A former slave to the recipe, I do things my way now.
To be freed from the recipe is sweet, the kind of liberation I had been looking for my whole life.
But most of my life, I could not have done things my way because I didn’t have certain skills I needed. And I didn’t even know it.
I thought the recipe was the thing. I thought that following it blindly would mean success. My heart would beat merrily as I pinched, mixed or grilled my way through a recipe. Meticulously, I would do everything just as it demanded, eager to be teachers’ pet, eager to recreate that beautiful dish on the glossy page.
Pretty little liars, recipes can be. They make promises they sometimes can’t keep.
You see, recipes have flaws.
Even though recipe writers are well meaning people who want to share meaningful information, they leave out huge chunks of information. Almost all the time.
This is not malice on their part.
It’s the universal, abbreviated language of recipes that we have come to expect; that stale and staccato rhythm. This language does not allow the writer to fully explain things that need to be explained and often fails the novice cook. Recipes assume readers can read between the lines, that they always possess the unspoken technical skills that will assure their success.
To be liberated from the recipe, the novice cook must study technique and practice, practice, practice.
My own deliverance came this way. My husband set me on the path. “You have to understand the science behind cooking,” he told me. Mechanical engineers think that way. Behind his immediate success as a chef/restaurant owner with zero culinary training was his grasp on science. You know, heat transfer and concepts like that. Meanwhile at home, I would be squinting through the Bastia recipe in Fine Cooking and he would take that idea, change it to his liking and put it on our menu.
So I began to study concepts like heat transfer and the works of French master chefs and to work on my knife skills. I started to ask questions and do research. Over time, as my skills grew, so did my confidence.
I began to move around the kitchen with ease, untethered by printed page.
I still flip through cooking magazines and cookbooks, a lifelong pleasure. But the browsing now is different; it is not a hunger for someone else’s ideas. The browsing is for inspiration; a push off from my own frozen moment, a catapult into a new vision. Ah! Yes! That’s what I’ll make. But not that recipe, not exactly.
If someone ever tells you that great cooks are born, not made, don’t believe that. Skill is the foundation for greatness and skill can be learned. Practice, study, make mistakes, for Gods’ sake. Mistakes are good. It’s not the absence of mistakes that makes a great cook, but the knowing how to fix them. That comes with understanding the elements at play.
Seek out resources that teach skill and science. They are everywhere.
Start with these three concepts below and build your own foundation of knowledge that will lead you out of slavery and into your own delicious, creative genius.
With heat, you have to be the boss. When a recipe says “sauté on medium heat,” for example, there are so many variables that influence the outcome. The type of pan, the type of stove, even how much air is circulating in your kitchen. Learning how to use temperature to your advantage is key.
Like temperature, the influences on how long it takes to get where you’re going are many. Like a great artist, you have to know when the work is finished. Understanding the ways of heat will help with getting the timing just right. The two are cohorts. The full engagement of your nose is non negotiable for success.
To be succinct, a recipe writer must give a specific quantity for measurement. Imagine a recipe that says, “Oh, just throw in one or two teaspoons of cinnamon.” No, that would never work. Recipes put order in a chaotic world.
What comes by playing with seasonings over time is the freedom to say, “No I like a little more cinnamon in mine, or a little less.” Or even, “Screw the cinnamon, I am putting nutmeg in this baby.”
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Assistant Ed: Alicia Wozniak/Ed: Bryonie Wise