What is a recipe? According to the ginormous reference on one of my bookshelves, The American Heritage Dictionary of The English Language, recipe is first defined as “A set of directions with a list of ingredients for making or preparing something, especially food.”
But the second definition is just as interesting: “A formula for or means to a desired end.”
The question is are recipes written in stone or a template for a concept for a dish? Let’s set aside baking–which requires fairly strict adherence to a recipe to result in a bread with the right texture, a cake with the right crumb, etc. How closely do you adhere to a recipe you got from your grandma, chose in a cookbook, or found online? Do you stick to it the first time to see how it works and riff from there? Based on your expertise, can you see flaws in the ingredient amounts and make adjustments? And how do you expect others to use your recipes?
What does a recipe mean to you?
Eater recently ran an article by Navneet Alang that wrestled with this. Alang points out that cooking is an act of care and that following a recipe can be ritualistic, “the practice of repeating established, sequential steps a comfort when the world feels uncertain.” He likens it to received wisdom or repositories of knowledge. And, he explains, “There is a reason recipes are passed down from generation to generation.”
APPCA member Lola Dee says, “I have a very difficult time sticking to recipes, I tend to tweak everything and substitute ingredients, using what I have. I think if you use the recipe as a guideline and apply correct methods you can come up with some delicious breakthroughs. However, if you’re cooking institutionally or for a restaurant, you do have to stick to the recipes for consistency, costing, etc.”
I know I can relate to this. I, too, am a recipe tweaker, although with recipes using a technique unfamiliar to me, I tend to follow them precisely the first time to learn.
But an experienced, confident home cook or chef can take the essence of a recipe and turn it into a dish that doesn’t just make do with the ingredients we have or can source–an issue we’ve faced through the pandemic. Their massage of the recipe can be an act of creativity, a way of imprinting oneself on a dish. Or, of course, a adaptive way to address dietary restrictions. We look at a recipe’s construction to learn where to build flavor, how to build body, how to transform texture. We are taking a basic melody and essential instruments and coming up with our own orchestration.
Essentially, the recipe transforms from a directive to a template. A happy guidepost to our own destination.
As personal chef, food blogger, and recipe developer Gina Bean explains:
“Recipe writing is a skill… A good recipe has its place, for sure. But, cooks should make dishes the way they, and their diners, like them.”
What is your approach to using recipes and writing them? Are they set in stone or a template for creativity?
Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.
And if you are a member and have a special talent or point of view to share on this blog, let us know so we can feature you!
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