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Wrestling with Recipe Writing


kitwilliams
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Hey:  we all spend thousands on our computers -- why not shell out a few bucks for a scale and have our baked goods actually turn out as they were meant to?

Actually, an inexpensive scale is about as accurate as moderately made volume measures, IMHO. I have a digital scale which was about $100, and it does NOT measure to within 2 grams of accuracy! This is a problem if I am making one cake. Of course, in a higher production atmosphere where I am using 2Kg of flour and 1 kg of butter and 30 g of baking powder, then it works. But 30 g of baking powder or salt is actually quite a lot (upwards of 3 TBSP) So am I to have one scale for 2-10 kg, and another scale for 2-1000 gm?

My personal peeve is more about the quality/calibration of commonly available measuring devices. Case in point, some very shallow measuring spoons... how can one even begin to measure accurately with those? The BP would just slither around... and if one was measuring a liquid, then the meniscus would be pretty large, too.

Karen Dar Woon

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Hey:  we all spend thousands on our computers -- why not shell out a few bucks for a scale and have our baked goods actually turn out as they were meant to?

Actually, an inexpensive scale is about as accurate as moderately made volume measures, IMHO. I have a digital scale which was about $100, and it does NOT measure to within 2 grams of accuracy! This is a problem if I am making one cake. Of course, in a higher production atmosphere where I am using 2Kg of flour and 1 kg of butter and 30 g of baking powder, then it works. But 30 g of baking powder or salt is actually quite a lot (upwards of 3 TBSP) So am I to have one scale for 2-10 kg, and another scale for 2-1000 gm?

My personal peeve is more about the quality/calibration of commonly available measuring devices. Case in point, some very shallow measuring spoons... how can one even begin to measure accurately with those? The BP would just slither around... and if one was measuring a liquid, then the meniscus would be pretty large, too.

I have a scale that cost about $45USD, and it accurately measures to 2 grams. I have tested it with various weights and continually re-test it to make sure nothing has gone awry. Accurate, inexpensive scales are available. The scale I have only weighs up to 7 kg but since I mostly bake in small batches, that is good enough for me and I expect for most home cooks/bakers. Also, I follow the rule of thumb stated above by Dan Lepard in that I don't usually weigh small ingredients like baking powder and salt, I use a spoon or even just eyeball it in my palm.

My peeve about recipes, other than not providing weights, is quite different than most posts here. I dislike recipes that are too specific in the instructions, where they state what size bowl and which utensil to use, etc. I think it makes the recipe too long and I get lost in the minutiae when I am trying to read through it. Although I do wish they would state approximate times instead of saying something like, "bake until done."

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When recipes don't even suggest an amount of salt. 

Speaking of salt---

In the past few years I've encountered cookbooks where the author will specify an amount of salt, e.g., "1 teaspoon of salt," but the author means kosher salt or some kind of coarse sea salt. Usually that's explained at the beginning of the book. But what if you normally use table salt or fine-ground sea salt, and you don't remember this particular salt definition when you're cooking? Or what if you're cooking out of the book for the first time, and you haven't read all the material at the front of the book yet?

Recently I was cooking a recipe out of a new cookbook and tossed in the amount of salt called for in the recipe without thinking. The dish was a disaster--twice as salty as it should have been. Sure enough, when I checked the front, the author said all salt meant kosher salt. (The recipe said "1 tsp salt," not "1 tsp kosher salt.") Ooops. But isn't this an easy mistake for people to make? I'm cooking, not taking the SAT exam.

Once upon a time, "salt" in the recipe meant table salt and nothing else. But now with the different kinds of salt out there, "salt" may mean a variety of types and grinds. I think recipe writers should be more careful about describing what kind of salt they're giving the measure for--in the ingredients list of the recipe, not somewhere else in the book. For example, "salt" can mean any kind of fine-ground salt like table salt (the most common definition for salt). Other salts can be specified as "kosher salt," "coarse salt," or even "sea salt"--anything to make the cook realize that the salt being described is not the standard table salt.

Edited by djyee100 (log)
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When I write a recipe for myself it write out all the ingredients needed for that step one per line and then make a big bracket that envelopes that list and I write the directions for that group on the other side of the bracket. And so on.

So the list of ingredients is fairly intact down the left hand side of the page and the directions are concise and easy to follow down the right of the page.

My pet peeve is that you have to read fifty different places as has been alluded to with the salt debacle up thread by djyee100. Or you have to read a ginormous paragraph to affirm one teensy little fact. Do you do this step before or after this step or whatever. If it's written cleanly there's no issue.

So it's the ingredient list on the left and the directions directly across on the right. Like two columns. Easy peasy.

I really hate to diddle and hunt for the information.

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Good design is half the battle. Type face, text size, page layout, color.

Take a look at the Gourmet cookbook. Unreadably yellow.

Who would buy that?

How could the very same editor who espouses the belief that the cookbook buying public can't be bothered with a kitchen scale look at the proofs for that book and say, "Yes, that's a damn readable yellow, my friends."

And I dare to say there is more than one cookbook buying public. One of us has a kitchen scale and uses it. We probably bought it because we needed it.

Doesn't Rose Levy Berenbaum's Cake Bible have multiple measures? And hasn't that book sold a gazillion copies?

I like to bake nice things. And then I eat them. Then I can bake some more.

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When I write a recipe for myself it write out all the ingredients needed for that step one per line and then make a big bracket that envelopes that list and I write the directions for that group on the other side of the bracket. And so on.

So the list of ingredients is fairly intact down the left hand side of the page and the directions are concise and easy to follow down the right of the page.

My pet peeve is that you have to read fifty different places as has been alluded to with the salt debacle up thread by djyee100. Or you have to read a ginormous paragraph to affirm one teensy little fact. Do you do this step before or after this step or whatever. If it's written cleanly there's no issue.

So it's the ingredient list on the left and the directions directly across on the right. Like two columns. Easy peasy.

I really hate to diddle and hunt for the information.

I do the exact same thing when I write recipes for myself!

Good design is half the battle. Type face, text size, page layout, color.

AMEN! This is how I follow a recipe. First I read it and get the ingredients. Then I place the book/magazine/printout on my counter and start cooking. I have pretty good eyesight for my age, but font, typeface and color make a big difference. When I print a recipe on the computer, I've taken to making the ingredient list font 14 (the rest 12). Back to the Saveur layouts, there's no way any of those test cooks actually cooked following the recipes as printed on the magazine: a paragraph with small font and no ingredient list. They could at least boldface the ingredients.

I just remembered another pet peeve. Why do most cookbooks have to be written for people who do not know how to cook? I got "The Silver Spoon" Italian cookbook last year and is was so refreshing to read a cookbook that didn't explain how to boil water for every recipe. They explain the techniques at the beginning and then the recipe instructions are uncluttered.

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Good design is half the battle.  Type face, text size, page layout, color...

...Doesn't Rose Levy Berenbaum's Cake Bible have multiple measures?  And hasn't that book sold a gazillion copies?

Yes has sold jillions. And of course her content ultimately is excellent. Above and beyond. But interestingly enough I think this book is a classic example of wrecipe writing wrun amuck.

Until you become really familiar with her recipes and make them many times you have to look too many places to get all the info. Some important stuff like oven temp and pan size is in a random margin. Some important stuff is in the text. And of course the ingredients in choice a, b, c or none of the above. You really have to pick your way through. The little that I make from her book, I re-write for sanity's sake. She has all the goods but you need to drop bread crumbs to stay on track.

Edited by K8memphis (log)
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Many good points listed above. I agree in measuring small amounts with measuring spoons. I agree that specificity of ingredients is terrifically important. However all cookbooks can not be all things to all people so those of us who are more experienced must bear with the dumbing down of recipes or perhaps be a little more selective in our cookbook purchases as don't we all want to see those who are cooking challenged have better results in the kitchen?

Another thing I'm curious about: do you all find yourselves buying/using cookbooks with photographs (and those of you who write them, are you encourged by publishers or feel the need to include photos)? I find this troubling as some of the best cookbooks out there have none. I worked part time in a little cookbook/kitchenware shop and when customers requested a good Italian cookbook and a good breakfast cookbook, I encouraged the owners to get Marcella Hazan and Marion Cunningham and Margaret Fox in order to fill these requests. But no, as they had no pictures! These books include clearly written recipes, easy to follow, but, for some, the lack of photographs makes it undesireable. What has happened to imagination and creativity? Or am I being hypocritical here, encouraging a clear, concise recipe yet not requiring a clear glimpse of what the final result should be?

In response to project's comments, I WAS going to suggest that we should ask some textbook publishers to publish cookbooks...until I read further down that they are even VEFEEEing textbooks (do you teach, project?). I agree completely with your words about the Food Network. Do you have an "in" with ATK -- perhaps they could start a new food network which might incite the original to provide more than fluff -- I mean VEFEEE!

kit

"I'm bringing pastry back"

Weebl

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Kit,

You asked about teaching: I've taught mathematics and computing in college and graduate school, but I've never taught in K-12. Now I'm in business.

To be clear, for high school material on mathematics and physical science, a few years ago I saw maybe a dozen videos. All of them were awful, should never be used in high school mathematics or science, and full of VEFEEE except the one by Gleason and Apostol which was excellent. Admittedly, competing with A. Gleason is asking a lot, but just getting rid of the VEFEEE should be easy enough and would help a lot. For what is in the K-12 books now, I cannot say.

You mentioned publishers of text books as possibly better publishers of books on cooking. Maybe: In advanced mathematics, usually well beyond K-12, Addison-Wesley, John Wiley, McGraw-Hill, Prentice-Hall, SIAM (Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics), Springer Verlag, and Elsevier have well deserved reputations for astoundingly high quality and precision. The best books that they publish deserve to be counted high among the crown jewels of civilization. In the books of P. Halmos, W. Rudin, H. Royden, L. Breiman, J. Doob, and many others, errors are very rare, and a careful reader can go for hundreds of pages without finding even the smallest error of any kind. There is not a single vapor of a single drop of VEFEEE present anywhere.

And some of the content from some of these authors is just crucial for what we are doing now in business.

One reason for my anger at the role of the VEFEEE culture in books on cooking is the collection of rock solid material on mathematics, physical science, and computing on my book shelves and, now, on my computer. E.g., the last book I bought was

Edward Whalen, Marcilina Garcia, Burzin Patel, Stacia Misner, and Victor Isakov, 'Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Administrator's Companion', Microsoft Press, Redmond, WA, 2007.

This book is over 1000 pages and tries to explain a piece of $25 K software just crucial for our business and for much of the modern economy. The quality is not up to Rudin, etc., but the clear goal is JUST to provide the information, and the authors have worked very hard to achieve this goal. There is not a drop of VEFEEE anywhere.

Shockingly, I have to conclude that the VEFEEE culture just does not know what high quality writing to communicate solid information really is. All they know is VEFEEE.

One loss is good information on how to make, say, caramel frosting. If it is possible to give a clear proof of the Radon-Nikodym theorem or the martingale convergence theorem, and it is, then explaining how to make caramel frosting should be easy. The problem is that the goal of the VEFEEE people is just VEFEEE, not frosting. Again, it's just 'vicarious' frosting, and a reader is not supposed actually to MAKE the frosting and certainly not supposed to eat it!

The contrast is bizarre: (A) In books on cooking, can go on and on about quaint, romantic restaurants in the south of France, pictures of pigs hunting for truffles, pastoral landscapes, etc. but never really show people how to cook anything. Apparently there are few definite negative consequences. (B) For that book on SQL above, any lapse in the important goal of providing clear, accurate information about SQL Server would be well beyond outrageous. The consequences for the book would be devastating.

There is a more general contrast: In all of our economy, media VEFEEE is nearly unique in its lack of connection with reality. In nearly any other part of human or economic activity, such mere 'fantasy' would be instantly unacceptable. Or, while the stuff on TV is junk, the ads ask people to spend their money they earned by work that is much more solid than the TV junk.

I conclude that the media industry is about to have a unique revolution. eG is part of this revolution.

It is possible to write clear material without pictures. E.g., much of the mathematics in the books of W. Rudin really is about geometry, but there are no pictures at all. Yes, there is the famous remark that a child said he liked radio better than TV because the pictures on radio were better.

Still, and even in mathematics, pictures can help. In cooking and many other skills, good pictures can help a LOT. Good video clips with sound can help still more. ATK is a good example of using video to help instruction.

But, with video, commonly, e.g., on the Food Network, the VEFEEE people win out and replace the instruction with entertainment. Then I don't watch.

For ATK, I like what they are doing, but I have no connection with them at all.

What would be the right food and wine to go with

R. Strauss's 'Ein Heldenleben'?

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Another thing I'm curious about:  do you all find yourselves buying/using cookbooks with photographs (and those of you who write them, are you encourged by publishers or feel the need to include photos)?  I find this troubling as some of the best cookbooks out there have none.  I worked part time in a little cookbook/kitchenware shop and when customers requested a good Italian cookbook and a good breakfast cookbook, I encouraged the owners to get Marcella Hazan and Marion Cunningham and Margaret Fox in order to fill these requests.  But no, as they had no pictures!  These books include clearly written recipes, easy to follow, but, for some, the lack of photographs makes it undesireable.  What has happened to imagination and creativity?  Or am I being hypocritical here, encouraging a clear, concise recipe yet not requiring a clear glimpse of what the final result should be?

I think the issue is one mainly of self-confidence in the kitchen. A co-worker recently bought cookbooks for her adult daughter's birthday, and pictures were a big deal for her. It's because the daughter has never done much cooking, but has decided she wants to learn, and the photographs will help her navigate some unfamiliar territory. People on this list probably don't care about pictures one way or the other, but less experienced cooks like to have them.

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I like pictures.

I have very few in my formula book where there's mostly just ingredients listed & a few steps of do this & that. But if I'm learning something which let's hope there's something I can learn in a new cook book I want a picture. Doesn't everybody?

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  • 4 weeks later...

Thanks for the extremely informative posts, project. And about the child who preferred radio to tv because the pictures were better...well, if you have an imagination, this is so true. I find that I retain more information from radio cooking shows as opposed to television -- you have to listen more carefully rather than simply losing yourself in the visual. We need twenty-four hour radio food networks!

I'm bumping this up today as I just had a look at Alice Medrich's new book, Pure Desserts. I read a review of it in the LA Times and was so excited to read that she used weights as well as volumes in her recipes. What I didn't do was read carefully as the author of the article DID state that the FLOUR in all the recipes was shown by weight as well as volume. ONLY the FLOUR? ONLY the FLOUR?????

I guess it is a start but.............ONLY the FLOUR??????????????

I keep promising that I'm finished with my ranting. Then something like this occurs and it sets me off again.

Sorry, folks.

But, as usual, I'd love to hear what you all think!

kit

"I'm bringing pastry back"

Weebl

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Anybody who writes a recipe calling for 16 tablespoons a) doesn't cook b) is too lazy to convert c) is a moron or d) all of the above.

Ouch, Peter! And I wasted all this time waiting for the butter to warm up so I can pack it and level it 16 times into my handy tablespoon-on-a-ring! (Actually, I'm surprised Saveur didn't just go ahead and say 2 sticks of unsalted butter.)

Coincidentally, I just had an email from my mum, asking for a translation of "stick of butter". It seems she's been watching some Food Network shows, wanted to try some recipes, but had no clue as to how much butter was in a stick.

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I guess it is a start but.............ONLY the FLOUR??????????????

Well, flour is the big one that you really need to measure by weight... nearly all other ingredients will be OK by volume. Not great, but OK. I think it's a good compromise, especially if the editor said "No Weights!" and the author was able to squeeze in at least that one. No idea if that's what happened, but maybe...

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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I guess it is a start but.............ONLY the FLOUR??????????????

Well, flour is the big one that you really need to measure by weight... nearly all other ingredients will be OK by volume. Not great, but OK. I think it's a good compromise, especially if the editor said "No Weights!" and the author was able to squeeze in at least that one. No idea if that's what happened, but maybe...

Yes, it is a start, but I must disagree with you on "nearly all other ingredients will be OK by volume", Chris. Eggs vary greatly in weight, despite being graded by size. I always use "large" eggs and they usually vary between 48 and 60 grams per large egg. I've compared liquid measuring cups and they can be very varied as well. One cup of granulated sugar is always going to be close to 7oz/200g (as long as the user is using a dry measure and not a liquid!). But brown sugars? Powdered sugar?

I just think it silly, lazy and, most importantly, inaccurate. I wrote to Saveur about this issue. They advised me they are constantly trying to make their magazine more user friendly. I appreciate that. Perhaps I should be pleading with the Food Network, since they attract the largest audience. Maybe they can convince the masses to purchase scales and then, and only then, will their attempts turn out like their Favorite Food Network Stars. :hmmm::wink:

kit

"I'm bringing pastry back"

Weebl

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The measures instead of weights thing seems like part of a self-affirming cycle (at least in the US). I baked for several years with measuring cups and spoons, including things like breads and quiche crusts, to no real ill effect. All the cookbooks I bought locally either had solely volume measurements, or included both, so there was never any real reason to purchase a scale. I only decided to buy one when I ordered a copy of Dan Lepard's The Handmade Loaf, and discovered that the book had no volume equivalents. I was really suprised to look at the difference in 50/50 water/flour volume vs. weight. But if I had stuck to purely American cookbooks, I would probably not have made the transition. (Of course, now I get much more consistent results.)

I think the cookbooks published don't assume we own scales, so we don't actually have to own them, so cookbooks don't have to include weights, so we don't have to own scales, etc...

My recipe pet peeve? When the prep for the ingredients is not specified in the ingredient list. I hate having to read through the entire recipe to get my mise together. It's fine if to include in the body of the recipe if it's something really specific/finicky, but other wise I want it listed upfront, so I can glance at the list and know I whether I have to chop, finely dice, or slice those onions.

"Nothing you could cook will ever be as good as the $2.99 all-you-can-eat pizza buffet." - my EX (wonder why he's an ex?)

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It's a wonder that we Americans can cook anything remotely tasty given the imprecision in our measuring methods and devices. :laugh:

I certainly agree that weight is more accurate than volume and degrees are more accurate than a description of what is supposed to be happening.

However, I've got bigger nits to pick than to rant about the way American recipes are written. Recipes using volume, minutes, and rough descriptions of the desired product have produced palatable American food for generations. In fact, I would argue that American food is the best in the world...an argument that would be far more difficult to make for a cuisine such as English to make (no offense meant and certainly it's an opinion and not a fact).

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I guess it is a start but.............ONLY the FLOUR??????????????

Well, flour is the big one that you really need to measure by weight... nearly all other ingredients will be OK by volume. Not great, but OK. I think it's a good compromise, especially if the editor said "No Weights!" and the author was able to squeeze in at least that one. No idea if that's what happened, but maybe...

Yes, it is a start, but I must disagree with you on "nearly all other ingredients will be OK by volume", Chris. Eggs vary greatly in weight, despite being graded by size. I always use "large" eggs and they usually vary between 48 and 60 grams per large egg. I've compared liquid measuring cups and they can be very varied as well. One cup of granulated sugar is always going to be close to 7oz/200g (as long as the user is using a dry measure and not a liquid!). But brown sugars? Powdered sugar?

Touché -- I guess I was mostly thinking of bread, where the yeast and salt weigh too little to be measured on most home scales, which basically leaves the flour as far as dry ingredients are concerned. Of course you are right about esp. the sugars. I hate trying to measure brown sugar by volume - what a stupid idea!

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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(Actually, I'm surprised Saveur didn't just go ahead and say 2 sticks of unsalted butter.)

When I read a recipe that calls for a "stick" of butter, I immediately throw the book across the room. Excuse me, but WTF is a stick of butter*? My butter comes in pounds, thankyouverymuch. The first time I read a recipe calling for stick, I blithely put a whole pound of butter in, thinking that, while it certainly looked like a stumpy sort of stick, what else could they be referring to? You can imagine how the recipe turned out. And how pissed off I was to waste a whole pound of real butter.

*yes, yes, I know I can google it.

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(Actually, I'm surprised Saveur didn't just go ahead and say 2 sticks of unsalted butter.)

When I read a recipe that calls for a "stick" of butter, I immediately throw the book across the room. Excuse me, but WTF is a stick of butter*? My butter comes in pounds, thankyouverymuch. The first time I read a recipe calling for stick, I blithely put a whole pound of butter in, thinking that, while it certainly looked like a stumpy sort of stick, what else could they be referring to? You can imagine how the recipe turned out. And how pissed off I was to waste a whole pound of real butter.

*yes, yes, I know I can google it.

This comment begs the question, "Should there be any common sense involved in following a recipe?" IIRC, the Two Fat Ladies used to use the term "gas flame 7" or something like that to indicate an oven temperature. Obviously it's incumbent upon me to figure out how that translates to degrees Fahrenheit.

If it's a US recipe or butter is not referred to as "sticks" where you live, you should be suspicious of such a "measurement" and investigatate.

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The event in question took place early in the nineties, pre-internet availability. Not having any convenient Americans about to question, I proceeded sans common sense. What can I say? I was young then.

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What if we work towards an "Egullet guide to recipe writing"? There has been other threads that I remember that have tackled this, maybe it would be good to put together a online guide? We know that authors, editors and publishers snoop around egullet. Why not give them something that might change things?

Dan

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I am one of those pesky Americans that just want to throw a few cups of whatever in a bowl and add sticks of butter...(mmm sound like pie crust) But I recently wanted to use a recipe that threw me totally off, it actually took me a few days to figure it out and by then I had made a different cake anyway.

This recipe was by volume and metric

I will stick to bread baking and savory cooking for now, I like the "some of this or that" world

tracey

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Maxine

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I hope this doesn't sound pontifflicatin'...

I guess volume/"packet of" works fine as long as cooking is being done in a fairly closed community whose members cook and eat much the same way.

If outsiders like me want to use an American recipe, they have to adapt. OK.

But...eGullet is just one of the causes and effects of the increasing ease of access we have to kitchens, cooks, and cookbooks around the world. If that's a good thing, then recipes should be more accessible. If it's not, well, furriners can continue to be warded off with sticks of butter :laugh: !

On a practical level, it may surprise some Americans that a lot of their cooking is unfamiliar outside America - and while an American can bake brownies in another country using different flour, differently granulated sugar, and guesswork to approximate the measurements, I can't do it very well from a traditional American recipe, since I don't know too well what a brownie should be like! How many people are there like me using US cookbooks these days? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands?

I have two big US baking books I bought when I lost ALL my recipes in a computer crash just after arriving in Japan. One was by Rose Levy Berenbaum, and I still use it a lot. The other was by...heck, who was that? It must be somewhere on my shelves still, but I got sick of wondering whether Japanese flour required less liquid, or whether I'd made a mistake in my extensive, time-consuming penciled-in conversions from the volume/packet measurements - with the Berenbaum book I had a baseline to start from whenever I had questions like that.

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This is always an interesting topic, and I've been thinking about it a lot as I work on a cookbook.

As it's been pointed out, how a recipe is written, is not often the writer's choice. When I sent in the manuscript for my first book, I was told I had to replace all my weight measurements. Everything had to be by volume or by the piece (ie: 2 potatoes). The standard line is that homecooks do not have scales. Then, because I was working with an American and a Canadian publisher, everything had to be in metric and Imperial.

With all of that, you might end up with a line that looks like:

2 lbs | 908 g (5 cups | 1.25 L) red potatoes, peeled and grated (about 5 potatoes)

It can be confusing for some readers. Though I'd rather have too much info than not enough. It also may not fit into the 'look' that the publisher uses for all their books.

I'm not sure how it works with more experienced writers. As somebody who was working on my first book, I was only willing to fight so much. In the end we compromised and there's a little chart with some basic weights (1 small carrot = x oz., 1 med carrot = xx oz., etc.).

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