It’s The Recipe’s Fault – Boiled and Mashed

Cooking is fun. Finding new ways to use ingredients or, better yet, leftovers can be invigorating. Deep fried macaroni and cheese sticks? Tasty. Chili from left over beef roast? Mouth watering. Potato cakes from left over mashed potatoes? Delicious. In fact, many recipes and cookbooks try to bring new life and excitement to leftovers. Knowing that causes a problem in this example:

It's The Recipe's Fault - Boiled and Mashed

Is the recipe calling for mashed potatoes (which typically have milk, salt, pepper, butter, and other things)? Or is it calling for potatoes that were simply boiled and mashed? Not sure. Because it’s part of the ingredient list rather than with the other process steps, it’s shortened too much to know. Worse yet, because the ingredient preparation (know in cooking school as mise en place) isn’t included in the time needed to make the dish, it takes another 15-20 minutes to make the dish than the description indicates. That much time can not only cause the dish to go wrong, but may throw off the timing of an entire meal.

It’s The Recipe’s Fault – Divided

Ingredient lists were a huge and important innovation to the recipe format in the early-to-mid 1800’s. They solved the problem of ingredients buried in the middle of paragraph descriptions, making shopping and preparation easier and more efficient. In some recipe’s though, that goes too far. Pies are a frequent example since they often have two different processes…making the crust and making the filling. By creating a single ingredient list, shopping is simple. However, it also leads to mistakes like this one:

It's The Recipe's Fault - Divided

Some recipes like this one will call for 1.5 cups of sugar, then in the description say “Use 1/4 cup of the sugar…” and later “Use the remaining sugar”. Others may be nice enough to say “1.5 cups of sugar, divided” which is recipe code for “you’re going to need some now and some later” at least to warn you. However, better are the recipes that separate the crust ingredients from the filling ingredients completely, which reduces confusion. We’ve chosen to go a step farther. Only the ingredients you need are shown when you first need them. Of course, you can always opt to see all ingredients or switch back to see only the ingredients needed for that step. It’s up to you.

It’s The Recipe’s Fault – Compound Steps

This mistake started about 3,600 years ago with the first recipe the experts have found. It was written in paragraph form. That makes for easy reading, for sure, but it also makes it easy to lose your place. Have you ever stepped away from the recipe to take care of something on the stove, then step back only to return to a different part of the paragraph and miss an entire step? It’s very easy to do. It’s also very easy to solve. Separate the paragraphs (compound steps) into individual steps and show one at a time. Sometimes, it’s not too bad if the steps in the paragraph are related to each other and frequently done together (making a béchamel sauce, for example). Other times, it’s not so good. Some recipe writers are notorious for limiting themselves to only 3 or 4 or 5 steps. That’s fine if there’s only a few things to do, but most recipes require more things to be done. Some recipes even have as many as 30-40 steps that have been combined into just a few paragraphs.

It's The Recipe's Fault - Compound Steps

With the advent of the computer, tablet, and mobile device, the printed page (and costs associated with printing) are no longer an issue. Why not give the steps the space they need (and even include photos for each one)?

It’s The Recipe’s Fault – Dredge

So what were recipes designed for in the first place? Well, best we can tell, it seems they were designed for a chef to remember how they made something. Later, the format became a great way for one chef to tell another chef (maybe an apprentice) how to make a dish. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution and the rise of the “modern” grocery store in the early-to-mid 1800s that ingredient lists and later quantities were added as a separate section as a way to make a inventory and shopping easier. Notice what wasn’t included? The non-chef. The untrained cook. Basically most of us. It was never designed to teach somebody how to cook, yet that’s how we often use it.

One of the ways that is most evident is the use of cooking terms like dredge or braise or chiffonade.  For those that have been to cooking school (or maybe watched a lot of cooking shows), these terms might mean something. But for the rest of us, they don’t mean much.  Take dredge for example. If anything comes to mind at all, probably cleaning the sludge out of a river or bay is first, an action which has little relationship to the cooking term.

It's The Recipe's Fault - Dredge

A series of simple photos or a short video can easily show the technique. While simpler words certainly help, the image brings the words to life in a clear and understandable way. The VizChef app has two modes: standard and intermediate. Standard mode includes more examples and easy to understand instructions where intermediate mode assumes some knowledge of techniques and terminology. That way you can select your level of comfort with the cooking process. Don’t worry, if you get stuck, you can switch back and forth between modes inside the app at anytime.

It’s The Recipe’s Fault – Ignite Ann Arbor

If you’ve liked our It’s The Recipe’s Fault series of posts, this quick 5 minute video gives an overview of the story. It was recorded on February 9, 2011 at Ignite Ann Arbor. Ignite is a fun, fast moving format with 20 slides that automatically advance every 15 seconds. Check out the video and let us know what you think:

It’s The Recipe’s Fault – Loosely Packed

Sure, 1 Cup is a decent measure for water, chicken stock, or other liquids. After that, it starts to get progressively worse as a measuring device. It can even be okay for fine grain solids such as sugar and table salt, though sugar and salt can vary widely in grain size making this a less than perfect measuring method. But for dried beans or basil or potatoes, a cup is a faulty-at-best measuring device. The less uniform an ingredient becomes, the less likely sized-based measurements work.

All 3 of these piles of basil were “loosely packed” in the same measuring cup. Which one is accurate? How much will the recipe change based on these widely varying amounts?

It's The Recipe's Fault - Loosely Packed

Instead, a much more accurate measurement is weight. A pound (or 453 grams) of beans or potatoes is very easy and accurate to measure. Admittedly, herbs like basil are hard to measure by weight because they don’t weigh that much so having a scale that is accurate at small weights is important and definitely more accurate that loosely packed.

It’s The Recipe’s Fault – Halved Lengthwise

What is lengthwise on a Roma tomato? or any tomato for that matter.

It's The Recipe's Fault - Halved Lengthwise

It’s the recipe’s fault for not being more clear with it’s instructions. Certainly more words might have been helpful…top to bottom? stem to base? There are probably others. But easier than words are pictures or illustrations which could have easily solved the problem.

It's The Recipe's Fault - Halved Lengthwise

Both of images are from the VizChef app.

It’s The Recipe’s Fault – Imbedded Process Steps

From an information design standpoint, this may be one of the recipe’s biggest flaws (though it has many). Things you need to do to ingredients (chopping, dicing, slicing, shredding, boiling, pulling, mashing, etc) are placed nowhere near the rest of the things you need to do (the process) for the rest of the recipe.

It's The Recipe's Fault - Imbedded Process

Really, the list of ingredients (and quantities) is so that you can make sure you have everything you need and if you don’t have it to make it easy to make a shopping list. What you’re going to do with the ingredients is, to a large extent, irrelevant at this stage. One could argue that knowing what you’re going to do with them helps with substitutions (i.e. I don’t have whole tomatoes, but I do have diced tomatoes and I’m going to dice them anyway, so I’m all set). However, if that’s true, then everything you need to do with the ingredient should be included with the ingredient rather than just the first preparation step.

In the VizChef app, we combine all of the things you need to do into one place. All of the preparation steps are detailed out with pictures for every step. Also, we show you exactly what new ingredients you’re going to need for that step. No confusion about what you need, when you need it, or what you’re going to do with it.

It’s The Recipe’s Fault – Large Onions

How big is a large onion anyway? The picture below was taken of onions purchased on the same day at 3 different local grocery stores, each being the largest at their respective stores. It’s no wonder that home cooks have a hard time duplicating recipes. The variation between these onions is huge. While it may not have an impact on some dishes, it most certainly might have an impact on others. It’s the recipe’s fault for using a relatively inaccurate term for size when weight would have been a better choice.

It's The Recipe's Fault - Large Onions

It’s The Recipe’s Fault – Idaho Potatoes

The Idaho Potato has a great marketing team. Other states and product groups should take notice. The success of their campaign is evident in a recent trip to my local Meijer grocery store.

It's the Recipe's Fault - Idaho Potatoes

Originally, the term “Idaho” meant or at least implied “Russet”, but apparently the Idaho brand is so strong that now nearly every type of potato is labeled “Idaho”. It’s the recipe’s fault for not using the correct term for the ingredient they wanted you to use. Sure, maybe this recipe was written when Idaho = Russet was really true, but a picture would once again have cleared up any question about which ingredient was intended.