Why Recipes Don’t Work (at least sometimes)

A friend recently told me about a conversation he had on a flight from Chicago to DC. Hi seatmate noticed he was reading a food magazine and this inspired her to strike up a conversation. Turns out she loves to read about food, and she bragged about her 1000-plus-page scrapbook that she had filled with her favorite recipes from various cooking magazines. My colleague innocently asked if she had cooked all those recipes. “Oh no!” she blurted, “I don’t cook—but someday I’ll get around to it.”

Ever since hearing about the “scrapbook non-cook”, I can’t help but wondering what role, if any, recipes play in inspiring people to cook. We have more recipes at our fingertips today than ever before. Even if you don’t have a personal cookbook library (that’s a partial shot of mine below) or a backlog of cooking magazines, an infinite number of recipes wait only a google search away. And yet evidence keeps piling up that cooking skills are being lost and that, as a result, we eat more and more of our meals away from home.

booksThe truth is recipes can only go so far in teaching someone to cook—or encouraging someone to even try. Even the most basic recipes are filled with coded language (sear, deglaze, blanche, etc), assumptions and leaps of instruction.  Certainly some recipes are easier to follow than others, but no recipe can cover every little detail of kitchen knowledge you need to make you a better cook. Over the years I’ve heard far too many stories from people (often students in my classes) who have tried recipes and failed, and, here’s the part that upsets me the most, they often indict themselves and their lack of cooking skills. I don’t blame people for feeling discouraged after investing time in shopping, money in ingredients, more time in cooking, and possibly even inviting people over adding an element of embarrassment to the mix—it’s enough to drive anyone to the nearest prepared foods department of their local market.

As a cooking teacher and someone who writes recipes for a living, this leaves me in a sort of quandary. While I do my best to include instructional detail in my recipes (making me often long-winded and sometimes causing my editors to pull out their hair), the reality is that the best way to learn to cook is simply start cooking and keep cooking. If you can find someone who knows how to make a dish you like (make sure it’s someone whose company you enjoy), ask them to teach you and then start making it yourself. Just like learning to play the piano, you need to learn the basics and practice before you’re ready for a full-course sonata. Choose a dish you like, for instance, frittata, and start making it, and keep making it until you can make it without a recipe. Sure, you may get a little bored, but that’s when you start introducing variations. After all, the sign of a truly good cook, one who approaches the making of a meal with cavalier confidence but without recipes, is one who knows how to improvise. Once you have a few basics down, then it’s time for recipes—and they will work, because you will know how to make them work.

3 Responses to Why Recipes Don’t Work (at least sometimes)

  • MJ says:

    This is a really good post. I am so used to cooking and reading and creating recipes that I forget that the language of cooking is sometimes foreign to people. I always cook by instinct and am used to improvising if I need to, but I know people who will never deviate at all from a recipe and become flummoxed if they don’t have a certain ingredient or don’t know a technique. Good food for thought post.

  • Marilou Guy says:

    Hi Molly! I totally agree. I too have bookshelves full of cookbooks (3000 and counting). I like to use recipes as framework or guidelines for cooking and baking. With so many variables…oven temps, quality of ingredients, etc. even the best written recipes will have pitfalls.
    Looking forward to seeing you again this fall at DLM.

  • Avra Friedfeld says:

    yes, I completely agree improvisation is key. For example, recipes sometimes ask for ingredients that you don’t have. You have to have confidence that you can substitute something else without hurting the recipe. (for example, I had a recipe that asked for a salty Asian sauce which I didn’t have. I simply substituted fish sauce and it was fine)

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