The other day I had the somewhat embarrassing experience of watching one of my recipes go through our verification process. Our culinarian, Jessie Kordosky, will prepare the recipes we write exactly as written to make sure that we actually put down on paper what we meant. I had bake times incorrect, no clear definition of how much seasoning to put in one dish, and so much egg in a quiche that it ran all over the pan. It is always interesting to see how her precision highlights my own “laissez-faire” attitude and that reminded me of the importance of writing good recipes.
I think writing recipes is one of the hardest things we as chefs have to do. At a certain level of experience, you just know when something is cooked properly or how much salt to put into a dish. We mostly learned this through trial and error (dodging thrown sauce pans from the chef we worked for when we got it wrong). Because of our experience it feels like we’re going backwards when we break out the measuring spoons and actually check whether it is 1 tsp or 1 ½ tsp of cinnamon going into the French toast batter. Here’s the thing…it’s actually really important!
Restaurants live and die on consistency. When someone comes in and has your world-famous Coney Dog they want the same Coney they had last week, and the week before and the week before. The major chains all know this, that’s why they cook everything off-site and ship it to the restaurant in boil-in-the-bag pouches. Okay, they don’t all do that, but some of them do! The reason is because they know that their diners expect the same thing in every location, every time they come in. When I ran a restaurant I used to say that I’d rather something was consistently bad rather than sometimes good and sometimes bad…at least that way I could fix the problem. Establishing clear and concise recipes is the first step in solving this problem.
So, how do we get good recipes?
Get out your tools—and a pencil and paper
You’re going to need measuring spoons, measuring cups, spatulas and a bunch of rubber scrapers. If you want to be really precise, get out a scale as well. The standards for measuring cups and spoons are actually pretty loose, so we write all of our recipes to weights just to make sure.
Make it the way it is supposed to be made and write down every tiny detail
As a general rule, you’re going to need to know every ingredient with the appropriate quantity (“to taste” is not a quantity!). You’ll also need to know every step required to create the recipe. Again, precision is important here—“mix until smooth” doesn’t count. If you’re mixing by hand you’ll need to know the number of strokes and the piece of equipment you mixed with. A spoon, a rubber scraper and a whisk are all going to create a different texture. If you are mixing in a mixer you need to know the speed you set the mixer for and how many minutes & seconds the mixer runs for.
Taste the completed dish
Did it come out as planned? If not, circle back and start again. Don’t just decide that you’ll add more sugar when you write out the recipe. You want to make these perfect.
Type up your recipe
It doesn’t really matter what format you use, as long as it makes sense to you and your staff. However, once you develop a format, stick to it. Generally, some good rules for recipe formatting are:
- Include the quantity: does it make one order or 10 gallons?
- List the ingredients first: they should be listed in the order of us—and, again, every ingredient should have a quantity.
- Write the directions in a clear and concise manner—precision is key. Also, we try to write our recipes with the action verbs (mix, measure, bake, sauté, etc.) in bold. It reduces the chance of someone missing something important.
- Make sure you include temperatures for everything. Sautéing over medium flame is very different from sautéing over full-blast hot.
Have someone else make it and make sure it is understandable and comes out properly. If not, make corrections.
This is going to take training. Have your staff make the recipe according to your recipe while you are watching. Point out any steps they miss. Then have them make it while you’re not watching and try the final product. Does it meet your expectations?
This is actually the most important step. You should check the recipe the next time your staff makes it, then once a week for a month or so to make sure they continue to make it according to your recipe. You can reduce the frequency of checks as you become more confident that they are making the food correctly, but you should still periodically check random orders as they come off the line.
Obviously, this is a time consuming process. Think of this as an investment. The time you spend putting recipes together might seem like a hassle, but it will ensure that your food is the same high quality as you expect. Good recipes will also take one variable out of your food cost and will help you be more profitable. Most importantly, good recipes mean that you can feel confident when you aren’t there that the food is the same as when you are, which means you might finally get a day off!
Check out more tips, trends and recipes from the General Mills Culinary Team.