But chefs rarely follow a set of directions by rote from point a to b. A dish is often an evolving exchange between a chef and her ingredients influenced by issues such as subtle changes in raw goods, the quantity being prepared, temperature variables in an appliance or finished dish, and client's tastes. Quite simply, a good recipe like the dish itself, takes a great deal of time and care to produce.
The chefs and writers I most admire practice brevity. I was professionally trained from Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire. He wrote for cooks and pared recipes down to essential details—lists of ingredients with weights. Cooking methods were outlined in the preface to each chapter.
I also adore Elizabeth David. Unlike Escoffier, she was far more fluid with measurement—her most prized tool for that task was a lowly teacup. Although their intended audience differed, both Elizabeth David and Escoffier wrote with an experienced cook in mind.
I write recipes for my own use in the manner of Escoffier, like the recipe pictured above. It's on a random bit of paper, stuck into one of the many notebooks I use in the kitchen. (Chefs are excellent record keepers with their own fascinating brand of shorthand.) A typical example is often no more than a list of ingredients. If it's for something complicated or pastry-related I'll add measures, usually weights.
You'll notice that the recipe in the photo—for an extremely tender pastry from a chef I admire—doesn't even have a title. But it's not just the title that is missing. There are almost no directions either. That's because I bring my experience to bear on the task. I don't need to repeatedly write the method for pastry because it's something I know instinctively. And my experience can be one of the most tenacious and time-consuming things to translate in a recipe destined for public consumption. Details that I take for granted, if not written down for the less experienced user, can make a big difference to a successful outcome.
I've created a format that I like when I'm inspired to write a recipe for public consumption, but it's not for the faint of heart in the kitchen. I've little personal interest in elaborating. The only time I'm inclined to get the scales and spoons out and record minute detail is when the activity is well paid. I've never had a desire to produce a cookbook— the returns are too modest.
There are chefs and writers who exercise control over how they are represented and are ideal teachers for the inexperienced. But a quality recipe today usually involves a team of people—chefs from the restaurant kitchen where the dish originates, chefs or cooks in the publishers test kitchen, and one or two good home cooks to round out the professionals. They'll each leave an imprint on a recipe. Thomas Keller's books are a fine example of this type of rigour (and ensuing expense.)
Many cookbooks are produced under either seriously strained budgets or time frames. Those factors can encourage cooks and writers, with the best of intentions, to cut corners. When the guiding force of a skilled editor is absent, recipes can be poorly conceived and written. A recent Canadian cookbook by Rob Rainford provides ample examples. It's written for the average cook and yet contains no glossary for exotic ingredients.
Grilled Indonesian Chicken is photographed as a skinless breast when the recipe calls for chicken with the skin intact. Recipe yields are wildly incorrect. The jerk marinade actually yields 3 cups while the recipe indicates 2 cups. Richard Caz's Haitian Slaw calls for 1/2 teaspoonful of jerk marinade, an amount that has absolutely no impact on the flavour of the finished dish (not to mention the jerk marinade is a long recipe to prepare.) There are lengthy ingredients lists that are not logically or thoughtfully organized. I wonder about the conditions under which this book was made, and don't know that I'd want my smiling face on its cover.
There are legendary cookbooks that leap to mind, like the final Silver Palate cookbook by the notable New York duo Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso. The recipes are so consistently bad they helped level the pair's reputation. (The backstory had tongues wagging about relationship deterioration, legal battles and a brand of hubris that led one of them to believe they were so skilled at recipe-writing that their work did not require testing.)
I suspect the accelerated pace at which many bloggers produce recipes—posting once or twice a week to ensure audience engagement—has led to a surplus of unworkable or inedible offerings online. This recipe had me mourning the loss of 2 bars of good quality dark chocolate. The author (a guest blogger) "adapted" the recipe by making a straight substitution—almond and whole-wheat flour for the original recipes all-purpose. It doesn't work, a fact I discovered only after making these cookies. They looked nothing like the photo and went directly into my garbage. It's common to acquire a recipe, modify it slightly, and then repackage it as original content. Cookbook author, newspaper columnist, and recipe developer Lucy Waverman writes: "I see my recipes all over the web without accreditation and then find them with 2 ingredients changed to “make it their own.” It is so frustrating because we do our job as well as we can, ideas, research, recipe testing, even presentation and we get ripped off. I remember the days when you were told that you needed to sell your recipe 9 times to make it pay for itself. Now others do it for you."
Great recipes can be produced under modest conditions. I think of books that I love dearly, so chock full of great recipes they are a marvel of the genre—cookbooks by Marcella Hazan, Claudia Roden, and Paul Bertolli are fine examples. The chef or writer simply needs the will (and perseverance) to stay the course and work to a rigorous standard rather than half measures. She needs to possess an insatiable hunger to deliver the reader and recipe maker a guaranteed reward for trusting and following her lead explicitly.
Great recipes don't pop out of the ether—they take work. I'll take better quality over less choice any day. I want recipes from chefs and writers who yearn for an audience to join them on a delicious journey and know just how to get them there.