Sunday, November 25, 2007

Recipe, Shmecipe...

Recipes are for sissies. Ok, not really. But there are plenty of folks who cook just wonderfully without a written recipe. These folks know exactly how much flour for perfect pancakes, how many eggs for that birthday cake, how much salt is in a pinch, and so on. Diametrically opposed to the precision of those who follow the letter of the culinary law, these folks wing it. Willy-nilly, they add their spices, never getting a recipe exactly the same twice. Yet somehow, it all works out. "It's a mystery" comes to mind (cue Shakespeare in Love theme song)but it isn't a fluke. People who cook without recipes have innate senses, seasoned through time and practice, about what makes a dish "right". My grandmother (when she still cooked) was one of these folks. Recipes weren't something she really utilized much. Maybe if she saw something on a cooking program, she'd jot down the ingredients, but probably not the amounts. She cooked by taste, by sight and by memory. Now granted, she wasn't making really complicated, Martha Stewart-style dishes; just good old comfort food like roast, gravy, cakes, and the like.

So I wonder, does abandoning recipes give more or less freedom to the cook? For me, I tend to use recipes as guidelines, rather than rules (cue Pirates of the Carribbean music), unless the dish is something complicated or precise, like baking. But I tend to swap out items at will, add more salt or change the cooking time, if I disagree with the recipe. Generally, this works out ok, occasional flops aside. I find for me that distance between the dish and the recipe does give me freedom but I like having the safety net there, just in case. For people who never use recipes, I have to wonder if they are limiting their repetoire to those dishes that they know well or that are family favorites. How much improvising do non-recipe cooks do on their own? Are recipes the equivalent of a sewing pattern - making the cook either a manufacturer if they use one and a designer if they don't? Not being a designer, I would only guess that all design is based on some basic principles, that once mastered can be bent or tweaked (or even broken). I think cooking is the same (cue Project Runway video).

Ok, so once again, I fail to pick a side on the issue of Recipe - Yes or No. I guess I'm too much of an Aquarian. But since my cooking style is quasi-free form, I guess my opinion on this is too. Who knows, who cares - pass me some cake.


Heidi said...

I'm definitely a recipe-follower. I usually try an average of 2 new recipes each week, and we only keep the best--mediocre or just plain bad go straight in the trash. If it's a keeper, I do make my own notes on the paper but they generally involve changes in cooking time rather than serious deviations from the recipe. Although I cook regularly and enjoy doing so, I am still fairly young (29) so I don't feel like I have the experience in cooking that my grandma does that allows her to forgo recipes entirely.

Baking can be difficult for me because I live at high altitude, yet I'm not really comfortable adjusting the recipes for such (subtracting leavening, adding liquid). I will cop to usually making boxed cakes because I just don't want waste the time & ingredients on a homemade cake recipe that may or may not turn out looking like somebody knelt in the middle of it. LOL

I don't think following a recipe exactly makes one any less of a good cook than completely improvising. I do enjoy cooking very much but I don't get my chief creative fulfillment out of it--that comes from other hobbies that I do, so it doesn't make me feel stifled or uncreative to follow a recipe.

Speck said...

I follow a recipe exactly as written the first time. If it comes out perfectly, into the recipe book it goes. Usually I tend to add more of the listed spices because bland food WILL NOT fly at my house.

I came up with my own spaghetti sauce receipe because everything out there was just too sweet. Sweet spaghetti sauce is just sacrilege! I've made it so often now I just pour stuff in the pot until it "looks right," but I do still peek at the recipe to make sure I'm adding the right spices and none of the wrong ones.

I do tend to use recipes simply because I don't remember the correct ingredients. Garlic is not an acceptable substitute for horseradish! Found that out after a rather puzzling cooking session that didn't come out correctly. After I finally dug out the recipe I realized my mistake.

I'm finally developing a sense of how much onion to use in dishes after 8 years of cooking from scratch. Like anything, cooking takes practice to be good at it. I think I have the comfort food down, but the fru-fru stuff...not so much.

Seattle Coffee Girl said...

I'm a recipe follower, and I come from a long line of women who are not recipe followers. My dear mum crafts a new recipe every week, based on whatever fresh items she has on hand and whatever foods she's tried recently. Her "wing-it" recipes are a million times better than my cookbook ones. Only problem is, if you fall in love with one of mum's meals, she'll never be able to give you a recipe for it. "Oh, a bit of this, a dash of that." Makes me want to scream sometimes. But mostly I'm just envious of her ability to use fresh ingredients and come up with something fabulous at the drop of a hat. Ugh. Make that super envious.

Lorraine said...

I'm more a guidelines not rules gal, although, as you pointed out, things that are baked require more adherence to the rules.

Conversely, my husband, who is a very good cook, can't deviate from a recipe to save his life. Many is the time he'll be cooking and panic because we don't have this or that ingredient and he CANNOT figure out how to adjust accordingly. "But it says 'deglaze with white wine'!" And if it were me I'd just grab whatever was to hand and adjust the taste accordingly.

Anonymous said...

I'll eat it, regardless. It's an albatross, of sorts.