Frank Chen

Frank Chen

recipes are a terrible way to learn how to cook

recipe schmecipe

The ingredients this time screamed Mediterranean to me, so that's the direction I took it in. I only know that because I've worked with some of these ingredients before. If you're not aware of the ethnic themes that come from certain foods, recipe books and some quick inter-webbing can help here. Jerusalem by Ottolenghi was one of the cookbooks I used, with some of the recipes being almost replicas, with a few of my own twists. Because I depended heavily on the work of others for this supper club, the majority of this post will be spent on the concept of a "recipe", why a part of me really likes recipes, and why another part of me just rolls my eyes and makes me want to burn everything, including the recipe.

At its very core, recipes are just step-by-step instructions on how to recreate a dish. It tells you which ingredients you need, how much of each ingredient, and the process of disassembling and re-assembling those ingredients in order to achieve the final product.

There is no shortage of recipes on the internet. Everyone follows them. Whenever you make a great dish, someone asks, "what's the recipe? "You gotta get me that recipe." If you put yourself in their shoes and imagine what it is they actually want, it might sound something like "I want to know exactly how you made that so I can do the same exact thing and get the same exact result." Many people don't question this philosophy any further than that, but what I really hear is:

"I fear that the recipe does NOT turn out the way I want it to, and more often than not, I am disappointed."

To that I usually respond, "did you simply just follow the recipe, or did you consciously check that you actually liked what you were cooking at every step of the process?" The difference is subtle but it's hugely important.

I'm not saying we should never follow a recipe again, but there is a lot of worship and psychology behind the recipe. Most think it's a safe haven, that if they follow it, they're bound for golden arches. I think it's mostly that recipes make us lazy. It removes the conscious component from cooking. That's essentially what a recipe is telling you, right? That if you follow it verbatim, you will have a successful dish at the end. However, instead of blindly following them, what we really need is a healthy dose of awareness while cooking. In most cases, it's not the recipe, it's the cook. Keep this point in mind as I reveal more detail as to the shortcomings of recipes and how that interplays with the skills of the cook.

recipe pros

I want to play a bit of devil's advocate and clear up some points on where I think recipes are essential. Despite my critical view of them, I still use them.

Recipes give me a good idea of broad flavor profiles. Nevermind that they used one cup of this or three-quarters teaspoon of that, I'm more interested that they used onions, celery, and carrots versus onions, celery, and green peppers. The first is classic French, the second, Cajun & Creole. The difference is drastic, and if you want to "learn how to cook" you want to take note of these differences in a recipe, rather than the exact amounts. The point here is that if you're observant about what foundations go into a cuisine, and the concepts used in the "cooking" portion of a recipe, recipes are amazing tools for learning, especially if you're involved, and not just using the recipe like an IKEA instruction page.

Recipes are important for ratios and balance. I get an idea of the amounts when I read a recipe. I take it in, but I don't follow it to the letter. It's more of a guide on what an appropriate amount of an ingredient. For example, if you put an obscene amount of honey and brown sugar in your homemade barbecue sauce, it's not going to be a balanced barbecue sauce. Alternatively, if you've added the specified amount of sugar and the sauce still tastes like vinegar, you need more sugar, regardless of what the recipe says. Having a recipe gives you exact amounts, but that is not a stand-in on what you, the cook, is tasting in real time.

Recipes are fucking essential for baking, because here, we're dealing with measurement science. You want your bread to rise correctly given the amount of dough you're using? Pinches of this and that isn't going to get you by. You can play a game of probabilities with your bread, but I don't have that much flour to waste, so using recipes while baking is generally a good idea.

Recipes are important for culture. All of this shit your grandmother is making is better written down. Obviously, there are oral forms of communication, but really, when she kicks the bucket, you'll want that recipe rolodex to make all of your favorites again. Unfortunately, most recipes from grandmothers never seem to turn out the same if they're not the ones cooking it, so bummer.

Wait, that sounds familiar. Could it be that your grandmother is a better cook than you? After all, you followed her recipe to the word…

This segues nicely into why recipes suck ass.

recipe cons

Recipes suck because they're not a guarantee that your dish is going to be amazing. The primary reason why they are not a guarantee is because they suck at accounting for variable change. The kitchen you use to execute a recipe is not the same kitchen as the person who wrote the recipe. Your oven might have hot spots. They might've used iron-clad cookware, and you have the fancy copper shit. You only have a 6-inch saucepan and they call for a 8-inch one. The tomato they used is not the tomato you'll use. If the recipe just calls for "tomato", what kind of fucking tomato? Even if you get it right, those beefsteak tomatoes at Trader Joe's are going to be different from the beefsteaks at the local farmer's market. Sorry bucko, but those are going to be different, and when different happens, you're already deviating from a recipe.

Let's come back to that previous point about awareness and the fact that "it's not the recipe, it's the cook". The example of awareness that I usually like to give revolves around seasoning, because that's a highly customizable action that if you get right as a cook, yields a lot of benefit. For example, recipes make me giggle when they tell you exactly how much salt you should be adding. "Half a tablespoon," it says. "Fuck you," I say back. I pinch some Kosher salt, add it and taste what I have. If it's good then I stop. If it's not, I'll add more. You can't take back what you add, so I always add smaller and smaller amounts as I get close in on the desired taste. Your tastes are different than my tastes, which are different than the person who wrote the recipe's tastes, but really, you're the one cooking, so you get to be the chef. Ideally, we should be shooting for "well seasoned," where the natural taste of the food, with the help of salt, comes out vibrantly. You see where I'm going with this? Sure, you can shoot from the hip and add exactly x amount of salt for y amount of food, but even if you're making the same thing, all it takes is one small variable to change, and things start "not turning out the way they were supposed to turn out".

The two points I'll re-iterate here are:

  1. Recipes are never a guarantee. I'll say it again. Recipes are never a guarantee. One more time? Recipes are never a guarantee.

  2. Your skill level as a cook has more say about the final product than what the recipe says.

And finally, the double edged sword. Recipes are "great for learning." I said that in one of the paragraphs above. Recipes are also detrimental to learning, if you don't heed the paragraph immediately above. When cooking, you need to learn to taste. Taste fucking everything. Taste it before it's seasoned, while seasoning, and after seasoning. What does it need? Do you need to adjust it? Do you like it? Do you hate it?

At some point, you will fail and you will trash something you've just cooked. This is called learning. This is also the art of cooking. There's science too, and in some cases, some laboratory shit, and of course, recipes, but it all won't matter if you can't adjust on the fly and know how to reach a certain standard of taste. Recipes make all these assumptions about what's going on, and you cannot just accept that. You have to set the standard on "delicious" and hold yourself to that. No recipe is going to do that for you. Even if it does, you got lucky, and like most things in life where you want to consistently do a good job, it's not luck.

sharpening the sword

So how do you learn from a recipe? I'll break that down for you in the next post. I'll take some of my thinking for this supper club and walk you through, step by step, the things that I pay close attention to when I read other people's prescriptions on how to cook, and how it all goes down.

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