Have an analytical mind? Like to cook? This is the site to read!

Or so the site itself brags in its masthead. The good news: It delivers. A quick review of some highlights:

  • Usable
  • Well designed graphically
  • Has play-by-play photographs of core concepts
  • Has documented anecdotal kitchen experiments
  • Has photographs of all ingredients referenced
  • Lets users comment
But the real innovation of the site is the brilliant way Michael Chu, the site's designer, presents recipe summaries.

99% of all cookbooks presume that you think textually and in steps. Learning theory calls this auditory-sequential instructions. This is important for getting across the details of the recipe.
    Get these things together.
    1. Do this.
    2. Then do that.
But when you want to execute, understand, or learn a recipe, these kinds of instructions fail. Only about one-fifth of the U.S. population learns that way. (I couldn't find world statistics.) Presuming the Morris Smith Foundation is right in their estimates, 80% of us are visual-spatial learners. We learn better by observing the relationships of parts. That's what Chu's done with his summaries, and when you see it, you wonder why it hasn't been done this way forever.

To get the full impact, visit www.cookingforengineers.com. For the sake of completeness I'll describe the method here.

First Chu begins with a traditional narrative description of the steps you'll take. Then he summarizes the steps in a table at the end. In this table he lists quantity+ingredient, one per row. The columns contain cooking tasks. The task cells are associated by their height only with those ingredients and prior events to which they refer.

Here's a toy example for making Kool-Aid.

 ----------------------------------------------------------
| Unsweetened Kool-Aid |     |               |     |       |
|----------------------| Mix | Stir until    |     |       |
| 2 cups sugar         |     | powder        |     |       |
|----------------------------| dissolves     | Mix | Chill |
| 1 quart hot water          |               |     |       |
|--------------------------------------------|     |       |
| 1 quart cold water                         |     |       |
 ----------------------------------------------------------

Again, it's much better in HTML, so go check it out when you can. This format has a number of advantages over traditional auditory-sequential methods.

  • It makes cooking seem simple and less daunting.
  • You can easily see how ingredients and steps relate to one another, encouraging understanding of the whole process, and enabling you to keep a mental image of the recipe in your head as you turn away from the paper toward the chopping block or stove.
  • While cooking, you can find your place in the recipe MUCH easier than running your finger down a list, by relying on spatial memory.
  • It's pretty scalable. I converted a very complex recipe from one of my Greens cookbooks and even though the table is complex, it works.
  • It's compact. Even big recipes can fit into a single page. You can tape the summary onto a cabinet or wall, where it's much more comfortable to glance at.

Where it could improve

  • Some sense of time: He could further reinforce an understanding of the process with relative indications of time. (While he does have a time example under Classic Roast Turkey, it is the excepion, not the rule.) If all column widths were proportional to time, at a glance you would be able to tell whether you'll have to spend most of your time preparing or letting it cook. It would also allow you to lay multiple recipes side by side and plan your kitchen time appropriately. (e.g. "OK, while this is baking I can begin the chopping for the next part.")
  • Expandability/collapsibility: Some advanced cookbooks confront novice chefs with intimidating imperatives like "blanch" or "julienne," with no explanation. (Chu has chosen very basic recipes to avoid this, but extending the idea‚Ķ) While you could just link the higher-order instructions to an explanation, it would be much more compelling if you could click the word and have it fill in its cell with similarly-formatted instructions. In a similar sense, if I'm an advanced student, I should be able to collapse sections that I already understand.
  • Some sense of tools required: There is no indication in the format with what tools I need. Having to stop and possibly ruin a recipe because you didn't know you needed cheesecloth is frustrating and costly. You could just require the student to review and prepare, but that's going back to the auditory-sequential principles Chu's begun to overcome.
  • XML: Chu's recipes are all in HTML. Having them in XML would enable web service functions like complex searches and menu planning.

Chu confirmed in a personal email that the summary is his invention and he's in the process for patenting. I want him to be rewarded for bringing this beautiful piece of information design to the world, but I suspect that this information will want to be free. In the future, all recipes will have this usable, wonderful, learnable display.

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