I recently posted on instagram asking if folks might be interested in a how-to post about recording family recipes, and I was totally stunned by the overwhelmingly positive response, so I've put together this list of strategies and tips I've learned while working with my grandmother, mom, aunties, and cousins.
If you've ever tried to teach someone how to cook something by writing up instructions, you know that recipe developing is a totally separate skill from cooking great food, and the process of translating actions into words can be a little tricky. Taking someone else's cooking, and trying to translate it into a recipe is even more complex. But that's ok, because there are just a few things you've got to keep in mind to make everything run smoothly.
I should say, before I get to my list of tips, that this is just my way of recording someone else's recipe. My method is a little on the sciencey side, but there are of course lots of other ways that work better for others. Sometimes just getting your hands dirty and pitching in works better than carefully recording every single detail, especially if you're just trying to learn how to make something yourself, rather than writing down a recipe for friends, family, and posterity. So take my advice with a grain of salt, adopt whatever suggestions you find useful, and figure out what works best for you and your family. And if this all seems really overwhelming, feel free to skip directly to numbers 10 and 11.
1) Have a conversation before setting foot in the kitchen. Ask specific, non-leading questions to get an idea of how the dish is made, but don't worry so much about measurements and times quite yet.
First, ask them to explain how to make the dish and take notes, but stay flexible later on when you actually observe them cooking. Don't get too hung up on figuring out temperatures, amounts, and times during this part—you'll record all of that when you actually start cooking. Instead, ask lots of questions about the cooking process and steps. Try to make your questions specific, but not leading. Specific questions are focused on one particular idea, and non-leading questions don't stab randomly at possible answers.
For instance, if you're told that you're supposed to soak the bulgur in cold water, it's better to ask "what kind of bulgur should I use?" instead of asking "will just about any grade of bulgur work for this?" If I were to ask my grandmother the second question, she would say "Sure, you can use whatever you have on hand," because she would feel bad for me and wouldn't want me to have to go to the grocery store to get a particular ingredient, even though it's absolutely imperative to use extra-fine bulgur in certain dishes. The first question is specific and open-ended. The second question, while also specific, is leading.
"Why" questions are sometimes useful at this stage; for instance, "why can't you use coarser bulgur for this? Why do you soak the bulgur in cold water instead of hot water?" and so on. This will give you a richer understanding of the dish before heading into the kitchen. Channel your inner three-year-old and ask "why yada yada yada?" when something interests you or doesn't make sense.
2) Let your family member know how you plan to record their recipe, and ask them to make sure they're okay with your plan.
Second, tell them a little bit about how you're going to record their recipe. Explain the importance of measuring everything exactly (amounts, times, temperatures, etc.), and really emphasize this point. While they can probably cook the dish blindfolded, with one hand tied behind their back, it's important to record everything carefully so that you can learn how to make it and teach others. Ask them to give you a warning before they add an ingredient, so you can reset the scale and record it. Also let them know what the recipe is going to be for (e.g., you're making a family cookbook to send to all the cousins, or you're just going to use the recipe yourself, etc.), and make sure they're happy to share before you send it to everyone you know.
3) Don't ask "how many cups do you add?" if your family member doesn't normally use measuring cups.
Like many experienced home cooks, my grandmother and great aunt don't normally cook with measuring tools. When I first started recording their recipes, I used to ask them to use measuring cups and spoons while we cooked together, so that I could record the amounts they use. But I soon found that this actually had a tendency to change the way they cooked; in other words, when they used measuring cups and spoons, the food wouldn't turn out exactly the same as it does when I wasn't observing them cook, because the act of measuring with an unfamiliar tool changes a cook's intuition about how much of something to add. Which brings me to number 4...
4) Instead, use a digital scale.
Instead of measuring cups, I like to use a means of measurement that doesn't actually interfere with their usual work flow: the digital scale. If you want to carefully record family recipes, it's a good idea to invest $20 in a digital scale with a tare feature (i.e., a feature that lets you zero out the weight after adding an ingredient). Simply ask your family member to alert you every time they're about to add an ingredient, and ask them to give you a second to hit the tare button and record the amount (and be sure to thank them for their patience!). Measuring in grams is a good idea, because it gives you a more exact measurement than ounces (you can always convert to ounces later).
If you want your final recipe to be in volumetric measurements (e.g., cups, tablespoons, etc.), you can easily go back later and figure out how much each weight is volumetrically. For instance, if your grandmother uses 70 grams of sugar, you would later weigh that amount and measure how many cups it comes out to (I normally do this when I later test the recipe).
5) Don't forget to pay attention to qualitative things, like technique and assessing doneness.
Cooking is about much more than quantities of ingredients. Note the techniques your family member uses. Ask them questions about their method, and (most importantly) participate in the cooking process and ask for feedback. Ask them "How should I have done this differently? What's the most important thing to make sure I do this step correctly? What are some potential things that could go wrong in this step? Why did you do it this way and not that way?" Record what you've learned.
Likewise, it's important to ask about how to assess doneness at different stages in the cooking process. Ask specific, non-leading questions like "How do you know when to remove from heat? Do you notice a certain smell? Does the food look a certain way? Does the simmering change the way it sounds? Does the food reach a certain temperature? Does a certain amount of time pass?" On the other hand, if you vaguely ask "how do you know when it's done?", you might be met with an equally vague answer like "you just know." And if you ask a question that's too leading like, "is it done when it reaches 165° F?", you might be met with agreement even though your guess was totally off (because it's kind of exhausting to have to correct someone over and over again who keeps guessing the wrong thing). Again, the earlier list of questions are specific, but non-leading, which will result in more helpful answers.
6) Buy an egg timer that counts both down and up.
If your family member doesn't normally time how long something takes to cook, they might over or underestimate the amount of time if you ask them beforehand. But that same family member probably cooks flawless food every single time, without once looking at a clock. Again, the act of observation can sometimes change the way someone cooks; so to minimize this effect, I usually set my timer to count up instead of down, like a stopwatch. I set the stopwatch once it comes to a simmer, and then when the alarm goes off in my grandmother's mind, she turns off the heat, and I record how long it took. This works much better than asking "how long is it supposed to take?" and then setting a timer for that amount of time.
You could of course just use your phone for this, but I hate using my phone as a timer (I like being able to hit the start/stop button with my elbow when my hands are dirty, I like not having to unlock a screen, and I like that it's hard to forget that the timer is running, since it's not just one of a million screens open on my phone). Look for one that counts both ways and has an easy-to-press button on the top.
7) Use a thermometer when necessary.
The same above principle goes for temperature. My grandmother and great aunt take the temperature of milk, bread dough, etc. just by feeling it. Instead of asking "what temperature should this be?" I ask them to bring it to the temperature it should be at, and then I use a digital thermometer to record the degree. My aunt Masy in particular is, like, shockingly consistent with temperatures (to the exact degree, every single time), even though she never actually uses a thermometer. But that doesn't mean that the temperature can't be recorded with a tool, so that a mere mortal like me can bake as consistently as her.
8) Take notes during cooking.
The pre-cooking interview is helpful, partly because then you won't have as much to write down while you cook, but there will still be lots of things to record while you cook together. Don't forget to record times, the oven temperature, the stove heat (e.g., medium, low, or high heat), and other crucial details. It can be tricky to multitask like this, so you might want to ask another family member to help out as a scribe.
9) If you can, and especially if you're going to share the recipe with others, test it again on your own.
This step is an important part of making sure you didn't leave out any crucial steps or ingredients. If you're just writing this for yourself, you can use your own discretion about whether to test it, but if you're going to give this recipe to anyone else (i.e., emailing it around or posting it on a blog), definitely make sure you cook it at least once more on your own, as written. If something seems off, call your family member and troubleshoot, tweak the recipe, and try again.
10) Ask for help and give everyone a particular purpose.
I do all the photography, recipe developing, and everything when I record family recipes, but it's definitely a lot for one person to take on, especially if it's not your full time job. If this all sounds a little overwhelming, ask for help, and assign people jobs based on their abilities and interests. Maybe your sister wants to take photos, and your mom wants to take notes for you while you're cooking. There's no such thing as too many cooks when everyone has an assigned role.
11) Don't get overwhelmed! There are so many ways to record your family's recipes.
Ok, so this is kind of an intense list of things. But don't let this post intimidate you out of recording your family recipes. Everything doesn't have to be a precisely recorded chronicle, and there are plenty of ways to preserve family recipes. Just simply cooking together and learning from demonstration and practice is a great way to figure out how to make something.
Even if you aren't able to be with your family in person, there's always a way. If you don't live in the same place as your family, asking your grandmother on the phone how she makes something can work great (and you can use some of the above questions to get the conversation going). Even if you feel like you missed your chance, it can be so rewarding to backwards-engineer a beloved lost recipe from a late relative, based on the fond memories you have of enjoying the dish together. Or maybe you've been given the gift of your late grandmother's carefully recorded recipes. There are so many ways to connect with your family's food traditions; the important thing is just that—to connect!