Are recipes futile?

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Eamon Burke

Mar 5, 2011
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This might veer off a bit, but keep with me, I swear I'm going somewhere.:razz:

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.:angry1:

And I invariably get asked for "the recipe".:slaphead:

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!":headbonk:

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!:lol2:
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
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.
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.
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.:
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.
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 .:chefcut:
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:

Fry, of everything holy with a knife and fork, that could be a Barnes and Noble. :laugh:
Marcella taught me how to make soup and sauce Bolognese!
One thing I don't understand and I don't mean to put you on the defensive, but certainly on the spot to a degree. You say you don't want to write down the recipes but on the other hand, you have customer issues with inconsistencies if you are not there.

Isn't that one of the major decisions in the menu, day to day, the dish is the same?
Isn't that one of the major decisions in the menu, day to day, the dish is the same?

That's why I'm there everyday!:lol2:

Just kidding. When I was at my last job, I was there every day but Tuesday, so if people had things they liked that I made, they could come get them from me any time, and often did. I feel bad, but also flattered, to hear that business slumped after I left. :poke1: Too bad the owners didn't see it and pay me accordingly!

But at my new job, I am the only one who has any cooking background and I actually care about the quality and nutrition of the food, and the person usually bungling things up is my boss(who isn't a chef), or people who have no food experience, and don't care much about what they put into their mouths.

If it were my restaurant to hire and fire people, I would have employees that could understand the minutia of a repeatable process--that is how it worked at my first cooking job--it was a small fast casual chain that had recipes that you followed to a T, with the supervision and approval of the GM.

Most restaurants create a menu, and then purchase ingredients that take the variety and chance out of it--canned beans are the 90% the same ALL the time, and better than a lot of beans I've had from dry. I would say 'Fine Dining' would be a restaurant where the ingredients are coaxed through skill to be what they are on the plate, often that means having employees that know that cooking the same perfect pots of pinto beans every day of the week requires cooking them 7 unique ways.

And that's what I'm getting at--a recipe won't tell you what is most important! A skilled eater can eat and tell you everything that's IN it, and any culinary school grad can tell you what steps were taken. It's everything *else* that makes the difference between 5 bowls of hollandaise and 4 bowls of hollandaise with a side of scrambled eggs.
Really like your book shelf is that the crisco cookbook behind the clock.
Wow fryboy, now that’s a library! In general I do not follow a recipe, but will look at a few verities for ideas when cooking. When baking most of the time I will follow a recipe, for example Alton Browns ginger snap cookies, or his devils food cake recipe I will not modify, maybe a little more seasonings or something. When I bake bread actually sometimes I do it by feel and just on the cuff. I was gonna make a focaccia on Sunday for an event but things changed I still had the starter, today I ended up using it to make a really flavorful whole wheat bread.. Really recipies are good to learn technqiue and method as well as ideas.. im stoned :)

oh my bread with shun bread knife.. you can see the little Z off center to the left. I needed to make the cuts deeeper.
As a home cook (and like may others here, it seems), I tend to look up/study though not necessarily follow explicitly, recipes for things that are new or in a style that I'm unfamiliar with. My GF and I recently decided to try cooking Moroccan food for the first time, so I used a few different recipes to help orient myself (I guess this is similar to the idea of the recipe-as-map). Most of the time, however, it's all much more in the brain and soul, I think.

In other news, that's a pretty sweet library, FryBoy!
Really like your book shelf is that the crisco cookbook behind the clock.
Good eye! It is indeed The Story of Crisco -- 615 Tested Recipes and a "Calendar of Dinners" by Marion Harris Neil, one of my collectible books -- that is, I have it for historic interest rather than for the recipes. First edition, published in 1913, original price 25¢, now worth a bit more.
Love old cook books always checking out used book store for old tittles .
would like to see a pic of some yours .
And that's what I'm getting at--a recipe won't tell you what is most important! A skilled eater can eat and tell you everything that's IN it, and any culinary school grad can tell you what steps were taken.

I think I get what you're driving at, and I would agree that most of the recipes I see today are written like factory instructions. Take X, cook at Y temp for Z minutes and "poof", five star dinner is yours! And you're right. That style of recipe, strictly followed, has little value when working with fresh (read "inconsistent", though in a good way) products. But I'm not sure that all recipes need to be written that way. In fact, I've a number of books with instructions like "prepare fresh butter beans with appropriate seasoning. Remove from heat until cooled slightly and add to pot." May not be appropriate directions for the average consumer, but for an audience with a cooking background...
the recipes are guidelines that don't need to be followed slavishly. i find them useful, though i cook off the cuff a lot (i even made a fantastic set of wheat and rye sourdough starters from first principles, which i'm quite proud of, especially several generations on!). the cooking times are worthless, though. if i followed cooking times, my steaks au poivre would be charcoal instead of rare and my potatoes dauphinoise would be liquid messes instead of delicious creamy delights. baking times are somewhat less worthless, but i find baking temps to be the real problem. perhaps many bread recipes assume a pro oven, but all i have a decent consumer gas oven. a good friend of mine runs a bakery in Reykjavik (i don't even know how many times he and his brother have one the Icelandic national cake competition), and he tells me that i just need to upgrade, but my apartment just isn't that big!
I think it depends...

I do have a wall of cookbooks myself, but I read them as reference, for proportions, techniques, ideas, combinations, etc. After a long road, I'm getting to the point where I feel like I can change things up depending on the result I want to get.

I do write recipes for my cooks, but I try to give directions like driving directions, including warnings and possible gotchas. Something like, "Pre-heat the cast iron skillet until it's screaming hot, use a minimal amount of oil, sear the steak black and blue. DO NOT cook past rare." etc. Cooks with some experience should be able to have a shorthand with each other, like when you're teaching someone the station. That being said, it's hard to get all the nuances of someone's cooking. I don't mind teaching my little tricks to someone, but they've got to want to learn it. Actually, I often feel like they extra layers and details that I add in are there for my own enjoyment, and so it's it's not important to the flavor, I just simplify it. But if it's something important like reduce the chicken stock to 1/3rd, or toast the spices first, I'll note it. I do feel like my employer deserves to know how I make the food we're selling, especially if we developed the recipe while I was there, and if it contains anything that people are commonly allergic to or object to. There are a handful of things that I haven't shared, but I really feel like I own those recipes, and they're just renting them while I work for them.

If I'm writing a recipe for a friend or a more general audience, it's similar, but with greater detail. Almost like a narrative, as you said.

Recipes are great for ideas, introduction into a type of cuisine, and techniques. Recipes cannot capture the personal style of the cook. I've written down recipes and even given away cooks book with recipes I use, and people will still say, that the dish doesn't taste like mine.

There are just too many variables to be included in a recipe. Cooks have different levels of knife skills, experiences, and techniques. Then there are the regional differences.

Passion can't be quantified in a recipe. Most of us, on the forum on passionate about food. Why else do we spend considerable amounts of money on knives and then take the time to learn how to sharpen them? If we care this much about our knives, then we probably doing far more in our prep work then the so called average cook.