RECIPE. A recipe is a set of instructions or advice for preparing food. The English word comes from the Latin imperative recipe for "take," because recipes typically used to start, "Take one pound of flour. . . ."
The modern recipe often follows this format: (1) a title or a brief announcement of what is to be achieved; (2) a list of necessary food ingredients and sometimes special equipment; (3) the method, which spells out the steps to achieve the finished dish or component; and (4) serving instructions. A recipe can also include explanatory notes, which might give advice about ingredients, including possible substitutions; tips on method; snippets of historical and cultural background; and an acknowledgment of the source of the recipe. Particularly in collections, a recipe might come with comparative data, such as difficulty rating, total time necessary, and likely cost of ingredients.
An effective recipe requires maximum accuracy, minimum ambiguity, and an appropriate level of detail for its audience. Omitting one step or ingredient can be catastrophic, and imprecision can leave the cook frustrated. Barbara Gibbs Ostmann and Jane L. Baker help authors, particularly Americans, in The Recipe Writer's Handbook (2001).
The form of a recipe has been broadly consistent for thousands of years, although older recipes usually provide less detail because cooks had command of the techniques, which tended to be less demanding. The ancient Greek cookery writer Philoxenus of Leucas wrote, "For [seafoods] the casserole is not bad, though I think the frying-pan better." Elsewhere he advised, "The wriggling polyp, if it be rather large, is much better boiled than baked, if you beat it until it is tender" (Athenaeus, vol. 1, 1927, pp. 21, 23). If these are typical, they help explain why the vast gastronomic compilation The Deipnosophists (Philosophers of dinner) made by Athenaeus about 1,800 years ago includes so few recognizable recipes. Philoxenus's advice presumably helped with novel foods in the flourishing Greek marketplace.
Another common purpose for a recipe is as an aide-mémoire (memory prompt) for occasional or complicated procedures, and a cook's shorthand can be difficult for others to decipher. A recipe can be prescriptive, particularly in religious and medical uses. It can provide an ethnographic record, and gourmets have brought notes back from their travels since ancient times. A recipe can play an important part in culinary reproduction, as when a delighted guest takes home a copy. It might be a teaching device, as in the great compilations of household management. It might promote a chef, restaurant, cooking school, or commercial product, such as a proprietary ingredient or a generic food like beef. A recipe can even become literature in its own right and be read for pleasure.
While a recipe is a powerful aid, it never replaces actual experience. Without some knowledge, the maker of a beurre blanc sauce could never be confident of having succeeded. No two cooks ever produce identical results from the same recipe. Julia Child and her colleagues Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle required lengthy detail to introduce solid technique to many Americans with Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961. While recipes seem to promise the whole world of cooking, there is pressure to rely on a standard repertoire of techniques. Successful recipe writers are advised to restrict themselves to readily available ingredients. Recipe-based cooking favors smart-seeming compositions over untouched foods, however excellent.
An Ancient Invention
Written recipes are presumably as old as literacy, which emerged to control food supplies in the earliest civilizations. Recorded instructions had the advantages of wide and accurate transmission and archival retrieval. The power of naming, discussing, and borrowing was reserved to the tiny literate elite for thousands of years, contributing to the separation of high cooking, investigated by the social anthropologist Jack Goody in Cooking, Cuisine, and Class (1982). In general, traditional societies did without recipes in the sense of formal accounts, usually written, of food preparation. A girl watched and helped her mother with familiar routines, and an apprentice was shown trade secrets.
The oldest surviving recipes are probably those impressed into three clay tablets 3,700 years ago somewhere in what is now Iraq. Held in the Yale University cuneiform collection and previously mistaken for pharmaceutical formulas, the recipes would have been recorded by Babylonian scribes on behalf of the male cooks of a temple or palace. Their translator, Jean Bottéro, said the best-preserved tablet fits twenty-five recipes into just seventy-five lines. The recipes list the chief ingredients, the basic steps, and the name, which is derived from the chief ingredient or appearance when served. The only other readable tablet devotes 250 lines to seven recipes for various kinds of birds, both domestic and game. The recipes indicate many steps, numerous utensils, and complex combinations.
Some of the earliest Chinese recipes, at least 2,500 years old, are contained in the sprawling text Li Chi, which originated in the Chou dynasty. Reprinted by K. C. Chang in a chapter in Food in Chinese Culture (1977), they instruct: "For the (Soup) Balls, they took equal quantities of beef, mutton and pork, and cut them small. Then they took grains of rice, which they mixed with the finely cut meat, two parts of rice to one of meat, and formed cakes or balls, which they fried" (Chang, 1977, pp. 51–52).
Europe's oldest recipe collections were written at the end of the fifth century B.C.E. by Greeks in southern Italy, and the first of these was probably The Art of Cookery by Mithaikos of Syracuse. Athenaeus has handed down only one recognizable recipe, which says, "Clean the insides of a ribbon-fish after cutting off the head, wash and cut into slices, and pour cheese and oil over them" (Athenaeus, vol. 3, 1929, p. 465).
The oldest surviving collection in the West is the De re coquinaria (Art of cooking), which was attributed to a Roman gourmet called Apicius and was compiled around the year 400 C.E. More of than half of the nearly five hundred entries are devoted to the preparation of sauces. Recipes flourished during other periods of gastronomic ferment, such as the Arab culinary excitement after the advent of the Abbasid dynasty in the eighth century and Chinese cookery with the Sung period from the tenth century.
In medieval English manuscripts, numerous sentences begin "Tak wyte wyn" (Take white wine) and "Tak partrichys rostyd" (Take roasted partridges). Others instruct "Nym water" and "Nym swete mylk," using the archaic "nim" (or "nym"), which means "take." Yet others start "Recipe brede gratyd, & eggis" (Take grated bread and eggs), borrowing the Latin verb recipere (to take). Medieval recipes generally did not include measurements and times, providing a challenge for modern interpreters, who often are divided over how spicy the original dishes tasted.
The proliferation of recipes in Europe was boosted by the advent of the printing press (using the principle of grape and oil presses) around 1440. The relatively ready availability of recipes facilitated social emulation and gastronomic discussion and broke the nexus of master-apprentice. Early modern cooks may have been reticent to publish arcane information, but the dearth of French publication ended in the 1650s. As Barbara Ketcham Wheaton suggests in Savoring the Past (1983), "Perhaps the balance shifted, and secrecy became less valuable than fame" (Wheaton, 1983, p. 113).
Several modern features were established around the middle of the nineteenth century. Until then the more usual English word was "receipt," from the feminine past particle of the same Latin verb, recipere. "Recipe" had predominantly been used for medical prescriptions (leading to the abbreviation R or Rx), with which culinary prescriptions had overlapped. It has been suggested that "recipe" eventually won out because it appeared more learnedly Latin.
In the early 1800s the title was often still of the descriptive form, announcing what would be achieved; for example, Priscilla Hazehurst explains in the Family Friend (c. 1810), how "To make a Bride Cake" (p. 76), "To preserve Damsons another way" (p. 107), "To disguise a Leg of Veal" (p. 147), "To boil Artichokes" (p. 161). The concern was to treat individual foods properly rather than to transform them into a higher order of creation, that is, into named "dishes" (or "made dishes," as they were called).
The most important change early in the nineteenth century was toward numerical rigidity. Instructions such as "do it till it is done" can be unsettling. However, traditional cooks knew when "it is done" better than they knew "twenty-five minutes." Abstract time measurement and punctuality only became ingrained in industrial, urban society. The preoccupation with precise recipes belongs to "rationalization," the shift from hands-on, traditional methods to calculation, measurement, and control.
In 1817 the English author William Kitchiner claimed that his book Apicius Redivivus; or, The Cook's Oracle introduced scientific precision. Writing for the "rational Epicure" (Kitchiner, 1821, p. xi), he rejected obscure expressions like "a little bit of this—a handful of that." His recipes were the "results of experiments carefully made, and accurately and circumstantially related" (Kitchiner, 1821, pp. 30–31). The time requisite for dressing was stated and the quantities set down in number, weight, and measure. "This precision has never before been attempted in Cookery books," he boasted, not entirely accurately (Kitchiner, 1821, p. 31). Even then, an English cookery book did not require many measurements. The bulk of Kitchiner's recipes explained each of the main methods, which for him were boiling, baking, roasting, deep frying, and broiling. The few recipes for accompanying sauces specified quantities. The category of "Broths, gravies, and soups" also occasioned some precision. This left merely the final one-eighth of the book to cover expressly "Made Dishes, &c.," prescribing the likes of Haricot of Beef, Broiled Rump Steak with Onion Gravy, and Bread and Butter Pudding. As many cooks can confirm, recipe measurements have remained imprecise and inconsistent. American writers tend to use volume rather than weight, so measures of even sugar and flour are given in "cups." "Teaspoon" and "tablespoon" are hangovers from a less-finicky era. Many recipes contain vague statements such as "low heat."
With mass literacy and the mass production of cookery books from the mid-nineteenth century, enormous treatises extended to a thousand pages and by the early twentieth century exceeded two thousand pages. Meanwhile cooks exchanged innumerable recipes on scraps of paper and in exercise books.
Since the late nineteenth century, recipes have been a widespread marketing device, intruding into domestic culture on behalf of new products from gelatine to electric stoves. Incalculable numbers of recipes arrive on packaging; supermarket leaflets; in newspapers, magazines, and books; and on the Internet. Customers are invited to "send a self-addressed envelope for a free copy of our recipe booklet." With much at stake, food manufacturers and marketing bodies rely on highly experienced writers and "test kitchens" to generate promotional recipes that are readily understood and immediately successful. In turn, many cookery writers in newspapers and elsewhere rely on these recipes.
Recipes as History
Old recipes provide clues as to how others dined, but their relationship with actual practices is far from straightforward. The existence of a recipe might even be misleading, because the need for an aide-mémoire suggests rarity; common procedures did not need spelling out. Printed texts have often represented a sometimes idiosyncratic or idealized version of reality. For such reasons, culinary historians have shown an interest in personal recipe manuscripts. Relatively little concerted effort has yet gone into recording actual foodways before they are lost, however.
As recipes shifted in identification from seemingly ageless traditions to individual creativity, plagiarism became an issue. Eighteenth-century authors commonly protested their own originality against others' piracy. Reviewing his predecessors, Kitchiner declared that "cutting and pasting seem to have been much oftener employed than the Pen and Ink" (Kitchiner, 1821, p. 24). Eliza Acton was honest enough to boast in Modern Cookery in the mid-nineteenth century that she relayed "carefully tested recipes," and she appended the occasional notation "Author's Receipt" and "Author's Original Receipt" rather than see "strangers coolly taking the credit and the profits of my toil" (Acton, 1868, p. ix).
Contributors to the cookery history journal Petits propos culinaires have meticulously tracked down and exposed particular eighteenth-century plagiarists, such as Vincent La Chapelle, who stole from François Massialot's Le [nouveau] C[c]uisinier roïal [roya]l et bourgeois (1691); Hannah Glasse, who purloined extensively; and John Farley, who lifted from Glasse and Elizabeth Raffald. Yet meticulous sleuthing, such as Fiona Lucraft's in "The London Art of Plagiarism" on Farley "the fraudster," can be seen as a misplaced preoccupation with property rights in an unashamedly collective form, in which everyone borrows from everyone. A recipe might almost be the better for not being original, for having proved itself. In the converse of plagiarism, cookery authors acknowledge a source and then provide a "modernized, adapted" travesty.
Recipes remain essentially in the public domain. Belonging to no one, they are free and innocent. Or they would be, except for recipes as commercial promotions, which are quickly joining the scarcely traceable pool.
See also Apicius ; Cookbooks ; Preparation of Food .
Acton, Eliza. Modern Cookery, for Private Families [etc]. Rev. ed. London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1868. Originally published in 1845 and revised 1855.
Apicius. The Roman Cookery Book: A Critical Translation of "The Art of Cooking" by Apicius. Translated and edited by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum. London: Harrap, 1958.
Athenaeus. The Deipnosophists. 7 vols. Translated by Charles Burton Gulick. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927–1941.
Bottéro, Jean. "The Most Ancient Recipes of All." In Food in Antiquity, edited by John Wilkins, David Harvey, and Mike Dobson, pp. 248–255. Exeter, U.K.: University of Exeter, 1995.
Goody, Jack. Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Kitchiner, William. The Cook's Oracle: Containing Recipes for Plain Cookery [etc.]. 3d ed. London: A. Constable, 1821. Originally published as Apicius Redivivus; or, the Cook's Oracle, 1817.
Mennell, Stephen. "Plagiarism and Originality—Diffusionism in the Study of the History of Cookery." Petits Propos Culinaires 68 (November 2001): 29–38.
Ostmann, Barbara Gibbs, and Jane L. Baker. The Recipe Writer's Handbook. Rev. and expanded. New York: John Wiley, 2001.
Wheaton, Barbara Ketcham. Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.
How to Read an Old (Handwritten) Recipe
Old manuscript recipes are frequently difficult to interpret because they were often written as personal memory aids for the cooks, and for their eyes only. Added to this is the difficulty of archaic language and the fact that writers spelled words as they pronounced them, as in the case of the following recipes from the cookbook of Francis Boothby, dated 1660. (Francis was either the wife or daughter of Sir Thomas Boothby of Essex, England.) Her recipes can be adjusted to modern English in the following manner.
33. Sace [Sauce] for a Shoulder of Mutton A few oysters, some sweet herbs, an onion, a pint of white wine, a little beaten [ground] nutmeg, and large [whole] mace. A lemon peel [grated zest]. If you have no oysters, a few capers instead, and the gravy of the mutton.
[The oysters were pickled in brine, which is why capers can be substituted.]
34. A White Pote [A White Pot: Baked Custard] Take a pint and a half of cream, a quarter of a pound of sugar, a little rosewater, a few dates slit, some reasons [raisins] of the sun, 6 or 7 eggs, large mace [whole mace], a slice of pippin [tart cooking apple] or lemon, sippets wett in sack [slices of toast softened in white wine]. Put them in your dish. So bake it.
35. Sace [Sauce] for a Pickerell [pickerel is a fish] Take some claret wine [any red Bordeaux wine], thicken it with grated bread. [Add] a sprig of rosemary, a little beaten [ground] cloves, and synamon [cinnamon], some sugar, [then] set it on the fire, let it boil a little [boil up until it thickens]. So serve it.
William Woys Weaver>
How to Write a Recipe
The elements of effective recipe writing vary according to the recipe's intended purpose and audience. For example, a personal reminder by a working cook will be very different from a travel writer's evocation of the flavor of an exotic dish. Yet some requirements are relatively constant, including the need for accuracy, completeness, and lack of ambiguity. Like a rotten apple, just one missing ingredient, mistaken measurement, or misleading instruction can spoil the whole recipe, and one faulty recipe can spoil a whole collection. Seeking to maintain a reputation for reliability, many publishers provide authors and editors with recipe style guides, and expect recipes to be tested in test kitchens.
Food businesses and industry associations that use recipes for marketing purposes also go to great lengths to ensure that the writing is effective. Such marketers want newspaper cookery writers and others to relay the recipes, which they will do more readily if they have confidence in the source.
The (U.S.) National Cattlemen's Beef Association keeps its recipe style guide up-to-date, and revised it in accordance with the the results of research (Gatten & Company, Chicago, 1992) regarding consumer preferences in recipe formats. This study found that consumers primarily desired "ease of preparation." Recipes should not merely "eliminate guesswork," but also appear easy, something accomplished by a simple format and style.
Based on this research, the recipe style guide of the Beef Association's test kitchens includes these recommendations:
- Use a straightforward descriptive name for the finished dish, rather than a name that is fun or creative.
- Indicate preparation and cooking times at the beginning.
- List ingredients separately at the top of the recipe.
- List the main ingredient (such as meat) first.
- Group other ingredients according to the part of the recipe for which they are needed.
- Choose readily available ingredients or substitutions.
- Try to give more than one measure for each ingredient, for example, "4 cups cooked shell macaroni (8 ounces, uncooked)."
- Avoid abbreviated measures, for example, "tea-spoon" rather than "tsp."
- Specify the equipment and utensils when possible.
- List the preparation steps with numbers or bullet-points, since this makes the recipe look simpler.
- Do not "divide" an ingredient (for example, "mix half the flour"); provide a precise measurement for each use.
- Do not write "one teaspoon each of sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg"; repeat the measurements for each ingredient.
- Provide preheating directions.
- Make the recipe easier to read by using large print.
- Provide a photograph of the finished dish.
rec·i·pe / ˈresəˌpē/ • n. a set of instructions for preparing a particular dish, including a list of the ingredients required: a traditional Indonesian recipe. ∎ fig. something which is likely to lead to a particular outcome: sky-high interest rates are a recipe for disaster. ∎ archaic a medical prescription.