The Tyranny of the Recipe

25 Mar
She's hiding something, she is.

She's hiding something, she is.

How many times have you heard yourself say, “I need to find a recipe for (fill in the blank).” There should be a question mark in there somewhere, but I don’t know where to put it.  Alas.  Remember waaay back when we talked about the Road to Automaticity?  I think that, when we say “I need to find a recipe for…” we have pretty much just started out on our journey.  A recipe is safe.  It provides us with structure:  lists of interesting ingredients, cooking times, temperature settings, Rules for Success and a description of the End Product.  That’s all well and good, but recipes maintain a Suspicious Silence when it comes to teaching us how to cook.

What a recipe really is is a marriage of an ingredient list to a set of techniques and procedures.  Except, recipes don’t tell us that.  No, they just smile a mysterious, small smile.  They don’t allow us to generalize, or rather they hope we’ll generalize on our own, even though we are sometimes Nervous in the kitchen.  And nervous folks don’t generalize very well.

Go look at your favorite cookbook right now.  Look at the section on cakes.  The ingredient lists change at least a little for every cake, sometimes more and sometimes less.  There might be some cocoa powder in one or maybe some spices and diced fruit in one.  Maybe the fat is butter; maybe it’s shortening or even oil.  Maybe one is made with 3 eggs, one with 4 eggs and one with nothing but whites.  Maybe the liquid is water or whole milk or sour cream.  If you look past all the minor differences, though, almost all will contain the Basic Four:  flour, fat, sugar and eggs.

Now, look at the procedure section of the recipes.  Repetitious, repetitious, repetitious.  I bet that most of them start in one of two ways:  1)”Cream together fat and sugar until light and fluffy.” or 2)”Combine dry ingredients, including sugar, softened butter, eggs and 1/4 of the milk and beat for two minutes.”  You might have a couple in there that start with “Whip egg whites and sugar to medium-stiff peaks.” Rather than taking the time to teach you the mixing methods at the beginning of the book, the cookbook author has chosen to repeat the same instructions with every single cake.  Granted, this is partly a product of our busy lifestyle.  It is kind of nice to have the rules printed up right underneath the ingredient list, and I know many people who wouldn’t buy a cookbook that wasn’t set up like that.

But friends, the time for change has come.  How great would it be to learn the mixing methods and then just apply them to ingredient lists?  This applies to “hot side” cooking as well.  Do we really need cookbooks dedicated to pizza?  Aren’t we creative enough to come up with cool combinations of toppings?  If we know how to make a basic dough (or can buy some from the local pizza joint), and we know how to make a sauce, and we know how to grate cheese and Place Toppings Attractively, isn’t that really all we need to know?

Here’s another thing that makes me just a little crazy.  The folks who have gotten past the “I need to find a recipe for (fill in the blank)” generally move to this step:  “I have x,y and z in the fridge.  What can I make with them?”  That’s wonderful, but then where do they end up?  At a recipe search site, looking for recipes that contain said ingredients x,z and z.  Once they have the recipe in hand, they’re catapulted back to being dependent upon the recipe.  And it just smiles its little smile, because it just knew that they’d be back.

I contend that, if you pay close attention to the procedure sections of recipes, you’ll start to see patterns of preparation.  For example, if the first four ingredients on your ingredient list are carrots, onions, celery and oil, it’s a safe bet that in Step 1 of the procedure section, you’ll be dicing up the veggies, 2 parts onion to 1 part each of carrot and celery and sauteing them up in the oil.

I think it’s possible to move beyond “I need to find a recipe,” and “Can I find a recipe that uses these items?” and on to “Oooh, I have x, y and z in the fridge.  I know the technique(s) necessary to make them into dinner!”  It’s not necessarily an easy leap, especially with FN and others droning on about where you can find the recipe for this, that or the other.  But it is a leap that you can make; it’s one that I made, partly because I was forced to by my job.  Let me tell you that after a brief period of discomfiture, just breaking down and learning the techniques was ultimately liberating.

Next time you come across a really great sounding recipe, you’ll know why it’s smiling a Mona Lisa Smile–it’s hiding something from you.  Don’t throw it away in disgust, though.  Study it and make it give up its secrets.  It might take you an extra few minutes, but you will come away understanding the techniques and procedures used in creating that dish and can now generalize it to other lists of ingredients.

So, a challenge to you all:  go out into the Hinternet and find a fancy-schmancy recipe, one that seems confounding but tasty.  Send me the link, and I’ll break it down for you, live on the air tomorrow.  If I don’t get any takers, I’ll go out and find my own Mona Lisa and interrogate her.

22 Responses to “The Tyranny of the Recipe”

  1. Marc @ NoRecipes March 25, 2009 at 10:55 am #

    Well put! You’ve just summed up my entire philosophy on cooking and the reason why I don’t like recipes in one post:-)

    • onlinepastrychef March 25, 2009 at 11:14 am #

      I was thinking about you and my other “automatic cook” friends as I was writing this. I kept picturing your Uni dish from a week or so ago 🙂

  2. Niko March 25, 2009 at 12:05 pm #

    Most regular cooks I know do not seem to like or have the creativity for experimenting with ingredients and especially techniques. They have to make a dish at least several times, and frequently, before they’re comfortable enough to start playing with the recipe, and that’s if they’re inclined at all!

    As to wondering what to make with x,y,+z, the same prevailing attitude applies. If people haven’t learned to think creatively for themselves about food, they’ll seek ideas or definitive answers elsewhere. I was lucky because I swear my mom could make food from anything. I gave her the horrible title of “Queen of Slop” but it was bestowed with great admiration for her ability to cook by the seat of her pants with whatever was in the pantry and fridge. She’s a great role model and a true Iron Chef.

    So, this isn’t a confounding dish but I’d like your opinion on this chocolate cake: There are so many claims of “the best chocolate cake” on the internet. I’d like to be able to get to the point where I could simply look at the ingredients and ratios and figure out whether it’s a keeper. Fortunately I do know a few established cooking/baking techniques.

    But I can think of a couple of recipes, though, that provided A-HA moments for me. One was a dish called Chicken Scarpariello that comes from the NY area. I tried many variations on my own before seeing Rachael Ray’s version, which comes closest to the authentic restaurant dish I remember. Also another one, Chicken Piccata, that I did countless disappointing variations of before seeing a recipe in a Cooks Illustrated magazine. It was actually the technique of preparing the raw chicken breasts more than anything that finally brought success.

  3. Natasha - 5 Star Foodie March 25, 2009 at 1:56 pm #

    If I ever do look at recipes this is exactly what I do – study techniques and also flavor profiles especially if the style of a particular cuisine is new to me. But I am in dilemma about making a cake for my daughter’s birthday (it’s in May so I still have some time). I don’t have that much experience with baking to create my own recipe unless I spend a lot of time experimenting maybe. She wants a Cinderella bluebird cake 🙂

  4. linda March 25, 2009 at 2:18 pm #

    I don’t think novice cooks should be shucking away recipes for baked goods. There’s too much science involved! That being said…once you’ve followed a recipe exactly for something as simple as caramel sauce, for example, you shouldn’t have to do it again. If you’re using a cookbook from one of the “greats” (Rose Levy Berenbaum), you can pretty much trust that she’s worked that recipe to death before handing it over to the likes of you. I use recipes, but I don’t use instructions because if you tell me all the ingredients for a cake, I can take it from there. I almost never use a recipe for savory cooking because…because….it’s silly. Your tool for cooking savory should be your tongue.

  5. Judi March 25, 2009 at 3:41 pm #

    I’d like to chime in as a novice cook and baker. I hated cooking for most of my life and am just learning that it can be fun. I don’t understand things like flavor profiles and what balances what – still learning that stuff. Some of us need recipes to learn that kind of stuff from so don’t knock them completely.

  6. onlinepastrychef March 25, 2009 at 3:54 pm #

    @Nico I hope everyone has at least one “aha, this isn’t so complicated after all” moment when it comes to cooking 🙂

    @5 Star Foodie Even I don’t really mess with baking formulas (except for to switch up flavoring agents, such as zests, extracts, spices, etc). Good luck with the cake! 🙂

    @Linda I agree–I generally don’t mess w/Rose’s formulas 🙂 I like “your tool for cooking savory should be your tongue!” I feel another post coming on… 🙂

    @Judi I’m all for recipes; I just want people to understand what they really are: ingredients + techniques. That way, you can really study the technique part and generalize to other ingredient lists. And the only way to really learn that, along with flavor profiles and other seemingly-esoteric cooking skills is to practice. Sounds like you have that down; I’m glad you’re in there and “doing it!”

  7. Joie de vivre March 25, 2009 at 6:19 pm #

    I mostly skip reading novels and go instead for cookbooks. I love love love learning techniques and reasons behind why a recipe is good. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Chris @ Beyond Ramen March 25, 2009 at 10:09 pm #

    I think that the best recipe “type” that illustrates this is the Drop Cookie: cream, add dry to wet, stop mixing before you think you should, add whatever whole ingredients (chocolate chips, berries, nuts) at the end and fold them in, and bake.

    Some cookbooks facilitate the cook’s becoming an automatic cook while others, like you’ve said, simply order you around the kitchen without any reasoning or room for experimentation.

    Luckily, in my experience I think that cookbooks are becoming increasingly instructive, not only with lessons and tips on perfecting and augmenting the recipe, but also tables on vegetable seasons, tips on preparation, etc.

  9. Tangled Noodle March 25, 2009 at 10:25 pm #

    I’m still using recipes but I think I’ve moved a tiny step forward. For instance, I wanted a recipe for the dish “XYZ” but found 2 or 3, each with some variation in ingrdients and technique. I’ve found that instead of picking one, I picked out a little from each and merged them into one. Or, I just get the basic gist of the ingredients and methods then start doing it on my own. While I’m still iffy about my ability to combine, balance and create flavors, I’m becoming more confident in being able to gauge cooking time, appropriate temperature, etc. But I’d like to keep recipes handy for the time being. 😎

  10. croquecamille March 26, 2009 at 4:58 am #

    I’m really looking forward to Michael Ruhlman’s new book, Ratio. It is, rather than a recipe book, a book that teaches the basic ratios for various preparations. (It’s not out yet, so I can’t be more specific.) I love having that kind of reference around.

    Also, as you know, I just put together a recipe index for my blog. I don’t post recipes for everything I cook, largely because I’m doing it on the fly. But like you said, with pizzas, once you know how to make the dough, you can make pizza. So I linked to all my pizza posts, even the ones without recipes, in hopes that people would still be able to replicate them (or just be inspired).

  11. Daily Spud March 26, 2009 at 9:09 am #

    I’m somewhere in the middle of my education on the whole automaticity thing. I freeform to a degree, I don’t always use a recipe and, when I do, I mightn’t take it literally but I might infer a few things. That said, I know that I still have lots to learn as far as certain techniques go, especially when it comes to baking, though that has everything to do with lack of practice. Now though (and in no small part thanks to you) I think I’m more aware than I was of learning and honing technique and becoming familiar with little flavour patterns and other recipe building-blocks. I haven’t completely let go of the recipe safety net by a long shot, but I’m getting there!

  12. onlinepastrychef March 26, 2009 at 1:43 pm #

    @Joie de vivre Any time 🙂

    @Chris It’s good to know that more cookbook authors are becoming enlightened and wanting to empower cooks.

    @Tangled Noodle It’s not like I’ve gotten rid of my cookbooks 😆 I still have a ton of them! I think you are well on your way–lots of people hesitate to combine elements from different recipes, so yay you!

    @croquecamille Thanks for the heads up about Ruhlman’s book. And I like the way you’ve indexed your blog! 🙂 I’m sure lots of people, myself included, will be inspired!

    @DailySpud Hooray! I’m glad I’m helping 🙂 And there are plenty of techniques out there that I haven’t perfected–I doubt there is anyone who ever reaches the end of the Road to Automaticity; there’s always something new to learn!

  13. Libby March 26, 2009 at 2:35 pm #

    We had over 125 cookbooks here at one point. Most are now given away. The only ones I retained are the ones my grandmother had from the 1940s and 50s, some very old volumes from the early 1900s, and one 6 inch thick tome from the early 1960s that seems to be the bible for everything from how to do a sponge cake to how to truss a bird. There’s even a section on diabetic diets. They don’t make books like that anymore, which is very unfortunate. But if one like this was available, would today’s market even support it? I kind of doubt it. Some of today’s “new cooks” are more interested in instant solutions rather than learning basic processes which will stay with you forever. Slap a bunch of crap together a la Rachel Ray and wait for applause.

    Today I occasionally add a new title, but they need to have very specific content that is desirable for me, such as one I recently picked up on European pastry.

    If I find a book that contains a recipe with “1 can of refrigerated crescent rolls” as an ingredient, then I immediately bypass it, as those things are vile 😉 And rolling up mini hot dogs in a manufactured dough may look cute, but it teaches you nothing.

  14. will March 29, 2009 at 5:00 pm #

    I’m mixed on this one. I look at recipes for inspiration, but I rarely follow them. I actually go to the store sometimes just to look into the glass cases for inspiration. Do I ask for the recipe, no, but I suppose we all need to find our inspiration somewhere. Since cooking is a trade – by that I mean, few people are natural born cooks; you get better at it with practice – I think that experimentation is everything. That’s what I riff on for my site. But, I do like to leave basic recipes for people who aren’t comfortable with my approach to cooking. You’re right, a lot of people out there are nervous. And, a lot of people just don’t care about feeding themselves – they just don’t want to have to think. It’s unfortunate, but true. Recipes are great for those people.

    I remember my piano teacher once telling me that learning to play jazz piano is extremely difficult. He said, “imagine that you’re heading home and there is a storm that has flooded the main road to your house. So, you try to go the second way, and that’s blocked by a fallen tree, so you go a third way..” and on. He said jazz piano is like knowing 8 ways to get home. No matter what happens, he said, you can always find a way back home.

    I think sound fundamentals in cooking is similar. If you are comfortable with methodology, you’ll always be able to find your way home, no matter what’s thrown at you.

    And, this, after all, is why I cook in the first place.


  15. Sophie May 26, 2009 at 6:41 am #

    I think that many of us are just not brave enough to consider taking back the power from recipes. I even have a Nigel Slater book where he admits that his favourite cake recipe is 130g butter, 130g flour, 130g sugar. It’s a miracle that I even remembered that admission, however, because along with my general feelings of helplessness, I have a terribly memory, and would for that reason also never trust myself to bake something without a recipe. How pathetic is this: not even granola. 😦 It’s a miserable existence. The only thing that I think I’m ready to tackle alone is flax-seed crackers … it seems that flax is foolproof when it comes to binding a cracker. I could be wrong; if I am, I’ll find out soon! Love your site.

  16. becklund July 27, 2009 at 12:37 pm #

    I really like this article. With certain things I’m able to make the jump, but with so many recipes out there and comments and reviews on the recipes, it gets so easy to find a recipe and follow the “bouncing ball”.

  17. Kira May 20, 2016 at 7:56 am #

    Hi Jenni,
    I really love this post. I absolutely agree with your point of view on the fact that nowadays more and more cooks depend too much on recipes. However, for me, it is really difficult to step out of my comfort zone to do something unfamiliar. I aspire to be flexible with my cooking, but I just lack the confidence to play with ingredients, especially when it comes to baking. And as a result, my dishes always seem to be lacking in creativity. I want to improve my ability and have the courage to cook by feel, could you tell me how can I start? Thank you so much.
    And by the way I love your arguments and your willingness to share baking techniques. I am a follower now. Keep up the good work

    • onlinepastrychef May 20, 2016 at 9:10 am #

      Hi, Kira! I’m so glad you found me–this is a super old post! Plus, I’m glad I found you too!

      I understand what you’re saying, and trust me, I’ve been there. It is a journey of years to get really comfortable and flexible in the kitchen. Two books I highly recommend for getting started are “How to Cook Without A Book,” which I don’t think is in print anymore but you can find on Amazon. Each chapter is sort of a recipe template for how to make certain styles/kinds of foods. She even gives you a little rhyming couplet at the beginning of each chapter to help you remember the procedures/techniques. The other is not a cookbook at all, but it’s a field guide to flavor pairings. The Flavor Bible (and the Vegetarian Flavor Bible) are great references for introducing new flavors into old dishes without worrying if they’ll work. The authors interviewed hundreds of chefs and read tons of menus to come up with an encyclopedic volume dedicated to “What Goes With What!” So if you’re cooking kale, ro instance, you flip to “kale” (it’s in alphabetical order) and then find all the flavors that go well. Pick one, two or three, and voila-=you’ve created a new dish!

      If you’d like to continue to follow me, please come over to the new site at this url:

      Thanks so much for visiting, for your thoughtful comment and for being a follower!


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