Sunday, November 11, 2007


On food and recipes

You’ll notice that when I talk about cooking, like here and here, I’m pretty vague about quantities, and sometimes about exactly what goes in — which herbs to use, what sort of cheese, that kind of thing. There’s a reason for that.

The reason is that for the sorts of things I’m talking about, I consider recipes to be starting points — inspiration, but not fixed rules. I tire of hearing people ask how much garlic they should put into something, or to say that they can’t make a certain dish because they lack some minor ingredient.

Part of the art — and the fun — of cooking is to try things, to experiment, to mix and match and mingle, and see what comes of it. You get to know what seasonings work together, what can substitute for what, and what, in fact, does have to be done in the right proportions (if you’re baking a cake, you need to be more particular than if you’re baking chicken).

You obviously can’t make my garlic/rosemary chicken without garlic, or rosemary, or chicken, but you know what?: you can make garlic/thyme chicken, or garlic/rosemary lamb chops, or....

And so you’ll never see me write an ingredient list that marks something as “optional”. They’re all optional. It really just there to give you the idea. You take it from there.


Thomas J. Brown said...

I completely agree! I do a lot of cooking and very rarely do I ever use recipes. Most of the time I rely on the skills that I've picked up from a lifetime of cooking.

It's quite common for me to have leftovers at work, which usually results in one of my coworkers asking for the recipe. When I tell them I just made it up and I don't know how much of what I put into the dish, they're usually surprised. I try to take those opportunities to extol the virtues of cooking sans recipes.

Do I get it wrong sometimes? You bet. But it's always a learning experience, and I usually don't get it so wrong that it's inedible.

scouter573 said...

I'm going to go out on a limb here and agree. I'm notorious for reading five recipes and picking the parts I like. The kids have this love-hate thing. I make a new dry rub for ribs or a new (dry) spice mix for BBQ chicken and they love it - but they hate that I can never remember the recipe because it changes every time. I have my failures, but they contribute the next success.

Where I diverge from this liberality is bread baking. I don't have a good feel for baking, so I hew close to the recipe. I may vary additions (substitute one dried fruit for another with wild abandon), but I stick to the basic flour-water-stuff recipe.

My wife is quite the opposite. She's a great cook but she follows recipes closely. Her excellence comes in the skills required and in the consistency of her work. She can make anything. She also has a better eye than I do - my record is pretty mixed but she can read a recipe and predict how good it will be.

So I wing it and she reads it. Works out well.