I’m a member of the Food52 online community and threw my hat in the recipe-testing ring for the first time a couple weeks ago. It was for the ice cream community picks, and a lot of the recipes were based off of Jeni Britton Bauer’s ice cream base for home ice cream machines (which she kindly posted on the site). First, I love ice cream; second, I wanted to try a new non-egg custard base; and third, I wanted to do more with the Food52 community–which is sometimes difficult when there are only 24 hours in a day.
I selected a recipe that looked intriguing and wouldn’t require the purchase of a new pantry, and jumped in. The ice cream was a chocolate coffee base with a separate orange caramel to be layered into the finished confection once packed. Easy enough, right? Well, yes and no.
There was a lot of swearing that day in my kitchen. I took a lot of notes, like a good recipe tester, and gritted my teeth every time I wanted to do something differently than the recipe called for (that’s not testing). The process for making an ice cream using Jeni’s Splendid base is a bit complicated, but if you write out the steps clearly, it’s manageable. However, because the Food52er had clumped the instructions into large paragraphs, it became difficult to read. I ended up making a mini flow chart of steps so I could follow along with ease–something that’s important when there are hot liquids and precise timing involved. I also found some of the steps to be vague, meaning I had to fill in the blank. Sure, I’m a fairly experienced cook and baker, but recipe should spell everything out clearly … especially when there’s a chance that a novice cook or baker is taking your recipe for a spin.
However, for all of my swearing and fist shaking, I have to say that testing someone else’s recipe put recipe writing into a clearer perspective for me (I know some of my recipes need a bit of clean-up, as well). In the end, the ice cream turned out rather tasty and I think I can become a better recipe writer based on this experience.
Here are two tips to improve your own recipe writing:
1. Never be vague. Provide a time range (ex., whip for 5-7 minutes until stiff peaks form), especially if the process is something that can go from right to horribly wrong in a matter of seconds. My biggest beef with this is when making caramel. Sure, tell me to let it cook until it’s amber colored, but if you provide me an approximate time range as well, that gives me something else to judge against, and thus lower my chance of errors.
2. Break out your recipe into 1-2 sentence (or action) steps. In the ice cream recipe I tested, 1 paragraph had upward of 11 steps! That’s way too much! Even if your recipe has a variety of components (like cake, filling and frosting), don’t lump all the instructions for one component together. Recipes should be easy to scan … you don’t want someone picking through text trying to find the next step while a pot boils over.