This weekend, I had a lovely conversation with a friend in which she referred to her cooking style as “recipe driven.” She contrasted her cooking style to her brother’s – he cooks without recipes, perhaps because he hates following directions. That got me to thinking about who needs recipes to cook and when I use them.
If people who slavishly follow recipes are on one end of the “recipe use continuum” and people who refuse to even consult them on the opposite end, I’m in the middle. I would describe my style as “recipe referenced.”
I love to research and my recipe use reflects that treasure hunting mentality. Often I start meal planning with an ingredient or 2 lingering in my refrigerator or freezer, then gather several recipes to compare various prepartion methods and ingredient combinations, and finally figure out how to proceed. I might even look for several different dishes using the same ingredients before deciding whether the squash becomes soup, a roasted vegetable, or goes into pasta. Often my final dish reflects elements of several recipes. Even when I use a single one, I typically add, subtract or switch out ingredients, modify the cooking instructions or simply miss a step and discover that it wasn’t so important anyway.
If you are not much of a cook and hope to get more confident in the kitchen, do you need recipes? As a recovering lawyer, my answer may be all too predictable – it depends.
If you are typically in a rush when you cook, or find it daunting to have many options, you may prefer to find and use a single recipe. There is nothing wrong with following recipes – and even though it may some foodblogs and food TV shows make it seem as though you have to be on the cutting edge to cook well, that’s not true at all.
On the other extreme, if you cannot bear the thought of following a well-trod (and recipe-tested) path, experimentation without recipes may be more your speed. If you know the basics of techniques like roasting, stir frying and sautéing, you can move forward without recipes and the dish that you make is likely to turn out well. Even if you’re not familiar with a technique or the ingredients you are using – what’s the worst that can happen? As long as you don’t set fire to the kitchen and follow basic food safety precautions, all that might happen is the dish may be less-than-successful – but so what?
If you’re an in-between type like me, there are cookbooks galore and many other resources for guidance. Books such as Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio or Shirley Corriher’sCookwise, the Epicurious advanced search tool, and charts and explanations like the ones below from Carol Gelles’ 1,000 Vegetarian Recipes, are just a few of the ways you can find out how to begin with an ingredient or a concept for a dish.
In baking, recipes are an important starting point for most home cooks I know. We might add ingredients or make substitutions, but throwing together cookies, cakes or breads without the proper ratios of flour to leavening and eggs is not a risk we take lightly. But even with just a simple formula for dough, the end result can take many directions. If you have any doubt, check out Abby Dodge’s Baketogether group and see how a crackers or mini-tarts can evolve in various bakers’ minds and hands.
Where are you on the “recipe continuum?” If you have been cooking for a while, has your style changed? Of course, there is no right answer and you’ll be in good company no matter where you are with respect to the recipe continuum.