Many recipes just aren’t up to scratch. They overcomplicate both the dishes and the act of cooking, demoralising the very people they aim to help. Here are 10 tips for chefs to raise their teaching game …
“Only bell-ends write open letters.” Whoever said that – if it wasn’t Shakespeare it must have been Oscar Wilde – had a point. All the same, I’ve taken the liberty of writing one. It’s to all the food writers and chefs who serve up recipes, in print or online. What’s my message? Get your act together. You have the chance to educate your readers, to teach skills that will fill their bellies and enrich their lives, yet time and time again you blow it. Not all of you, of course – but too many of you, too often.
I spend a lot of time reading recipes for pleasure and for pay, cooking from them, editing them, sometimes even writing them. Frankly, many aren’t up to scratch – mine included. They overcomplicate both the dishes they describe and the craft of cooking. Rather than educate the readers, you – we – de-skill them; instead of creating a springboard from which they can leap to ever-greater heights, you – we – lead them into a quagmire of ignorance and self-doubt.
All is not lost, though. Here’s a 10-point plan to raise everyone’s game.
1 Don’t be dogmatic. Even though your grandma or Michelin-starred mentor did something one way, there are usually alternatives. Take pasta, for example. Almost every recipe insists the cooking water must contain either salt and/or oil. Rubbish. It is perfectly possible to season spaghetti later, or to cook it without lubricating it (it just needs a good stir or two early on).
Every time you suggest your way is the only way, you undermine your readers’ self-confidence. What, they wonder, do you know that they don’t?
Sooner or later, with luck, they’ll realise that you’re laying down the law for the sake of it, and become happier, more relaxed cooks. So why not come clean from the off?
2 Drop the phoney accuracy. Apart from some kinds of baking, most recipes work perfectly well with rough approximations of the quantities. If a reader is making cottage pie, for example, using another onion or 50g less mince will simply mean the result is more oniony or less meaty. Point this out every now and again. The knowledge could spare your readers a trip to the shops, or encourage them to cook for themselves rather than sticking a readymeal in the microwave.
3 Go easy on the salt. Not only is too much bad for you, but there’s no real consensus about how much tastes just right. If you watch cooking contests like Masterchef, you’ll see John Torode and his fellow judges consistently complaining that competitors’ dishes are “underseasoned” – chefspeak for undersalted. Given that the gifted amateurs who produced them believed they were perfectly balanced, what this actually demonstrates is that people who spend all day tasting food for a living end up demanding more and more sodium chloride, like junkies in search of stronger and stronger fixes. Most people aren’t like that. And if they really want it, they can always add salt at the table.
4 Acknowledge the unpredictable. If you’re asking readers to cook over something vague like a “medium heat”, don’t tell them to do so for precisely seven, or eight, or nine minutes. Their hob will not be the same as your test kitchen’s. Make it “five to 10 minutes” and describe the effect they’re aiming for – that onions should be golden, cabbage wilted etc.
5 Bring on the substitutes. Many readers don’t have ready access to exotic herbs and spices, or the time or money to order ingredients online. (Where I live, in south-east London, even fresh cream is a 15-minute walk away.) If your recipe works with basil instead of curry leaves, or without either, for God’s sake, say so. It won’t make you look sloppy or laissez-faire. It will suggest that you have a clue how normal people live and cook. While you’re at it, how about reminding readers that if they can’t stomach a minor ingredient – coriander, say, or celery – they could try leaving it out? This may be obvious to you – but less confident cooks often believe every component is equally significant. Whose fault is that?
6 Don’t micromanage. If half a dozen ingredients can be shoved in the same bowl and mixed together, say so. Don’t tell readers to add ingredient A, followed by ingredient B, then ingredient C and so on, as if the order matters. You’re wasting everyone’s time.
7 Don’t be dirty. Your readers don’t have staff. They actually have to clean their own kitchens. So if they’re making bread and could knead the dough in an easily washed bowl, for example, don’t tell them to turn it out on to a work surface that will then have to be scraped clean. Come to think of it, remember that many kitchens are so tiny that all the work surfaces are already spoken for anyway.
8 Be realistic about timings. Yes, we’re looking at you, Jamie Oliver, with your notorious “30-minute” recipes. But you’re not the only offender. Everyone, please remember that your readers are: a) generally less experienced than you, and b) haven’t already made this dish half a dozen times. They probably take twice as long as you to do anything, from slicing a carrot to juicing a lime.
9 When you run out of useful advice, stop writing. Readers enjoy photos of food, so give the designers an excuse to make them a bit bigger.
10 See point nine.
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