How Recipes Really Work

One of the most important things I’ve learned over the last decade is that recipes don’t work the first time you try one. This went a long way in building confidence in my cooking abilities. Before this revelatory experience, a failed recipe could literally reduce me to tears. How can I screw up a Mario Batali recipe? The man’s a master, so it had to be my problem.

Then I started reading Cook’s Illustrated, which, at the time, was running cookbook reviews. One of the magazine’s criteria was whether the recipes actually worked. This had never occurred to me. If a recipe was in a cookbook, it had to be OK. It was kind of shocking to discover that there are cookbooks out there that have only a 25% success rate with their recipes.

Why a recipe fails is hard to say. It could be the oven. Or the water. Or the humidity. Some people can’t bake. Others can’t do anything but. Sometimes it’s merely a matter of taste, or the recipe is just plain lousy. At any rate, it changed my life. “It’s not my fault. These people all suck!” An exaggeration, for sure. But I realized I could modify a recipe without the heavens opening up to strike me down. That seems like a total “duh” moment now, but, at the time, my entire view of cooking was transformed.

Thinking about how to change a recipe required me to figure out how flavors actually work together, something I had done only marginally before. I had about 8 dishes I made on a regular basis, with a few variations, but I had never given a lot of thought to why one thing tasted great and something else didn’t. My herbs had been mostly limited to basil and oregano, and additional seasonings were usually salt, pepper and garlicI won’t argue the fabulousness of that combination, but I was obviously stuck in a rut. Rosemary and thyme were adventurous, and citrus became a gift from the food gods.

I started reading more cookbooks, and, of all things, watching the Food Network. (What? It was the old days. I learned a lot from Mario and Ina, and sin of sins, Rachael Ray. Don’t judge me.) I’ve been off and running since then. There are still things I’m afraid to try, or have bested me, but even in my comfort zone, I think I can say that my cooking is worlds ahead of what it used to be.

I’ve read a lot of discussion lately about how important recipes are to a home cook. I’ve seen implications that using a recipe is a clear sign of no creativity. Some people claim they never use a recipe; others that they never make the same thing twice. I have to ask why dinner should always be an experiment.

Recipes are a kitchen tool, like a good knife or a food processor. Using one doesn’t indicate a lack of imagination. If you already have the foundation and the frame, you can spend more time on the fun stuff.