Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs tested and reconfigured over 1200 recipes for The Essential New York Times Cookbook, and kept on testing and building a community cookbook at Food52. Here's their advice on recipe reading and finding good stuff to cook.
Lifehacker: What are the most misleading or confusing terms and instructions you've seen in recipes, either old-time or new? How do you end up correcting them? Me, for example, I want to hit something when I get instructions to "Simmer until reduced slightly" — why not just tell me the consistency I'm trying to reach?
Merrill: I find it frustrating when a recipe calls for a "scant" cup or tablespoon of something. That's so subjective — I'd rather have an instruction that says "1 cup minus 1 tablespoon".
Amanda: I have added to the abuse of "scant" — forgive me, Merrill! I didn't really remove instructions in The Essential New York Times Cookbook but I did change a few words and expressions. It used to be common to write "in a kettle," which meant a large saucepan or casserole. I worried that people might mistake it for a tea kettle. Also, food writers in the 1960s would write "bring it to the boil". We say "bring it to a boil." (not down under we don't - Oz ed). And I also succumbed to explaining what "scald the milk" means — heating it until bubbles form around the edges. But when it comes to "folding", I left people to figure it out. It's such a great word and I didn't want to lose it!
Lifehacker: You cooked more than 1000 recipes for the NYT Cookbook. What's your best tip or timesaver for working through new recipes?
Amanda: This may sound obvious but it really does help to read the recipe all the way through before you begin and then do the prep work first. This way, if you're sautéing something and the recipe says, "now add the chopped garlic", you'll have it ready to go.
Lifehacker: The Essential NYT Cookbook and your Food52 recipes buck the modern trend of including prep/cook time estimates. Do you feel time estimates do more harm than good to a home cook?
Amanda: They're just so subjective and... depressing! They discourage recipes that may take a long time to cook but very little prep time — and more importantly, they turn you away from phenomenal recipes that might take forever. Cassoulet and gumbo take a lot of time. Period. So maybe you don't make them on a work night, but they're terrific fun to make when you're around the house for a day and have time to putter around the kitchen working on a few steps at a time.
Lifehacker: Aside from Food52's community, where do you end up looking for good recipes?
Amanda: I turn to the New York Times and to some of my favourite recipe writers like Dorie Greenspan, Paula Wolfert, David Lebovitz, Mario Batali, Maida Heatter, Edouard de Pomiane, Elizabeth David and Patricia Wells.
Lifehacker: What's your personal system for keeping track of recipes? I imagine you've got a few to look after.
Merrill: I'm in the process of trying to move everything onto my computer, but like so many other people, I still have folders of loose recipe clippings.
Amanda: Just today, I decided that I'm going to try Evernote.