What makes a great (or bad) recipe?

Full disclosure: I love to read cookbooks, but I read them for insights and ideas. I very rarely use or follow actual recipes, and when I do I often alter them as I go.

I grew up in a household of superb cooks. My parents’ recipes are ingredient lists on index cards. It was assumed you knew to cream the butter and sugar, macerate the fruit, fold the wet and dry ingredients, and steam rather than bake the Christmas pudding, and for how long.

I am not talking about the food that the recipe instructs you how to make. I am talking about the structure of the recipe itself. I generally dislike recipes that require you to refer to multiple other recipes to make a single dish. Escoffier is, at least to me, a leading example of this. It refers you to multiple sub-recipes to make fairly straightforward dishes, meaning that if you try to follow one, you really need to use several bookmarks or get tipsy enough to not care. I am not wild about recipes that have a page or more enumerating dozens of steps unless there is some sort of an overview, including the ingredients, at the outset. I am undecided about ingredient lists. Sometimes the ingredients are broken out, such as for the marinade, for the main dish, for the sauce, for the garnish. Sometimes it just lists them once but indicates, usually in parentheses or in a separate phrase or clause, something like “1 1/4 cups of x, reserving 1/8 of a cup for the sauce.”

To me the big differentiators between the recipes I generally like and others are three things.

  1. I love introductions that provide comments such as history, ideas for accompaniments, and descriptors.
  2. I like recipes that include technique, especially if the technique employed is critical to success (or failure, if not followed meticulously).
  3. I like photos. Gorgeous photos of finished dishes suck me in. I also like well done technique photos or drawings. Poorly done ones are a big disappointment.

Timing often gets glossed over. If a dish starts with something that needs to be done well in advance, please say so. Say “This requires three days” or whatever, up front. Ever buy the ingredients for a dish that sounded great and find out too late that you just started tomorrow’s dinner, but the guests are coming in six hours?

Here 's one on which I could go either way. I have a well worn cheese soufflé recipe (Craig Claiborne, original NYT) that my wife and I make together, me getting to shred Cheddar cheese, butter the Charlotte mold, coat it in finely grated Parmigiana-Reggiano, and beat egg whites. The recipe walks you through melting butter, making a roux, making a Béchamel, and adding the cheese to make a Mornay. I could be fine with “make a pint of Mornay,” but I see the value to a wider audience in providing the step-by-step. Just don’t say "make the Mornay on page 23 or, worse still, make the Béchamel on page 22, and the Mornay variation on page 23.

Lastly, I have a few thoughts on ingredients. When the use of a specific ingredient is essential, it needs to be highlighted. I find this is especially true of salt. A given volume of Duamond Crystal, Morton’s kosher, and regular Morton’s will have a wide range of densities and yield very different results. I also love suggested variations. For certain uses like gratins my Béchamel will have the classic nutmeg, and for a cheese soufflé I use a healthy squirt of Sriracha instead.

What else lights you up or tweaks you in a recipe?


I almost never slog through the elaborate run up to the actual recipe, and I only like pictures if they’re instructional (how to knot a Kaiser roll, for example). I like straightforward instruction, advice about substitutions, if necessary (I am never going to have marjoram, okay?) and easy-to-divide amounts, because I am am very unlikely to be cooking for six.


1 A title that grabs me. Alternatively, it mentions something that one of us doesnt like to eat, so I can quickly discount it, without reading further.

2 It’s a dish that makes sense when you first read it. And seems like something you want to eat.

3 The process is straightforward. I am not a good cook and definitely not an instinctive one, so am not going to cook something requiring multiple processes and skills

4 The ingredients are already in the cupboard or easily obtained. And are going to be used in other recipes.

So, Yotam Ottolenghi, if youre reading this, it’s why I’ve never cooked one of your recipes. Even though a couple of your cookbooks are on the shelf, bought in hope that the above wasnt going to apply.


I agree entirely with your 3 points. I have an entire foyer of built in bookshelves filled with cookbooks from around the world, many of them gifted. I love, and loved, reading them for history, context, and technique. They’re like encyclopedias of cultures. The recipes are just an added bonus. Now that I use the Paprika App to corral my internet recipes, I always make sure to save multiple pictures if there are any, and also to include in the Notes the descriptors you mentioned. I sometimes even look in the comments for useful information (not “I substituted tofu for the chicken and left out the garlic and tomatoes because we don’t like them”). I also dislike recipes that “improve” upon classics for no other reason than that they can …I’m looking at you, Cook’s Illustrated.


Bad includes kale.



It’s the balsamic vinegar of today’s bad restaurant menus.


I heartily agree about Cook’s Illustrated. If you do not have what it takes (time, ingredients, technique) to make a classic, make something else, not half hour Bolognese or easy weeknight BB. Make a quick and easy classic, like sole a la Meuniere or steak au poivre.


For me, it needs to be in what I call “recipe format”. Give me the name, the time it takes to put it together, the number of portions, the full list of ingredients, and then the instructions. If there are several groups to the list of ingredients, there should be separate instructions for each grouping of ingredients.

This is why “The Joy of Cooking”, a bible for so many, gave me no joy, and I never purchased it or asked for it as a gift. I don’t want a couple of ingredients listed, then instructions, then more ingredients then more instructions, potentially going on for several pages. When I would look in the earlier versions of JoC, there was no bolding of ingredients. A previous of a 2019 edition on Amazon does show bolding, so maybe that would make it easier.

But again - I was so turned off by the format that I never entertained the idea of buying the volume.


MAJORLY key - having ingredients on hand or easily obtainable. And I too have Plenty and Jerusalem on my coffee table, purchased on DEEP discount many years ago, and I honestly don’t think I’ve cracked them open.


I was a big Ottolenghi fan about 10-15 years ago. Jerusalem was the first book of his that I bought, and I’ve made around a dozen recipes from it, which is the most recipes I’ve made from any cookbook published over the past 15 years.

I tend to have 3/4 of the spices he calls for on hand, and I mostly use his ingredients for inspiration.

I haven’t used any recipes in Plenty or Simple yet.

Whether you make an Ottolenghi recipe also probably depends on what you cook at home. 3/4 of my home cooked meals lean towards Mediterranean, so an Ottolenghi twist isn’t a big shift.

I’ve never cracked a number of cookbooks I’ve received as gifts. Off the top of my head, the 2 volume Tartine cookbook and the French Laundry Cookbook.

The cookbooks I’ve used the most are Molly O’Neill’s NY Cookbook, purchased in 1998, and Atlanta Cooknotes, purchased around 1993. I honestly haven’t cooked many recipes from any books I’ve acquired over the past 20 years, and I’ve acquired hundreds of cookbooks.

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WORRRRD on giving the time it takes to prepare! That’s pretty important to know. I like a lot of recipes in the NYT, but I don’t think they ever put up front how long it’s going to take or how many portions any given recipe makes.


They’re my two as well.

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All the NYT recipes have this info.

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Ah. So it IS time for reading glasses.



Or longer arms.


Yeah, the same here. When I first get them, I’m excited to try them. I tend to look through and note which ones look good. Then it gets tucked away and I just either wing it or go to a T&T recipe that I have online or noted on my phone.

I go back to my old BH&G gingham-covered cookbook for maybe 3 recipes - but I can’t get rid of it because my Mom gave it to me in 1976 and it was my first cookbook. I also use the Meats: Panhellenic Cookbook from 1968, because my Mom used it often and a sorority friend of hers sent me their copy when they were downsizing. I also like Nigel Slater’s “EAT: the Little Book of Fast Food” cookbook (recommended by @Harters ) and maybe 2 others I’ll pull out when I know I want a specific recipe I’ve made before from that cookbook.

I need a couple of rainy days to sit down and go through them all and figure out whether it’s worth it to keep or not. Maybe take a pic of those recipes I want to try and go from there. But rain is in short supply in the Northeast, so I don’t expect that to happen any time soon. :woman_shrugging:

We did a full audit of the books a couple of years or so back. Looked at every one and asked ourselves, if there was nothing we’d ever cooked, was there something to cook in the forthcoming couple of weeks. If not, it went to the charity shop. Similarly, if there was a book where we’d only ever cooked a couple of recipes, could we photocopy them to keep and then get rid of the book. I think we need another exercise like that.


Give me the ingredients, time to prepare (including hands on time), number of servings (though that you can usually guess) and instructions. Bonus points for weights instead of vague “one medium onion”. I’ll take it from there and riff. I don’t care that the recipe came to you in a fevered dream surrounded by 72 camels in Marrakesh.


How do you know this?

I’m sure I’ve never mentioned my vegetable tagine on the forum. Spooky


:laughing: Funny!

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