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Other Writings and Recipes

A Recipe: Why Size Doesn’t Matter

Vidhi Dattani

Often people come to me, gripping recipes in their hands, “Can you help me simplify this? It’s too long!”

They are referring, of course, not to the time it takes to make the dish in question, but to how long the recipe takes to read. Somehow, “lots of words” translates into “lots of work.”

But why?
For one, we don’t have much time, and our over-hurried age teaches us to prefer quick tips to lengthy expositions. For another, we trust the distilled form of a short recipe. We like recipes to look on the page how we like to work–with lots of space, few steps. But should we?

Of course, recipes already ARE a kind of abbreviation.

But the best recipes, in my mind, are not merely steps transcribed; they are acts well-written. A good recipe isn’t simply a set of pointed instructions for how to make something. A good recipe tells a story about how something was made.

The difference is important. Like the best stories, good recipes provide descriptions of nuance in action and taste that make the subject knowable, accessible. Good recipes are good reading. Good recipes teach.

Roast chicken is roast chicken, you say. Cooking it takes about an hour, no matter whose recipe you follow. But the process could take anywhere from 10 to 100 words to describe.

Here is how one recipe might tell if a chicken is done: “Roast until thermometer inserted in thighs reads 160 degrees.” Accurate? Sure.

Now here is another way: “Pull at the leg. The thigh should feel relaxed near the breast. Examine the thigh meat near the thigh joint, and be wary of any spots that seem particularly slick and smooth. Prick the meat with a thin knife, catching any juices with a white spoon. Examine these juices for signs of blood. Yellow juices that blush a bit pink are okay; anything leaning red is not done.”

Tell me, which writer would you want on your chicken tour? One provides accurate, but lazy summation. The other gives you a nugget of good instruction that makes you less dependent on the recipe (and a thermometer) the next time.

Little recipes on little pages provide few lasting lessons. The best recipes tell stories of how ingredients came together to make a dish. Don’t shy away from the ones that take up the most ink on the page; they might make for the most memorable meal.