Posted in General

Musings on Recipe Formats…

Recipe Formats 1

The recipe printed above was taken from a cookery book I own (and reproduced here, safely I hope, under the ‘fair use’ exemption of copyright law). Now I should begin by saying that I am not going to be attempting to cook the dish in question… rather, I’d like you to take a look at the text and see if anything strikes you about it at all… 

The first thing you may notice is the requirement of one ‘catty’ of minced pork. A catty is a Chinese unit of weight roughly equivalent to half a kilogram and so I probably should point out here that the cookery book in question was published in Singapore and is printed in Chinese and English.

Recipe Formats 2

Here is the Chinese version of the same recipe. It is produced first and it is clear that the book was translated from Chinese into English rather than the other way around as some of the English renderings are somewhat singular to say the least. On page 17, for example, we are given a method for cooking ‘Pig’s Funkcle’. It is clear from the picture that the ‘knuckle’ is the intended cut but it is also clear that this is not a mere typographical error as the unusual spelling occurs three times. Obviously, the translator seems genuinely to believe that there is an English word spelled ‘Funkcle’…

By the way, the Chinese title for the recipe (紅燒獅子頭 ) translates into the somewhat more poetic ‘Red-cooked Lion’s Head, which is actually a pretty famous Chinese dish. If you’d like to see a better, and more interesting version, take a look at the one produced by Conor Bofin at One Man’s Meat

Anyway, the other thing I wanted you to notice (and rather the point of this post) is that actual quantities get specified for only the main ingredients (pork and cabbage). There are no amounts given for any of the secondary, or flavoring, ingredients and, except in a couple of cases, this is true of every recipe in the book.

My wife has a pretty good collection of very old recipe books (old recipes, not old books) many of which date from medieval times and read something like this:

Recipe Formats 3

I like reading old recipes like the one above (and it gets fairly easy once you get used to the unusual spellings and so forth), but it may surprise some people to learn that the almost scientific precision with which recipes are recorded nowadays is a pretty recent development. Even nineteenth century cookery books tend to be pretty casual about how much of this or that should be added to a dish, and use phrases like ‘cook until it is done’ rather than ‘bake at 425 degrees for 14 minutes’. It might seem, at first glance, that the modern practice seems a great development but, when I reflect, I am not so sure that is always the case.

It strikes me that in almost 40 years of cooking, I have actually only faithfully followed a recipe on just a few occasions. I read cookery books like novels but generally only to get a rough idea of how I want to cook various dishes, not as sources of culinary formulae. It is true, I must say, that in bakery, scrupulous attention to quantities is usually the order of the day, and I tend to pay attention to amounts when unusual measurements like ‘one cup plus one teaspoon’ are given, but beyond that, I view a recipe as a guideline rather than something ‘carved in stone’, so to speak…

On a related note, it also occurs to me that, in writing recipes for blog posts, it is setting out the quantities of each ingredient in advance that is the most difficult part of the task. When I am just playing around in the kitchen without intending to publish, I can add this or that until it ‘looks right’. Cooking this way (by ‘feel’, so to speak) seems natural to me but it makes determining how much of something got used after the fact rather difficult. I have been getting better at predicting in advance how much of an ingredient ought to be used for any given dish but, sometimes, I think that blogging recipes would be that much simpler of I were to follow the example of the Singaporean cookery book mentioned above. After all, the recipes in there are simple enough to follow and I am sure that the bulk of my readers simply scan my recipes for ideas rather than follow them exactly. What do you think?

I would be very curious to learn about your experience:

  • Do you, as cooks, routinely follow recipes exactly?
  • Do you, as food bloggers, wrestle with quantities when designing your own recipes?

Ciao for now…



I am a lawyer by profession and my practice is Criminal... I mean, I specialize in Criminal law. My work involves travelling on Court circuits to remote Arctic communities. In between my travels I write a Food blog at

11 thoughts on “Musings on Recipe Formats…

  1. I don’t think that I have ever followed a recipe to the letter unless it involves baking. It seems that whenever I deviate from a cake recipe it always ends in failure. In terms of recipes for the blog, I do make notes of the quantities I add as I go along so that I can write it up as faithfully as possible. Great questions, John! And love seeing some snippets from those cookbooks!

    1. I started out by photographing all the ingredients at the outset… That got too problematic as I often needed to change after I got started cooking so I don’t do it anymore 🙂

  2. Hi John, I recognize what you describe about older cookery books. The famous Italian “silver spoon” is also like that, and all the quantities and cooking times have been added only in the English (and Dutch) translation/new edition.
    I follow recipes more exactly when I’m not familiar what I’m making, when I don’t really know in advance what it’s supposed to taste like. With the quantities I usually measure what I use (either by volume or by weight) as I go along so I can blog about it later. I also use the blog for my own future reference a lot, so the next time I make something I can just use the quantity I figured out before. I’ve also started to use the habit of thinking in terms of “this may need a 1/4 tsp of cinnamon” and then if I add more then to add another 1/4 tsp (and write 1/2 tsp on my blog) rather than just shaking something from the container rather than measuring. I take into account that at least some of my readers will find it too difficult if I just write “add X to taste”. Just my $0.02 worth 😉

  3. I follow recipes exactly when I am feeling less secure in new cooking territory, but even then, I’m more likely to look up a few recipes and just use them as guides for cooking times or proportions. (This happened when I wanted to make a bar using stone fruit like cherries and just couldn’t find a recipe that matched it. The amalgam I came up with was pretty much what I wanted.) I like the book about cooking by Tamar Adler (An Everlasting Meal) where her recipes are all just prose-y, anecdotal descriptions of how to cook things. I sometimes follow that style in my blog posts but when the subject is bigger than just sharing a recipe.

  4. Hi John: very interesting post, especially the Recipe written in Chinese. The catty is no longer used in HK., I think. In my mother’s time, the market was still using a tool…I need to find the image on line. The persons selling were so skilled that with a handful of the veggie, e.g., they would exactly know his heavy it us. I traveled in China, big cities and rural places. I never saw people using the tool anymore.

    As to using recipes, I won’t follow exactly what is written…I am always the ” creative” type. But when I first went into the kitchen, I always asked my mother, how many tbs, etc, and she would say approximate….experience does matter.

    Your demonstration in writing recipes will be something I would refer to, in future. Thank you for all the details.

    About blogging, indeed looking for ideas, inspiration, are my primary interests. My friends are not. They would read the details …and criticize me…!! Ok, they are my inspirations as well!


  5. Hi John! I thoroughly enjoyed this post and the replies. Reading cookbooks has long been a hobby of mine, but like you, I generally use the recipes as guidelines to create my own. My husband told me years ago when we were poor college students that I could create a gourmet meal from k-rations. While I know he was exaggerating, we did manage to eat quite well on a limited budget. Those were simpler times. I miss them.

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