I started cooking in my thirties, and I learned through trial by (actual) fire: My kitchen mistakes include several burnt dinners and one small kitchen fire. The kitchen fire was my fault, but I blame my burnt dinners on the people who write recipes. Here’s what I mean.
Recipes use a certain writing style. This style is both telegraphic and obscure. Having blundered because of this style, I think rewriting recipes is excellent training for any plain-language writer.
Consider the following recipe. It uses telegraphic style and what I call “embedded” and “hidden” steps—presumably to save space on the page. Experienced cooks use the recipe without incident. New cooks like me, on the other hand, miss steps or do them in the wrong order.
Now, imagine that you’re an experienced cook who just opened a fast-casual restaurant, Your restaurant offers American classic cuisine like beef dishes, potatoes, and biscuits. You’ve just hired a young cook to prep the food while you manage the restaurant, and although your young cook knows the basics—using appliances, working with knives— he has little experience cooking from recipes. To help, you plan to rewrite a pot-roast recipe using plain language. This is the recipe you’ll use:
3-31/z-lb. arm roast, boneless
2 large onions, sliced
1/z cup brown sugar
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup cider vinegar
2 bay leaves
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
1 cup julienned carrots, matchstick size
2 cups sliced button mushrooms
2-3 cups fresh spinach leaves,
or 2 10-oz. pkgs. frozen spinach, drained
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
- Place meat, topped with onions, in slow cooker.
- Combine brown sugar, soy sauce, and vinegar. Pour over beef.
- Add bay leaves, garlic, and ginger
- Cover. Cook on high 6-7 hours.
- Spread carrots, mushrooms, and spinach over beef.
- Cover. Cook on high 20 minutes.
- Mix cornstarch with 1/z cup broth from slow cooker. Return to slow cooker.
- Cover. Cook 10 minutes more.
Using the list of ingredients combined with the steps, revise the recipe to fix these things:
- Embedded steps (Step 1, for example, has an embedded step.)
- Hidden steps. (Step 7 has a hidden, or implied, step.)
- Instances of telegraphic style. (For example, “Return to slow cooker” in step 7 uses telegraphic style.)
- Read carefully both the list of ingredients and the steps.
- Identify where an ingredient implies a step that is not in the Steps section.
- Identify where the steps use embedded or hidden steps.
- Revise the steps using the information you discovered in steps 2 and 3.
- Use one step for each action.
- Revise any telegraphic text by adding the necessary “the” or “a.”
Note: You can include the step of “covering” the dish as part of another step, as the recipe writer does in step 6. Be sure to revise these steps to fix other problems, though.
Tomorrow I will add two posts: The first will show the revised recipe. The second will explain what I did to get there.
*The recipe “Pot Roast Complete,” by Naomi E. Fast, is from Fix It & Forget It Recipes for Entertaining, by Phyllis Pellman Good and Dawn J. Ranck, 2002, p. 21.