Today’s rant is a little about recipes. We’ll make this one short and to the point and really just hammer on specific part — the order of ingredients.
I enjoy cooking. There are times I like to wing it, and times I like to pick the most complicated recipe I can find and make it work out. I routinely try out new recipes — for the most part following them rigorously the first time and taking notes so that I can adjust them a second time. I use many different sources for recipes and inspiration — dozens of cookbooks, magazines, clippings, and of course the entire Web.
In fact, this last weekend, I cooked a whole mess of food for several nights in a row. Working with multiple new recipes, I became aware that some were easier to follow than others. Even though I had studied these recipes the night before and had anticipated some problems, the problems came up anyway when I started juggling dish preparation for multiple dishes.
Properly formatting recipes is clearly a challenging endeavor. Challenging, because I figure that >75% of recipes fail to assist the cook due to a lack of intelligent formatting. So, let’s look at a subset of that challenge — the list of ingredients.
First off, there are a few key philosophies that (could/should) guide the list of ingredients:
- Prep Order: While important, I will argue that dish preparation order should not be the only metric used for defining the order of the ingredients list. While ingredient order matching dish prep order is the generally accepted philosophy in 90%+ of the recipes out there, I have still this most basic of recipe-ingredient-order-philosophies violated for no apparent reason.
- mise en place: (link) is a great way to assemble a recipe, and removes the hard link between ingredient order and dish prep order. One could imagine a mise en place ingredient order recipe where similarly prepped ingredients are grouped together (kind of like GTD). Guess what? I have yet to come across a recipe where mise en place guides the list of ingredients. [See the zesting example below] That said, mise en place as seen on cooking shows is not always practical for the home cook. Not all of us have dishwashers or counter space to put out dozens of small prep bowls with a teaspoon here and a tablespoon there. I’m also not fond of leaving out temperature sensitive ingredients for lengths of time.
- Efficient mise en place: Recipes should consider the number of dishes consumed (more dishes = more wasted water in cleanup anyway) and can often do this by a simple re-ordering of ingredients. By placing dry ingredients (that can be mixed) together and wet ingredients in a group, you can significantly cut down on bowl usage.For example, I often take mise en place one step further — to what I call “efficient mise en place“. One can significantly reduce the number of prep-bowls by combining all the chopped veggies into one bowl. I typically do this in “reverse order” of expected use. An example would be a saute — the onions hit long before the mushroooms, so I’ll chop the ‘shrooms first and put them at the bottom with the onions at the top. That way I can scoop off “layers” as the dish progresses.A similar trick works really well with herbs that report at the end of the cooking process. Why give each one a separate bowl when all you are going to do is dump them in at once at the very end of the process anyway?
- Sub-Grouping: The most helpful and often overlooked philosophy is creating sub-groups of ingredients. The best recipes take the additional line-space and appropriately break apart groups of ingredients. The worst recipes attempt to save space by putting the marinade right up against the sauce, leaving it up to the cook to figure out whether the sugar reports to the sauce or the marinade. Another terrible idea is when recipes save space by “splitting” ingredients (more on that later).
SPECIFIC EXAMPLES OF RECIPE INGREDIENT ISSUES
Now for some fun….. here are some ways in which recipes really chap my hide.
- Clearly note which ingredients need additional/unusal time to sit/drain/thaw/roast/pickle/etc. This should be listed in the first lines of the recipe or spelled out clearly in the ingredients list. For instance “1 block tofu, drained for 4 hours” would be nice to see in an ingredients list, as an undrained block of tofu behaves quite differently. Likewise, “2 lbs of cucumbers, salted and drained for 30 minutes” is nice to know up front. I recently came across a recipe where the draining process was not stated until halfway through the assembly process, which is a little late to be telling me such things. On a positive example: since home ovens often take 30+ minutes to stabilize at a given temperature, note how just about every single baking recipe has you pre-heat the oven as the very first step in the whole process.
- Always place the zest before the juice. This one because it is so bloody simple, but seems to consistently be trumped by the recipe-order-depicts-ingredient-order instead of using a more common sense mise en place order. Have you ever tried to zest an already juiced lemon or lime? Brutal, huh? Whether you use a microplane, a grater or a zester, you really want to zest before juicing. So, why on earth would you put the zest after the juice? Typically, it is because the zest appears AFTER the juice in the process. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone back and zested yet-another lime because the juiced ones are already down the garbage disposal.
- Splitting ingredients to save a line is lazy. You ever see “2 cups plus 3 teaspoons” and wonder what that means? It took me a LOT of cooking to figure that one out. Even worse is when a recipe like that starts with a “Combine the sugar, butter, etc in a bowl….”. So you dump your 2 cups plus 3 teaspoons in a bowl only to find a few paragraphs later “sprinkle remaining 3 teaspoons of sugar over the top….”.Here’s a hint to recipe designers out there, stop splitting ingredient quantities and do 2 separate line items instead. Bread recipes are notorious for this (they tend to start with numerous cups of flour, but you can guarantee the process breaks this ingredient apart along the way). The only reason bread recipes get away with this is that the list of ingredients and instruction set length is typically very short, so the problem is under the pain threshold.Another reason that splitting ingredients is silly: “2 cups plus 3 teaspoons” is a split among entirely different measuring devices.
For this type of split, you will have to have out your cup measure and your teaspoon measure (or eyeball it). Why not just suck-it-up and have 2 line items in the ingredients list. Heck, if I have to wash an additional kitchen item for your recipe, do me the respect of giving me that additional line item for clarity!
The only argument (besides laziness and space savings) for splitting ingredients is to provide the cook with a combined total needed for the recipe. However, since most cooks have to create an overall combined total across multiple recipes in order to create a shopping list, rolling up totals for the cook simply creates additional work in the kitchen to save a few seconds in the shopping time. This extra work during prep time is not welcome.
- Do not randomly alternate between solids and liquids. First of all, this makes it difficult to run an efficient mise en place. Second, have you ever tried grabbing 3 tablespoons of flour after chopping some vegetables — that’s right, you have to wash then really really dry your hands. For efficiency, I also prefer to measure out all my dry ingredients first before proceeding to the wet ingredients, and then finally proceeding to the sticky/goopy ingredients. Done in the appropriate order, you can re-use the same cup measure throughout an entire recipe. Done incorrectly, you could require 3 or 4 cup measures (and if you have a kitchen with 3 or 4 cup measures of the same size available to you, you probably are not reading this rant anyway). In the end, inappropriately alternating between wet and dry ingredients simply adds additional prep and cleanup time — both are unwelcome in my kitchen.
- Add demarcation lines or titles between major subsets of ingredients. I cannot stress this one enough! Making a meat dish the other day, the marinade ingredients flowed right into the sauce ingredients. WTF!? I had to go back and forth between the instructions and the ingredients a couple of times to figure out where one part of the recipe stopped and the other began.Taken further, if recipe designers break ingredients into subsets, you can have one simple instruction that says “Combine all the sauce ingredients in a medium saucepan….”. This is far easier to parse on-the-fly than “Combine sugar, water, butter, vanilla extract and dark rum into a medium saucepan.” Reduced workload — definitely welcome in my kitchen.
Well, that’s about it for now…… I’m sure I will add more. I will probably also start up a little section called “Red’s Recipe Rescue” at some point. My Red’s Recipe Rescue section will take recipes that I have found (that clearly FAIL) and give guidance on how to fix them so that they come out correctly. (Case in point, the Columbian FAIL Creme Brulee, or the Coconut FAIL Cake with Minted Whipped Cream……. both need a little Red’s Recipe Rescue……..somewhere down the road).