What Makes a Perfect Recipe?

August 23, 2021Content Strategy Tips, Recipe Development

Every time I make these pickled red onions—and I make them often because we always want a jar on hand in the fridge—I think, “Damn, this is a perfect recipe.”

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It’s from Danny Trejo’s fab 2020 cookbook Trejo’s Tacos. There’s a lot to love about his book, namely, the recipes work really well in a home kitchen. That’s not always the case with cookbooks based on restaurants, but you can tell Trejo’s team worked hard to ensure the food from their restaurants translates to recipes suitable for home cooks.

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Maybe that’s because Trejo recallls what it was like for his mom to cook for their family when he was growing up.

“I can remember her planning meals,” he told me. “She’d have these great meals at the first of the month, but going close to the end of the month, when money was running out, we’d have Out of the Cupboard this or Suck It Up and Eat It that. She was inventive!”

So why do I think this is a perfect recipe?

The sum is greater than its parts. This recipe is just a handful of ingredients and a low-skill technique with consistently great results. I’m all for a recipe that yields a delicious reward with a minimal investment of time, skill and/or ingredients. If it’s impressive, even better!

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It’s flexible. If I discover I’m out of apple cider vinegar, I can substitute white wine or red wine vinegar (the latter makes the onions even more magenta), rice vinegar, or even plain old distilled white vinegar. I’ve used this brine to quick pickle shallots, jalapeños, and radishes—sometimes separately, sometimes all together. A recipe that inspires more creativity in the kitchen is a winner.

There are no extraneous ingredients. I don’t mind a long ingredient list or even ingredients that take some work to track down. But if you’re going to throw me a long list of stuff, every item better pull its weight. I’ve made many versions of pickled red onions—they’re a popular component in many cookbooks these days—with a lot more ingredients. None of them trumps this straightforward combo.

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When a recipe checks all those boxes, I’m thrilled. If it’s also mindful of the challenges of real-world cooking in a home kitchen, even better. That means the author considers cleanup, too, by minimizing the bowls, pots and pans needed. Like most home cooks, I’m also the chief dishwasher and anything that cuts back on that chore is a much appreciated.

But here’s the rub: “Simple” recipes are deceptively easy to create. So I really appreciate it when a cookbook author—or anyone, really—takes the time to simplify things where it makes sense. That’s exactly what Nigella Lawson did with this wonderful Cherry and Almond Crumble from her cookbook, Cook, Eat, Repeat. After pitting 2 pounds of fresh cherries (“which I, in Lucille Ball mode, first used upside down, shooting myself in the forehead with a bloodied kernel”), she decided frozen cherries would do the job better. (Here’s the final recipe.)

Nigella Lawson's Crumble

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It’s not that I have a limit in mind on the number of ingredients or steps in a recipe. But whatever’s there has to be there for a reason.

Years ago, I worked at Cooking Light magazine, and one of the most popular columns was Superfast recipes that could be done in 20 minutes, start to finish. Readers loved those—who doesn’t like the idea of getting a delicious dinner on the table in less time than it takes to watch an episode of Emily in Paris?

They also were the most challenging to develop. Ingredient lists and techniques have to be smart for speedy recipes to really sing. Creating a five-ingredient recipe that’s easy to make and delicious, too? That’s hard, so I’m always impressed when anyone pulls it off. Trejo pulls off the perfect recipe with this one.

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Pickled Red Onions from "Trejo's Tacos" by Danny Trejo

Pickled Red Onions

This recipe is a winner because it's so simple and flexible. You can use this same brine to quick-pickle sliced japaleños or radishes. Or even do a combo of all three.
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 1 minute
Total Time 6 minutes
Course Condiment
Cuisine Mexican
Servings 16


  • 1 chef's knife
  • 1 small saucepan
  • 1 pint jar


  • 1 medium red onion
  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tsp kosher salt


  • Cut the onion in half, and then thinly slice it either into half-moons or vertically. Place it in a medium heatproof bowl or a 2- to 3-cup heatproof glass jar.
  • Combine the vinegar and remaining ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, swirling the pan occasionally. Cook just until the sugar and salt dissolve. Pour over the onions. Cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate up to 2 weeks.


Adapted from Trejo’s Tacos by Danny Trejo and Larchmont Hospitality Group LLC (Clarkson Potter)
Keyword condiment, vegan, vegetarian


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