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Apr 19, 2011 09:15 PM

Using Recipes

(Note: This thread was split from another thread at: -- The Chowhound Team)

Don't use recipes.

Recipes are like guide dogs for the blind. Unless you're blind, no need to use them.

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  1. Well, hang on there, ipse - I seldom use recipes for cooking except for inspiration and a general guidepost, but for BAKING - that's some science, there. If the baking powder's left out, for example, you have a whole different thing in the end. (That's why I love to bake pies - they're so forgiving, scientifically speaking.)

    14 Replies
    1. re: rcallner

      I seldom use recipes for cooking except for inspiration and a general guidepost


      As to baking, there is very little difference. There is nothing scientific about leaving out baking powder in cookies (for example), just as there is nothing scientific about leaving out butter in a pie crust. If you leave either ingredient out, you either (1) don't know how to make that baked item, or (2) you just forgot.

      1. re: ipsedixit

        If you're a baker and you have ratios memorized, yeah, it makes sense not to bake with a recipe. Then, there are the rest of us...and I won't even go into how many of us are harried and distracted, and might find a recipe a useful and convenient tool. No one should be shamed for using recipes. If you choose not to use them, that's your perogative. To imply that a person preferring to use a recipe wouldn't know how to make the item without the recipe is completely out of line.

        1. re: amyzan

          I don't think it's that mechanical -- i.e. getting ratios memorized.

          Alot of it is feel. For example, with pie crust, you just have to sort of know when to add a bit of water to the dough to get the right texture, or when to add some water to your flour when making dough for breads, noodles, etc.

          1. re: ipsedixit

            Sure, and that would likely be covered by a baker knowing the temp and humidity of ingredients and the environment. One cannot deny that chemistry is involved in baking, and yes, as such, involves ratios. You likely feel when the proper ratio is achieved, just by a different, no less valid, method.

            1. re: amyzan

              But the ratios that you speak of in baking are extant in "regular" cooking, no?

              You sort of need to know the ratio of oil to acid to make a basic vinaigrette, right?

              Gotta know the ratio of salt to water to make a brine.


              I think too many people overthink the room when it comes to baking, when it really is not that much different than "regular" cooking.

              1. re: ipsedixit

                So I guess you know all the cuisines and all the herbs and spices and all the possible combinations and figure whatever you come up with out of your head will be as good or better than what generations of cooks have done. Interesting approach. I consider recipes a guidebook to cuisines and once I've gotten to know the area I feel free to go out on my own.

                1. re: escondido123

                  So I guess you know all the cuisines and all the herbs and spices and all the possible combinations and figure whatever you come up with out of your head will be as good or better than what generations of cooks have done.


                  Not sure I said, or implied, anything to that effect.

                  In fact, I specifically agreed with a previous poster that recipes should be a "general guidepost" ...

                  1. re: ipsedixit

                    If you get the ratios wrong in cooking, you can usually fix it and if not, it might make a difference in taste but if you get the ratios wrong in baking, you could end up w/ a flat cake. Use an extra tablespoon of tomatoes in a sauce won't change it. Use an extra tablespoon of flour in cookies and you'll get a taller, cakier cookie.

                    1. re: chowser

                      Yes, but the flat cake, or cakier cookie, would still taste pretty darn good.

                      Proper ratios/measurements in baking is really more about aesthetics than taste.

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        But a flat cake isn't the same result. The question isn't whether you can get something tasty but whether you can bake something w/out a recipe. It's more than esthetics, it's texture and taste.

                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          I don't consider texture aesthetics. Likewise, I don't consider aesthetics an afterthought that is best left to its own devices. And certainly not texture.

                          In my mind, a really great cook carefully controls the texture and aesthetics of his dish just like he controls the taste. Of course, that doesn't mean said cook has to follow a recipe to get there. But something - his expertise, a memorized ratio, a recipe - better than dumb luck should be guiding him.

                2. re: ipsedixit

                  But, at some point, you had to follow a recipe to get to the right feel, unless you were being taught. There's no way someone who has never made pie crust could wing it and figure out the ratios w/out a recipe, and hopefully following it exactly to know what it should be like.

                  1. re: chowser

                    And that's why I say you use recipes as "general guideposts".

          2. "Recipes are like guide dogs for the blind. Unless you're blind, no need to use them."

            The best home cooks I know ALL use recipes. Just look at any COTM thread and you can tell the calibre of cooks participating in those. For me, I defer to someone(s) who are professionals. I don't do my own dentistry. Some rationale. I've known plenty of people who "wing it" and most of them aren't nearly as good as they think they are.

            17 Replies
            1. re: c oliver

              There are people who cook with recipes, and there are people who cook intuitively.

              To say one group is better than the other, belittles both groups.

              1. re: ipsedixit

                Ah, so you weren't serious about the guide dog/blindness. Good. I feel comfortable though that in the majority of cases those who use intuition are unlikely to be as good a cook as someone who uses tried and true recipes. This has nothing to do with this thread though so I won't push it any further.

                1. re: ipsedixit

                  I use recipes. I cook intuitively. I'm able to cook intuitively Because I've used recipes.

                  1. re: Gio

                    I use recipes. I cook intuitively. I'm able to cook intuitively Because I've used recipes.


                    But that's exactly what I mean.

                    Like i said upthread, use recipes as a general guidepost, but don't feel the need to slavishly follow them.

                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      Unless they're perfect the way they are :) I also just want to make the distinction that just because you're not opening a book doesn't mean you're not using a recipe. I make some things often enough that I don't need to look at the recipe anymore. But that doesn't mean it's not a recipe. Right?

                      1. re: c oliver

                        I think it really depends on what you mean by "recipe" and "follow"

                        Not to get too didactic about the whole thing, but let's chew on this hypo for a minute just for purposes of discussion.

                        Let's say you are making mango chutney, and you have a recipe that's tried-and-true and which you use all the time. But this time, you've got a batch of mangoes that are a shade of being ripe, and they just aren't sweet enough. The recipe says (for example) use 2 tsps of honey for every 1 cup of mangoes. But because your mangoes this time are not very sweet, after adding the called-for 2 tsps of honey, you taste it and it's sort of insipid. Wouldn't you add a touch more honey, or whatever flavor enhancer to make the chutney more palatable and closer to the intended goal of what the recipe called for?

                        If you (generic "you") did that, would that still be "following a recipe" or cooking intuitively?

                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          not to be pedantic, but the word insipid means too sweet/cloying. so in that case i'd add citrus juice or more pickled lime to my chutney. if it was too tart due to green mangoes i'd add more honey or pureed dates or whatever.

                          recipes are great jumping off points, and the more you know the less you need em. but you gotta get there first. leaving the salt out of a recipe for baked goods is a rookie mistake imo. you don't need a lot of salt but it is in *everything,* after all. more home cooks should use salt pinch-cups/trays, like restaurants.

                          1. re: soupkitten

                            I love words

                            Miriam-webster (I always trust them)


                            1: lacking taste or savor : tasteless <insipid food>
                            2: lacking in qualities that interest, stimulate, or challenge : dull, flat <insipid prose>

                            1. re: soupkitten

                              yeah, where did you find your def for insipid?

                              i agree with people here who say recipes are ok, not to adhere to religiously, but certainly not to eschew. we learn a lot from watching other people cook, eating different cuisines, reading about people's cooking on websites like this and others, and using recipes when the need/desire strikes, and then hopefully using them for jumping off points.

                            2. re: ipsedixit

                              For me non-generically :) that would be "following a recipe." If I had never seen a recipe for mango chutney, I doubt I'd invent it on the spot. Here's a specific exampe of what you and I are talking about. Veggo has a soup of shrimp, corn and roasted poblanos. The first time I made it one tablespoon of the poblano puree set my mouth on fire. Everytime since then they have been so mild that I put three or four peppers worth in it and STILL had some Cholula when I serve it. Despite making changes I definitely consider it following a recipe.

                              1. re: c oliver

                                Interesting, c.

                                I think the shrimp soup example is something I would not consider "following a recipe".

                                To each her own, I suppose.

                                Nice talking to you.

                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  Isn't it lovely when two brilliant but slightly stubborn people (that's you and me just in case you didn't figure THAT out!) talk things through and figure it out. Nice talking to you also, ipse.

                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                    All my work, all my undisclosed trials and errors, many batches, many versions, over many months, and then I share my soup recipe here for others to enjoy, and ispe, you dismiss it like pond scum? My feelings are hurt.
                                    Your punishment: No soup for you!
                                    (You know I'm funnin, but just the same...)

                                2. re: ipsedixit

                                  That would be called adjusting a recipe based upon ingredients.

                            3. re: Gio

                              right on Gio! (me too). I don't know if I've *ever* gone strictly by a recipe.

                          2. re: c oliver

                            In cooking school (a two-year professional course), we were taught not to rely too literally on recipes. But I cannot imagine cooking without (really good) recipes, because they give me new ideas and techniques. And you learn to spot the good ones.

                            1. re: Mona Williams

                              Agreed. And the better cook one becomes, imo, the better one can read a recipe and know if it's a winner.

                          3. I've talked about this before on chowhound. I use recipes as guidelines. I will look at several recipes for the same thing and get the general idea and cook it.

                            There would be exceptions, of course. If I am cooking something from a new cuisine that I am unfamiliar with or am cooking something very complex, I follow a recipe. By the way, if a recipe is very complex, I'm probably not going to cook it. I don't see why food should be complicated to be good.

                            Even when I am winging it, as I say, I often have a printed recipe nearby on the counter. I just don't get real stressed about following it exactly.

                            I'm, also always looking at recipes as techniques and "flavor profiles" (rolls eyes... I wouldn't have used that over used phrase but I couldn't think of a better term). If a combination of spices or ingredients is good in one dish, they will probably be good in another.

                            I don't even follow a recipe exactly the first time. I'm just trying to put dinner on the table, folks. I'm not trying pay homage to the chef that developed the recipe. Besides, I can't begin to tell you how many recipes I have looked up by different chefs and found they were almost exactly alike.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: Hank Hanover

                              I do the same thing, Hank. I'll research and bookmark several different recipes and adjust to my tastes and dietary restrictions. If I like the results, I'll go back and write down what worked for me to start with as a base for the next time. My SO started typing up our recipes and put them in a notebook. I have a recipe for a bread in my bread maker that I started out with modifications, and messed it up so many times. Today, it came out perfectly, so I put all of my changes on a sticky on the recipe page.

                              Cooking, I'll wing it. Baking, I'll start with recommended proportions and modify from there.

                              1. re: tracylee

                                I do far worse than that. When I wanted a cabbage roll recipe because I didn't have my mom's, I put the ingredients and techniques from 6 recipes into a spreadsheet and analyzed them. I would go... oh I like that and steal it and move to my hypothetical recipe then I would steal something from a different recipe. When I finally cooked it, it turned out great and I never made any of the original 6 recipes.

                                Tomorrow, for the first time, I'm going to make a coconut layer cake. I started with Alton Brown's recipe. I liked that he added cream of coconut to the cake but he used white cake. That would be prettier but, in my opinion, not as tasty so I'm going to base it on a yellow cake.

                                I liked some of the ideas from baking 911 so I am going to steal them. They had a recipe for a coconut layer cake with lemon curd which sounded great until I saw a recipe for pineapple curd. So, I'm going to make a yellow coconut layer cake with cocoa lopez in the cake and a pineapple curd filling.

                                I will use the correct proportions though.

                                1. re: Hank Hanover

                                  I love the spreadsheet idea! I'm a geek and have spreadsheets for everything else. I posted a recipe to a forum I run where - silly me - I insisted that recipes contain nutritional information. Spreadsheet to the rescue by ingredient divided by number of portions.

                                  The cake sounds wonderful! Now that I've found an alternative to sugars (which my body can't handle), lemon curd is on my list of sweets to try.

                            2. I'm not agreeing w/ your analogy. I think it's more along the lines of using a GPS for an area you're somewhat familiar with but not sure about the exact location of the place. I might listen to it but if I think it's off I won't follow it.

                              I'm curious--how many people follow a recipe exactly, every time? I love the Zuni chicken recipe but I don't think I've ever followed it 100%. Even with baking, I'm somewhat close but change things around (as I get older, sometimes it's more inadvertent when I can't read quite the directions) but know enough to get myself back on track, as with the GPS and following directions.

                              6 Replies
                              1. re: chowser

                                You know what puzzles me the most?

                                When someone says, "I lost my recipe for X, and I cannot make X anymore"


                                If that's true, then that person was never able to make X. That person was only able to follow a recipe.

                                  1. re: Veggo

                                    That's ok.

                                    I am still trying to finish my stash of muffin tops.

                                  2. re: ipsedixit

                                    If that person follows the X recipe and thereby successfully makes X, how can you say they [was] never able to make X when they just did make X? No logic for you!

                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                      I lost my grandmother's recipe for caramels and I mourn it. Even though there are other caramel recipes out there, and I sort of remember her ingredients... And I would say I was able to make it. She had used the "soft-ball" criterion for doneness that I have a hard time with. So I experimented with it over and over until I got the thermometer temperature that I thought was right. I haven't tried to make it again and I probably won't.

                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                        I never bake w/out a recipe. I don't follow it to a T but I need it for a general guideline. I can't remember if it's a tsp of baking powder or soda in cookies/cakes. And, even if I do know the recipe, it's memorized and is that any better than reading a recipe? What's the difference, other than a better memory? I'm so impressed w/ what the pastry chefs on Top Chef Just Desserts were able to do w/out recipes. But really, they've just memorized them all.

                                    2. Talk about a generalization! There are recipes and, then, there are recipes.

                                      If I want to reproduce Patrick O'Connell's Roast Loin on a Tangle of Tart Greens with Spaetzle because I don't want to drive 1 1/2 hours and pay $700 plus for the privilege of eating his lovely food, I'm going to follow his recipe exactly. Ditto for Jean-Georges' food.

                                      I don't even limit my devotion to recipes to those from super star chefs. I'll happily follow any recipe that already represents the gold standard for a dish from my point of view. For example, there's a local Lebanese market whose tabbouleh is absolutely the best in town. I would love, love, love to learn their exact recipe. And I mean exact. That's the point. I've eaten lots of tabbouleh from lots of equally competent sources and these other versions don't approach the perfect balance of grain, parsley, and lemon. I already know the general guidelines for tabboulsh, but I see no reason to devote time and money to improvising when the gold standard exists. Until I get hold of my favorite source's exact recipe, I'll simply continue to buy it as a take-out option.