Recipe for disaster

Cooks can't write instructions for every kitchen contingency

After cooking for 30 years, I am at last learning not to be intimidated by recipes. When I read an instruction suggesting that I might soften an onion in three minutes, or arrange 1kg of sliced potatoes in a single layer in a frying pan, or set aside a preparation and keep it warm for an hour even though the oven is already in use, I no longer conclude that it is unfeasible because I am incompetent. I simply adjust the recipe to incorporate techniques that I can make work.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was softening some onions unfeasibly quickly in the Guardian the other weekend. His recipe for parsnip risotto included "a generous slice of butter" and an onion, peeled and chopped. You heat the butter in a heavy pan on a medium flame and then "add the onion and cook for two to three minutes, until translucent". Medium flame? Two to three minutes? As every home cook knows, the problem with butter as a frying agent, even in a heavy pan, is that it tends to catch and burn. And onions take a while to become translucent - a good ten minutes, I suggest. Anna Del Conte, one of the doyennes of Italian cookery writers, advises you to soften the onion for a risotto for 15 minutes, perhaps with a splash or two of water from time to time to prevent sticking.

All but the most enthusiastic home cooks complain about recipes with long lists of ingredients and complicated instructions. But we are more likely to run into trouble as a result of instructions that are too simple.

Claudia Roden's Food of Italy is delightful, arranged by region and with an emphasis on the simplicity that is the essence of regional cooking. The instructions in most of the stew recipes are only a couple of sentences. They do not always tell you whether to cover the pan, what to do if the sauce dries up, what to do if the sauce is too runny, or whether to brown your 1kg of cubed lamb in batches; nor do they acknowledge that a lamb stew might need skimming.

Floyd on France by Keith Floyd is another collection of unpretentious regional dishes, with functional instructions. The straightforward style is part of the attraction. Cooking rarely works straightforwardly, however. Floyd's smoked ham ribs with lentils involves covering the lentils and ribs with water, and simmering. Won't you need an awful lot of water to submerge the meat? Do you top it up as the lentils absorb it? What do you do if you end up with a watery soup?

You cannot blame Roden and Floyd for not addressing these questions. If they had attempted to anticipate every kitchen contingency, their books would have been three times as long. Recipe writing demands economy with the truth. Even so, there's no need to pretend an expert's onions soften more readily than ours.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?