Aggravating mistakes in printed recipes


Given the number of cookbooks represented on this site, we thought an Epicurious article about The Biggest Mistakes Recipes Writers Make might hit a familiar note with our Members. So as assurance that you’re not alone when you fume over a poorly written recipe, here’s a summary of the Epicurious‘ list of all-too-common recipe mistakes, with our comments, plus a couple of our own:

Size Is Relative: What is a “large” or a “medium” onion? Please try to use two different measurements (“one medium onion or one cup chopped onion”) if possible. 

Forgetting to Add the Reserved Ingredient: It’s why you should mise en place religiously, but it’s still incredibly aggravating. 

Juicing Citrus Before Zesting: We can understand this problem. It’s like a traffic rotary where two road rules (yield to the car on the right, the car in the rotary has the right of way) contradict. In this case,  the rule for recipes is always to list ingredients in order of usage, so juice is often listed before zest. But given how hard it is to zest a cut lemon, etc. the juice listing could mention that the fruit should be zested and the zest held for future use.

Covered versus Uncovered: Supposedly, “there is an unwritten code among recipe writers that there’s no need to mention the pot lid unless the recipe instructs you to cover the pot.” But we agree that many cooks are not going to know that, so just add the words “covered” or “uncovered.” 

Canned Tomato Confusion: Whole, diced, mini-diced, with basil, with garlic, fire-roasted – the variations go on and on, so the type of canned tomatoes should be mentioned (and this holds for other canned goods as well).

The “Copy and Paste” Mistake: Per Epicurious: “If the writer is working on multiple recipes within a theme, such as pies, and similar wording occurs among the recipes, the ease with which he or she can copy and paste paragraphs of instruction from one recipe to the next is too tempting to ignore. The problems arise when there are variations within the standard wording. For instance a feature on pies might include rolled out butter pastry crusts, press-in dough crusts, and cookie-crumb crusts. The moral here is to read and reread your recipes several times, preferably with fresh eyes.”

We agree with these, but here are a couple of personal ones we’d add to the top list:

Not giving two different methods for telling when a dish is done. Given that a) ovens can be notorious for being off-temp, and b) variations such as whether the dish is started at refrigerated or room temp, or container size, it is inexcusable for a recipe just to give a time for baking, etc. It should also specify appearance or another way to tell if done.

Serious baking books that don’t include weight measurements along volume measurements. It’s accepted that weight measurements are more accurate than volume, and many bakers now have scales – so if a writer, especially a baking author, wants to be taken seriously, then the book should have weight measurements.

Any you’d like to add?

Photo courtesy of Kemp Minifie


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  • Christine  on  January 14, 2014

    I have a pet peeve that mostly applies to online recipes: when I recipe is written in a more free-form paragraph/prose format and the ingredients are not highlighted or boldfaced. This recipe format is more casual and can lend itself well for teaching technique, walking through a process, or even just for explaining how to make a very simple dish that doesn't need a true "recipe," but for goodness sake make it easy to identify the ingredients I will need! I don't need the ingredients listed separately, but I would really like to be able to see at a glance what needs to go on my shopping list without re-reading the entire recipe or running the risk of missing something!

  • sir_ken_g  on  January 14, 2014

    Listing an ingredient – and then never using it…

  • fprincess  on  January 14, 2014

    Not including an (even approximate) prep time, active and inactive. Nothing worse than starting a recipe and realizing midway through that some steps are supposed to be done hours or days in advance.

  • veronicafrance  on  January 14, 2014

    The one about the onion is a bit specious. I can tell the difference between a large and medium onion, and I can't think of any recipe in my large repertoire where a few grams more or less onion makes a significant difference to the end result. There's a place for personal judgement — and tasting! — in recipes. You certainly won't find me measuring my onions in cups. Quite a few of the other grouches, including fprincess's, could be solved by reading the whole recipe first!

  • debkellie  on  January 14, 2014

    The depth of cake pans (as well as the diameter) : volumetric would be good too!

  • boardingace  on  January 14, 2014

    I know this is probably impossible, but I'd love to know how the cook measures their flour so I can do it the same way for the same results.

    Anyhow, loved your post!

  • FJT  on  January 14, 2014

    I hate it when the writer adds the weights for everything except the butter and then you get '1 stick butter' or 'half a stick butter'. How much does that weigh? Sends me running to Google every time. Sticks of butter seem to be a North American phenomenon and a tremendous waste of packaging. If you're going to give weights (which is the norm in Europe), do it consistently please!

  • wester  on  January 15, 2014

    It's a pity that these mistakes are so common that a lack of them is a sign you have a really good cookbook.
    On relative size: Celeriac recipes always turned out weird with me – until I got Cook This Now that told me it should be "the size of a navel orange – about 4 or 5 inches diameter". Now that's clear, and it told me that Dutch celeriacs generally are at least twice as big as others. This is what measurements should be like.
    I don't agree with the canned tomato thing though – canned tomatoes are canned tomatoes, and if the recipe says canned tomato, canned tomato will do. I do dislike recipes that call for "tomato sauce" without any clarifications though.

  • nadiam1000  on  January 15, 2014

    A pet peeve of mine is not listing the ingredients in the order they will be used. This can create confusion when you are following a recipe and have to search the ingredient list for the weight/measurement of the ingredient as you are adding them. I realize that good mise en place will help with this but it can still be annoying.

  • Queezle_Sister  on  January 15, 2014

    I'm with FPrincess — we all have busy schedules, and an approximate preparation time (don't underestimate) is really useful. I've found recipes that say "25 minute preparation time" but that include a 2-hour step. This is why excellent reviews/notes can be so useful – alerting us to the problems and work-arounds.

  • susan g  on  January 15, 2014

    Just a few: chili powder: pure chiles or blend? canned tomatoes: 14 oz, 28 oz or something else? tomato sauce: pasta type or puree type? Preheat the oven as the first step in a recipe: making bread, which takes hours, or days — do you really want to turn the oven on first?
    I notice that some of the problems show up more in my older cookbooks, especially the illogical order of ingredients, but the need for improvement hasn't ended yet.

  • DKennedy  on  January 16, 2014

    I'd like to add:

    Not clarifying if nuts used in a recipe should be raw or roasted/toasted.

  • FuzzyChef  on  January 17, 2014

    My biggest recipe hate is scaling failures. Many recipes which come from restaurant chefs were originally made in much larger quantities, and I've seen both books and magazines make errors in math when scaling down. I've seen errors in this department where things were off by as much as 8X; one notable cookie recipe called for 2 lbs of sugar instead of 1/2 cup. A lesser version of this peeve is when they scale down ingredients by exact math and don't care if the measurement makes any sense: "0.0045 cups" or "2 3/5 teaspoons".

    This also tells me that they didn't actually test the scaled down recipe, which means that I have no reason to believe it will work. That's why this is my biggest hate; it shows contempt for the reader.

  • matt478  on  January 30, 2014

    Specifying a can weight/size that doesn't exist. An ounce one way or the other doesn't matter but it bugs me. Do they not actually shop or are they just trying to make me follow their instructions no matter what. Specifying blood oranges and asparagus – a winter citrus and a spring veg or a summer berry and a fall veg – it drives me nuts. Especially with the whole buy local eat in season. Thanks for the outlet. I feel better now.

  • rhelune  on  January 30, 2014

    The last one is my pet peeve. I'm European and use scales. If I have to use cups, the first time I cook something I weigh the ingredient and note the mass in the book, every other time I just weigh it.

  • jdl958  on  January 31, 2014

    My annoyance is when they use an ingredient without telling you if they mean raw or cooked. Rice? Pasta? Coffee? Do they mean make coffee and then add it, or add the ground coffee itself (I've seen coffee added to barbecue sauce)? I always assume they mean uncooked unless they say otherwise, but it would help if they would say "uncooked."

  • SusanN  on  February 5, 2014

    I'm amazed at the number of baking recipes that don't specify a tin size, or make a vague comment such as to use a "slice tin". Or worse still they specify a size and it is clearly wrong! Given that baking is a pretty precise process, this can make the difference between a recipe turning out a success or not.

  • blueeyedmaiden  on  April 29, 2014

    @Matt478 I just got local blood oranges and local asparagus in my northern California CSA box this week. So a recipe with both wouldn't defy seasonal availability where I live.

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