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Mar 21, 2007 06:00 AM

New York Times article about tweaking recipes

Today's New York Times contains an article entitled "For Orange Zest, Substitute Kool-Aid," by Celia Barbour, in which she writes about online recipe sites and the proliferation of readers' online comments and suggestions regarding specific recipes. These posts often offer twists on ingredients and/or methods from the originally posted recipe.

The following is quoted from this article:

"Gourmet has 8 test kitchens and 11 food editors,” said Zanne Stewart, media food editor at Gourmet magazine. “Even if we think a recipe is right the first time, we cross-test it. It’s likely to go through a bare minimum of four iterations, really refining it, before it’s written up and passed along to the cross-tester. Then everyone gathers around for the discussions. Is it right? Could it be better?”

So what does Ms. Stewart think of the endless tinkering that cooks boast about on the Web? “It makes me a bit sad, considering how much work went into the original,” she said." End quote.

I find the final comment by Ms. Stewart to be preposterous. For a food editor to believe for a moment that her magazine's recipe for a certain dish is the be-all and end-all of recipes is ludicrous.

As a culinary professional who has worked in the test kitchen of a well-regarded magazine, I am offended by these comments. Food editors and test kitchen staff are culinary educators in addition to being recipe developers. Cooking and gastronomy evolve and there are always lessons to be learned, as well as refinements and tweaks to be made. As a culinary educator, I am thrilled when my daughter, who's away at university, tells me what she's whipped up for dinner, sometimes without a recipe and often using a recipe that she's altered in some way.

Barbara Kafka has it right:

"Barbara Kafka, writer and editor of 13 cookbooks, including “Vegetable Love” (Artisan, 2005), applauds the improvisational impulse. “People should make recipes their own,” she said. “Only by doing that will they use them and enjoy them fully.”

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  1. I found Ms. Stewart's comments to be condescending. You left out this quote of hers.

    "“You see Emeril, the most genial guy in the world, making a U-turn in the middle of a recipe, and people think they should cook like that, too,” said Ms. Stewart of Gourmet. “They forget that he’s a highly trained chef.”"

    People should have fun cooking and be experimental, if all they wanted to do was follow an easy recipe and put some food on the table she would probably be out of a job.

    Some of my favorite recipes are either new recipes I have made up or combinations of several recipes to make the best dish. Who hasn't looked up a recipe on Epicurious or another site and combined the best features of similar recipes to come up with your own.

    1 Reply
    1. re: matt

      Actually, matt, I think people like us who combine features from a number of recipes are in the minority (in the real world; not in the Chowhound world), which is why I love it when people like my daughter, who didn't let Mommy teach her when she was still living at home, are adventurous with their food and cook according to their whims.

    2. Hilarious article - and I think she avoided directly calling some of those adaptations moronic even though they frankly are. I didn't think she was going after anyone, Matt, nor was she condescending. It's TRUE that some people without the knack start throwing sh*t around without having a clue.
      And then posting about it as if it had anything to do with the original recipe.

      I say this as someone who tweaks recipes to my own taste all the time, but realizes when a line is crossed and I no longer have the original recipe to blame if things aren't delicious. I've also watched a family member mess up a finished soup by throwing wine in - it's the culinary version of children and TV violence. ; )

      I liked that the article indicated the way people get introduced to new ingredients and techniques and might wean themselves away from throwing Xbrand of seasoned salt and Wbrand French dressing in the pot. The loving tweak at the end about corn starch v. laundry starch says it all.

      1 Reply
      1. re: pitu

        The reason I thought she was condescending was in my quote above I felt like she was saying leave the adaptations and tweaking to the professionals. Obviously some of those examples were WAY WAY WAY different then the original recipe and yes moronic.

      2. First of all, I learned to cook by just throwing stuff to gether. Mostly leftovers from the fridge. I didn't know what I was doing but by the time I started to do some actual cooking, I'd built up a knowledge of how things work together.
        It was also fun.

        Secondly, there is a TV chef named Michael Smith here in Canada. On one particular show, he talked about developing recipes and such. He basically said, start with a one to one ratio of stuff (Where it makes sense) and start adjusting until it fits your tastes.

        Thirdly. Said Michael Smith, on recipes that have already been made. "Make it the way it is the first time. Then change things to fine tune it to your tastes. Then you can call it yours." This is from a first class chef.

        Also. I once heard our buddy, Bobby Flay say that he finds restaurants that don't have salt and pepper on the tables to be very arrogant. He said it's impossible to determine how much salt people want on their food. Or how hot they like it.

        So if the real chefs say it's okay, I'm with them.


        8 Replies
        1. re: Davwud

          I too like Michael's Chef At Home show for the reasons you mention. He tells you why he's choosing the ingredients so you know what you could substitute. The ideas stick in my head rather than his specific recipes and I like it that way!

          But I don't like his SNAG hair.

          1. re: julesrules

            His tag line is "cooking without a recipe" -on both his TV show and is cookbook.

            1. re: julesrules

              I find that show completely unwatchable.
              I can't stand the camera work. It's totally annoying.

              We used to watch The Inn Chef all the time.


              1. re: Davwud

                I agree about the camera work-crazy angles. The funny thing is that they just on some artistic award.
                I also just found out that he and his wife don't actually live in that house. They just rent it to film the show.

                1. re: troutpoint

                  Same deal with AB and Good Eats. Not his house. Neither of them.


                  1. re: Davwud

                    are any shows shot in thier real houses?

                    1. re: kindofabigdeal

                      Supposedly Paula Deen uses her real house.


                      1. re: Davwud

                        ina garten uses her house. julia child used her own house.

          2. I have come across more than one novice chef or poster on Allrecipes (where everyone seems to be a novice) who will take a recipe for shrimp etoufee, and say they improved it with a dash of soy sauce, a couple tablespoons of honey and brown sugar and a grating of ginger. Perhaps that tastes good, but that's not shrimp etouffee anymore.

            I look to these pages for advice on whether or not a recipe is good to try. And if you have some helpful hints, by all means, let me know. But when all these cooks out there are saying "Well, I don't have tomatoes so I'm going to substitute pork rinds" thinking they're so clever and then rating the recipe they've made, well that's not much help to me when I'm trying to try out this tomato recipe.

            If you go onto Allrecipes, you'd be shocked at what a throwback to 1950s isolated Midwestiana you'd find.

            3 Replies
            1. re: JungMann

              I used the African Peanut Soup recipe off Allrecipes and absolutley loved it! As with any recipe, you read it and if it sounds good and works for you, who cares if it is novice or expert. And what is wrong with the 1950s!

              Also on the subject of tinkering. Of course you tinker, because when you don't have the smoked paprika or have run out of cayenne, what else do you do!?

              1. re: kate used to be 50

                I think I was one of the first people to review that recipe, coincidentally. And yes, it is a good recipe. But it is not typical of Allrecipes. Most of those recipes are incredibly bland or so overprocessed that they taste chemically or just plain gross.

                My grandmother had a copy of Betty Crocker from the 1960s and going through there, you get the sense that Americans didn't realize that there were any spices besides seasoned salt and garlic powder before 1990. It's the same with Allrecipes. I am almost convinced that Campbell's Cream Soups runs the site since nearly every recipe I run across contains some form of Cream of ______ soup. Given our modern eating habits, I just find Allrecipes to be terribly outdated. Americans aren't as afraid of a little flavor as these recipes suggest.

                Also Allrecipes posters are notorious for tinkering so much with a recipe that it no longer resembles the original recipe and then rating that instead. It's one thing to substitute crushed Nabiscos for panko, it's quite another to substitute Tony Cachere's for basil.

                1. re: JungMann

                  It's a huge database with lots of recipes. Many are crap, some are quite good - plenty of good baking to be had there (yes, of the butter, flour, sugar, eggs and spices variety). Ratings and reviews do need to be taken with a large pinch of salt.

            2. What I hate is when someone on epicurious or a site like that tinkers a lot with a recipe, and then says "And it was awful! One star!" Well, if you hadn't used skim milk instead of cream, water instead of wine, and veggie crumbles instead of bacon, it may have been good!

              And hah, I used that Double Chocolate Layer cake recipe with 900 comments this weekend, to excellent results. I've been meaning to post a comment about it, too!

              2 Replies
              1. re: JasmineG

                That's my pet peeve too.

                I mean, I mess with recipes all the time - usually to make them vegetarian or healthier (subbing lower-fat ingredients or whole grains for the original choices). But then I don't consider it to be the same recipe anymore, and I don't apply my results to the original.

                That's especially true for baking, when switching things up can have a dramatic effect.

                1. re: piccola

                  Right -- sometimes I switch things and either fail miserably or succeed, and I often post a comment on the results, but I don't blame the original recipe for the failure (but usually do give it credit for the success!).