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In Defense of Recipes

Why winging it isn't always the best way to cook.

Ask yourself this question: Do you think good cooks don’t use recipes?

I’ve noticed that a lot of people make this assumption, but the idea has always rubbed me the wrong way. And I know it’s a weird topic for a website where we try to emphasize moving away from recipes and toward trusting yourself, but let me explain.

As a food writer and editor, one thing I’ve always appreciated about my food knowledge was that it gave me a jumping-off point to connect with people, from strangers at cocktail parties to friends’ grandmas and aunties in foreign countries where we didn’t even share a common language. Many, many people like to talk about cooking—and those that don’t often like to talk about eating.

But inevitably I get asked, “Do you follow recipes, or do you just wing it/do your own thing/get creative while you’re cooking?” and I know the asker generally wants the answer to be, “No, of course I don’t need to follow recipes.” Often someone talking in a group about cooking will even turn to me and say, “… but you don’t follow recipes, right?” I was trained as a chef; why would a person like me need recipes?

Well, I have a lot of respect for recipes. I do follow them, and I know a number of great and creative cooks who do, too.

To me, the beauty of a recipe is that I did not write it.

Yes, a knowledgeable cook can look at a section of a recipe and say to themselves, “That’s a sauté. I’m going to sauté that meat and follow it up by deglazing the pan using that wine,” and then do it without slavishly coming back again and again to check projected cook times and doneness cues. That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the phenomenon of finding a completely new recipe, perhaps one that comes from a foreign land, and changing things up right out of the gate, the first time, without ever trying it out the way the recipe writer intended. Maybe this speaks of my high opinion of recipe writers, and you might be right to say there are plenty of questionable ones out there. But what if that ingredient you want to leave out because you think you don’t like it, or that step you want to skip because it sounds unnecessary, is the one that would make the dish truly sing?

To me, the beauty of a recipe is that I did not write it. Yes, I’m plenty creative, and I can improvise and recreate favorite things I’ve eaten. Still, cooking on the fly is limited by my own experience. A new recipe, though, comes from some other person’s collection of experiences, which means that it gives me the opportunity to try something new. A new technique, a new combination of flavors. I remember a favorite soup recipe from Joy of Cooking. It seemed a little fussy, using both a soup pot and a sauté pan, but it was delicious. I made it again months later, cutting out that extra pan—instead, sautéing everything in the soup pot before adding the broth to simmer—and you know what? The soup was just a little less special. My soup was technically perfectly correct, but it turned out that there was some wisdom in doing it the way the recipe specified which made everything that much more tasty.

I find that recipe-following is most useful for a cuisine that I am unfamiliar with, not eating it—since I only cook cuisines that I love eating—but cooking it. When I first started regularly making Thai and Chinese food at home, you had better believe I followed those recipes to the letter, at least ingredient-wise, because it was the best way to ensure the balance of my sauces. And as anyone who has ever eaten mediocre takeout knows, there is a thin margin between a meh sauce and one that makes you want to polish off what’s in the wok. A seasoned cook might argue that I could arrive at the same place by trusting my palate more deeply, tasting the sauce as I build it, and deciding to add more salty, sweet, or sour elements, depending on what my palate told me; but I find the recipe to be the quickest shortcut to getting to know those flavors (and one that, yes, thank you Jesus, I can do while having my attention pulled in three other directions by my three kids. Seriously, recipes are a lifeline for parents).

Just because I’ve eaten well in restaurants and gotten formal cooking training does not make me an expert in cuisines that I did not grow up with. Going on my own, without a deep knowledge of the ingredients or techniques, would make my guesses just that—guesses. Following the recipe ensures that I stretch my palate and experience to meet what the dish is supposed to be, rather than rounding the dish down to my limited knowledge, getting only as close as I can imagine but not necessarily hitting it. If looking for guidance from a recipe to nail it the first time makes me a weaker or less creative cook in someone else’s opinion, so be it.

I’m not saying that I will follow those recipes literally to my dying day. Indeed, on a recent vacation without my Thai cookbook, I found myself recreating some favorites without guidance. But it was the repetition of the recipes at home that gave me a real ease when I was cooking without them and the tasting them just the right way many times that allowed me to trust my palate this time, when it was all I had to go on.