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Inability to follow instructions

I am congenitally incapable of following a recipe. At some stage of the prep I will add lemon rind, ground cardamom, hot sauce, mint, cream or some other bastardisation of the tried and tested.

Anyone else with a similar fault?

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  1. Depends on the recipe. If I'm baking, I follow it 99.9% of the time, unless I've made it before and I know a bit extra lemon zest or whatever isn't going to hurt the final product.

    If I'm cooking, unless it's a Julia MtAoFC recipe or something I *want* to try exactly as written, based on my knowing the ingredients will just work right together, I'll change it up a bit.

    1. (disclaimer, I don't do much pastry, baking or other stuff like that that needs precision in ingredient measurements.).

      I use recipes as inspiration, read them, understand them, and add/remove to them; sometimes it works, sometimes it does not ( but not by much).


      1 Reply
      1. I have the opposite fault. I tend to think procedurally and adhere to recipes as to a lab manual. It's only recently that I've begun to outgrow my lack of imagination and revel in deviating from the rules.

        1. Nope. First time I cook a recipe I follow it to the letter. Afterwards, then it's either ditched as not worthy of being kept or has notes scribbled on what to do with it next time.

          1. Depends. For a novice food I have never tried, I will stick to the recipe. However, if I had eaten the food several times before, then I may add things which I think is needed.

            For example, I will probably add onion to my beef chow fun, even if the particular recipe does not call for it. This is because almost all the beef chow fun I had in the restaurants have slice onion.

            1. Recipes are just guidelines.

              1 Reply
              1. re: maxie

                I assume you meant to write "to me." I don't feel that way at all. I've rarely found my ad libs to be as good as the recipes in my favorite cookbooks.

              2. I do the exact same thing! I know a lot of hounds insist on sticking to the recipe the first time through, and I absolutely understand and agree with them. I just cannot bring myself to do it. I will start a recipe fully intending to follow it to the letter and then I start thinking to myself, "But it would be simpler if I did it this way... oh, I have parsley in the fridge that I need to use up... hmm, I haven't tried it yet, but something tells me it would be even better with chopped walnuts!" About half the time the result is inspired and the rest of the time I kick myself for being incapable, yet again, of following the recipe.

                1. The why bother consulting a recipe in the first place?

                  My only request is that you never complain about the quality of the recipe. Epicurious and other food sites are chock full of examples of people who complain about recipes only to disclose at some point that they substituted or did things differently, et cet. It's a whole genre of stupidity out there.

                  My own take is that, if one is bothering to consult a recipe, one should have the decency to follow it faithfully the first time. That, and only that, can tell you the merits of the recipe for future reference.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: Karl S

                    The decency? Wow, you have very high moral standards! ;)

                    1. re: visciole

                      Well, that's modified by the paragraph that precedes it - what I meant is that, if you want the right to credibly complain about a recipe, you'd better have the decency of first trying it at least once as written. Like I've said, the phenomenon of people not having such decency but whining anyway is pretty widespread.

                        1. re: Karl S

                          Have to agree with Karl on this, visciole. You can't post all sorts of changes to a posted website recipe and then complain in the comments section that it wasn't that good. Well, strike that. You CAN post that it sucked after you made all sorts of changes. But then any credibility you might have had is shot, IMO, as you've essentially made a different recipe than what was posted.

                          It's rather like someone who comes and posts on CH how crappy a favored restaurant is because of this or that, and it's their first post. We have no history of what foods that poster likes - just that they seem to be posting a slam just to post a slam. No credibility. But if they'd eaten at a very similar restaurant, and had the exact same dish, and can use that as a comparison as to what they had and disliked at the favored restaurant, then perhaps their post would be more credible.

                          Make it FIRST as written. If you like it, make it again with your changes. Then if it sucks, complain away.

                          1. re: LindaWhit

                            I was just commenting on the use of the word "decency." So much amazingly horrid stuff exists online, that I was just tweaking Karl for impugning these terrible non-recipe-followers' decency.

                            But I do understand the point.

                    2. Can't follow a recipe to save my life, which is probably why I don't ever use recipes. (Except for choux pastry. That's the one thing I always follow a recipe on ... except for the add-in flavourings since those don't count.)

                      I'll always add/subtract something. In a cookie recipe, I'm likely to add more flour than called for because the proportions look like it'll yield a crispy cookie, which I hate, and then I'll do something strange like add saffron or sub out sugar for honey powder. In a Thai recipe, I might sub in some Italian herbs. (My kitchen acknowledges no international borders.)

                      I think of recipes in cooking as sheet music when playing jazz piano - improvisation is key - doesn't matter if you're cooking or baking.

                      I own cookbooks. I've yet figured why. (I don't cook from them, and as stated, I can't follow a recipe.)

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: Ali

                        Don't you really mean you just want to follow recipes? I'm sure you're capable of it. When setting up a new computer, for instance, do you follow the directions?

                        1. re: c oliver

                          Nope. Don't follow directions then either, or at least not the written directions given - setting anything up any piece of machinery these days is really just a matter of matching colours, no? ;-)

                          I am capable of following directions in certain contexts - e.g., chemistry class, disecting a frog/worm/cat/whatever, writing a computer program. (In fact, in certain aspects of my life, I'm obsessed with doing things "right" and consistently.) In other contexts, I'm just hopeless - e.g., following a recipe, playing classical piano, not wearing white after Labor Day. I have tried to follow recipes, and I always like having a recipe to start with, but the end-result is somehow always uniquely me. I can't seem to help this senseless egocentrism.

                          Conversely, I can make up a recipe, be it cookie or curry, and have it come out exactly how I want it (1/4 tsp here, 2 tbsp there, and the whole thing). It's weird, especially weirder when you consider I can't follow my own recipe either.

                          1. re: Ali

                            I applaud you for acknoledging that it's egocentric! Good for you. I often wonder when this topic comes up, after one has tweaked it to perfection, then I guess you have to continue to tweak since you can't follow instructions and that would be instructions :) It's also been brought up on CH that all that adlibbing may only cause the adlibber to think it's better. Those who eat the food may not.

                      2. Yup. In fact, I have a hard time even saying which recipe I am (not) following as I usually have several that I am working from at the same time. I like to get an idea of the basic proportions and general ingredients in a variety of different recipes for the same/similar dish and then take the "best" parts from each and maybe add my own flare. :)

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: akq

                          Ha! That's me as well. I look up a few recipes on the dish I want to try and then take the elements that I like best from all of them. Tends to work great, really.
                          (And no, I don't do a lot of baking... I'd probably end up with Molton Carrot Cake Cookies or something...)

                        2. Maybe check with the friend of the person who posted this:



                          1 Reply
                          1. re: KTFoley

                            I follow a new recipe for something I've never cooked before pretty closely the first time, and then tweak it subsequently if I think changes might improve it for my own taste. I am terrible at remembering proportions and ratios which is crucial to cooking without recipes I think (would never had made it as a cook/professional chef) but I can tell by reading a recipe whether it will work for me, both procedurally and taste-wise, which is kinda nice. I am also an avocado whisperer, rarely getting a bad one, FWIW :-). My friends and family consider me a good home cook which is very cool, except when they worry I am not going to like what THEY cook for ME. I like everything that is cooked for me!

                            1. I'm of the devil's party too, P, almost never ever follow a recipe exactly (which drives himself crazy, his mother follows recipes to the last 1/8 teaspoon). Up the garlic (almost always), more or less hot pepper, no marjoram use oregano kind of thing. Even with baking, unless it's something really tricky, I am a tiny bit slipshod in measuring (since I've been baking for ages, I can eyeball things and know the proper feel of the dough / batter).

                              6 Replies
                              1. re: buttertart

                                I think that's part of the issue here....how long we've been cooking or baking.

                                If you're new to cooking, you're much more likely to follow recipes, whereas once you get comfortable with foods, herbs, spices, and how things go together, and what particular flavors you personally like, you're more willing to wing it and add, deduct, change quantities of ingredients.

                                1. re: LindaWhit

                                  You're probably right. My mother was raised/taught to cook by a grandmother who was a great cook and she never cooked from a recipe, but she baked from them (and took the kind of liberties I do). My mother-in-law on the other hand, by her own admission, could barely boil water when she got married (her mother was a rotten cook) and taught herself to cook from books - and 60 years later she always always refers to and follows recipes when she ccooks, even things she must have made hundreds of times.

                                  1. re: buttertart

                                    +1, Linda. My mum makes pie crust without measuring anything; she can tell by the feel when it is "short" enough. Which results in perfect pie crust everytime (verified by people who are not related to her) and perfect frustration for moi, trying to learn how to recreate that faboo crust :-(.

                                    1. re: grayelf

                                      I am convinced you need to have the touch for pie crust. I can make a decent one but it's never as good as the one my mom knocked out in whatever weather (unairconditioned house) and just made and rolled out, no resting. She said it was because her hands were always cold.

                                      1. re: buttertart

                                        Okay that made me laugh out loud, buttertart. I wonder if your mum and mine are secretly related. My mater does do a little trick with some ice cubes in the pastry water but otherwise it just seems like hocus pocus. BTW, does your handle provide any added incentive in your crust making endeavours? ;-)

                                        1. re: grayelf

                                          Maybe they were (she did sometimes use ice if it was really hot). The handle is an homage to her, plus I love butter and have been known to be just a little tarty once in a while!

                              2. My father is an experimenter, with some infamously disastrous results. So the first time through with a recipe, I'll follow it exactly as written, and then start to make subtle tweaks from there if we decide the recipe is a keeper.

                                1. It depends. If the recipe contains a collection of ingredients so interesting (or an uncommon combination of things) that I cannot begin to envision what it would taste like, then I make it by the book. I want to know the "founder's intent." After tasting it, if I decide there is an imbalance of flavors (usually involving acid), then I go to town.

                                  For most things, I use the recipe as a guideline as to ratios. And this is true for baking as well as cooking.

                                  1. Oh yes. Although, there are a few exceptions. I followed a very involved (for my standards, at least - something that needs to be prepared a day ahead is part of it) but promising recipe for caponata to the tee the first time I made it. Ever since, I have been reducing the ingredients to get closer to that one perfect caponata I've had... and I am getting closer each time, which is nice.

                                    I mostly don't cook with recipes, tend to throw ingredients together and stuff comes out nicely (and sometimes not so nice, but still more than edible).

                                    If I'm really unfamiliar with the task at hand, I will consult a cookbook or two or the interwebs and read up on it. But instructions are not my thing -

                                    1. Interesting! I wondered how divisive this question would be. I wasn't expecting the 'moral high ground'.

                                      Nobody put forward the argument that following recipes v. ad-libbing (thanks for that one Cath Oliver) is like comparing arithmetic with mathematics.

                                      Reminds me of some sage advice from an old sales boss....

                                      Always rehearse your ad-libs before the meeting.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Paulustrious

                                        It is possible that your question brings back bad memories for others. For example, some people may have bitter experience with those who don't follow recipes (I am not talking about myself).

                                      2. I realized last night that you DO use recipes but you add and subtract. IMO that does qualify as "following instructions," just not being a slave to them. I kinda/sorta fixed a recipe the other night, omitting two ingredients that I didn't have and one that I just thought it didn't need. I consider that using a recipe.

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: c oliver

                                          That's my MO too, c o. Or add/subtract steps if I think it's a good idea (microwaving eggplant to precook it before frying for example).

                                          1. re: buttertart

                                            True dat buttertart -- I have a lot of older recipes that predate the advent of kitchen microwaves, so I often deek in a short cut for them. But never if it involves anything that resembles bread or pastry, much to my SO's chagrin when he wants to reheat some of Mum's pies (see above).

                                            1. re: grayelf

                                              Oh no, maybe 15 sec but I try to avoid anything flour-based in the mic.

                                        2. There are techniques you learn from experience, a mentor or by accident that define your very basic capacity to cook something that tastes good. Following ratios, procedure and temperature then becomes important to get consistent textures. Apart from that I use recipes only as an inspiration to invent new ones...;)

                                          1. Guilty as charged, and maybe it's my subconcious way of thumbing my nose at authority. The only time I must follow exactly is when I think I could be messing up some sort of chemistry that will affect the end result -- like with a bread recipe. I find that with soups, stews, and other such concoctions, I am of the MIB (more is better) school -- more onions, more garlic, more veggies. If it doesn't work out, though, I will own up to the fact that I am the one who screwed up, and not the person who created the recipe.