not have much hands-on experience in the kitchen, they will continue to be intimidated by culinary terms.

I believe that in this struggling economy, when eating out is–well, “out” due to its prohibitive cost, more and more people will HAVE to learn to cook. What good is a book, if they do not understand the instructions and are unable to recreate the recipes? In an ideal world, publishers would give us enough space to both write and explain technique on every page. Unfortunately, recipe length requirements keep shrinking, leaving little room for all that–also a result of this economy, I imagine, as the cost of paper goes up. And assuming that all cooks understand terms is too risky, don’t you think? I would rather simplify it a bit even if seasoned cooks feel a little miffed–I’m hoping they will forgive me–than to miss the opportunity to reach them, as well as the average person.

Thanks so much for your posts. I am enjoying your blog tremendously and am sharing it with students constantly.
Regards,
Sandra

diannejacob March 3, 2010 at 10:06 pm

Thanks Sandra. I am having fun, and getting responses such as yours is immensely satisfying.

Yes, that is the dilemma. Explaining causes recipes to be longer, and there’s no room for longer recipes, and I also think they in themselves are intimidating.

I’m not sure experienced chefs feel miffed. They can gloss over the stuff they already know.

Maybe one day most books will be interactive, with videos to explain, as Nate suggests.

Sandra Gutierrez March 10, 2010 at 5:36 am

Dear Dianne,
After reading all the responses you got, I have to add that there is room to explain recipes without “dumbing them down”. Some terms need explanation so that novice cooks, with educated palates can recreate recipes with the same results as their fellow expert cooks. Good recipe writers know where to add extra instructions without dumbing down a recipe and without making recipes long and drawn out. But explanation is sometimes unavoidable, particularly when one introduces a new cuisine (and yes, there are new cuisines being introduced, people!).

The real connundrum as a writer is finding a voice that educates without sounding petulant or arrogant; one that invites cooks of all levels to cook one’s recipes. However, to do this AND at the same time meet the new length requirements of publishers is a careful balance that is unfortunately lost on the readers and known only to authors. Believe me, most cookbook authors are not trying to make advanced cooks feel dumb. On the contrary, we are trying to bring more cooks into the fold, while keeping veteran cooks interested. And considering what Michael Ruhlman, mentioned several times by responders, has said about the state of cooking in America, it is not a small task. But ultimately, that is what cookbook authors want–to bring you all back into the kitchen. And in order to succeed and IMHO that will have to be done gently, one person at a time.

diannejacob March 10, 2010 at 7:54 am

Absolutely, Sandra. Well put.

Cheryl March 3, 2010 at 6:09 pm

I like your list, but I think it depends on the book’s audience, no? A sophisticated book with multi-part recipes that calls for specialty cookware (a tagine, a fish poacher) or premium ingredients (pink peppercorns, mascarpone) could probably get away with using savvier culinary terminology. Books catering to novice cooks should make fewer linguistic assumptions and spell out the necessary techniques using common language.

diannejacob March 3, 2010 at 10:14 pm

I don’t think so, Cheryl. Even books that call for sophisticated equipment still explain technique because they want to attract all levels of cooks.

I’m looking at my copy of Things Cooks Love, the Sur La Table book. Here is an instruction for a recipe that uses a chinois: “Set a fine-mesh chinois or a fine-mesh strainer over a large deep bowl (or a 2-quart measuring cup with a spout if using a strainer.) let stand about 45 minutes. Press on the solids to extract as much flavor as possible. Scrape the puree from the outside of the strainer or chinois into the broth. When the solids inside the chinois are pressed dry, discard them.”

Nancy Singleton Hachisu March 3, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Dianne, This is such a depressing post. I tweeted it (is that how you say it?).

What part of cream, fold or reduce is hard to understand? Actually, the whole list is pretty straight forward. But hasn’t anyone heard of a dictionary (or Google for that matter)? If cooking terms aren’t precise then what is being cooked? Dumbing down is doing the reader a disservice, it just serves to lose ground.

People may think they’re cooking more than ever, but check out the grocery carts sometime. I beg to differ. And it’s the same in Japan. Pre-made foods abound and people just “put the dinner together.” Not many people are getting the plain old piece of meat or fish and the local vegetables. Not many at all.

There is a service here for the busy housewife: pre-cut and weighed out ingredients are delivered every day with a recipe. My friend used the service and it always blew me away. A little sad, don’t you think?

diannejacob March 3, 2010 at 10:20 pm

Hi Nancy!

Thanks for the tweet. Yep, that’s right.

You can explain what “fold” means without doing a disservice to the reader. It just takes longer. That’s what Julia Child did. She described everything in detail.

I guess what’s sad about the service you describe is that it’s delivered every day. You’d probably like the women to cook from scratch a few days of the week.

L March 3, 2010 at 6:34 pm

I’m sure this is true… and I think your list sounds just about right… but I find it so sad! Particularly given that most people these days have access to the internet at home and it’s so easy to look up any term you don’t understand. Can you imagine what would happen to great literature if the language was reduced to an 8th grade reading level?

diannejacob March 3, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Interesting point. Readers, is dumbing down a recipe the same as dumbing down literature? I tend to think not. I can read great literature and gloss over words I don’t know if I’m too lazy to look them up. I’m not sure I would do the same with a recipe.

Heather(eatwell.eatgreen) March 3, 2010 at 7:41 pm

It’s this kind of thinking that now means we have “Caution, contents hot” printed on our coffee cups. Perhaps in a cookbook aimed specifically at beginners, these terms should be avoided. But for standard cook books surely it is more efficient to say julienne the carrots, rather than “using a sharp knife, cut the carrot into small thin strips of 0.25 cm thickness. I know which one I’d rather read. A glossary at the back, is very useful for words I don’t understand.

diannejacob March 3, 2010 at 10:25 pm

My favorite example of that is my husband’s recollection of the printing he saw on a towelette package: “Tear open. Use.”

Yes, the challenge is to describe “julienne” without this kind of language. Ex. “cut carrots into matchsticks.” Or “tiny batons?” Hmmm. Maybe soon people won’t know what matches look like. Or batons.

Michael March 3, 2010 at 7:45 pm

During the holidays (a/k/a Cookie Season) I had to explain “softened butter” a couple of times. Maybe it is dumbing down, but I prefer to call it being patient. If people feel they can reproduce what I made they’ll come back for more…I hope. Am I being naive?

diannejacob March 3, 2010 at 10:26 pm

Nope. I don’t think so.

Rachel (Hounds in the Kitchen) March 3, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Perhaps we should “teach readers to fish” by defining the terms when we use them? Or have a list of definitions either in the introduction to the book or on a blog page?

I think what I love about food writers like Julia Child is that they describe what the steps look and feel like, i.e. peaks of egg whites stiff enough to turn over the pan and not drop. Perhaps we need to write with more descriptors?

diannejacob March 3, 2010 at 10:26 pm

I like the way you think, Rachel. Descriptors are a good idea. I like that better than a glossary.

Cheryl Arkison March 3, 2010 at 8:16 pm

That’s kind of scary. Does it depend on your audience? Or are we to assume that all books, minus the ones Heston Blumenthal writes, are written for a non-cooking or semi-cooking audience?

diannejacob March 3, 2010 at 10:27 pm

I think they have been homogenized to this audience, as you describe it. Re audience, see my response to the other Cheryl.

Karen March 3, 2010 at 8:49 pm

Oh dear.
I feel a rant coming on, but it’s late and I’m tired. Suffice it to say that America suffers (and I do mean suffers) from what has become a chronic habit of sacrificing depth, complexity and quality of content for the sake of being immediately understood by “the masses” (a.k.a me, you, the kid next door and the old lady with 50 cats). Here’s a thought; let’s advocate and show by example that we “the masses” should instead strive to elevate our level of understanding through (self) education in order to better appreciate quality content.
Ironically, the words you listed are culinary shorthand for specific techniques. The very reason for their existence is to keep recipes brief, clear and easy to understand by everyone. I find it a little backwards that we would choose to forgo using a precise and perfectly descriptive word like julienne, for example, and instead choose to write a confusing sentence like “cut into thin strips approximately 1/8 inch square that resemble matchsticks”

Just my 2 bits.

diannejacob March 3, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Well yes exactly, they are shorthand. But the problem is that people don’t know what the shorthand means. So then what do you do? Are you advocating that people read recipes with dictionary or Google nearby?

Karen March 4, 2010 at 6:52 am

Why not? If a person really wants to start cooking, or any hobby for that matter, the first thing they need to do is familiarize themselves with the terminology and tools. It doesn’t take all that long to do, and with the internet, this is easier than it has ever been. We have countless online resources and videos just a mouse click away, so we can even learn as we go.

If I wanted to learn how to fish, I would be expected to know what a lure is without someone patiently explaining it to me every time. If I wanted to learn about gardening, I would need to know my hoe from my elbow. Learning something new always starts with the basics. Why should cooking be any different?

And btw, I am enjoying this whole topic and discussion, and all the great topics you have been presenting on this blog. I always look forward to seeing what you are going to ask next!

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 11:13 am

Thank you Karen. It is a lot of fun. I am enjoying myself too!

Yes, readers have to familiarize themselves. But with cookbooks, we don’t know how much the reader has cooked or baked before. So I guess we go for the lowest common denominator.

Luna March 3, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Interesting post. I myself have often wondered who recipes are written for. Thanks for the great reminder that dumbing down doesn’t educate, which in the long run should be the goal.

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 9:47 am

I’m not sure it’s “dumbing down” to explain what these terms mean. I’m also not sure that providing an explanation doesn’t educate. Maybe you meant the opposite — that it’s better to explain than to lose readers?

Jenn March 3, 2010 at 11:58 pm

I personally can’t stand it when recipes are dumbed down. It just reinforces what Ruhlman was talking about in his post about Americans being taught that they are “too stupid to cook”. In my own experience I find this to be true more and more, and it’s frustrating because cooking is not supposed to be some esoteric alchemy project. Let’s use proper terms – things like “blanche” and “fold” are not so complicated, and it wasn’t that long ago that it was understood that everyone, even untrained cooks who only made food for their families, knew what these terms meant – I just have to go back into my mother’s books, even the ones that are only 30 yrs old or so, to see this.

There is this great wealth of information along with a number of instructional videos right on the internet to show people how to perform techniques correctly. Let’s let people discover that if they don’t know what something is, they actually do have the capability to learn it. Unless the purpose of book is to show how to do these terms, dumbing down a recipe so much to not include them I feel is a bit of an insult to a reader’s intelligence. And the worst thing? They reader isn’t even offended because they believe it to be so.

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 9:53 am

Well yes, the videos work beautifully as links if you have a blog, but they are not useful in books, unless you’re suggesting writers add a link after the word “fold.” Not going to happen.

I don’t get why people are saying here that you can only learn if it’s the word “fold” and not the explanation of what it means.

Re insulted — are you insulted when you read cookbooks? I am not. Although, I cooked from a recipe a while ago that didn’t explain everything, and I felt a little anxious, even though I knew how to do it.

Jenn March 6, 2010 at 2:33 am

I just think it’s extremely redundant for EVERY cookbook to have to explain the same techniques over and over again. Having to create such redundancy within the literature can really take away from the main focus of some books.

I am actually really critical of this when I purchase my own cookbooks. I don’t purchase books to learn what blanching and folding is. I purchase cookbooks to try new combinations of foods and cuisine. I don’t want to pay money to read the same explanations in every book, and if I feel a cookbook doesn’t give me enough credit as a reasonable adult to be able to handle such simple terms like dice or reduce or figure out how to go to a cooking technique resource to figure out what they mean, I simply won’t buy the book – even if the recipes themselves look like they would create some tasty dishes.

diannejacob March 8, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Maybe you only need cookbooks for inspiration then, Jenn. That’s where a lot of serious cooks are at. They already understand technique.

Tamara March 4, 2010 at 1:07 am

I couldn’t disagree more. Nobody would have this discussion here in Europe. Like with any other profession or hobby, you should chose the cookbooks you want to use according to your level of knowledge and/or your willingness to look up certain terms. Not everything in life is delivered on a silver tablet, a little effort doesn’t hurt, does it? There are literally tons of good cookbooks on the market explaining every tiny step for beginners. Why reach for the stars if you haven’t practised the basics/done your homework? I get really annoyed if advanced cookbooks start to explain terms like “dice” and “fold”. They clearly haven’t figured out their target group.

Dawn March 4, 2010 at 4:29 am

Of the approximately 14 or so classes I teach each month, I try to offer a wide variety. Some are quick on the table meals. Some focus on technique, some on ingredients and some on like items. Genoise tonight for instance where we are making the batter five times for various applications.

I tend to write or change published recipes to utilize the culinary term only. Long recipes intimidate students before we even get started. “Two pages. Oh my gosh. Why am I here”.

In class, we slowly drizzle in the oil and I announce that we just created an emulsification. We slice a chicken breast down the center not completely through and I announce a butterfly has just been achieved. We put butter on the stovetop and allow it to separate and eyes light up when I show them clarified butter. Tonight I will explain folding, the ribbon stage and stiff peaks. Once they see it, they laugh and say that they had no idea.

Many students are accomplished cooks looking to expand their knowledge of dim sum or pate a choux but many are beginners. I find it a bit tricky to keep everyone happy when I have all levels in the same class. I think this is the same with cookbook authors and there will always be questions as to which path is the right one to go down.

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 10:44 am

Lovely. This is how people learn, from watching others. But the majority of cooks don’t take cooking classes, and apparently now, did not learn from their parents, grandparents, etc. So they are left with cookbooks. I agree, this question isn’t easily answered.

drinksnob March 4, 2010 at 4:31 am

Always the pedant, I feel that I must point out that “blanch” is spelled incorrectly, especially since it’s in a list meant to point out the culinary shortcomings of others.

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 10:45 am

LOL! Thanks. I will correct immediately. “Blanche” with an “e” is a woman’s name.

Paula March 4, 2010 at 5:27 am

I don’t think cookbooks should be dumbed down. How about a glossary of techniques used in the book? I’ve seen this in some books. Or I own many books that have an intro to the recipe and often explain some of the techniques that are used in that introduction. I think the best cookbooks are those that educate you.

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 10:47 am

Yes, I’ve seen both employed in cookbooks also. Good examples of alternate ways to work it.

sallypvargas March 4, 2010 at 5:30 am

This is a ‘sad but true’ situation. A friend read one of my recipes in the Boston Globe that was described as chicken with a ‘simple pan sauce.’ She had no idea what a pan sauce was. The tip of the iceberg.

I agree with some of your responders: Use the words but define them simply as you go. The more people see and understand these words (because they are explained) the less they will be intimidated by them. If publishers allow us a little more space, it would great to be able to define terms in a sidebar or some other graphic. But I guess the bottom line is: don’t assume anything!

I am teaching a class on Saturday and I am going to give out this list as a quiz. I’ll update you.

The larger question is, have chefy/foodie cookbooks intimidated people so much that they have turned away from the stove because it’s way more than they can wrap their minds around, or have people just gravitated towards less cooking because of busy lives? Maybe that’s a chicken and egg question. Or maybe it’s both.

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 10:48 am

Looking forward to see how many people know all those terms.

Here’s the bottom line about cookbooks: people make only a few recipes. Think about how many cookbooks you own where you have never made any of the recipes. People say that chef books are about looking at the photos, remembering their meal, etc. and not making the food.

sallypvargas March 4, 2010 at 11:09 am

Agreed. I guess it’s the wow/inspiration factor that gets people to buy cookbooks, along with the (often) fantasy that they may make a recipe or two. It positively thrills and surprises! me when people say that they’ve used a recipe in one of my books and loved it.

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 11:10 am

Isn’t that a huge pleasure? I am always delighted too.

Sharon Barrett March 4, 2010 at 6:09 am

This isn’t anything new; nearly 20 years ago, when I copyedited the food section of a fairly large city paper, I was told we couldn’t use words such as “cream,” because someone invariably called to protest that there was no cream listed in the recipe.

I use the dumbed-down versions of cooking terms for magazine recipes when necessary, but on my website have just begun to return to the classics, with an explanation of the terms elsewhere on the site. If nothing else, it makes me feel better.

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 10:51 am

Funny. If it isn’t anything new, why do people get so worked up? And even you have stopped doing so yourself. At least you can link to the words. That’s the pleasure and power of the web. I find it difficult to write for print now because I can’t make terms hot.

Jamie March 4, 2010 at 7:02 am

I would think with the explosion of interest in food-related shows and web sites, chefs, cookbooks, food writing and food magazines that the masses would be more educated instead of less educated. Maybe it’s a case of becoming more lazy, or perhaps the instant gratification syndrome.
OTOH, people like to appear smart and knowledgeable and show off, so you’d think they’d want to use the “insider lingo” and up their street cred.

I’m for a glossary in books and youtube videos to explain terms.

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 11:01 am

You would think! But apparently, we’re going in the other direction. Plus, the cooking shows are primarily for entertainment value. My father-in-law loved to watch them on PBS but never made more than an egg sandwich.

Ricki March 4, 2010 at 9:15 am

I have to agree with almost all of the commenters here. I haven’t been writing a blog long enough to notice a DIFFERENCE in the way I write–I started right off the bat by over-explaining things, and continue to do so still. Perhaps it’s the influence of my job (English professor at a college) that sensitized me to this lack of familiarity with even some basic terminology (and in all realms, not just cooking) and lack of exposure to concepts that we “more mature” folks would consider commonplace. It is, indeed, a dumbing down–but what’s the alternative? I have to disagree with the commenter who thinks that uneducated people will simply look up the words–believe me, they won’t. They’ll make an assumption based on their own experiences, most likely leading to incorrect procedure (and a failed outcome–which they will blame on the recipe).

I do recall teaching a cooking class once and having a student ask me what a double boiler was, for example, so I never use the term “double boiler” any more (just explain what to do). The funniest example (though not a word-related one) of how the younger generation is ignorant of many of these concepts was seeing someone try to juice a lemon with a reamer by simply pressing downward (no rotating back and forth)–clearly, he’d been used to an electric juicer, and had no idea what to do with this wooden contraption! He ended up with about a teaspoon of lemon juice instead of around 1/4 cup (thereby changing the end result of the recipe, as I mentioned above).

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 11:06 am

Yes, recipe writers can actually over-explain. I have edited many a recipe that went into too much detail.

I think you’re dead on about people not looking up terms they don’t understand. It’s human nature. I hardly ever read good literature with a dictionary next to me.

That is hilarious about the juicer. But why should we laugh, really? If I was trying to learn a new skill and my instructor laughed, I would be embarrassed. It’s not the right attitude. I bet you just smiled and showed him how to do it.

Ricki March 10, 2010 at 5:32 pm

It was a demo recipe on TV, and it was his show–so I did just smile and say nothing so as not to embarrass him on air! Since the final result (the one we sampled) had already been baked beforehand, we ate that one and it tasted fine (but I did let them know once the cameras turned off!).

Artoeat March 4, 2010 at 9:48 am

Liaison- a wonderful word that sums up a series of steps.
Chantilly cream-
In food writing it is necessary to entice the reader to cook. I get frustrated when I read a recipe that wastes words where one will do. I think there is more chance for culinary failure with a lot of rambling prose. However a book well written sets the imagination working where by the cook can “see” how a dish will turn out.
Write for your core audience and write well.

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 11:07 am

Wow. I have no idea how to use “liaison.” Maybe you’ll explain it.

Re rambling prose, yes, there’s a fine line between it and sufficient explanation. I grapple with that often, as a recipe editor.

Artoeat March 4, 2010 at 11:17 am

liaison is when you temper to thicken your liquids. Broth w/ eggs. A scoop of hot broth in beaten eggs to raise their temperature before adding them to the broth base.

I look forward to your questions and postings!
thanks

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 12:21 pm

That’s a new one on me.

The Cooking Ninja March 4, 2010 at 9:50 am

When I first started cooking, there were some cooking terms I don’t understand but I don’t fret over it, I just looked it up on my dictionary. 🙂 I do the same when I’m doing a dish from a French recipe and French recipe is a lot more complicated to understand than English. 🙂

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 11:09 am

Wow. You are ambitious and probably super-enthusiastic. I don’t think the average reader is trying to make complicated French recipes, though. The question is whether readers are just like you.

Hilda March 4, 2010 at 10:02 am

I can understand that some of these terms are unclear to the general public, but I have a hard time with three of them: dice, cream and fold. Those seem fairly self-explanatory to me, particularly if you’ve read any recipes before. If it’s the very first time you read a recipe ever, then I guess not.
I have seen cream used very strangely, in terms of the grammar in a sentence, rendering the sentence completely unclear and the instruction a nightmare to the recipe writer because everyone was asking what she meant in that sentence. That said, however, I hosted one of the Daring Bakers’ challenges a while ago, and was stunned to see the number of bakers who asked me questions that could have been easily answered by using Google. And though, as you posited above, I’m not advocating that people read recipes with a dictionary or Google nearby, if you’re getting a recipe from the internet all you have to do is open a new tab, move your mouse up and to the right a little bit, type a word or two, and google the term. I think people are lazy. Cooking is a skill and, beyond a certain level, like all other skills requires the acquisition of a bit of knowledge. Just my two cents.

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 10:38 am

Okay, Hilda. Duly noted. I’m not sure publishers want terms explained because people are lazy. I think it’s because they’re busy.

Danielle March 4, 2010 at 10:05 am

When I started looking to cookbooks, I too struggled with these terms on your list. Cooking was a mix of guesswork, research and experimentation, a process that I did (and still) thoroughly enjoy. I found that I learnt the most by reading up about these techniques, watching videos, etc. I guess you could say that those succinct recipes taught me ‘how to fish’.

Dumbing down recipes begets the question of whether cookbooks are designed to educate or to bring in the profits? Depending on the subject, I’m pretty sure that both apply to varying degrees. The issue is how do you find the right balance and avoid creating a generation of home cooks that take dumbed down recipes to be the norm?

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 10:40 am

Well, cookbooks are designed for several reasons: to entertain, to inspire, to educate, to indulge people’s fantasies, to cook from — and to make money.

We can’t have it both ways: we want everyone to cook, but we don’t want to explain certain techniques to them. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Kathryn McGowan March 4, 2010 at 10:13 am

It feels like the publishers/editors are sending us double messages. Didn’t you post recently that you read about a print outlet (I think it was a magazine) which wanted to limit the “method” section of all recipes to 75 words? Well, if they want that, *and* they want us to explain all the words you list above, they’re asking to eat their cake and have it too.

Generally, I think most of the techniques on your list are the sorts of things that much easier learned by watching someone else do it rather than reading a description. Online videos are great, but learning from Grandma (or Dad, or Auntie) is even better. Let’s just hope there are enough Grandmas and others out there who still know how to cook to pass it on to some of the next generation.

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 10:41 am

Agreed. But the problem is that people are not learning from others, unless they do so by watching food shows on TV or taking cooking classes.

Owen Rubin March 4, 2010 at 10:48 am

Two answers: 1). Eschew Obfuscation. 2). Never capitalize on capacious words when diminutive ones will suffice.

Isn’t the goal of a cookbook to help people create good food? That’s hard enough. Why would you want to make it MORE difficult?

I do tech support, and I have to dumb down my answers so I can solve problems with people who do not speak my language. Imagine if I talked to you in engineering speak to solve your tech issue: “Memory fragmentation may be causing swapping errors, resulting in excessive disk accesses.”

And then said, “Oh, you don’t understand me? Well, go look it up! Or, if you don’t want to, go buy simpler technology and leave the better stuff to those who understand it.”

How would that work for you? Same idea, different application. Seriously, why would anyone not explain the advanced terms, unless you get pleasure in having your closed club with the secret handshake? I do not get the attitude, sorry.

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 10:58 am

My memory is doing what? Okay, I get your point.

“Eschew Obfuscation” was the bumper sticker on my journalism teacher’s car.

Mrs. L March 4, 2010 at 11:29 am

Just throwing a few thoughts out there:

Maybe it’s just a generation of “instant gratification” and “I have no time”. If I don’t understand some term in one of my cookbooks, I pull out “Joy of Cooking” and see if I can find a better explanation. Or I get on the internet and see if I can find more information. Maybe that just takes too much time for others?

I have a friend who stopped getting together with some girlfriends to cook because they were a bit “appalled” that she didn’t know certain things and she felt they were somewhat elitist about cooking in general. They would only cook from “certain upscale cookbooks”. I’m in the “whatever it takes to get more folks to cook” side of things (from someone who only recently took up cooking a bit late in life, wish I had started earlier!).

Or maybe it’s some of the “chefs” who write cookbooks wanting to appeal to the masses. I have several of those cookbooks and the recipes are long because they have very detailed explanations of things. They’re taking what they learned in culinary school and many years of working in restaurants and trying to make a complicated recipe easier for maybe a not so knowledgeable cook. These days I think folks believe they can make a dinner just like they’d get at French Laundry because they have a cookbook that says so (no, I haven’t cooked out of any of these yet).

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Yes, this is an interesting point. Because people eat out so much, they expect restaurant quality when they cook, and that rarely happens.

Re cooking with girlfriends, this happened to me, where I started cooking with two former students I adored. One owned a restaurant and one was a private chef, and they always wanted to make meals much more ambitious than anything I’d ever cooked. I tried to rise to the challenge and enjoyed making things that pushed my knowledge and skill level, but it was intimidating.

Re what you will do when you don’t understand a recipe: evaluate if you are the target reader. I think for most of the commenters here, the answer is no.

Dawn March 4, 2010 at 1:02 pm

I comment again because of a couple of cookbook names tossed about. I consider myself an accomplished cook and while I own and use both of them, I do not like Mastering the Art of Fine Cooking nor Joy of Cooking. I find them awkward and cumbersome to read. I know that I have to cream butter and sugar in a bowl and don’t need that particular instruction set out in a separate paragraph. A one page recipe becomes three with these lengthy explanations. However, if I am making croissants or laminated dough for the first time, I would appreciate an explanation of how the ingredients should be layered. And, if you don’t cook, how do you know a cookbook is “above you” and will be a waste of your money.

A grading system like that employed with children’s books…. for ages 3-5, 7-9? I daresay publishers would frown on this because it would limit prospective customers. It’s a conundrum that’s for sure!

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Yes, I can’t see publishers putting recommendations about who should read their books. It should be clear from browsing through it whether it’s at the right level for you or not. But since only 17 percent of all books are sold in bookstores these days, people browse less.

Nate @ House of Annie March 9, 2010 at 11:35 pm

How do you hotlink a cookbook?

I wonder if there has been a cookbook created that explains these terms, provides ample pictures, and then features recipes calling for these techniques so the reader can practice.

If not, somebody pitch one!

diannejacob March 10, 2010 at 7:48 am

There are lots of technique-based books, but I haven’t seen one the way you describe it here.

JaneB March 4, 2010 at 4:17 pm

This is a complex question that obviously has no easy answer. I was very lucky to have a few years of cooking with my grandmother who taught me so much. I also was a Girl Scout, and as funny as it sounds today, qualifying for the cooking badge required that you learn basic terms and measurements. It’s like learning your multiplication tables, intimidating at first with a huge sense of accomplishment when you complete it!

From my perspective, if you want to improve your skills, you must learn the basics and your list of terms are fundamental (BTW, I would add chiffonade). I am all for appendices – simplify the recipe for those who understand the terminology, and refer those who don’t to the appendix. I do like the idea of a central online location for instructional videos. And every cookbook should encourage their readers to attend local cooking classes. I have learned much more than just recipes from the chefs I’ve taken classes from. They are a wealth of knowledge that cannot be underestimated.

diannejacob March 4, 2010 at 10:15 pm

How interesting that you had to earn a cooking badge for the Girl Scouts, Jane. I wonder if it’s true today. If so, too bad it’s not mandatory to become a Girl Scout, eh?

Chiffonade is a good term to add.

You’ve brought up a few good ideas for new businesses: a website that shows videos food bloggers can link to that demonstrate cooking techniques; and a new version of the Girl Scouts that teaches cooking to both girls and boys.

Tamara March 5, 2010 at 12:28 am

Youtube offers all that and more. Type in “chiffonade” and you’re good to go 😉
Yet I still don’t get the point. Why do people want to cook from high-end cookbooks, if they haven’t learnt the basics? (Would you want to get into a Formula1 car, when you don’t have a driving license?)

And I don’t see a difference between people being busy or being lazy. If you don’t take the time to learn something new, that’s your choice (priorities?). But you shouldn’t expect others to do the work for you (dumb down recipes).

diannejacob March 5, 2010 at 10:14 am

Good to know about Youtube.

Re high-end cookbooks, many are written well enough to encourage people to try.

Jamie March 5, 2010 at 9:38 am

I agree with a few of the above comments that one must know one’s audience. On my blog, for example, I use the terms but either give a photo depicting more or less what I’m doing or what the diced or creamed or whatever should look like after the said process. I do this because I know that though some of my readers are seasoned cooks or bakers, others are beginners.

I don’t think these terms should be avoided at all. At best they should be explained somewhere in the book or on the blog, but all people who want to follow one recipe will follow others, have some interest in cooking and should learn these terms. Even if we need to teach, we should never treat people like they are stupid.

diannejacob March 5, 2010 at 10:15 am

Agreed to never treat people like their stupid. And it’s just as bad to assume they know something when they don’t. So explanations are the way to go.

steph March 5, 2010 at 10:25 am

“He told me a reader questioned his use of the term “separate the eggs.” She asked if he meant to move the eggs further apart.”

Dear lord. I guess we all had to start somewhere, but cripes, this is just ridiculous. It would appear that not too many people are searching Google on how to separate eggs, though:

how to separate eggs 16
separating eggs 16
what is separating eggs 0
separate eggs 53

(daily numbers)

diannejacob March 5, 2010 at 1:11 pm

LOL, Stephanie. Those numbers are not encouraging.

Charmian@Christie's Corner March 5, 2010 at 12:59 pm

I figure if a person doesn’t understand the term “separate the eggs” they don’t have a hope in hell of performing the act.

While fancy French terms can be intimidating, I hate dumbing down recipes too much. Can’t a well-written recipe educate the reader? A glossary or follow-up explanation could do. Recipes are really shorthand and if you have to write three pages of explanations aren’t you making it harder than it is?

I figure if I can learned LOL, WTF and OMG simply by being online, then readers can learn a few culinary terms while cooking.

diannejacob March 5, 2010 at 1:12 pm

IMHO, a well written recipe is accessible. If you want to consider that dumbed down, you’re entitled!

Charmian@Christie's Corner March 5, 2010 at 2:16 pm

I don’t think I explained myself well. I didn’t use the computer shorthand analogy to be flippant but to show that people can learn new terms. Sure I was confused at first, but once someone explained what the acronyms meant I was fine. And I continue to learn new terms constantly as required.

I agree that recipes have to be accessible, but I don’t see what’s so intimidating about some of the words on the list, like cream, fold and dice. You asked readers if we thought we were dumbing down recipes by avoiding THOSE terms and my answer is yes. I would say no to a list that included less common terms or more complex techniques.

diannejacob March 8, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Okay, sorry if I misunderstood, Charmian.

Owen Rubin March 5, 2010 at 10:07 pm

I can’t help but think of the three stooges cooking in one movie. Curly says, “..it says to Separate Two Eggs.”, So he takes one egg and puts it on the right side of the counter, and the other on the left side of the counter. The point being, he followed the instructions, just not the way the writer meant them to be followed!

And this is not really the same as comparing them to LOL, WTF, and OMG, those are acronyms and not words that represent instructions, and are a bit more obvious. But maybe RTFM is appropriate here! 🙂

diannejacob March 8, 2010 at 3:00 pm

For those of you who may not know what RTFM means, it’s Read the F***ing Manual.

Ethan March 6, 2010 at 5:51 am

I once made a dish that called for dried cranberry beans. “Bean” seemed like a reasonable way to refer to an individual cranberry (they look a bit like beans and who would want to say “cranberry berry”). So I used cranberries where I should have used beans. It actually worked out pretty well.

diannejacob March 8, 2010 at 3:04 pm

That’s kind of surprising! I once bought fresh cranberry beans at the market and, not knowing how to prepare them, assumed they were just like string beans, since the shape was similar. Not such a hit with the guests. The outer shell, not being edible, was pretty tough.

Rita Held March 12, 2010 at 3:28 pm

I’ve been a food professional for a long time. This same discussion has been taking place for year and years and years. When I worked in food company test kitchens, this was part of everyday discussions. I recall a terrific publication by the Pork Producers that explained cooking terms for meat preparation. And then there’s the old Handbook of Food Preparation published forever (tho not now) by the American home economists association — every term and method for buying, measuring, cooking, baking etc you could ever want.

There are tons of resources available for anyone at any level who likes to cook, as well as for those who just have to cook to feed family. Many county health departments even have resources. One of my favorites for short how-to videos is cuisineathome.com. Click Online Extras on the top right to see a list of their terrific videos.

diannejacob March 12, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Thanks for the tip, Rita. Will check it out.

Deb Rankine March 19, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Hi Diane,

Sadly, I’d have to agree that most novice cooks don’t really “get it” when it comes to myriad cooking techniques.

I do find, however, that my cooking school students are, in most aspects of cookery, eager to learn. Just watching as their collective pens scribble notes across my recipes is proof enough that their foodie hearts are in the right place.

Blame it on the Information Highway.

We 21st-century New-Agers are simply overwhelmed with the speed in which new information is delivered to us. It seems we’ve gone into survival mode so our brains won’t implode. We’ve conditioned ourselves to trash anything that doesn’t grab our attention within a nano second. No wonder that poor soul thought separating eggs meant that they shouldn’t physically touch one another. Too funny!

In the same vein of thought, a quick and accurate Google search answers most foodie questions.

Love your blog. Thanks!

diannejacob March 19, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Thanks Deb. It’s one thing when you can speak directly to your target audience at your school, and another when they can only read what you’ve written in a book. At least on a blog you can link or have a video to explain.

Martin April 17, 2010 at 5:16 pm

One phenomenon that may give everyone comfort is the tweeted recipe. The 140-character limit forces the writer to assume that readers have a lot of cooking experience to decipher abbreviations and fill gaps in the instructions. Brevity also makes these recipes attractive. If they’re that short, they must be easy, and that’s incentive for people to learn what dglzng is.

diannejacob April 17, 2010 at 5:42 pm

I never thought of that! Twitter recipes were all the rage at first. They seem to have petered out.

nancy baggett April 19, 2010 at 11:55 am

How about the dreaded “dredge?” As in roll, drag, or otherwise cover it it in crumbs, flour, etc. A great word that can’t be used these days. Then there’s caramelize. Or how about macerate–I might not use that just because it sounds like something I wouldn’t want to talk about though!

diannejacob April 19, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Ooh, I like these. I would add them all to the list. Thanks, Nancy!

Molly April 20, 2010 at 6:04 am

Re: videos (many posts up), this also works beautifully in iPhone apps. The Jamie Oliver app is one of the best I’ve seen, and each recipe has corresponding videos that demonstrate any skills you might need. This way the recipe isn’t dumbed down, but information is there for beginners. I also think the video is a very effective way to communicate certain skills, more so than plain words and even photographs can convey. As more cookbooks move to digital formats, there is a great opportunity to embed this kind of information in a non-obtrusive way and help to de-mystify cooking for the novice.

diannejacob April 20, 2010 at 9:05 am

Thanks Molly. I will have to check out his app. Agreed that this is where the opportunity lies. Plan to talk about it in tomorrow’s coaching sessions at IACP.

Malik April 25, 2010 at 9:33 am

Realize I’m a little late to this party but had to jump in anyway. I think that the dumbing down of … anything is a travesty. As soon as you start dumbing things down then meanings get murky and the next thing you know a word is in the dictionary defined in a way that it shouldn’t be. As writer’s we are also educators and so when we use such terms we must teach our readers what it is that we mean. Be that with a special section in a book or blog or with video clips. But dumbing down is just not the way, at least that’s how I see it.

diannejacob April 25, 2010 at 4:55 pm

HI Malik. I’m not sure dumbing down is what I was after. It was about not making people feel dumb if they don’t know what something means. I learned in journalism school that it’s a good way to alienate your reader.

nazila June 3, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Macerate. I know what it means, but I’m sure others don’t.

And Whizz – that is a very BBC good food term.

diannejacob June 4, 2010 at 8:00 am

Whizz!? Never heard of it. What does that mean?

Lori Martinez July 22, 2010 at 11:09 am

One that used to throw me for a loop was ‘mis en place’ … *until* I watched a show on FoodNetwork with Beau MacMillan and Anne Burrell called Worst Cooks in America. The term was explained very nicely, as well as many other both introductory and more advanced cooking terms. Completely de-mystified a lot of things for me.

I love the reader who suggested the YouTube videos and then embedding the links into the recipes. Makes it a no-brainer, unless one is really internet-challenged.

I love cooking, and learning more about the techniques that make it easier to really show off recipes makes it even more fun and exciting.

diannejacob July 22, 2010 at 1:06 pm

I bet you didn’t feel talked down to when you watched that show. I don’t know why some people are so worried about that.

Fi September 27, 2010 at 7:10 pm

I had no idea this was going on until you pointed it out here. Now I see it all the time. I must say that I prefer to write ‘saute’ rather than write out how to saute every single time. It does make writing and reading so much quicker once you’ve learned what the terms mean. I’m not sure what the answer is as I’ve always assumed a certain level of intelligence and applied curiosity in my readers.

Nevertheless, I have now combed YouTube and made a post based on your top 10 terms to avoid. They are all explained in short videos. Just in case.

I hope you don’t mind me saying that this collection of explanatory videos is here if anyone wants to refer to it:
http://spacesbetweenthegaps.wherefishsing.com/2010/09/cooking-terms-explained-for-confuddled.html

diannejacob September 27, 2010 at 7:58 pm

What a good idea! Thanks for thinking of it.

Elaine Giuliano May 17, 2011 at 7:56 pm

My favorite “heads-up” to words the reader may not know is ….. “oooohhhh…. fancy.” I stole it from my sister, who lives in a very fancy neighborhood. We know what’s real in the kitchen doesn’t necessarily mean having an Iron Chef’s vocabulary!

diannejacob May 17, 2011 at 9:43 pm

Funny. I’ve never heard that one.

Kim Schuefftan August 2, 2011 at 6:25 am

Dear Dianne Jacob,

I was introduced to your blog by a cookbook writer friend. I am a book editor resident in Japan and have edited some 15 or so cookbooks, some of which I ghost wrote because the authors had little or no English ability. The list of problem terms in your blog shocked me.
I strongly feel that dumbing down cookbooks, or the vocabulary of any publication, is a total lose-lose situation. The process of not understanding a term or situation and making the effort to find meaning and understand is part of living. The web offers immediate and easy access to word meaning (though Wikipedia is…well… sometimes flawed). What I don’t understand is how and why the complaints about those terms reached your desk or blog. It would take more energy to send you queries and complaints than to find meanings on the web. Dumbing down would only escalate a spiral into ignorance and do readers a serious disservice, whether they are aware of it or not.
Sincerely,
Kim Schuefftan (Mr.)

diannejacob August 2, 2011 at 11:47 am

Hello Kim, lovely to hear from you. You are entitled to your opinion. I just don’t share it. My teachers taught me in journalism school that writing terms that readers don’t understand makes them embarrassed or makes them feel stupid, and that as communicators, we have failed if that is the response. No one should have to read a cookbook with a computer or dictionary next to them, in my opinion.

Madeleine Morrow May 1, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Last weekend I made a pavlova with berries for a lunch. My friend asked how to make it and looked confused when I spoke about macerating the strawberries. I couldn’t remember if I used the term when I put the recipe up on my blog – later checked and I hadn’t. I realised that although my friend cooks a lot, this does not mean she is familiar with ‘unusual’ terms. My take on this is to use the terms and explain what they mean, hopefully in a way that is seen as helpful rather than patronising, I really enjoy learning a new word under any circumstances and if its in the kitchen then even better.

diannejacob May 1, 2013 at 6:08 pm

This one should be on the list too! Yes, there is a happy medium, to use the term and then explain it. The smart people will feel superior, and the ones who didn’t know will be grateful that they didn’t have to look it up.

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