Working from home over the past year, I have been using the extra time to cook some new dishes. This venture has led to encounters with numerous food blogs, recipes, TikToks, Reels, and YouTube videos with interesting ideas for new concoctions and I’ve found that how well the recipe or the video is structured often predicts how chaotic or smooth the cooking experience will be. Even though most of the time the final result ends up good, the cleaning experience afterward isn’t nearly as homogenously good. Moreover, when following a badly designed recipe, I’ve found myself getting so stressed and antsy that I’ve had to occasionally pause my cooking to step away and take a breath.
Based on my observations while cooking and educational training in Human Factors Psychology, I decided to compile a list of suggestions for writing more user-friendly recipes. For those of you who aren’t producers of recipes but rather consumers of them, perhaps this can serve as a useful guide to rewrite a recipe before you dive into your culinary adventure.
1. Perform a task analysis of the job to be done by the prospective cook.
List down all the major tasks to be performed in your recipe — wash, cut, boil, bake, saute, stir, drain, rinse, broil, grill, and all the other descriptive cooking verbs you can think of. Once this is done, try to determine the ideal order for completing these tasks that will allow you to focus your attention on one category at a time. If you can help it, the cook should not be dividing their attention between the stove and the cutting boards.
A good way to avoid this is by including the nature of the prep in the ingredients section. For example, write diced chicken breasts instead of chicken breasts or minced garlic instead of garlic. Many recipes already do this but many also don’t. For a naïve cook, this can quickly become a problem. Imagine getting to the step of adding vegetables to your sauce and suddenly reading, ‘now add diced tomatoes.’ But I only have whole tomatoes?! Now you have to rush to chop the tomatoes while your sauce is bubbling away on the stove. For an inexperienced cook, this can be the difference between ending up with a burnt sauce or not.
So, try to order the steps in your recipe in a way that is logical and convenient. When you think it is more efficient to do multiple tasks simultaneously, try to pair them so that a less demanding task is paired with a more demanding one, or so that a mistake in or indifference to one of the two tasks won’t mean catastrophe for the entire dish.
2. It wouldn’t hurt to repeat the measurements in the instructions again; especially when dealing with spices!
I’ll be honest. I don’t measure out the spices in specified quantities beforehand when reading the ingredient list. I doubt many people using recipes do. In many recipes, adding the spices to the dish comes in the latter half of the cooking process. By this time, my hands are already dirty, I have scrolled down a significant amount, and the ingredient list is not visible anymore. Now when the instructions say ‘add the paprika, black pepper, salt, oregano, and cumin powder’, I have no idea how much to add of what. At that moment, I have to scroll up with my dirty hands, read the directions, add the spices, and then scroll down again to get to the step I was at. This is a cumbersome process that has led to many mistakes for me personally — I once added a tablespoon of red chili powder and a teaspoon of oregano when the recipe called for the opposite. I am also afraid I’ll ruin my phone’s screen in the process of scrolling with dirty hands.
3. Make more important information more salient
Although people go through recipes before cooking them, they don’t rely on their memory when cooking. Instead, they pull up the recipe on a device, place it on the countertop, and keep referring to it as they cook. Usually, the type is really small, and you have to pay careful attention and comprehend what the recipe is asking you to do. When you have to keep going back and forth between reading and cooking, you can also get lost in the text and find it hard to keep track of the steps you were reading.
To prevent this from happening, recipe writers and food bloggers should first ensure a clear demarcation between steps, whether through bold text or line spacing. Next, it would be a good idea to emphasize the operative words in each step to make them easy to spot.
For example, a sentence like — “reduce the heat to low and cover. Let it simmer for five minutes” may be re-printed as “reduce the heat to low and cover. Let it simmer for five minutes”
People who write recipes may think of me as an inefficient cook — “of course you should read the recipe and plan your cooking accordingly”. I know I should, but I shouldn’t have to — and that is the point of making recipes more cook-friendly.