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Apr 6, 2011 08:12 PM

What Makes a Truly Great Recipe?

At this point in my life, I am what you could call a crusty, jaded, cranky old fart, and loved every second of it. I have gone to cooking school (CCA), discovered/developed what I believe to be the genuine Sacher Torte recipe, had a couple of recipes published in a cooking magazine, had a couple of book proposals rejected, worked in several, vastly different foodservice places (grocery store kitchen, retail butcher, fish monger, restaurant pastry chef and emergency fill-in head chef, pizza-by-the-slice cook, chocolate chef, etc.). I no longer cook using recipes or cookbooks: I find them to be troublesome and often wrong.

Here is my question: what makes a truly great recipe to you?

If you do the same recipe, once with generic ingredients from the local grocery store, and again with high quality ingredients that you have painstakingly gathered from far and wide, the difference can be, but not necessarily, be dramatic. I live in the SF/Bay Area, and locavore, organic, farmer’s market, biodynamic, and whatever, is sometimes worthwhile and edifying, but not always.

We all have those recipes from our younger lives that we value and cherish; as a reference, I am thinking of either hand-written recipes from elders, or those junior league cookbooks that they do not seem to make anymore. When we do them, they sometimes, but not always, recreate the joy we remember them for in our memories. When we try to improve and update according to current credo, the result is always less than edifying.

A disturbing large % of famous, highly regarded cookbooks by a famous chef have oodles of recipes that have obviously never been tested, and have either been invented by the famous chef/author at the word processor keyboard or created by a ghost writer. It would only take a few publisher $$$ to submit the manuscript to a professional test kitchen to ensure that the recipes work as advertised; sadly, few if any publishers take this step. Some that do real recipe testing: Jacques Pepin, Julia Childs, Marion Cunningham, Americas Test Kitchen/Cooks Illustrated, and Martin Yan (I am sure about Yan, because I worked on one of his TV shows).

Well, I think I first heard this from Felidia Bastianich, but who knows. If you truly love and care about your ingredients and the dinner guests for whom you cook, then the food will be great because it has that je-ne-sais-quoi: love. Well, perhaps, if you already own a chain of successful restaurants, but for the ordinary home cook, I am not so sure.

I love food and cooking, both doing and eating. The greatest event in my life was when I turned my beloved hobby, cooking, into my job each and everyday. No, I do not make a very good living at it, but I would not have it any other way.

What are your thoughts?

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  1. From one cranky old fart to another: GREAT RESULTS, which depends on individual taste.

    1. Wow, a collection of old farts. Add me to the collection.

      My answer to your question would be - One that works, isn't more difficult than it's worth, doesn't have exotic ingredients for the sake of having exotic ingredients, and I like to see a recipe with posted variations.

      I learned to cook out of necessity over the last several years so I don't have the passion that some have. I chose my profession a long time ago and it isn't cooking.

      I like a low effort high impact dish. A good example is chocolate truffles over fudge. Truffles are easier, better and more repeatable. I look for the same thing in main course dishes. I would gravitate to a braised dish because it is easy with a lot of impact. Braised short ribs or a chicken cacciatore is going to generate a lot of oohs and ahhs, is going to be very tasty and memorable and as a bonus will be cheap. Win, Win, Win.

      I'm starting to study baking and am running into the same choices. Why make a fruit pie when you can make a tart? Why make a chocolate layer cake when you can make a chocolate tort?
      Let's be clear. I am making these things because I am in the process of learning which is what I like best - the process of learning.

      I still like Cook's Illustrated because their recipes work every time.

      As I have become more proficient at cooking savory dishes, I have become far less interested in published recipes. I am more interested in the general approach than a recipe. I have been known to not make the dish in the recipe ever. Just use the techniques and similar ingredients and spices. if it works ... great. If it doesn't I can change it or scrap it entirely.

      I apologize for the rambling nature of my response. I hope it was what you were looking for.

      1. All of the above :) I am generally a recipe follower but am selective about whose I follow. Batali, Hazan, Nguyen, Dunlop, Kennedy are a few of my current favorites. I trust them. I think good herbs and spices are important. I don't buy the things in jars at the grocery store. I'm paying for all the packaging and frequently the spices aren't very fresh. If a recipe calls for a shallot, I don't use an onion. Or rarely do. I like recipes because, unlike OP, I'm not professionally trained and the pros give me layers or nuances of flavors that I'm not going to try to figure out myself. My $0.02.

        1. I personally think a really good recipe is adaptable. its pretty rare that i cook the EXACT same thing ever again, but i will often make something very similar, or combine with another idea or flavor that i love. but the recipes that i like the most are the ones i keep coming back to as a springboard for new ideas

          2 Replies
          1. re: mattstolz

            Well said mattstolz. And I also agree with Hank, I like low effort high impact recipes. (Lets start a thread on them.)

            1. re: lilmomma

              That could certainly be a thread but unlikely it's what OP is talking about. I've spent a whole day, two days and even once three days making extraordinary dishes. OP is talking about "truly great" and, for me, no effort is too much for great. I also don't mind great that is low on effort but it's not even on my top ten list.

          2. When either my family or the client says, make that again.