I'm confused by the distinction being made between "recipe swapping" and "recipe comprehension/improvement/repairs".

Why are some recipe questions allowed but not others? Aren't they all about cooking?

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I have similar confusion. I am hesitant to ask certain questions out of fear of being chastised for asking the "wrong" kind of question. –  Jenn Sep 11 '10 at 16:57
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@Jenn: If the answer doesn't help to clarify things, please feel free to leave comments asking for further clarification. At worst, your question might get closed; that's not meant as an affront and won't affect how any of us respond to any other questions you might have. –  Aaronut Sep 11 '10 at 23:08
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1 Answer

The most successful questions on this site will have exactly one correct answer. Some questions will still work well with 3–5 answers, but in general, the more answers a question receives, the less useful any of those individual answers become. Voting becomes difficult if not impossible and that means the result is no better than simply going to your favourite recipe site or Google. In fact, it's generally worse.

Questions asking for recipes ("recipe swapping") follow the template of:

  • "How do I make chicken pot pie?" or
  • "What is a good recipe for macaroni and cheese?"

Obviously, these questions relate to cooking. However, the nature of these questions makes them actively harmful to a Q&A site:

  • They can attract hundreds of answers for all the known variations (and more);
  • They don't target experts - anybody can answer them;
  • There are millions of potential recipes to ask for, which could quickly swamp the site.

So instead of trying to explain why every individual recipe request was closed, we have simply designated the entire category as off-topic. If your question is along the lines of "How do I make [name of dish]?" then expect it to be closed for this reason.

Questions about a specific recipe are different. In these questions, the recipe is background information. If you call "tech support", they will usually ask what you were doing when the problem occurred; similarly, if you want to know why your cake came out gritty and dry, it helps us to know how you made it. That's why we not only allow but encourage questions about:

  • Understanding recipes
    ("Why do I need to pre-bake the crust for my pie?")

  • Modifying recipes
    ("Can I substitute brown sugar for white in this recipe?")

  • Fixing recipes
    ("My sauce came out too spicy. What can I do to cut the heat?")

  • Recreating recipes
    ("How can I make french fries exactly like McDonald's does?")

These are all great questions because they'll have a small number of answers and it's relatively easy for an expert to qualify them as correct or incorrect.

Questions about recreating recipes are the most subjective of the above, but as long as they are reasonably specific as to what the end result should be (details about appearance, colour, texture, sweetness, spiciness, etc.) or refer to a very specific and well-known preparation (every McDonald's restaurant makes their fries the same way), then answers can still be qualified and the question will still do well.

The only "recipe" questions we don't encourage (or allow) are indiscriminate requests for recipes, because they don't have right/wrong/expert answers. And to make it easy for everybody to understand that a recipe-swap question was closed because it was a recipe swap — as opposed to being closed because we didn't like it — we use the off-topic close reason.

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Great answer. Your opening paragraph answers this quite well, being succinct and reasonable. This makes the site very relevant for Google-ers, such as why I like StackOverflow so much for years - usually the answer is the "accepted" one, or maybe the next one down with way more votes (if there's such a thing). For this reason, I see this approach as a good policy for users and the public in general. –  zanlok Dec 10 '10 at 0:02
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