Meta-cooking; or why I never post recipes
I love to cook. This is not a secret - it’s pretty much impossible not to hear me talk about food at some point during any time spent with me. It’s probably my main hobby (at least, I do it almost every day, which means gaming is the only competitor on a frequency basis). But, despite having a blog, a website and social media, I do not post recipes.
This confuses people - many times I have explained the core of a recipe to someone, to have them ask if I’d posted it anywhere. It’s taken a while for me to really isolate the reasons why I don’t do this, and when I was done, I thought it made interesting reading. You be the judge :)
When is a recipe not a recipe
Firstly, there’s the question of what a recipe is, and crucially, what is instead a technique. Consider the humble roast chicken - the recipe goes like this:
- Take a chicken
- Stuff it
- Roast it
That’s it. But let’s go into more detail. First, “take a chicken”; well, I don’t know how many people you’re feeding, so get one that’s the right size for you. Second, “stuff it” depends on what flavours you want. I could wax lyrical here, but pretty much anything works so long as it won’t dry out the meat - so no bread-based things. Classic is simply butter & tarragon under the skin, but I’ve also used black pudding & kalvados, pate, etc, etc. So, this is something for personal taste. And finally, “roast it” - and here we come to the difference between a recipe and a technique. Roasting a bird is a technique - regardless of the flavour combinations, or even the type of bird, the roasting is always the same. It’s a matter of weight, heat, and time.
One of my personal food heroes, Glynn Christian likes to point out how recipes have changed over time. Until comparatively recently, they assumed a huge amount of knowledge on the part of the cook. A recipe for bread and butter pudding from the 18th century was simply a sentence. Only in the latter half of the 20th century did recipes books suddenly start to try to cover all the techniques as well (usually badly or incompletely). This is failure in the making.
Secondly, as if following a recipe without understanding the techniques invlolved isn’t engineering failure enough, we come to the question of environment and history. Part of the reason why old cook books are so terse is that they are not meant to be followed by other people. They’re an memory aid, a note in a margin about what the cook did last time, a record of the past. Taking those notes and following them blindly risks a host of issues; how much cinnamon works for your taste buds? How much fresher or drier are your dried herbs? What’s the calibration of your oven like? How about the humidity? It is no surprise that recipes inevitably acquire comments of “tasted awful” or “too much pepper” or “collapsed when I took it out of the oven” if these things are not considered. Again, this is a question of technique, but also ingredient knowledge.
So you begin to see that the reason I don’t post recipes is because they would not be as effective in your kitchen, with your tools and your environment. I would rather give you the core of the idea, and let you take it from there - probably in ways I hadn’t thought of.
Science to the rescue!
However, what I can do, here in this post, is show you how I learn something new - and it’s based on science! Now that’s slightly misleading, as cooking is at least as much art as science, but there are concepts we can borrow.
The first is the idea of systematic review. This is a concept in science where we take a large collection of studies on a particular topic, and analyse them together to see if we can make conclusions that couldn’t be made on the individual studies themselves (see Bad Science if you want to know more).
Happily, the internet is full of recipe sites these days (a secondary reason why I don’t post them myself). When I want to learn something new, I go and download a decent number of versions of the dish in question (usually around 5, although not all are from the web - I do have a lot of cookbooks :P). Comparing these side-by-side allows me to extract what are the techniques in play, what is the core of the dish, and what is simply garnish or embellishment in each case. I walk away with a better understanding of what I want to create, as well as some starting ideas for directions to take it in. I also know the varying quantities involved in the ingredients, which helps me adjust for my own kitchen.
Sadly, even with the best research in the world, things don’t always come out perfect first time - in fact that’s fairly rare. So we come to scientific thinking point 2 - reproducibility. In cooking, mastering the dish, getting it right when you have a different environment to work in, requires that you have made it a bunch of times. It’s simply not possible to master a dish in one try - that was a fluke. When it happens we get a false sense of security, and we try it at a friends house, and wonder why it didn’t work. We learn to cook by making the same (or similar) things a hundred times, not making a hundred things once each.
If this line of thinking intrigues you, then I ancourage you to pick up a copy of How To Cook Without Recipes as a starting point. It’s a fabulous book, and one I go back to again and again to remind myself of various things.