Wednesday, August 16, 2006

In Defense Of Recipes

I read an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer food section this week that I found rather annoying. To be fair, there are days when I find everything annoying, and this may well have been one of them. However, annoying or not, this article generated in me some strong feelings regarding its topic: recipes and their use (or, in this case, overuse).

The primary point of the article was that we as a society are far too reliant on recipes, and don't use our intuition enough in cooking. That we're too quick to throw up our hands and say "I can't make that" because we lack written instruction, rather than being willing to dig into our store of cooking knowledge and logic and figure out how to create the dish we're after. The columnist said she often received phone calls requesting a certain recipe, and that the caller insisted s/he must have the recipe because it was their family's favorite, that making it from memory wouldn't be good enough.

She refers to recipes as a crutch, and calls them "the speed dial of the culinary world." My first reaction was "So?" After all, what's wrong with using speed dial if you actually know how to use the telephone keypad? Certainly I can look up a number and dial it, but if I can just push a single button, why not? Yes, I can make Beef Stroganoff from memory, but if I have a combination of ingredients from a cookbook or magazine that I know is successful, and perhaps more importantly, tasty, why not use it?

It also occurred to me that I can get in touch with someone more easily if I have their exact number, just as I can make blueberry muffins more successfully if I have the ratio of the ingredients to one another. I know that blueberry muffins are flour, sugar, an egg, some oil, and things like baking powder and/or soda, and blueberries, but they'll turn out better if I know exact proportions. Just as I know that my grandmother's phone number is 2 twos, an eight, a four, a six, a one, and a five, I'm more likely to actually have my grandmother's phone ring if I know the correct sequence of numbers than if I just dial 8-4-6-1-5 and 2 twice, in random patterns and combinations.

The author suggests that when we use recipes, we fail to recognize basic concepts that appear over and over in those recipes. I disagree. I recognize the basic concepts I've learned over the years. I know, for instance, that white sauce is flour and butter, with a certain amount of milk or cream added. And I know that, in general, a 1:1 ratio of flour to butter works best, but I always have to look up how much milk to use (but do I know all the words to "American Pie"? Yes). And white sauce is not a food that lends itself to correction of mistakes easily--find out too late that you didn't use enough liquid, try to add some to the already-made sauce, and you will find yourself with the most unattractive soupy, lumpy mess you've ever encountered. It'll break your arm trying to beat the lumps out, and you'll never manage to do it (you'll wind up pouring it through a sieve instead--a nuisance and a mess, although it does work). So why not use a "recipe" and save yourself the headache?

Some things of course I eyeball. Mashed potatoes and rice spring to mind. But many times I've made slightly too runny mashed potatoes when I got overzealous with the milk and didn't realize how much I was putting in there (and the first person who says "Start with a little--you can always add more..." gets one on the beak). For rice I just put water in the pan, then use half as much rice. I've never made crunchy rice, but I can also say that I've never felt my rice was much of a success story, either. I might actually benefit from some of those techniques I've read that are "recipes" for rice that involve tea towels or steamers or some such thing.

She offers, as an example, a series of recipes she had provided for peach pie the previous week. She dismisses concerns over oven temperature, saying that it doesn't matter if you use 350, 375 or 400, so long as you follow the mandate that the crust be brown, and the filling thickened and bubbly. This argument works fairly well for peach pies, I suppose (and even for lots of other things), but for some things, temperature is very important, and timing is secondary. I recall a disaster of an almond cake (that used almond meal, which goes for over twelve bucks a pound at my grocery store, I might add) that resulted when I translated the temperature (incorrectly) from Celsius to Fahrenheit (OK, to be 100% fair, all I did was read a combination of the numbers given--the recipe provided both Celsius and Fahrenheit temperatures, and I read the first number of the Fahrenheit one, and the last two of the Celsius number, resulting in an oven temperature of 360 instead of 320).

By the "peach pie" logic, it shouldn't have mattered that the oven was hotter than was called for, so long as I kept a close eye on this cake. In truth, the result was a thoroughly overdone, rubbery, almost burnt top, with a center that was just barely set. Although this was a cake--something that can be notoriously temperamental--the same thing could just as easily happen with any number of things. Casseroles in which the top burns before the center heats through properly because the oven is too hot. Biscuits that are cooked through but not golden brown on top because the oven temperature was too low.

As well, those oven temperatures and cooking times are given to us as a convenience. Yes, I could cook my dinner at 425 instead of 350, but that would mean that after the first half of the cooking time, I'd have to be looking in on it every five to ten minutes to make sure it wasn't getting too done. Some of us want to be able to put dinner (or a pie, or a loaf of bread) in the oven and know that we can forget about it until the last ten or so minutes of cooking time, at which time it's always prudent to start checking for doneness. I don't want to be a slave to my meal.

She concludes that we're paying so much attention to the recipe that "technique eludes us," and that we "lack a general understanding of how ingredients function." I won't dispute the point--I'm sure it's true for many people. But I will point out that I learned technique and how ingredients function through years of experience, and by using recipes. I didn't have to learn the hard way that if you're combining a bunch of wet ingredients, and you decide to just toss them all together in a measuring cup (because the instructions say to add them all to the dry ingredients at the same time), and two of those ingredients are milk and lemon juice, that if you put those two things in the same container, the lemon juice will curdle the milk (although I confess I have done this). I didn't have to ruin a Beef Stroganoff by adding the sour cream to the sauce on the stove and accidentally letting it boil and finding out that sour cream breaks when it's heated to a boil (I haven't done this). Today I know these things. Fifteen years ago, I did not.

As for the readers calling her to beg for a recipe, who knows how long they've been cooking? These days cooking is a very popular activity, but when I was a child, many of my friends (and, for that matter, I myself) had working mothers who didn't have time to cook. My mother learned to cook by watching my grandmother, reading a few "basic" kids' cookbooks that were given to her, and experimenting. I learned to cook by reading cookbooks and experimenting only. There wasn't anyone for me to observe in the kitchen who was particularly skilled at cooking (my dad did a lot of the cooking and...well, that's another story).

I learned certain fundamentals from reading recipes, and from following those recipes a few times until I was comfortable with the concepts. I have recipes I still follow to this day. Yes, I may add a little more of this, not include that, but I follow the spirit of the recipe. As I've said before, I am not a creative cook--I need recipes to offer me ideas, and correct proportions of ingredients. I could probably get through a week, or even a month, of cooking sans recipes, but that's because for so many years I did use them as a "crutch," if you must. But they were like the crutches used by people who are healing, to support them until their hurt foot can bear their weight again; not like the ones used by people who are, for whatever reason, chronically unable to walk unaided. I can cook unaided if necessary, but I prefer to lean a little on my recipes. I don't lean as heavily now as I did ten years ago, but it's nice to know they're there to support me if and when I want them.

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