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Thread: Are recipes futile?

  1. #1

    Are recipes futile?

    This might veer off a bit, but keep with me, I swear I'm going somewhere.

    Alton Brown created a great analogy in which dishes are the destination and you are a traveller. A recipe is like step by step directions--they will get you there without fail, as long as nothing changes and you make no mistakes. They also won't get you anywhere else. He calls himself a "Culinary Cartographer" because he wants to give you a map, and then you can just find the food you want, and get yourself there--if there is a detour, you can manage. I love this concept, and feel that it works well--I grew up tightly following recipe books, and my mom taught me why to cook. Alton Brown and Harold McGee taught me how to cook.

    I work in food, and considered putting this in the BoH section, but figured a lot of home cooks can get in on my feelings, or not.

    That said, I do not follow recipes. I read them often, but just to get a sense of what a dish is. Name it explicitly enough, and I will make it for you(e.g. Beef and Tofu stir-fry in a Honey-ginger sauce over soba noodles). I also don't make recipes, because I don't need them--I know what the dish is, so I know how to make it. It makes it hard when I am leaving work for a day, because nobody makes anything the right way and customers complain.

    And I invariably get asked for "the recipe".

    I do try to give it, but I wind up writing a detailed story of what to DO to the food, not what is in it. I don't feel like I need to share that my Broccoli Cheese Soup has paprika in it, or that I use chicken broth, and a tiny bit of beef base in it. That isn't what gets me excited about a batch of Broccoli Cheese soup. It's that perfect velvety consistency and balance that expresses a well cared for blend of common basic ingredients, thickening agents, and flavorants.

    Heck yes I have secrets and tricks! But the secret to great chicken salad is not "use pecans and fresh grapes", it's "get the flavor and texture IN the chicken, or else they are dry nuggets of bland in a sea of sauce". I had someone ask how I make the chicken salad one day, and about a minute into the explanation, she laughed and said "Wow, you are really passionate about food" and I thought, "No, you just asked a much more complicated question than you think!"

    Anyone else run into this?

    I will be putting up "recipes" in here as time goes by, but don't expect a list and a set of pictures!

  2. #2
    Senior Member spinblue's Avatar
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    I don't know, each of us are different and it depends on what's being cooked.

    I'll look at a lot of different recipes to get an idea of what I what to do. After a while, I don't even look at recipes because I believe I know what I want to make and how I think the flavors will come together. On the other hand, my wife needs a recipe so she can follow it to the T. She is a very literal person and not a creative type cook.

    And just to get to the point of what's being cooked. Cooking, anything goes, almost, as far as I'm concerned. Baking, the percentages/measurements of ingredients is more a science and the recipe has to be followed to a degree. That doesn't mean that it can't be altered to provide a different flavor, but chemical reactions are much more important.

    btw, home cook

  3. #3
    Well, I get what you are saying about creativity, and I suppose that is the issue.

    Most of the time, at home, people cook for themselves, and variation on a favorite is no problem at all--but customers, regular house party guests, and perhaps some cooks(like myself) have specific recipes they want and crave. I mean, there's really no creativity involved, except perhaps being able to throw together a repair with bad tools when things go wrong--but that's creative like a talented house framer, not creative like a painter!

    I get that there are two schools of thought generally--recipe devotees for reproducing favorites, and those who just want "Indian-style chicken and rice" for dinner, and don't care much for specifics. But I seem to be part of a third group--I want certain things out of certain foods, and perfect them over time--but I simply can't write down "ingredients and steps" on an index card. It'd really take a book page, maybe a few, to write down what is needed to make the dishes I want for dinner(or make at work), so writing them down is just completely inefficient.

  4. #4
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    When I try something new I read all of the recipes that I can find, and with the internet that can be a lot! Then I process them into an approach and start cooking.
    A lot of the time I look at what is in the house and then make use of it. One thing that I do fairly consistently is pizza dough, though.
    Spike C
    "The Buddha resides as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain."
    Pirsig

  5. #5

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    If you don't like to be restricted by recipes

    McGee is way too scientific for me (makes my eyes roll back in my head), but if you want to be able to prepare all the basics, from bread and cookies, to pasta and gravy.... without ever digging out a recipe, and customize on your own....get this book. I love it.:

    http://ruhlman.com/2009/04/ratio-the-simpl.html

  6. #6
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    I don't use recipes for the things I know how to cook (duh!), and I'm not shy about varying some of the ingredients or amounts, and/ or making due when we do not have a certain ingredient. But when trying a new dish, we'll typically sift through a bunch of recipes for it on the Internet, then settle on one that seems to make the most sense. Then we will make it following the recipe, although we'll usually taste along the way and tweak the seasonings, etc. And once we finally eat it, we figure out what could/ should be changed to improve it a bit. We do not have the depth of knowledge most here on this BBS possess, so it's harder for us to just wing it on the first try. But usually the 2nd time we make it, we are able to improve a bit on the original.
    __________
    David (WildBoar's Kitchen)

  7. #7
    GoogleFu San steeley's Avatar
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    I like to see your recipe .
    Recipes are varying ways of looking at Method and Technique which one should have a firm hold of in order to execute the dish .
    Now then there are the variables of region and cost of said items .
    and the Chefs knowledge .

  8. #8
    Senior Member FryBoy's Avatar
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    I'm a lowly home cook, so perhaps things are different for me than they are for you pros. God knows I love recipes! I have over 1000 cookbooks, some more than 100 years old, covering cuisines I could never hope to replicate based only on my experience. My general tendency is to follow a recipe the first time I make it, altering it if I think necessary, not worrying too much about exact measurements (except when baking, of course). I figure someone else has spent time perfecting a dish (at least for their taste buds and sensibilities), and it only makes sense to try what they're decided works best. I also like to be able to replicate a dish that I like from year to year, and recipes help me do that. That said, one has to distinguish between simply following a recipe and applying learned skills and techniques to make them work. I have little regard for people who tell me they never use recipes -- most either have a very narrow repertoire or they do a lot of things poorly.

    That said, I think one has to learn to read a recipe and envision what it will be to avoid disasters. There are an awful lot of really bad recipes out there (e.g., most anything by Paula Deen). You learn to trust certain sources -- Joy of Cooking, James Beard, Julia Child, Anthony Bourdain, Marcella Hazan, Edna Lewis, Marcella Hazan, etc. etc.

    Here are a few of my cookbooks:

    Doug Collins
    Hermosa Beach, California

  9. #9
    Senior Member spinblue's Avatar
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    Fry, of everything holy with a knife and fork, that could be a Barnes and Noble.

  10. #10
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    Marcella taught me how to make soup and sauce Bolognese!
    Spike C
    "The Buddha resides as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain."
    Pirsig

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