Redacting Historical Recipes

Note: This article is available as a downloadable PDF, complete with 3 sample recipes, here.


Redacting recipes is an important skill you need to develop if you are going to advance in SCA cookery. Eventually you are going to want to try a cuisine where you just have a manuscript, but no one else’s redactions…. Or you find yourself disagreeing intensely with someone else’s redaction. Redacting is a skill that like any other improves with practice, but hopefully these notes will give you a starting point.

The Golden Rules of Redactions

When redacting recipes, there are two rules I always keep in mind, that guide every redaction I do.

Golden Rule 1: If the food produced isn’t liked, the redaction is a failure

One of the major goals of a historical cook (whether in the SCA, another group, or just for interests sake), if not THE major goal, is to produce food that’s fun and/or tasty to eat. It doesn’t matter how accurate, how expensive, how darned spiffy a dish is – if people don’t eat it because it’s awful, the dish is a failure.

Please note, this does not mean you always shy away from the weird and shocking – it just means you provide other food as well as the weird, and only small amounts of weird. One of these days I WILL serve chicken’s testicles at a feast. But they won’t be a major component of the feast, and there will be non-testicle chicken for people to eat as well.

Golden Rule 2: The only substitutions that should be made are for toxic/extinct ingredients, or when a modern method will produce the same result for less hassle

Frequently, when reading recipes in books about medieval food, you will find people have substituted a modern method of cooking that’s not mentioned in the text of the recipe (for example frying meat instead of braising or stewing it), or they will add ingredients or leave ingredients out. NO. In the age of Internet shopping, “I couldn’t find an ingredient” is (mostly) no longer the reason it was twenty years ago – it’s an excuse for being lazy. Similarly, changing the method of cooking because people won’t be used to the recipe is lazy. Yes, it might seem weird. You won’t know how people will like it until you try it. (That said, using muslin and a strainer to produce a puree rather than a blender is a lot of hard work for no good reason.)

However, ancient and medieval cooks used ingredients we now know to be toxic, and these should be substituted or left out. We are also more aware of dietary concerns these days, so failing to provide gluten-free options for celiac sufferers for example, is rude. Similarly, there may be substitutions/exclusions you can make to make it easier for people with severe allergies if there are ingredients that form a major component of a feast.

The Business of Redacting

If you’ve ever looked at ancient or medieval recipes, you will know they aren’t like modern ones. Ingredients aren’t always listed in the order they’re used, or might be missing entirely, there are often no measurements or timings, and even cooking methods can be inexact. However, medieval recipes were more likely memory aids than precise instructions; a medieval cook might also be cooking for anywhere between 10 to 1,000 guests, so quantities aren’t necessarily useful. And even in a modern recipe, timings are often more like guidelines than actual rules.

Before You Begin: Gain a Working Cooking Knowledge

You need to have a reasonable grasp of general cooking before you try and start redacting recipes. This way, you will be more likely to work out what an author meant, you will know how to combine ingredients, and you may even recognise what the final dish will be from its description.

Step 1: Find Your Recipe

If at all possible, work from the original manuscript or a direct copy. Translators are sometimes “helpful” in putting things in a modern way of speaking, which can cause more harm than good.

Translate your recipe directly into modern English. If you are working with an unknown language, you have to work with someone else’s translation, but even period “English” can be weird.

Step 2: Know Your Source

Understand your source material. Find out about the manuscript and the author, and its intended purpose. Usually this simply means reading the Introduction for a book.

If you are working with someone’s translation, find out if it’s reputable – and the easiest thing to do is ask; whether other SCA cooks, or by checking the reviews on sites like Amazon or GoodReads. There aren’t that many undiscovered manuscripts (or translations) out there. Odds are, someone’s going to know whether this funky new book you’ve found is actually worth using.

Step 3: Parse your Recipe

(Yes, I work in IT). Break down your recipe into ingredients, cooking methods and service instructions. Try and group your ingredients together – major ingredients, seasonings, garnishes etc.

If there are weights and measurements mentioned, translate them into metric equivalents. If there are proportions mentioned (for example “of sugar, half as much as flour”) take note of them and think about what the final weights will be.

Step 4: Know your Ingredients

Make notes on your ingredients, and try and find out what they were. Especially for herbs and spices, use modern sources of information, because these will tell you about toxicity. Consider what would have been used in period, rather than modern times. For meat, consider what cut is the best cut to use. Find reliable sources for your ingredients.

Step 5: Consider Cooking Methods

What cooking methods are mentioned in your recipe – boiling, frying, roasting? Are there any indication of temperatures? Any indication of cooking times? Note the cooking methods if any, and try and get them into the correct order. DO NOT substitute modern, or different, methods here.

Step 6: Look for Other Versions

In other manuscripts, are there recipes with the same name, or similar methods? You often find there will be similar recipes in other manuscripts, which can help you fill in gaps or put your own spin on the recipe (while still being “true to period”).

Step 7: Fill in Any Gaps

Does your recipe look complete? Are there any steps you think are missing, and will you need to draw on your cooking knowledge to fill in the gaps? A classic example of this is pies and tarts – they feature heavily in medieval cooking, but you will search long and hard before you find a pastry recipe in a period cookbook. Pastry was one of those things “everyone knew how to make;” furthermore, in a royal household, there was often a separate kitchen just for making pastry, with one or more people whose sole job was to make pastry. Probably they guarded their recipes and techniques.

Step 8: Prepare a Proper Recipe

WRITE DOWN the ingredients, using proper portions, cooking methods and timings (tip: when working with meat, use 500g or 1KG as your base portion – it will make scaling for feasts easier). Make notes of any substitutions you have made and why.

It is a good idea to keep a recipe log, such as an exercise book. Trying to remember what you did even the next day rarely works. And writing down your redaction on any piece of paper that comes to hand guarantees that paper will go missing when you need it for a feast.

Step 9: Try, and Evaluate, the Recipe

How did it go? Are there any improvements you could make? Was it easy to make, and would you be able to do it easily in bulk at a feast? What equipment did you need?


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