Monday, March 19, 2012

Are Recipes Necessary?

So  Scotty Harris posted a tweet on Facebook by chef and prolific cookbook author Sara Moulton citing a question (s) - first posed during a panel discussion by respected food-blogger Carol Blymire- that I've been turning over in my mind for at least twenty years:
 "are recipes really necessary? do we need all that detail?"
It's pretty obvious to me now that the answer to these questions is "it depends." However, it was not always so obvious.

For the longest time I believed that recipes were only for novices and those who were too insecure to trust their memories and cooking skills. I believed that if you had a solid command of technique, a sound understanding of the physical properties of food and an ability to imagine how a dish will taste before you cook it, you could do away with written recipes and cook extemporaneously. Of course, I still believe this and, most of the time, that's exactly how I approach the process of cooking. I rarely look at recipes and don't buy or own very many cookbooks.*

However, there are many occasions when highly detailed written recipes are indispensable.

Recipes are essential in virtually any commercial context you can name. This is especially true in situations where the food is going to be mass-produced and where small variations in weight/color/shape/flavor can have big impacts on profits and customer experience. Imagine trying to produce 1000lbs of  hot dogs everyday, 5 days a week without a recipe and someone to check the quality of the output against the recipe template. Nuts. Even at the "artisan" level of commercial production it's important to work from recipes. Whenever I make a batch of sausage, I write a recipe for the batch -even if I have made the same thing a hundred times before. That way if I make any changes I'll be sure to remember what I did.

Perhaps it is needless to say that highly detailed recipes are EXTREMELY important to me in my consulting business.  I mean clients hire me to create products that they can reproduce. How is that going to happen if I don't give them an accurate recipe?

Anyone who puts together a restaurant menu without codifying the recipes for every dish is going to have serious problems controlling quality and costs. Unless you have a recipe for each menu item, you cannot calculate what it costs to produce the item nor can you accurately determine what to charge.  It's not necessary to have all your line cooks looking at recipes before they prep for service however, it is much tougher to train new hires if they don't have a recipe to guide them.

So yeah, there are most definitely times when recipes are absolutely essential. But yet I think that some of us would do well  to cook extemporaneously without bothering to look at a recipe or measure ingredients.  If you are at the point where you feel you know how most ingredients taste and change as they cook. And if you know how to all of the basic cook's tools and know all the basic cooking techniques, there really is no reason why you need to be anywhere near a recipe during most casual cooking activities.

 *I've been cooking since the age of 15 and have only managed to collect about sixty cookbooks in the intervening four decades.


Jessica said...

Seems an awkward question to pose if recipes are necessary. I "cook" cured salmon (gravlax) quite frequently. You can vary the seasoning, you cannot vary the ratio of salt and sugar. If it goes wrong you can get extremely ill.
I guess it is the very same with charcuterie.

The same goes for baking. Whereas you can play around with some things, there's just chemistry to take into account. With baking you don't risk getting sick, you risk having to toss the stuff away due to taste failure (I made waffles once that puffed up in the waffle maker so bad that it was balloon stage - I had played around with the recipe and that was what I got).

Bob delGrosso said...

Jessica, It is an awkward question -which is exactly why I like it. I'm very fond of questions that challenge basic assumptions or articles of faith (A favorite: What is money?). These kinds of questions shake things up a little.

Jessica said...

I do agree with you that sometimes recipes are absolutely essential and sometimes not. And it does seem to be a perpetual thing regarding cooking. I guess it is about the perception of cooking depending on your own perspective. Since I bake alot I have my fair share of mistakes by not following recipes. Over time, aquired experience along with a bigger understanding of kitchen chemistry, I have learned why some things happen and others don't.

I'm not, for various reasons, in the philosophical mood. It seems pretty obvious to be an ad hoc-thing as, like you wrote, sometimes you do, sometimes you don't.

Bob delGrosso said...

I think that baking requires a lot more attention than many other forms of cooking. But I'm not sure that that means that it is always necessary to have a written recipe at hand unless one is involved in commercial baking. I'm going to need to think about this.

Tags said...

It seems to me that the best cookbooks always have stories about assiduous attention to detail and trying things repeatedly to see what happens under different circumstances. In Judith Jones's "The Tenth Muse - My Life in Food" she tells some anecdotes about who she thinks determinedly pursue perfection. I would also add Maida Heatter and the gang at Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen to her list.

Linda/IdahoRocks said...

Having never been to cooking school,and having learned about cooking pretty much by following recipes, I can see the value of a recipe when the technique or ratio of ingredients is something new to me. And, unless I have the basic process memorized, I will follow a baking recipe in case of any innovations I have not yet learned - well, I follow it at least the first time. But for stews, gravies, risottos, soups, pasta dishes, and other similar items (sandwiches) I never follow recipes. I've made so many that it's just a matter of using ingredients on hand and altering spices and herbs according to my whims.

I also follow recipes from restaurant-owner cookbooks, e.g., Keller or Batali or Goldstein. Living in rural north Idaho where Michelin starred restaurants do not exist, at least I can copy recipes and pretend I'm dining at Babbo or wherever. And when I do get to big cities, I usually can't afford to eat at such restaurants so the recipes are greatly appreciated.