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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!).

              2. I'm all for tinkering as well. Now, I can absolutely understand the perspective of a food editor who has put weeks and months into getting a recipe into shape for publication, but the best hedge against someone dismantling and substituting in a recipe is to do what Cook's Illustrated (and the ATC team at large) do: explain in great detail WHY the quantities are set to what they are and what making changes is likely to do to the end result. It's a much better strategy than whining about the sanctity of a recipe.


                NYCnosh* http://nycnosh.com

                1 Reply
                1. re: Nosher

                  This is why I LOVE CI and ATK. They explain how ingredient quantity and change in cooking time affects the recipe. People say they dislike CI and ATK because they seem to suggest that their recipe is the absolute best and only way to prepare a dish, but I disagree. CI and ATK are godsends to recipe tweakers and cooks with esoteric tastes (I like my meatloaf dense and leaden, not fluffy, thanks) like myself.

                2. Did anyone else notice that this week's food and dining section also had the article which stated that cooking with cheap wine was producing just as good results (and sometimes better) than expensive?

                  I can't help thinking that the pairing of them was intentional (and humorous). The reader reads, "Use the Two Buck Chuck in place of the $40 Barolo, and orange Koolaid instead of orange zest." If your tounge is in your cheek for one of the statements, then perhaps it's time to reexamine the other. The second statement seems to undermine the first, as if to say that if you are on the side of the cheaper wine, then you are on a slippery slope and who knows where the substitutions will end?

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: thinks too much

                    I agree, BTW. It's silly to use expensive wine in a dish that's going to be cooked, since cooking is going to break down and destroy most of the complexities of the wine. A cheap wine can be better, because it has a more assertive "wine" taste, which is what you want for cooking. When Julia Child said you shouldn't cook with a wine you wouldn't drink, she didn't mean don't cook with wine you wouldn't serve at table, she meant don't cook with Thunderbird or wine that shouldn't be drunk at all (haven't you seen "cooking wine" in your supermarket? blech! Remember in Julia's day people were much less knowledgeable about wine, and wine was much less widely available, and so what people thought of when they were told to cook with wine was quite different).

                    I love to tweak recipes -- I do what another poster described, which is read a bunch of recipes and then combine various features of them. But I wouldn't judge the original on the basis of my tweaked version!

                    Actually, I'm surprised Chowhounds put any stock at all in comments for online recipes. I'd rather have one opinion from someone I trust than 900 opinions from strangers.

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      "I'd rather have one opinion from someone I trust than 900 opinions from strangers." But if all of them love a recipe, that's a pretty good incentive for me to try it. And if most of the opinions are lukewarm, I won't give it a second look. Who has time to waste on potentially disappointing food? More important, if 600 of them note that there was more marinade than necessary, or say that the cooking time was underestimated, that's very useful information.

                      I don't blame the food editor for being disappointed when someone doesn't even try a recipe as published. She just said she was "sad", not repulsed or horrified. Everyone likes to think their efforts are appreciated.

                  2. While I find myself offended by Ms. Stewart's attitude/implication that only professionals should be allowed to tweak recipes, and very much agree with Ms. Kafka's comment, I do have to say that some of the recipe websites that have areas of ratings and/or comments can make for some entertaining reading.

                    Last night, while looking for a couple of recipe variations I ended-up at both FoodTV's site and AllRecipes. And then I found myself reading the comments about how people tried out and modified the recipe to make it more to their liking. One comment just slayed me (can't recall which site or exactly which recipe, else I'd link to it).

                    The recipe was for a chicken salad, and none of the ingredients stood out to me as being odd. IIRC, they were chicken, diced apple or grapes, chopped nuts, tarragon, and a mayonaise-based dressing.

                    One person wrote that they didn't like "nasty" mayonaise and so they substituted cracked wheat and chicken broth and made it into a soup. And then they gave a bad rating 'cause it didn't taste very good.

                    1. a common maxim, and it certainly applies to cooking, is, "you have to know the rules before you can break them."

                      on-line recipe searches are fairly new to me, and i'm always shocked by the subsitutions people make, either because they don't like or don't have a key component of the dish. then they give a negative review. i've been to culinary school, have worked in fine dining for many years, so think of myself as an intuitive cook. i still hew closely to a recipe the first time i make it.

                      i don't think ms. zanne came off as sounding condescending at all. those dishes are slaved over and i'm sure she thinks of them all as her babies. think of it as showing your watercolors in a gallery and somebody paints a sun in your cloudy sky, because they thought that looked better.

                      i agree we all should eat what we like and once recipes are in the public domain they're going to be tweaked. but i'd feel sad if tang wound up in a dish i'd created. guess that makes me a snob. ;)

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: hotoynoodle

                        I really hate it when someone asks me for a recipe, then changes it and says it was not so good. E.g. Someone got ahold of my recipe for stuffed grape leaves made with lamb and an egg lemon sauce. One of my old friends was invited to this person's home and was served stuffed grape leaves with ground beef and a tomato sauce and the "cook" bragged that she had used my recipe. My friend almost choked on the food!
                        Then recently I gave my recipe for slow cooked pork roast to a friend. I told her that is would turn out wonderful but that she had to cook it in the oven and use a pork butt or shoulder. She used a porkloin and cooked it in one of those crockpot things (which for some reason I find abhorrent) and said it wasn't very good! I wonder why not!
                        If you want something to turn out really good, get a good recipe and follow it!

                      2. I used to follow recipes slavishly, and I have to say I've had great success with Martha Stewart's recipes so I didn't feel the need to deviate. I still try the recipe exactly as written the first time then change it in future iterations.

                        I think allrecipes, epicurious and the like have gotten a bad rap. I've had pretty good luck with recipes that had a majority of good ratings. Sure there are posters that seem to be incapable of following recipes. Sometimes I like reading about changes made because it helps me to see more possibilities.

                        I can understand the suggestion that only professionals can adjust recipes. I don't think this is true, but I do think that the ability to adjust recipes and make them turn out the way you want comes with practice.

                        1. There's a sort of well know story about a dish at one of Vongerichten's restaurants - shrimp with tangerine dust (or something like that). They wrote a cookbook and had a recipe where candied tangerine zest is dried and crushed to a powder, I know because I tried it, and eh, it was ok.

                          Well the truth was that the chef used Tang to get the strong orange taste and colour! A later book (not by Vongerichten) uncovered this story and others, how NYC chefs put green food dye in pea soup for instance....

                          1 Reply
                          1. "An utterly simple Epicurious recipe for pan-fried romaine (ingredients: romaine, olive oil, sea salt) prompted these comments: 'I like it with crumbled bleu cheese on top,' from a cook from Washington, and 'I sprinkle with freshly grated parm cheese' from a cook from Kansas City.

                            An equally minimalist recipe for asparagus wrapped with prosciutto from Allrecipes drew over a dozen suggestions to add cream cheese or Alouette to the mix."

                            It's things like this that make me scratch my head over the recipe-tweakers. Why do vegetables always have to be topped with cheese? They turn perfectly good dishes into slop worthy of "Taste of Home."