Other Kitchens, Other Cooks: Generosity in Recipe Writing

Recipes that look ahead and anticipate.

Howdy cookbook fans!

I am thrilled to have cookbook author Cynthia Nims here to explore the idea of generosity in recipes. Instead of merely reporting what worked in their own kitchen, Nims says, recipe writers might imagine the kitchens of others, anticipating challenges and offering context to guide readers to a successful cooking experience. It’s an idea I will certainly be taking into my own work, and I think can serve as a hallmark of good recipes, whether you are doing the writing or the reading. (We are all, in theory, doing the cooking.)

Here’s Cynthia:

On Generosity in Recipe Writing

“If needed.” It’s a simple phrase recipe writers rely on frequently, one that acknowledges variability between the writer’s own experience preparing a recipe and the experience the home cook might have: the skillet that may need more oil to finish pan-frying oysters, or the dressing that needs a bit more lemon juice or hot sauce to suit the reader’s taste. In those and many other circumstances, how to gauge the need is clear: the pan’s a bit dry, the flavor a tad flat.

Other times, though, a well-meaning, but vague, “if needed” presents the question of whether the additional attention is needed or not. More of an ingredient, a few more minutes in the pan, a shift in heat level—but how to know? Writers who share descriptive detail can avoid potential quandaries, helping the reader to confirm the sauce has the ideal drizzle-ready consistency, the pureed beans are spreadable, the pot’s not boiling too vigorously so the ingredient cooks more evenly.

It’s just one of countless ways that recipe writers—with often just a handful of extra words—can be generous with insights that help the reader achieve success, and teach them a little something along the way.

Recipes that illuminate, rather than consternate, begin with clear and accurate ingredient information and preparation steps. Even better are recipes that use voice, personality, and expertise to convey information so that the home cook has every opportunity to succeed. And the best recipes share insights along the way that can be applied beyond the recipe at hand. For the sake of discussing great recipe writing, I’m going with a practical measure of success: the reader, gathering ingredients and following preparation steps, ends up with something delicious, gratifying, and satisfying. The time and money put into the recipe proves worth the effort.

Writing successful recipes requires the author to think ahead to a future time and place, to an unknown kitchen with equipment and ingredients that likely vary from those originally used, prepared by a reader with cooking experience that can be vastly different from their own. Generosity of descriptive details, explanations, and tips helps account for those differences, so the reader’s experience is more likely to be a good one.

This approach comes with a shift in perspective, from reporting an occurrence that already happened (what the writer did when making the recipe in their kitchen) to an instructional voice providing information and encouragement for an event that’s yet to happen (a reader recreating that dish in a different kitchen).

It takes a mix of experience and awareness to anticipate where variables may crop up, including variations in ingredients, equipment, and interpretation of terms like “tender” or “brown” or “thickened.”  How exactly such variables are expressed in recipes can vary. In some cases, it’s head-on; in her recipe for Brown Butter Colcannon in Cook, Eat, Repeat, Nigella Lawson begins with cooking potatoes. “Without knowing what size potatoes you’re using, it’s hard to be precise about how long they’ll take to cook: smaller potatoes will take around 40 minutes; larger ones will take around 1 hour.” That’s more insightful than a cooking time that simply states “40 to 60 minutes,” and alerts the reader to ingredient variances that could require similar attention in other circumstances.

Ideally, recipe writers place themselves alongside the reader in their kitchen, providing input as if cooking with them. Rather than simply telling readers in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat to remove the pin bones from salmon before slow-roasting it, Samin Nosrat provides detailed instruction, including how to run fingers along the surface to locate the bones. In All About Dinner, Molly Stevens goes beyond the often-used, but open to interpretation, doneness test of “tender” for cooking celery root and potatoes that will be mashed. She clarifies with “tender enough to crush against the sides of the pot,” to ensure the vegetables will mash to a smooth consistency. In another recipe, Stevens devotes a couple of brief, instructive paragraphs to making small cutlets from chicken breasts, including how to carefully halve the breast horizontally and how to further flatten any pieces that are a bit too thick.

Sometimes a greater degree of detail can mean notably longer text, which might get some push-back from editors looking to avoid recipes that spill over onto a second (or third) page. And from readers, too, who can mistake length for complexity—when instead it may mean the recipe is full of valuable insights. Lawson expressed this on an episode of the Radio Cherry Bombe podcast earlier this year: “I fear in this huge drive to make recipes not turn a page in cookbooks key guidance is left out, all in the sake of brevity, ” she said. “Shorter doesn’t always mean simpler to follow.”

Examples of word-count-worthy kitchen wisdom include Dorie Greenspan’s caution to not rush browning the onions to a deep caramel color for her Cheese-Topped Onion Soup in Around My French Table. “Have patience: depending on the heat and the onions, this may take an hour or more. And don’t be tempted to try to speed things up, because if you burn the onions, your soup will have a bitter taste. On the other hand, if you don’t get the onions really brown, your soup will be pale in both taste and looks.”

It can be a challenge for recipe writers to identify which tips and details to share when going through familiar-to-them cooking processes. The recipe testing stage helps: while the primary goal of this process is to check and re-check practical details about quantities and cooking times and such, testing also provides an ideal chance to capture details that aren’t spelled out in the draft. After individual ramekins are filled with cobbler or soufflé mixture or whatever’s on the menu, the next natural step is to put them in the oven to bake. A writer who notices that they pull out a rimmed baking sheet on which to put those ramekins for easy transfer in and out of the oven does the reader a big favor in jotting that down to add to the recipe. As does the writer who explains why it’s important to brown stew meat in batches, so a reader’s not tempted to try a freestyle short-cut without realizing a crowded pot impedes the intended searing.

Priya Basil, author of Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity, beautifully framed recipes as a form of generosity when a guest on KCRW’s Good Food podcast recently. She noted that “this way of collapsing distance, of collapsing difference, that recipes afford us is, I think, one of most precious forms of exchange that we have.” It’s a striking reflection that has stuck with me.

Recipe writers can’t account for every potential nuance of variation that might arise between what they write and what happens in a future-time home kitchen. But I believe the recipes that resonate most with readers are those that make an extra effort to address potential questions, variables, and tricky spots along the way. It’s an opportunity for writers to be generous with the kinds of details, descriptions, and gems of experience—particularly those that they may take for granted—that guide readers to success.

Cynthia Nims is a writer and culinary consultant based in Seattle. Lately, she’s been on a long, deep dive contemplating the craft of well-written recipes. Her new cookbook, Shellfish, is due to be released in spring of 2022. You can find Cynthia on Instagram and Twitter as @cynnims.