HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


There is no joy in Mudville ... or what's the point of only cooking-by-recipe?

Serious question, no bashing or flaming intended.

But I want to know what the joy, or enjoyment, is in cooking by simply following a recipe?

In slavishly following a recipe, what have you accomplished in terms of culinary achievement?

Sure, you've made a dish, but this is like creating a painting of a bowl of fruit by using tracing paper laid over a picture of an apple, banana, and orange. Are you an artist? Or somebody who can simply trace very well?

So, I ask, for those that cook-by-recipes only, what's the point in the exercise?

Does it not just create false security -- if not bravado -- in your skills as a cook?

Do you ever wonder if you'd be able to cook sans cookbook or recipe?

Let me ask perhaps a more poignant question ... do you even want to cook without a recipe?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. When I first started to cook, I followed recipes to the letter. I did this for a year or two. This taught me technique and gave me a useful base of knowledge for pairings. The transition, the searching out of a half-dozen recipes so that I could 'create' my own, came later (and was much more exciting), and still later came the pantry and fridge sweep, where I made a dish from what I had on hand. I taught myself to cook, using my cookbooks. That was all I had in the way of a teacher.

    But I still, occasionally, follow a recipe to the letter. I do this for several reasons: I may be unfamiliar with the typr of cuisine, or I might have a solid trust in the chef who created the recipe, or I am curious enough about the recipe to put my own preferences aside.

    I plan on making the Hazan simple tomato sauce this week simply because so many chowhounds have raved about it over the years, and because I am curious about how so few ingrediants add up to a sauce that gets those kinds of reviews. If I alter it, I might as well just go ahead and make my own marinara.

    And even an 'artist' who traces the fruit has to properly shade it in. One can learn this by studying the work of others.

    1. Oooh, I love bashing ... I mean discussion. Seriously though, I've wondered about this same thing. I always watch the Food Network, where they bash cooks that don't exhibit enough creativity. In my mind, the point of cooking (and source of enjoyment) is being able to cook a dish masterfully. And that's it. There's no shame in following a recipe.

      Then again, it's nice to be able to walk through a farmers market and pick out a selection of ingredients that you can put together without a recipe. BUT, the goal is putting some delicious on the table, not being able to pat myself on the back as an artist. I would say that if a person doesn't get much satisfaction out of following a recipe, then go for the artistic/winging-it style of cooking.

      In terms of culinary achievement, I can't think of anyone that's achieved more than the prototypical Italian grandmother. Dang it, that old lady can cook up some pasta. But then of course, she's doing the same thing that every other old Italian grandmother does -- has she achieved something noteworthy? I think so. In a time when most people get their meals out of a box or a drive-through, I think we can allow following recipes.

      1. Ok, I'll bite (lol) ipse. #1 for me is being able to recreate a dish that I loved at a restaurant, like the short ribs or parmesan pudding at Lucques. I may not be in the mood for the drive, but want the food and can get a 95% match by doing it at home. No, I'm probably not an "artist", but then again there aren't that many Suzanne's either.
        As for the cooking w/o a recipe or cookbook, I don't know any decent home cook that doesn't change around a recipe to suit their own tastes to start with, not "slavishly" following anything. Fortunately, I've been cooking long enough now that I can hit the gro and come up with something pretty tasty just by looking around at what's seasonal/fresh
        and make it up as I go.

        1. So, I ask, for those that cook-by-recipes only, what's the point in the exercise?
          To learn how that particular recipe was intended to be made by the creator of said recipe. Especially when one is learning to cook, I think that's a good thing. Once the basics are down - technique, food pairings, flavors that go together - you can branch off and be a bit more inventive on your own. But almost everyone needs a base from which to start, and often that means opening up cookbooks. First to learn HOW to do; later, for inspiration.

          Most people on CH are far, far beyond needing a recipe for other than a guideline. However, I still wouldn't have been able to help make Julia's Boeuf Bourguignon (with the separately cooked browned pearl onions) last year with a friend without MTAOFC to refer to.

          Recipes also help us remember how something was made so we can recreate it. And yes, I would want to recreate a particularly tasty dish if it came out brilliantly. So while I do enjoy just "opening the cabinets and throwing things together", I do still use recipes.

          1. I like to think of many recipes as being suggestions or starting points. However, if I want to make something complicated, something in which a substitution that I might normally make cavalierly would be a bad move, then i'll follow the recipe as closely as possible. Definitely key, for me, to follow the recipe if I'm trying to make something I've enjoyed at a restaurant. Or, if there's a new technique I might've been "scared" to try just on my own, making something up. I like to read them, too, like a book!
            But most days, I fly by the seat of my pants and just make it up.

            1. Along with the very good reasons those who posted up thread have stated for cooking by recipe, I'll add that when one wants to cook a certain ethnic cuisine and has no knowledge of the ingredients, method, or technique of that cuisine a pertinent cookbook is vital. I never would have dared to cook Sichuan, Vietnamese, Spanish, Greek, Indian, Indonesian, etc. were it not for becoming involved with COTM.

              1. For me, it is learning the initial how of the dish. Then I can change it up if I want. Also, I enjoy browsing through cookbooks just like browsing online just to get ideas. Many times I see part of one recipe that I combine with part of another. I have many recipes inside my head that I learned initially to make from a recipe, then changed to the way I like them. Its a source for many inspirations! I'm also able to browse through the farmers market and see something I like and come up with a plan on how to use that ingredient(s) on the spot. I've also gotten some fantastic recipes from other CH's that I would not of thought of before.

                1. My opinion, from personal experience, is that those people who never use recipes aren't nearly as good cooks as they think they are. The best foods I've eaten in restaurants frequently have layers of subtle flavors that make the dish great. I think it would be the rare home cook who could create something that good without at least starting with a recipe of someone reputable. The last couple of years the cookbooks I've either bought or had around and started using are author based, i.e., Hazan, Batali, Judy Rogers. They've earned it and I know that I won't reach their peaks. I want to cook and serve great food. My ego doesn't come into at all.

                  1. If you don't follow the recipe, the cake won't rise, the bread will be flat and the cookies will always be rigid..

                    If you don't follow the recipe the kids will whine, the dog will howl and your wife will always be...never mind.

                    1 Reply
                    1. Say you invent a really awesome pasta dish. You can't imagine any way to improve upon it. People rave about it, and beg and plead for you to make it again. But you can't. Because if you made it a second time, you'd be following a recipe: the one you invented the first time.

                      I don't think there's anything wrong with following recipes. If I feel like singing, do I have to always write my own songs?

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: small h

                        In my case I can't make it a second time, not because I would mind following a recipe, but because I can't remember what I did!

                        I will definitely cook from recipes when I don't know how to make something, but generally speaking I prefer to just "wing it." I have learned the hard way, however, how difficult it is to replicate something I've made that came out really well, unless I write down what I'm doing as I go along, which kind of takes the fun out of it...

                      2. Excellent discussion! I will answer this question in two ways.


                        Great artists are the ones who learned how to replicate the masters, and *then* struck out on their own. Have you ever seen Pablo Picasso's early works? They're fastidious copies of Renaissance era sculptures and paintings. And they're perfect. Only after he had mastered what great artists had done before him did he start making his own stuff.

                        Grant Achatz, arguably one of the more creative chefs of the day, spent his early career working at fancy restaurants and perfecting their ways of doing things before he started to strike out and be much more creative.

                        You can see that I am arguing that you need to master recipes before you can be truly creative yourself. Indeed, each time I faithfully recreate some else's recipe, I am gaining knowledge in how that recipe works, and how I can modify other recipes to meet my needs.


                        My goal is to make excellent food. Not to create food that no one else has ever made before, but to make excellent food. (Indeed, I would argue the average home cook doesn't make enough dishes to ever make a truly masterful unique dish). The fact that the majority of my cooking (probably 90%) is using recipes, or slightly modifying recipes to suit my tastes aids me in my goal.

                        1. First of all, let’s acknowledge that of course you’re bashing. You wouldn’t liken those of us who follow recipes to people who trace pictures if you weren’t. But tracing a picture isn’t at all analogous to following a recipe. Any toddler can do the former, and it’s surprising how many adults aren’t particularly successful in doing the latter. Your comment assumes that anyone who can read can follow a written recipe and produce the result intended and I’m sure we can all regale each other with stories ad nauseum that prove that is not the case.

                          Those I’ve known who claim never to use or follow recipes —and it’s interesting how many have been men—can get a meal on the table, but not a particularly inspired one. I’ve never known one I thought to be a truly excellent cook.

                          Just curious. May I ask at what point you stopped looking at recipes? Did you learn everything you needed to know in your first five years? Ten? Have you learned anything since? How do you go about that? Do you “read” recipes but just not “follow” them? How do you become an even better cook?

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: JoanN

                            I am in total agreement. Well put.

                            1. re: JoanN


                              I learned how to cook by watching my mom. We never made a dish by following what one would consider a traditional recipe -- ie. something written down with precise measurements, instructions etc. It was learning how to cook by the "watching and doing" method.

                              In fact, and it's sort of ironic, but I only started to use recipes after learning how to cook by the "watching and doing" method when I got a job at a restaurant in high school.

                              I try to become a better cook by experimentation.

                              And when I read recipes I do so to learn techniques, not necessariy to learn how to make a specific dish.

                              1. re: JoanN

                                "But tracing a picture isn’t at all analogous to following a recipe."

                                I would suggest that a cook working from a recipe is much more analogous to a musician playing a song from sheet music rather than composing his/her own. There is much to be learned from perfecting your delivery of someone else's composition. And no shame in doing it well.

                                A beautiful song played well is a worthy end in its own right, regardless of who wrote it, just as a delicious meal is no less delicious if someone other than the cook first envisioned it.

                                At the same time, I enjoy coming up with my own compositions, in music and in cooking. It often strikes me how similar the two disciplines are.

                              2. One would have to be either clueless or arrogant to reject the careful use of recipes. Seriously, do you really think your spur-of-the-moment decisions at home will improve a dish over a version that is the product of weeks or months of trial and error by someone who actually knows what s/he's doing?

                                When I was working in a restaurant, I had plenty of "security - if not bravado - in [my] skills as a cook." And I'll assure you that it wasn't false security at all. But God help me if I had decided to "accomplish [something] in terms of culinary achievement" that deviated from the way the chef wanted the dish prepared.

                                Cooking is a craft, not an art. Until you master the fundamentals, the food you cook won't be very good. That's a simple fact, regardless of how creative you are. And "slavishly following a recipe" is the best (if not the only) way to master those fundamentals.

                                Once you have your chops, there's still a place for recipes. As noted above, if you want to know what Luques' short ribs taste like, your best starting place is the recipe that the chef has provided. You may ultimately decide that you prefer a variation on the dish, but you'll never have any basis for that comparison unless you've prepared the original.

                                There are those who only ever cook by recipes, and I'll be the first to admit that I would find that extremely limiting. But the first time I prepare a recipe - especially one from an author I respect and whose food I enjoy - you'd better believe I'm going to follow it to the letter.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: alanbarnes

                                  'Cooking is a craft, not an art.'

                                  This seems to me to be at the heart of the issue. The OP (ipsedixit) seems think that cooks should aspire to be artists.

                                  While I won't go so far as to say that there is no art in cooking, I agree that the craft of it is far more essential to the process.

                                  More importantly, I don't think any cook anywhere has done his cooking a service by believing himself to be more of an artist than a craftsman. Hope that makes sense.

                                  1. re: cowboyardee

                                    If I can add to this - my take is the craft is the first thing. The *craft* is how it is prepared, the *art* is the way it is presented. Just my 2 cents.

                                2. What is the point? The point of cooking, for me, is to produce something delicious _ and to enjoy the process. I usually use recipes but I am quite capable of cooking without one. I like using recipes. What's it to you?

                                  1. Many superb ripostes here to the original post, not the least of which is Barnes'. I'll only add this: I satisfy my culinary creative jones not by whomping up some bitch's brew ex nihilo, but from painstakingly creating my own recipes, which are typically conflations of numerous other recipes and ideas. And if this receipe turns out to be a masterpiece I will cherish it and cook by it for many years to come.

                                    But at the end of the day I cook not to exhibit my putative creative brilliance (I have other outlets for that pursuit ;)), but to produce something that tastes bloody wonderful. And if that means "slavishly following a recipe," or slapping together a simple hot dog, then I'll rest easy and content, not the least in the knowledge that I'm not a self-important schmuck who fancies himself an undiscovered Puck.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                      "But at the end of the day I cook not to exhibit my putative creative brilliance (I have other outlets for that pursuit ;)), but to produce something that tastes bloody wonderful. "

                                      And that, there, is the quote of the day.

                                    2. I'm really enjoying the responses on this thread. I have to admit when I've read posts by those in the past "bragging" about never using a recipe, I shake my head. Do they never explore an unfamiliar cuisine? Do they believe they're such wonderful cooks that they can whip out the perfect duck l'orange, mole poblano, or souffle the very first time by just winging it? Or do they stay in a rut and make only dishes or cook with ingredients they're familiar with?

                                      For example, although I'm half Vietnamese, my favorite Asian cuisine to cook and eat is Sichuan. The sole reason I learned how to be proficient in Sichuan is because of reading and cooking through Fuschia Dunlop's book "Land of Plenty". Cooking through the "Zuni Cafe" cookbook literally changed the way I cook; I learned such great tips and techniques. That Lucques short rib recipe? Amazing, and when I made it, my husband pronounced it "the best short ribs he's ever had". Too bad those who think they're too good to follow recipes will never know. Tonight I'm making aushuk, Afghani dumplings, a dish I've never had before, just because it's a recipe in "Gourmet Today" and sounds delicious. So those who won't use a recipe, does that mean they'll never make a dish they've never had or seen before? How much can you actually love to cook if you limit yourself. I don't follow recipes for everyday cooking, but really enjoy exploring new cuisines, broadening my horizons, and always learning.

                                      1. I began cooking by following recipes. The more I cooked, the more confident in my abilities I became. The more confident I am the more likely I will be to “wing it”. For foods beyond my ken (Chinese, Indian, Korean), I will train by following recipes, then when it becomes second nature, I can toss out the recipes and be creative.

                                        Some of my impromptu meals have failed miserably, but most of them are perfectly edible. One particular meal I prepared off the cuff last month returned the response of “This is the best meal I have had in a long time!” I was elated! It was the best compliment I never expected. Point is I made a great meal, thanks to years of skill honing on various recipes. It’s how I have learned.

                                        I feel no shame or ignominy for being a recipe follower, especially when baking, and I am not above tweaking a recipe to suit my taste, but I’d have a hard time pulling a Beef Wellington out of the air! :-)

                                        Good question, one I had not fully contemplated before.

                                        1. Following recipes gives me a framework from which I can conceptualize ingredient combinations and uses on my own.

                                          For example, I am just starting to get into making Asian food. Last night I did an udon soup - completely new ground for me - and made the broth first using kombu, bonito flakes and a set of specific instructions.

                                          I know what to do with kombu and bonito flakes now, and can begin to imagine other uses, but before last night? Why would anyone use dried fish flakes for anything? Groooooooss.

                                          1. It's one thing to use a recipe to learn a new dish, ingredient, or cuisine. It's quite another to not be able to substitute or modify according to season, price, availability or circumstance, and most importantly TASTE.

                                            1. I believe someone who only follows a recipe when cooking is making the same mistake as someone who never follows a recipe when cooking.

                                              1. I'm assuming you mean following a recipe exactly vs possibly using recipes as a guideline? When I'm cooking, I rarely do the former but often do the latter, especially if I'm trying something new. Over time, I use them less and less--it's a process of learning what works and doesn't. Now, I might read a recipe for a general idea but just wing it after that.

                                                However, for baking, it's completely different. I'll always make a recipe, as is, to begin with, down to accuracy of weighing everything. After that, I'll fool around w/ it, depending on what I want to change. But, as to why anyone would cook completely by the recipe, the point is to enjoy the food as the recipe writer did. I have art reproductions in my house and enjoy them whether you'd consider the creator an artist or not.

                                                1. I don't believe in following a random recipe from the Internet or, heaven forbid, Rachael Ray to the letter. That said, you go too far. A few points on the merits of following recipes:

                                                  1) Learning. I think the best way to learn how to cook is to find and buy (or borrow) classic, authoritative, educational books written by the "masters" and follow every recipe you try to the letter at least once, paying close attention not just to the steps you follow but to the principles involved. This, to me, is the only way to build a foundation for independent creativity in the future. Yes, we do this more when we start out, but lifelong education rules. No one is so great in the kitchen they have nothing to learn by following a recipe now and again.

                                                  2) Respect/Curiosity. With an author I really admire and from whom I've learned a great deal, it is a simple sign of respect to follow their instructions the first time through. I know they've put decades of experience and culinary education into a dish, and may have tested it dozens of times with myriad tweaks to get it "just so." I want to see what they wanted the dish to be. If Julia Child says "this is the best roast chicken I've ever eaten," then you better believe I'm not messing around with instructions the first time through. Or if James Beard gives his beloved family recipe for Oregon Clam Chowder, I certainly want to replicate, at least once, the chowder of his childhood.

                                                  3) Authenticity. It is rewarding on numerous levels to cook from Hazan or Claudia Roden and know that a dish made its way, intact, from some rural Egyptian village on Roden's 1970s travels to my table in 2010. Can I throw something together and say, "this is broadly representative of Northern Italian cooking?" Sure. Will it be delicious? Usually. But it is a different thing altogether to recreate a dish Marcella learned from an older relative in a particular town. I guess this point could also be called the Joy of Culinary Ethnography.

                                                  4) Staying on top of your game. There are principles involved in most any endeavor, and your success at that endeavor is improved by staying familiar with those principles. For example, as an editor and writer, I not only make a point of reading great authors as often as I can, I regularly spend time reacquainting myself with the Elements of Style and the Chicago Manual of Style, the two bibles of grammar and style for American English. In cooking, I tend to be a pendulum: I can go days or, rarely, a couple of weeks without really using a recipe, but then I inevitably feel a pull and end up spending some quality time on the couch and in the kitchen with Mark Bittman or James Peterson or Julia Child or Jacques Pepin or James Beard. When I put them down and start cooking on my own again, the dishes I make are invariably better than the last ones I made before "going back to school" for a bit.

                                                  Ultimately, don't kid yourself: None of us are artists, unless the dude from Tru lurks around the Home Cooking board. The rest of us can just hope to be competent artisans, to provide meals that make our friends and families happy, healthy, and exicited about how delicious and varied food can be. And really, that's more than enough. Everything else is just comparing the size of our pestles.

                                                  3 Replies
                                                      1. re: eight_inch_pestle

                                                        "Awesome post."

                                                        Yes, I concur. You really do have a grip on the importance of learning technique, the joy of research and practice, coupled with a well considered argument for authenticity. My feeling is that you take the cooking thing very seriously but have lots of fun at the same time. It was nice to read about your obvious passion for all of it. Bravo!

                                                  1. Well, bless your heart. I don't want to bash you, but I see so much intolerance and arrogance in your post .. ok, that's not meant to be an insult, but when you start a post by saying,I don't want to insult someone, well maybe that means you are?

                                                    Many people here have already articulated their reasons for using recipes, which are my reasons as well. But I have one other one. I have a very stressful job and I make decisions every day that could affect lots of people and lots of money. Sometimes I want to follow a recipe so I don't have to make anymore decisions, even one as simple as, should I add thyme to this recipe? I find it relaxing, soothing, and satisfying. and at the end, I have a good meal, because I pick good recipes usually. Culinary achievement is not really my goal, but when I have a recipe that says "sear meat for 4 minutes," there is plenty of technique and knowledge that goes into following that direction. It's second nature to many here, but following a recipe is hard for lots of people because they don't know what to look for/aim for in their cooking.

                                                    1. I am somehow never able to follow a recipe exactly. Oh, occasionally, on one of those recipes that have 4 ingredients, I can do it.

                                                      Something always comes up. Oh my wife doesn't eat yellow cheese, I'll have use mozzarella. Oh you can't mean that much cayenne chef Prudhomme.

                                                      No I can't stand your essence emeril and I sure as hell don't want it in my meat loaf.

                                                      Oh no. I'm out of whatever. It's always something.

                                                      Now that I am a little more experienced, I don't have as many disasters from failing to follow a recipe, exactly.

                                                      Of course, even if you follow a recipe exactly, you are still learning and gaining confidence. Sooner or later, you are gonna realize that I did the same thing to chicken that this recipe is having me do to pork and I saw a recipe where it called for doing it to beef. UH Huh moment

                                                      1. I once read an interview with a prize-winning chili cook. The interviewer asked him if he was a little bit leery of giving away the store by allowing his winning recipe for chili to be disseminated.

                                                        His reply: "You can cook my recipe, but you can't make my chili."

                                                        The point being that there is a craftsmanship about cooking that goes far beyond following a set of instructions. And it is that craftsmanship, not a capacity for follwing instructions, which makes a cook great. More important, following a recipe does not negate greatness in the kitchen.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                          Don't know the source for this one, but it got mention in the the old Joy of Cooking's recipe for beaten biscuits:

                                                          Of course I'll gladly give the rule / I makes beat biscuit by,
                                                          But that don't guarantee you'll make / That bread the same as I.
                                                          'Cause cookin's like religion is / Some's 'lected and some ain't,
                                                          An' rules don't no more make a cook / Then sermons make a saint.

                                                        2. i grew up in one of those homes where we ate the same 5 meals in rotation. Spaghetti, tacos, rice and chicken, steak and potatoes, chicken nuggets, REPEAT.

                                                          When i got married, i had no idea what chicken pot pie was. Or what homemade mac and cheese should taste like. I'd never had a ceasar salad or roast beef. I'd ate the same bread stuffing and a dry turkey twice a year for 20 years.

                                                          Recipes teach me what a food is. I can look at a recipe for something and see what it should involve...then i can create my own version once i know what it is.

                                                          Also, don't forget that cooking is an art, but also a science. Sure, you could read endlessly about food science and then maybe cook perfectly without a recipe on the first try, but most of us learn our food science by following a recipe and seeing what happens.

                                                          Even when i am cooking without a recipe, i'm still kinda cooking with a recipe... i know by eye how much butter to put in the pan to mix with a handful of flour to thicken a sauce, or how much salt is needed in a particular dish, or approximately how long a particular food will take to cook through...these are recipes of sorts, even if they never get written down.

                                                          1. There's also something to be said for the ability to winnow winning recipes from losers. If you don't know the difference between the two, pretty much on sight, then you're doomed from the start.

                                                            Another recipe-related skill is the ability to find an imperfect recipe that has potential, and to make sure that it realizes that potential. This ability is nothing to belittle.