Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Recipe Details: Too Much or Too Little?

It started out innocently enough. The gravy for the roast looked a little thin, so I reached for a packet of gravy mix to bulk it up a bit. The directions on the packet yielded this sentence:

"Boil 1 cup of water in a saucepan."

"Well, of course, in a saucepan," I muttered darkly. (I'm often guilty of muttering darkly when I cook, especially when confronted with inadequate gravy.) "What else would you boil water in?" A teakettle would work for the boiling part, I suppose, but not so well for the gravy part.

The recipe continued. "Combine gravy mix and cold water in a bowl, using a whisk." Again with the muttering. "Why do they have to specify to use a bowl and a whisk? Do they think I'll sit down on the floor and make mud pies with my fingers?"

In retrospect, I see that my sour attitude that day had less to do with the directions on the package than with my disappointment over my gravy malfunction. Still, it got me to thinking about recipe writing and how it has changed over the years.

In my other life, I write a blog about all things vintage. Once a week, on what I call "Retro Recipe Wednesday," I like to post a recipe from long ago. Sometimes they're great and sometimes they're ghastly, but they always inspire nostalgia.

One problem I run into with these old recipes is their imprecision compared to today's recipes. Not only do they neglect to instruct the cook to use a bowl or a spoon, but they often omit oven temperatures entirely and call for vague measurements like "butter the size of an egg." Would that be a medium, large, or jumbo egg? Chicken or quail?

To be fair, some very old recipes date from before oven-controlled ranges were available. My mom tells me that my grandmother could judge whether a wood-fired oven was ready by sticking her hand inside it to feel the air on her skin. Obviously a "slow" oven felt markedly different from a "quick" one.

I even saw an old cake recipe that listed the ingredients, instructed the reader to mix them together, "and bake." Nothing about the size of the pan. Nothing about the temperature of the oven or the length of time. Just "and bake," with the confident assumption that the reader would know what was needed.

Unless written specifically for the novice cook, older cookbooks assume that the reader knows what is meant by whip, stir, saute, and blanch. Sometimes there is a glossary printed at the back to define these terms, but the general assumption seemed to be that cooks would be familiar with these terms, perhaps learning them from their mothers or from home ec class at school. Today, not only is this level of knowledge not assumed, but neither is the knowledge that one boils water in a pan or mixes ingredients in a bowl.

This got me to wondering what social factors might account for the change. Are recipes now written for latchkey kids learning how to start supper before the rest of the family gets home? Young adults who grew up on fast food and microwave meals while managing to avoid both the home kitchen and the gone-the-way-of-the-dodo home ec class, who are now trying to feed themselves in their tiny apartment kitchens?

I suppose that, like adding salt and pepper "to taste," the amount of detail appreciated in a recipe boils down to personal preference.

What do you think? Have you noticed a change in the way recipes are written over time? If you cook, what level of precision do you like to find in your recipes?

1 comment:

Jennifer Rova said...

I can cook fairly well IF the recipe is precise. I cannot "throw in this or that" knowing it would enhance the recipe; my choices do not enhance. This was a fun post and brought back a memory of asking my mom, "What is sweet milk?"