3:00 am Checklist for What Makes a Good Recipe

To judge if a recipe is really excellently written, check to see if it meets all of the following criteria:

  1. Includes how many people it serves, clearly mentioned at the beginning.
  2. Includes an estimate for how long it will take, including important things like if something has to marinate overnight or set for four hours that it would be nice to know in advance.
  3. Includes an easily accessible list of ingredients, split up if the recipe has multiple parts (like, a dish plus a sauce).
  4. Includes a list of equipment, especially if there’s something sort of esoteric, or that the recipe will be impossible to make without the use of. Like a foodmill, or cheesecloth, or a bundt pan.
  5. The steps are written in the order in which they are to be performed, as precisely as possible.* If the oven needs to be preheated, then preheating the oven is at least part of the first step.
  6. The steps are divided carefully and logically. Each numbered step may have several operations; otherwise you wind up with a 17 step recipe for pasta, and that gets daunting. Things should be chunked together via time and similarity of motion.
  7. Includes general cook times and visual descriptors in steps. Flames run hot, flames run cold, people forget to set timers. “Cook for 2 minutes” is not very useful, and “cook until golden” is only a little better. “Cook for about two minutes, until golden brown and fragrant” is better than the sum of its parts.
  8. Includes ALL OTHER NECESSARY INFORMATION. Has every ingredient and every piece of equipment listed at the beginning been accounted for? Is it noted whether the flame should be low, medium, or high? If it should be adjusted, and if so, when? Is it noted that the will dish look unexpectedly wet, dry, dark, light, green, or cheesy? Is there a precise time at which one should turn, poke, shake or stir things to keep everything ready? All of that information should be included in the recipe.
  9. Pictures are always nice.
  10. So is a little character, y’know. Cooking is fun. Recipes can be, too.

If you know how to cook, you won’t need your recipes to have all of these things.  The best cooks I have use recipes books that are just lists of ingredients and quantities, with nary a procedure around. In my own cooking, unless I’m cooking from an author or cook I really trust and admire, I usually find several recipes for a given dish and choose the bits I like best from each of them.

But I always think that maybe, if every recipe you came across had all of these qualities, I wouldn’t do all that. I’d just pick one, get the stuff, trust it, and go.

* Of course, everybody should read the whole recipe before they start cooking, which makes this much less important. But not everybody does rtwrbtsc, and it improves the Universe to be kind to those who go forth into their culinary ventures in a state of bold and confident ignorance.


  1. Oh god yes. I once got nearly all the way through a recipe for cookies, until halfway though reading “Now place dough in cookie press”. I didn’t know what a cookie press was. I’ve made cookies with the dough in pastry filling bags, and I always have some on hand (grand parents owned a bakery – I got lots of bakery hand me downs when it closes) and it soooooo didn’t work. Eventually, I squeezed it all through and my cookies, while tasty, looked like little poops.

    Once I moved in with a roomie who had a cookie press though….BAM! Tons of little tasty chocolate butterflies.

    But no where, until that point, did it say cookie press. I wasn’t even a recipe for ‘cookie press cookie dough’. Just ‘chocolate cookies’. Boo.

  2. The most memorable example of me more-or-less reading the recipe and yet not understanding what was missing was when I made a vegetarian chili involving yams, tomatoes, and black beans. Everything was listed except a liquid to make the chili, well, more soup-like, but I didn’t realize this until I was halfway through the recipe and what I had in my pan was more the consistency of stiff oatmeal.

    I’ve come across meat chili recipes like this too. Everything’s listed except, say, tomato paste, so you end up with essentially a pile of spiced meat and vegetables. Do the people that write these recipes not know what chowder looks like? Is this some kind of chili variation I’ve never heard of?

  3. Agreed for the most part.

    As someone who writes recipes, though, I find that too many aspects (especially where time is concerned), are not going to be consistent across cooks, so I leave a lot of the things on your list out. I think this really comes down to the flexibility of the thing you’re cooking. I mostly cook things that are really flexible and don’t require a ton of magic food chemistry to happen at just the right moment, so details like time and temp, or even equipment are less important.

    I used to include temperature early on, but then I read that most ovens should only preheat for 10 minutes if you want to conserve energy, so I put it in the instructions when needed. But again, exact temperature is often not important for the kinds of things I write about.

    As a reader of recipes, I don’t usually follow directions, so while I’d like to know some things up front, if I don’t know them I’ll make something up or move on to a different recipe.

    What do you think?

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