Y’all know how I feel about recipes. I think they are limiting. That they make folks think that “this is the only way to make this Thing.” That changing up an ingredient list isn’t nearly as earth-shattering as folks make it out to be. It’s when you change up the cooking techniques that you’re, well, really cooking instead of just substituting. I think that recipes are static, like a collection of bugs stuck in amber, when what cooking should be is freeing and open to interpretation. Within in the rules.
And that’s where the problem comes in: the rules. I’m willing to bet that, time was, most folks knew the rules. They learned them from their moms and grandmas. From aunts. Maybe even from hired cooks. From their Home Ec teachers. But: time was. As in past. So much emphasis in the schools these days is placed on straight up academics that Home Ec, along with other hands on, practical classes like auto mechanics and shop class, have been marginalized. And people—especially kids—these days are scheduled to the hilt. Between soccer and ballet and lacrosse and Kick boxing (Sport of the Future) and scouts, there’s very little time for a kid to learn to cook. And very little time for parents to teach them. And when grandma lives 6 states away, chances of meaningful cross-generational cooking training are reduced to almost nil.
So now, when One wants to make a special meal for a loved one, or just a “regular” meal on a weeknight, they don’t necessarily understand all the hows and whys of cooking. They just have the desire. That’s commendable, but desire alone doesn’t get dinner on the table. You know what They say, “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”
Having the desire to cook without having the know-how to back it up is a Frustrating place to be. And The Food Network is all about Food Lifestyle, not about teaching folks to cook. So, what’s a well-meaning person to do? They probably will turn to a recipe. Maybe from a cookbook on a shelf, maybe from a blog, maybe even from The Food Network site (and we all know how that goes down, right)?
Regardless, once One gets One’s Hands on a recipe, what is that recipe’s job? The definition of “recipe” is “a set of instructions for making or preparing something, especially a food dish: a recipe for a cake.” —dictionary.com This seems pretty reasonable, but if One doesn’t know how to cook—if one isn’t at least conversant if not well practiced in cooking techniques—how detailed do those instructions have to be? At which point does it cease being a Set of Instructions for Preparing a Specific Thing and become a mini cooking class? It seems like many people expect a recipe to be so specific that anyone can succeed with it. And that’s not a terrible goal, but it doesn’t take into account the differences in people’s ovens or stoves or cookware or mixers or even the differences in their ingredients.
I Ventured Forth onto facebook and twitter to ask this very specific question: What, if any, responsibility does a recipe have to actually teach you to cook/bake? Lots of folks responded (and thank you all for that). And they run the gamut from Tons of Responsibility to No Responsibility at All. Here’s a sampling of the responses. My thoughts/reactions are in italics:
- If you don’t know what you are doing, a recipe has a lot of responsibility! —Patti That’s the heart of it, isn’t it? The less you know about cooking, the more heavily you have to rely on a recipe.
- None. That’s not the purpose of a recipe. The author of a recipe has a responsibility to be clear and accurate in the instructions, and to have tested the recipe so that the cook obtains the expected outcome. If you don’t know how to saute or whip or whatever, you have the responsibility to find out. —Jennifer I’m with Jennifer on this one. Recipes should work, as long as you know what you’re doing. If you don’t, maybe you’re still in the pre-recipe/learning to cook stage. And that’s okay.
- Different recipes have different responsibilities. Those that are labeled “easy” to “moderate” in difficulty should be teaching, however those that are more difficult don’t necessarily have to teach, per se, but they should accurately explain difficult techniques. ALL recipes have a responsibility to be accurate in terms of ingredients, quantities, etc. When I provide recipes, I often add my own thoughts and notations about substitutions and additions, where I feel it is necessary, and can be helpful. —Mindy I think that classifying recipes as easy/intermediate/hard can be a double edged sword. Recipes, no matter how easy or hard, still describe techniques. Not everyone will find the same techniques easy. Or hard. Accuracy in terms of ingredient amount is more vital in baking than in cooking. In cooking, often general proportions are enough. But only if you know what you’re doing. Aye, there’s the rub…
- If I think a technique may not be known to the typical home cook (beurre manié springs to mind – which was needed when I posted an adaption of Julia Child’s Coq au Vin with Cornish game hens) I will post a link to instructions for same. That’s the beauty of posting a recipe on the internet. I love adding links. —Stacy Yes, I think this is one of the benefits of posting recipes on the web. You can link to more information, thereby creating a mini cooking class instead of just a set of instructions.
- I just think they should have a responsibility for being accurate. The one thing that has always really bugged me about baking recipes is that if the writer is not going to give the weight of flour (in ounces or grams) then at least put in the directions how they measured it. Did they dip and level or did they the spoon and level? Or did they loosen up the flour with a fork or something before dipping and leveling? All three of those ways will have different measurements. —Tonya So true. That’s why, when it really counts, I’m all about weighing my ingredients.
- I believe that some fundamentals can be learned from some recipes, I don’t think their role is one of educating. —John I agree. I think that cookbooks should educate. Parents and bloggers and culinary instructors should educate. Recipes should just tell you how to make a thing.
- I’ve been burned several times by poorly written recipes! That’s why I only cook from from a few choice blogs. Once, I was well into making a recipe that mentioned adding an ingredient that was not mentioned in the ingredient list so I ended up guessing on the quantity and had to throw the entire batch out. —Aimee I wish I knew what the ingredient was. Seems to me that if you have a working knowledge of cooking, you’d be able to ball park it. We all bring our own experience, or lack of experience, to the table whenever we follow a recipe. But it is the recipe writer’s responsibility to be accurate.
- None. It just helps you—give you the steps—to make something. Making lots of recipes over time can teach you a thing or 2. —J. If you read the instructions, and even ingredient lists, with a Discerning Eye, you can begin to see patterns and understand some of the underlying fundamentals of cooking.
- None. Recipes have no responsibilities, nor recipe writers. It would be better to learn to bake independently from recipes. —Brian I agree, it would be better. But most folks don’t have the time. It’s a dilemma.
I’ve been mulling all of these responses over for an hour or so now. And while I fully realize I’ve been squarely on the Recipes Make Me Feel Squidgy team for a very long time, I am actually starting to feel sorry for recipes. Back in The Day—back when most folks (girls at least) knew their way around a kitchen—a recipe could be a set of instructions to make a thing. It didn’t need to be anything else. Now, folks who write recipes are faced with a dilemma: how much information can you shove into a recipe—how far can you stretch the form and have it still be a recipe and not a cooking class?
When the instructions of a recipe have to contain such specific information as Every Possible Substitution and Equivalency (How many teaspoons is a clove of minced garlic? Can I use brown sugar instead of white sugar?), complete cooking techniques (Saute? What’s that? How high should my heat be? How small should I cut the onions? Can I use a nonstick pan? Why/why not? Should my onions be this dark? Could you show me a picture of what they should look like when I’m done?), achingly specific descriptions of what the finished product will look/smell/taste like (How will I know when it’s done? If it seems underdone, should I keep baking? How golden brown is golden brown? By “firm to the touch,” do you mean hard or springy? How far from the sides of the pan will it shrink? Should they be pointy on top? Is it bad if mine is not pointy? What if it’s browning too fast? you said 18 minutes and mine got too dark!), it’s no longer a recipe. It has been asked to do much more than the form can handle.
Clear and concise instructions, introduced chronologically, get tortured into a bunch of run-on sentences and if/then statements that, when represented as a flow chart, would make this one look linear.
Oh, poor recipe. We have forgotten that you exist to tell gently guide us in how to make A Thing. Not to teach us how To Cook. Not to be culinary school. If you have to ask all those flowcharty questions, you may need to go back and brush up on your techniques. To go back to a metaphor I used a few weeks ago, you need to be able to get to know and understand the trees so that you can actually see the forest.
I know, dear recipes, I have maligned you in the past. But it’s only because I am not a fan of the message that folks get from you. But is that your fault or the fault of the folks reading you? I feel bad for you, recipes. Really I do. I know that many folks love you. They cling to you and Own you and don’t share, or only share grudgingly. Some folks think you are Law. And I don’t want to upset those folks. I don’t want to tromple on their recipes. So I asked a friend on twitter, how do I Make Nice and let folks know that I really don’t hate recipes and that I appreciate their hard work in writing them. And she said this:
Tell them they created a lovely step in the big recipe that is learning to cook overall. —J. Davis.
So, that’s what I say to you. A recipe is perhaps a step in learning how to cook. Reading both an ingredient list and a list of instructions with discernment. And as J. also said above, “making lots of recipes over time can teach you a thing or two.” You’ll start to recognize patterns. (Gee whiz, a lot of recipes for savory stuff start with “sweat onion, carrot and celery in a saute pan.”)
Please, don’t expect a recipe to teach you to cook. That’s not why it’s there. Learn to cook so that you can follow recipes. I think that everyone will be much happier that way.
And that’s all I have to say about that for right now. Thanks for reading, and have a lovely day.
Before I go: what are your thoughts? What is a recipe’s responsibility? What is a recipe author’s responsibility? What should you, as the one following the recipe bring to the table? I mean, besides dinner…