Recipes: What’s Their Job, Anyway?

How recipes should look

How recipes should look: streamlined, chronological, minimal. Poor recipes these days are forced to be so much more. Click photo for attribution to StarSammy

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."  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...






  1. Chef Felisha Wild says

    I think recipe’s stink for the most part. It is getting to the point that it’s all been done, rehashed, and done some more. While it’s true that many people have lost skills to play in the kitchen, much of what people want to eat is beyond a basic recipe’s ability to convey it. Even with an article written about a specific recipe the knowledge isn’t inherently in the recipe, it’s in the person doing the preparation. It has always been that way and it always will. Besides a recipe is only a framework or a map, not a destination.

    Great article dear. Have a wonderful day.

    Chef Felisha

    • says

      Well put! You are so right, and stated it much more clearly than I did: the cook has to bring their knowledge to the table and meet the recipe halfway. Thanks for stopping in and sharing your insight, Felisha. 🙂

  2. servergirl00 says

    I browse recipes to get ideas and then create my own from there. I used recipes to learn mother sauces and to try classic French cooking techniques.

  3. says

    Bravo! I love recipes. I’m not a naturally creative person and I depend on recipes to give me at least an outline. I especially appreciate a detailed recipe for types of foods I’ve not made before or not made often, like meatloaf (no joke) or curries. That said, I definitely agree that the recipe’s job is not to teach me how to cook, but to give me direction. I use a map to figure out how to get from here to there, not to teach me how to drive. 🙂

  4. says

    I must love recipes because I own a ton of cookbooks. However I have never seen them as rules. I use a recipe as I would use a roadmap. If I’ve never been there before I’m going to watch the map closely but I know if I’ve been somewhere close before, then I’m willing to take a different route, knowing I’ll get to my destination.

  5. Rebecca Walker says

    I have always approached recipes as a “jumping off” point. I almost always modify or tweak them depending on ingredients or my family’s tastes. And, as far as measurements, I live at a very high altitude, so I know that frequently I will have to guesstimate and/or end up with some “flops” and learn from them. THAT is the process of becoming a cook.

  6. The Beloved says

    Even this seasonal/occasional baker has learned enough about cooking to know that recipes are just the “nuts and bolts” of cooking a given end product.

  7. says

    I think you’ve nailed it. Recipes have value but they’re not there to teach you. I started making cheesecakes twelve years ago. Back then, oh my yes, did I follow those recipes. Now I’ll ball park a lot of my ingreidents because I’ve learned over time what they do. The recipe itself didn’t teach me. I learned over time, making different variations and experiementing a little and then a little bit more. Now I tend to think of a recipe as a guideline. I know now what most of Those ingredients do, so I’ll play with them. I like spicy food. You can bet I’ve learned over time how to “adjust” a recipe to how I want my food to taste–more garlic, add honey, add red wine, cut out the celery…you get the idea. But I know I didn’t learn from a recipe, I learned from cooking and baking again and again and again…

    • says

      Thanks for all your input! You are so right: at the end of the day, no matter how “good” the recipe is, the cook has to put in the time to develop their skills. It’s just not fair to ask one wee recipe to be your culinary school! 🙂

  8. Jackie@Syrup and Biscuits says

    I love recipes and cookbooks. In fact, I collect both. My cookbook collection is growing to almost unmanageable proportions and I have some recipes that I hand wrote over 40 years ago. I much prefer to cook rather than bake because baking is somewhat confining to me. I feel more bound to the recipe to keep the ratio of baking ingredients precise. On the other hand, I can’t think of the last time I used a recipe to cook. I love to read cookbooks like novels and to reflect on the writing and recipe styles. I’m with you on lamenting over the outright disrespect for Home Ec. I still remember things I learned in that class from 1967 and 1968. This is a truly wonderful article!

    • says

      Hi Jackie! Thanks for stopping in and commenting. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! I, too, mainly use cookbooks for inspiration these days. And even with baking, I am comfortable with making substitutions in order to come up w/new spins on favorites. But, I guess that’s partly a product of knowing how things work and how to make things do what you want them to do. Sadly, a single recipe, or even a handful, can’t teach that. A recipe can only take a person so far. The cook still needs to put in the time to master the techniques. Would love to get a look at your cookbook collection!

  9. Ilke says

    They are guidelines in my book unless I am baking something very fragile. I normally look at the pantry, fridge and freezer and just get the idea. But it helped me a lot to watch the women in my family to throw dinner together easily. I don’t know if I would be this “independent” if I was taught to follow a recipe line by line. That is what is difficult about writing Turkish recipes, everything is related to the feel, touch and taste and every cook has a different version of the same thing. I always mention in my recipes that everything is negotiable! So after you cover the basics, the rest is open to interpretation 🙂

    • says

      Wow, that must be a challenge. When an entire country cooks by senses, trying to codify that into a list of instructions has got to be tough. Fortunately, you are up to the challenge, Ilke!

  10. Jessica | Oh Cake says

    I agree that a recipe can’t teach you to cook as well as a person can. You know I hold technique dear to me. But written instructions (i.e. Method of Production) are different (in my opinion) from a recipe. A recipe might say 1 teaspoon of garlic. The MOP would say garlic, minced. Or a novice baker might have conquered the creaming method but not quite understand the concept of folding. I try to write recipes that include the MOP and try to remember that just because I’m “fluent” in a technique language now, my audience might not be. A recipe gives me a starting point as an instructor to help the student feel confident with the MOP.

    • says

      I’ll be teaching starting in a few weeks and will keep the distinction you make in mind. I have no idea what skills the students will be bringing to the table. Thanks for stopping in and for commenting:)

  11. says

    I love this post because I’m someone who never really learned how to cook. I can bake, but then again, I still follow a recipe. Some where in the distant future, I will hopefully be comfortable enough in the kitchen to really experiment, but right now, I’m all about a recipe that preferably includes a lot of pictures. Cooking isn’t for everyone, but I have the desire to learn, so I’m going to go with it and see where it takes me!

    • says

      Having the desire to learn has to be a prerequisite to becoming a good cook/baker, I think. Because otherwise, where’s the incentive to practice? I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for taking the time to stop in, read and comment!

  12. says

    Like most people here have said, I use recipes as a jumping-off point. That being said, it took me a while to get to that point. I learned to cook through trying recipes, which I initially followed exactly, and reading cookbooks. As a result, over time, I “learned” to cook — and I trusted myself to experiment. Though I don’t think the recipe holds any responsibility, I think the recipe & cookbook writers most certainly do. And I still love cookbooks & recipes (no surprise, huh?).

    • says

      Yes, I think many people forget that repetition–and the time to repeat a task until you really nail it–is a huge part of the equation that folks just don’t pay attention to. The best recipe in the world means nothing if you aren’t confident about the techniques. (And I had no idea you would still love cook books!) 😉

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