Spilling the Beans

Recipe flopped? Chances are it's the cookbook author's fault

Andrea Burgener explains what goes into writing a foolproof recipe

18 December 2017 - 00:00
There's an art to writing a recipe that can easily be reproduced by home cooks around the world.
There's an art to writing a recipe that can easily be reproduced by home cooks around the world.
Image: 123RF/undrey

Of all the many things that have become part of the lay person's food world over the past years - from acquiring Le Creuset cookware to knowing the difference between real and mongrel tarragon and whether heavily wooded Chardonnay is acceptable or embarrassing this season - very little is ever said about how to approach a recipe.

And even less, it seems, is offered up to help cookbook authors write them.

Comparatively, of course, we're pretty well off nowadays: a modern recipe is a whole lot clearer than the sort of thing thrown at home cooks hundreds of years ago, when terms such as "some" or "a goodly bunch" were considered pretty exact measurements.

But still, so much is badly - or not at all - explained, and so much can go wrong.

Food is alive and changeable; ambient temperature and humidity are too; ovens that say 180°C are hardly ever 180°C; and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

A good recipe is one that takes into account most variables (for example, don't make this biscuit when the weather's humid, as it won't be crispy) and tries to be clear and helpful rather than clever.

The author should genuinely want you to succeed; otherwise it's like the terrible aunt who hands out a recipe you asked for with an ingredient or two missing.

This is why Nigella Lawson is great. Not just because she chooses good dishes, but because she's neither secretive nor vague about things. She mentions that the sauce might separate, tells you how to fix it, and generally assumes that you're an actual human being.

Many chefs write recipes smugly and in shorthand, having little time for the home cook's problems

Anna del Conte is lovely that way too; she clearly sees you in your kitchen. A home kitchen.

On that note, your chances of happiness with a cookbook diminish in almost direct relation to how posh and lauded a chef the author is. Many chefs write recipes smugly and in shorthand, having little time for the home cook's problems.

Some exceptions to this are Anthony Bourdain - perhaps because he was always a bad-ass chef and more of a line-cook - and Jacob Kenedy of Bocca di Lupo in London. His first book, The Geometry of Pasta, is wonderful to cook from, for both novice and pro cook alike (definitely Christmas present material).

The point is really this: next time a recipe doesn't work out, don't lose a shred of confidence: there's a damn good chance it was the author's fault and not yours. What can you do to help matters?

Approach every recipe with some scepticism, and trust all your senses, including your common sense. And of course, weed out the books and websites that are vague, smug or use overly cheffy terminology.

Also, avoid any author who refers to the word sliver as ''slither". Where the hell did that come from?

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