Visualizing Recipes in aid of Freshman Cooks

Lucas Jellema 4

I am not the best cook in the world – it has been said. But I am making an effort to step up my game. My two sons have started participating in our family’s meal planning and with the rising quality and complexity of the meals they prepare I feel obliged to also come up with more interesting dishes than my traditional set of meals. So I have started browsing cook books for suggestions – catering for the various likes and dislikes and allergies, the ingredients on offer at the local super market and my own confidence regarding certain utensils and operations.

After selecting a recipe that seems to be doable – ingredients can be found, appliances and kitchenware is available, all steps seem manageable – I will get going with shopping, endless preparing and very careful cooking. I fear at every turn that I do things in the wrong order, mix up ingredients, have various meal components ready at very different moments and generally take far too long in the whole process. Sometimes the result is met with some enthusiasm – sometimes the reception is a little lackluster.

One of my challenges is having a good overview – of what the various meal components are, what the steps are and how long they will take. Most recipes consists of a list of ingredients – sometimes this list also has instructions for some initial preparation of these ingredients – and a set of instructions. Hidden in these instructions are key words like “meanwhile” and timing indications such as “for 8-10 minutes” or very devilishly: “in a preheated oven”. An analytical mind such as my own would be helped by a more structured preparation of what the recipe entails. Like a route plotted on a map in addition to an elaborate, wordy itinerary description. Or like the bar chart that complements the prose that explains a certain phenomenon. Or like the step by step instructions for constructing the furniture we get from the likes of IKEA.

In this article, I will make a first stab at how to visualize a recipe – for insecure and inexperienced cooks like me. And I hope to persuade anyone publishing recipes to perhaps add little structured outlines to their instructions – visualizing the overall approach in a way that would make my life much easier.

As an example, let me introduce the Roast Sweet Potato Tagine. The picture from the book is better than the result of my hard work. However, I really enjoyed the meal I prepared based on the recipe. More so than my family.image

The instructions for this recipe are a good example of my earlier comments. They use “meanwhile” and “pre heated”. They include pre-preparation instructions in the ingredients list. They hide the timing details in a lengthy piece of text. They are not clear about the fact that this recipe consist of five parallel tracks that in the end come together in four bowls directly served to the dinner participants.


This recipe is taken from “Bish Bash Bosh” by Henry Firth and Ian Teasby.


What would help me – have an easier, more efficient time at cooking the meal and producing a better result? I believe I would be helped with a structured, abstracted visualization of the process. One that highlights:

  • ingredients (as bought from the store or taken from the cupboard shelves)
  • utensils and appliances
  • mise en place – preparation before the actual cooking starts, before stoves are fired and ovens are heated
  • (parallel) combining ingredients and cooking on stove or grill or barbecue or in oven

Perhaps something like this:


The oval shapes indicate verbs or activities. Each phase results in a number of deliverables – that are input to the next phase. Phase 0 – collecting ingredients and kitchen appliances and utensils from around the house and the garden, online and from the store and perhaps from the neighbours – happens in the hours and perhaps even days prior to the actual creation of the meal. Phase 1 is typically done before the stove is fired – the cleaning, peeling, cutting that comes before any heat is applied.

As a bonus, perhaps we can create a dynamic visualization that also supports

  • conversion of units (lbs to kgs, cups to liters etc)
  • conversion of ingredient names to local favorites (aubergine or eggplant, zucchini or courgette, cilantro or coriander)
  • substitute ingredients for viable alternatives (chicken for tofu, jack fruit for beef, ..)
  • calculating clock (start) times from desired food on table time and preparation and cooking times
  • help organize the work between multiple cooks
  • combine the preparation of two or more (side) dishes in parallel (combining ingredients, coordinating activities and limited resources like the oven)
  • adapt instructions for a different number of eating guests
  • live clock and “next step coach”
  • animation through the various stages of completion

I have attempted to take the recipe for Roast Sweet Potato Tagine and create a visualization along the lines I suggest.

recipe-visualizer-Roasted Sweet Potato Tagine

For a better readable rendering of this image, open this page on GitHub with the full SVG diagram and zoom in to a level suitable for you.

If you have done all your shopping and you have gathered all ingredients and all kitchen appliances and cooking utensils, you will need 75-85 minutes from start to finish. If you get one or two people to help, you can speed up the mise-en-place and shave perhaps 15-20 minutes off that preparation time. There is not much time to be gained in the cooking phase.

This visualization is a bit much to take in all at once. Perhaps it is better presented in a step by step manner. And with less detail at first glance. If you have thoughts to share I would love to hear them.

Steps with less detail:


4 thoughts on “Visualizing Recipes in aid of Freshman Cooks

  1. Hi,
    This feels like a potential implementation in Oracie integration cloud with a combination of Structured and Dynamic Processes.
    Some activities need to be done in a structured way. But I feel that some of the tasks can be done in parallel or in a random order. As a cook I feel difficulty with doing parallel tasks. So I’d prefer to do things upfront. I am sceptical with 15 minutes dishes, because they need you to do several tasks in parallel.

    So, my favorite dishes are slowcooker dishes (or those that can be done in a Dutch Oven which are basically the same). In those dishes you throw all the ingredients at once in the pot and let them simmer for several hours. The best are those where the rule “the longer the better” counts.

    1. Hi Martien,
      Thanks for your reaction. You are right, there is a similarity with business process in general so also the ones in OIC. Getting a handle on parallel activities is almost always the clue. We human cooks are like the single thread JavaScript execution process. We can only efficiently switch to other – parallel – tasks if the task we were working on is either done or has entered an asynchronous state and we can leave it alone for a bit. Slow cooking is much less stressful I think. Except for the fact that I always leave thinking about what to prepare to fairly late stage.

      kind regards,

  2. Lucas, I hear you! I am a big fan of curry recipes (bought ‘The Curry Guy’ from Dan Toombs) and it has some good information but it’s in different chapters than the recipes itself. So, to learn more about exotic ingredients you have to read up on those sections before attempting the recipe. That’s a good thing. Lot’s of cookbooks assume that you know the basics (ie dough with yeast needs a certain temperature to rise) and often assume you know how to prepare those exotic ingredients. Some of those ingredients are so alien to me that I do not even know which part is edible and which should be discarded 😛

    Your diagrams probably look a bit daunting to non-analytical minds, and I think a lot of people will not buy a book that has recipes with them. On the other hand: for data analysts, mathematicians etc it is probably a good way to finally start cooking 😀

    If you make an app for it you can make it less daunting:
    Start with an overview (ie the ‘less detail’ picture’), and make it possible to zoom in to more detail. With a clear steps to follow, this should be accessible for most people.

    1. Hi Richard,

      Thanks for your comment. Curry is also great – most of the time. And I have a tendency to skip recipes with ingredients I do not recognize. I have learned a lot in recent years – but if I am not sure I will be able to buy some ingredients (easily) I may skip recipes that might have been superb. Knowing about alternatives for certain ingredients would be helpful.

      I think you are right that for less analytical minds, my diagram does not make things easier at all! I hope to create a prototype of an app that will do what you propose: present a high level overview and allow zooming in to more details if and when you want them. I will let you know when I have implemented something and perhaps you can give it a try and let me know your feedback.

      kind regards,

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