Over on this question about measurements we got into an interesting discussion about recognizing reliable recipes. What cues do you look for to recognize one you would trust? This is a community wiki question since it has no definitive answer. I'll throw out three to get us started:

Good signs: + If I can see a picture of the finished food and it looks delicious

Bad signs: + If the author doesn't know the diff between "1 cup of pecans, chopped" and "1 cup of chopped pecans" + If the ingredients aren't listed in the order you will need them in the recipe

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    Great use of community wiki! :) – hobodave Aug 10 '10 at 0:36

I look for notes that give subsitutions. If the recipe creator can't be arsed to either provide subs or say "you really can't substitute," then it seems to me they aren't so much interested in cooking as they are in must provide dogmatic formula. This doesn't work for me.

Notes along the way--"you are looking for a texture like..." "the colour should be... but don't worry if it looks like..."--are essential.

A complete lack of "Oh by the way you should have done X an hour before you did Y" is non-negotiable. Anytime I cook through a recipe like that without reading first (caveat emptor, I know) I tend to end up swearing and throwing things. Timelines are key.

(By the way, I'll be hanging onto this thread as it will definitely help me with the cookbook project I'm working on. Thanks for asking!)

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    My preference is for "optional" tags by ingredients that aren't really necessary to the chemistry or primary flavor palette of the dish. A complete list of substitutions would be huge. That said, I tend to treat all recipes more as suggestions than formulas. It's pretty rare for me to follow a recipe exactly, even on a dish I've never made before. I like variety, I like experimenting, and I usually have a pretty good idea about what changes will work well. If someone can't figure out when not to substitute, they probably should be sticking to the formula until they get more experienced. – Tim Gilbert Aug 9 '10 at 6:07
  • I also hate when the "do X an hour before Y" isn't mentioned until the step where it is used. Even if it's in the text, highlight it at the top. Particularly if it's a completely separate process that isn't covered by the recipe. – GalacticCowboy Aug 9 '10 at 15:09

I think a good recipe has several basic components.

An introduction. It should describe the dish, its appeal, briefly its history, its usage, and what techniques it involves.

An assessment of the prep time, cooking time, cost, and difficulty.

Clearly sized and organized ingredients (wet/dry, major/minor, by stage, role).

Simply written steps which emphasize sense-notes: how to tell when something is ready. These are analogous to driving directions where the writer says, look for the large blue roof on the left, or wait until the road starts to get really curvy and go downhill. They help you know where you are, and when to stop. A good recipe will tell you about the ideal texture, color, heat levels, scents, and even taste. They let you in to what a chef is looking for and thinking when they make something.

A great photo. It's often a gimmick, but a good photo really helps one envision a dish. Even better is a whole sequence of photos, one for ingredients, each stage of prep, intermediate goals, and the final product.

I also like a detour into nutrition, anecdotes about where the author ate/made/found/invented the recipe, and any other interesting discursions.

A bonus is suggestions of next things to try, substitutions or alternatives, ideal accompaniments, drink pairings, and plating ideas.

Also, I generally look at the source--who the author is, and where the recipe was published.

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    Cost will be highly variable. Other than that, good list. :) – GalacticCowboy Aug 9 '10 at 15:13
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    @Galactic: I agree about the variability, but it can be useful to give a relative assessment of overall cost (such as $ to $$$$ perhaps) or to highlight that a particular ingredient may be surprisingly expensive or has less expensive alternatives (or that less expensive alternatives will not give satisfactory results). – Paused until further notice. Aug 9 '10 at 18:49
  • Oh, I see what you mean. Yeah, it's always relative by context. Pricey for Home and Garden is going to be lower than pricing for Food and Wine. A general source like NYTimes is probably just to the right of normal (a little rich but basically accurate). Worth noting, of course, that very cheap recipes can be much more delicious than very expensive ones. Homemade pasta, a tablespoon of fresh grated parmesan, an egg yolk, and a drizzle of olive oil will probably beat out a run-of-the-mill sirloin steak with peppers and onions any day. – Ocaasi Aug 9 '10 at 19:47

I have different expectations from cookbooks and stuff online. Many cook book recipes are checked in a test kitchen, where they'll try different stoves / microwaves / etc, following the recipes without having extra information in advance. I have no idea if there's the equivalent of a 'UL' mark for test kitchens, though.

All other recipes, unless it's really good with descriptive text like roux and ocaasi mentioned (cook until browned and crispy, about 10 minutes; reduce by half; etc), are to be assumed suspect. Even terms like 'medium onion' bother me unless the amount of onion isn't really important. 'An onion the size of a tennis ball' sounds unprofessional, but I think it's a clue that the recipe writer knows about the issue that people's 'medium onion' may vary, which means there's a chance they've shared the recipe with others already.

(I still have some issues with some of my mom's recpies ... when it says 'the size of a walnut', I have no idea if that's shelled, or unshelled)

I'm also not sure that I'd trust professional chefs any more than amateur chefs -- some professionals are used to cooking huge batches, and just scale them down; but that could have issues in how much surface area there is for evaporation, etc. It's one thing if it's from someone who you've tried their recipes before, but part of that's also that you like their flavor combinations not just that they can write a clear, unambiguous recipe.

I also like recipes that clearly list what equipment you'll need, not just the ingrediant list.

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I think a good recipe has several basic components.

  • A quick summary, describing the dish and why I would want to make it.

  • A photo. I mostly choose to make a dish because it looks delicious.

  • Season - when the ingredients are in season (If possible - in a British cookbook for a British audience, for example.)

  • Country of origin

  • Author of the recipe, and author of the original recipe, if this is a modification. (I tend to trust a recipe more if the author's country of origin is the same as the recipe's or she lived there for a period.)

  • Timings - prep time, cooking time, total elapsed time

  • Ingredients, with substitutions where they are difficult to obtain in some locales, or very seasonal. I tend to prefer weights to volumes, being European and because it avoids the pecan issue above, but volumes are acceptable for baking. (When people use cups for herbs, I never know if you're suppose to cram them in or not.)

  • Techniques used (I prefer this to difficulty, as people have experience in different areas of cooking)

  • Equipment needed (anything unusual - it's most annoying to get to step 5 and find you need a 3 cm loaf tin or a fluted potato peeler)

  • Method, in clear steps, without any over-long paragraphs. I'd be looking for clear timings for each stage, but also clear indications of how to judge for myself whether to move on. The method should also include clear directions as to how far one can progress before pausing, refrigerating and then finishing off later.

  • Notes - including frequent pitfalls, amusing anecdotes, suggested side dishes and accompaniments.

The recipe source that matches these ideals best is Delia Smith, worth a look if you haven't discovered her.

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    Please, no volume measures for baking, especially flour! – derobert Sep 29 '10 at 18:11

A huge red flag for me on cookbooks is poor editing. By that I mean specifically that there are numerous typos, spelling errors (especially on ingredients or techniques) or obvious omissions. If they can't be fussed to read the book for errors, I find it unlikely that they've tested all the recipes.

This doesn't necessarily disqualify a cookbook, but I'm sure going to be careful to read and really think about the recipes before I try any of them.

For example, while Alton Brown's first cookbook is pretty good, it's loaded with typos, spelling errors and grammatical issues (or at least the first edition was). I think there's a lot of good theory in there for beginners, but it's plainly a rush job and I have been suspicious of some of the recipes.

And while I generally love The Silver Spoon (a giant Italian cookbook), I became very suspicious of it when I found a recipe for some blueberry thing that didn't actually list blueberries as an ingredient. I still use it very occasionally, but my trust in the book has dropped considerably.

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    I'd be put off by this too, although in fairness, if it's just one or two errors then it's still possible that most of the recipes were tested. (In a book like JC with thousands of recipes, I'd be shocked if there weren't any errors!) – Aaronut May 27 '11 at 17:46
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    Agreed. That's why I don't just give up on books outright when I find editorial issues. But it does give me pause. – bikeboy389 May 27 '11 at 18:00
  • Getting the units of measure wrong (via poor editing) is all too common -- even worse when the editors don't know the subject matter, and substitute capital T for a little t (tablespoon vs. teaspoon!) – Catalyst Jun 28 '17 at 11:20

I compare it with several other recipes of the same, similar dish. For example lets use chili. If I see a recipe for chili that I might want to try I will compare it to what I know about how to make chili. If it's similar I will then look at other chili recipes and compare the similarities and differences. If anything throws off warning flags in my head I'll just move off and find another recipe.

I also look at who wrote the recipe. If it's a chef I trust then I'll just go ahead and start cooking.

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On top of all of this, I look for conciseness. The biggest thing to scare me off of a recipe is one that goes on for almost a whole page or more. I understand it's necessary for some recipes but short, sweet and to the point are incredibly important.

So, I think finding recipes with the the right balance of information/substitutions/nutrition/etc is very important.

Lastly, I believe consistency across your recipes is a plus. All of your recipes will likely have the same structure, but do they have the same tone? Do they have the same POV? Do they all have the same amount of extra information?

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When its a recipe for a baking, measurements by weight are a good sign (baker's ratios are an even better sign, but I don't expect that in something intended for a general audience). Especially when I see flour measured by volume, I worry about the recipe.

Descriptions of how things should be at strategically-chosen steps, and how to best fix it if its not that way, are good signs too.

In general, I like recipes with more reliable measurements. "Bake until its 155°F, then finish in sauté pan" is better than "Bake for 40 minutes, then finish in sauté pan" (maybe my temperature is off a little, or my piece of chicken is a slightly different size).

Another sign is where it came from. Recipes from a random Google search have a lot more unreliability than, say, ones from Cook's Illustrated.

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Good signs: All ingredients measured in grams. (maybe millilitres for low viscosity fluids)

Bad signs: "Ounces". "Heaping", or "large" anything. Measuring anything that's not a low viscosity fluid by volume.

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