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.
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.
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: