You're the expert, after all.
I've come around to agreeing with you... I always get sidetracked by my desire for readers to see a recipe as not just a recipe but a set of guidelines that they can adopt -- because I want most of all for them learn how to cook (and be resourceful, creative, and all that), not just to follow a recipe. But these types of recipes can be long and cluttered, and too much to take in to be genuinely helpful. And cooks learn this lessons on their own through practice anyway. But a few suggestions as a sidebar or note at the end can still be helpful!
I've been thinking about this lately because 'tis the season for recipe substitutions. As a longtime vegetarian, I've come across both recipes and restaurant menus that indicate "vegetarian/vegan option available." And the option often means removing the meat or a sauce with a meat base. It makes me wonder: if the meat-based component is optional, why is it there in the first place?
In truth, it usually means a less flavorful dish when a core component is missing. It sets everyday home cooks up for failure and leads them to believe that food without meat is flavorless. The problem is that the recipe needed to be developed and tested as a meat-free recipe, but it wasn't. It was an afterthought.
And it is particularly disappointing when a home cook has gone out of their way to adapt a recipe based on the recipe writer's suggestion for their one vegan friend, only to find out it's bland. The recipe writer is risking their reputation if they haven't tested it.
Like-for-like substitutions are helpful as notes at the end of the recipe. Such as, if you don't feel like making mayo from scratch, use a store-bought version.
Writing good recipes takes common sense and trying to put yourself in the home cook's place. Yes, you have to make decisions and provide clear parameters that guide the cook to success--you're the expert. Sometimes it means cautioning on what not to do; for example, "Don't try to sub milk for the heavy cream, as it will curdle due to the lemon juice." Re suggesting alternatives/substitutions I've found that it is essential to test ANY alternative options offered, as very often even seemingly simple ones don't in fact work. For example, poppy seeds can't be ground in a blender or processor;; only a blender or spice grinder will actually work. Likewise, diced cooked ham may not successfully sub for diced cooked chicken in a recipe because the ham may add too much salt. Bottom line--don't just guess, always test.
I cook a lot with leftovers, and I love to create recipes you can make with extra ingredients and leftover food you have on hand to reduce waste. I think this is a subgenre of recipe that thrives on variations, but it's geared toward a specific type of cook as well—someone like me who loves to make recipes their own. But overall I agree—omitting variations in many ways is what allows cooks to make a recipe their own, by changing it. As for salt, again, it depends—am I making soup? Salt to taste, your preference. Meatballs? 1 tsp salt per 1 pound of meat is my minimum requirement, and since you can't taste the meatballs before you cook them, you need a clear measurement to ensure they're edible later.
ahhh yes the recipe writer is generally considered to be the expert-yet that's not always the case- especially these days with "everyone" holding court on some social media platform-
Direct- direction writing is not simple nor is it intuitive. For novice cooks, finding a recipe with consistent, concise and accurate instruction is akin to finding a 5.00 bill in your coat pocket- its a happy event.
Becoming resourceful at the stove takes time, evolution and desire to achieve- but most folks just want to make something interesting to eat, so again, concise and accurate is their best friend in order to build confidence and the following resourcefulness.
I find sidebars helpful when it comes to variations, substitutions etc.
I always test all variations I include in a recipe or don't include it at all.
As far as the directions to salt/pepper to taste... it drives me crazy. Not helpful-again especially for newer cooks since they may not have the palate or taste experience to know what a baseline for a particular recipe should be.
In my opinion, salting to taste belongs in the recipe instructions, not in the ingredients list, and this would solve many issues. There are so many variables when it comes to salting, that it really is crucial to the success of a recipe to salt to taste during the cooking process. People have different preferences for saltiness, they may be using Diamond kosher salt and the recipe was testing with Morton's, or their "large" butternut squash might be 3 pounds where the recipe writer tested with a 2 pound squash. An amount of salt should be specified to begin with in the ingredients list (and for the most accuracy, the recipe should specify the brand of salt, plus give weight measurments for ingredients if helpful), and the recipe writer should instruct when in the recipe it is appropriate to test for seasoning. Sometimes that's only at the end, sometimes it's during the cooking process, and the developer knows best.
As for your main question... I can't help but feel frustrated when I see people skip over recipes because of an ingredient that they don't like, but is easily swapped out. Sometimes they don't even make it past the title and to the notes to see the variations that are possible.
A friend who was making my enchilada recipe for a group of 10 asked me once what she should do because one person didn't eat cheese, which was sprinkled on the top before baking. Knowing it's better with the gooey cheese, and why have 9 people miss out on that for one person that doesn't eat it, I said she should put two enchiladas in a separate baking dish and just not put the cheese on that one for her friend. To me, that was not a hard thing to figure out, but to this person that simple variation was not evident. There are lots of people out there who need help through notes or side bars. And I fully agree, all of those suggestions should be tested by the recipe writer.
I think that Melissa Clark did a great job in her new book, Dinner in One, with providing swaps and variations without it feeling clunky or confusing.
I honestly never thought about it this way. When I do suggest substitutions, I give specifics. But I think you make a good point. And I couldn't agree with you more about giving specifics for how much salt. I give specifics and instruct to add throughout recipe, never all at once, with lots of tasting.
i like to add options as variations at the end of the recipe and not all recipes. i think it's important to have wee headnotes for them explaining what the results will be like.
Absolutely agree. If I write a mocktail recipe, I don't just say "add your favorite liquour to make it a cocktail", I specify the liquour and how much to add. And add "salt and pepper to taste" seems ridiculous to me (although I've been guilty of using this phrase in my recipes from time to time). I don't really want to taste my dish ten times before I know the seasoning is correct. And what if I add too much salt or pepper, I can't untaste it!