What are the linguistic ingredients of your favourite recipes?

Written by Beth

If you have ever tried a pudding recipe, you will understand that baking is both an art and a science – with results that can be heavenly ego-boosting or as disastrously deflating as an interrupted soufflé. It all depends on the chemical reaction of your ingredients. And so, a recipe’s lexicon must strike a delicate balance between being instructional enough to impart the science, yet inspiring enough for the artistic juices to flow.  

Classic home economics recipes simply share a solution for economical, quick and easy meals. Their ‘Old-fashioned pancake’ recipe might look austere:

  1. Sift dry ingredients and mix in wet ingredients.
  2. Pour batter mix onto a heated pan.
  3. Brown on both sides and serve.

Today’s foody gurus add more than a pinch of pizzazz. Nigella Lawson helpfully suggests: “You can easily cook pancakes by dolloping the batter onto a hot griddle (smooth, not ridged, side) or heavy-based pan.” Nigel Slater paints his pancakes as: “Little clouds of dough to hold a seasonal treat.” Jamie Oliver naturally offers “deliciously simple one-cup pancakes” with the helpful tip: “As long as you use the same cup for measuring both the flour and the milk, you’ll be laughing!” 

Famously, Nigella “stirs languidly”. She never merely beats – she “blitzes” or “crushes”; she “tumbles” or “lovingly mixes”. She does not place her pancake topping, she “laces” it. It does not surprise me at all to discover that Nigella has a degree in Medieval and modern languages from the University of Oxford. Her language is memorable, enhancing the visual, auditory and olfactory elements – just like the foody snapshots that accompany the recipes.

On the flip side, Delia Smith’s pancake recipe is a 450-word epic, with many helpful hints, including: “If you have any holes in the batter, add a teaspoon of the mixture just to fill them in.” While Mary Berry and Ina Garten are positively adamant in their quests to simplify the process: “If the pancakes are hot when you stack them they will not stick together; there is no need to interleave them with greaseproof paper,” says Mary; and Ina: “Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, and mix until just combined (there may still be small lumps in the batter).” 

Which brings us to an important point about the language of a recipe – the tone: detailed instructions can sound stern. Whereas friendly advice and handy hints give us home bakers the scope and confidence to do our own thing, adapt our own ideas or ingredients. So, on Shrove Tuesday, when tradition implores us to use up ingredients before fasting, we can look to our favourite chefs to inspire us with piquant pictures, delicate descriptions and evocative elucidations. But before we can add a new taste sensation to our repertoire – and recommend it to others (surely the sign of an inspirational dish) – first, a recipe must succeed: it has to produce the goods. And that may be more science than art.

Please share some of your favourite recipe descriptions with us.