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Learning to cook - techniques rule!


Accidentally started this discussion on another thread and hijacked in the process. It deserves its own.

Some here seem to think that ever slavish following recipes is learning to cook. I disagree. Cooking is a skill that trends into an art. It is a matter of learning techniques, then using those techniques to advantage under any circumstances

Paint by numbers does not teach art, and following recipes is cooking by numbers. One does need to learn about cuisines, and recipes have a role in teaching cuisine, but then one must move on. Some may say that there are alternative ways of learning, and this is true to a point. I don't want an airline pilot or surgeon who can't improvise based on developed skills, nor one stuck looking at a book while trying to land or operate.

  1. You raise lots of issues but I don't see a specific question to respond to so, I think the following:

    - I agree that learning techniques is a good thing and, using those skills, you can improvise with more success.

    - I do not agree that recipes are analogous to paint by numbers. I use recipes for fresh ideas, things I've never made before, to make sure I get an old favorite right.

    - The topic of improvising versus following a structured set of procedures is a fascinating one that is outside the scope of this board. I really enjoyed Atul Gawande's take on the subject in The Checklist Manifesto (http://www.amazon.com/The-Checklist-M...


    - Cooking is a skill, an art, and sometimes just a routine chore. I don't have a problem bringing out the old meatloaf recipe I've made hundreds of times so I can produce a family dinner.

    1 Reply
    1. re: tcamp

      Yep, but do you get out the recipe book for the meatloaf you have made hundreds of times? Or have you got that recipe now so ingrained that you can improvise ingredients where necessary?
      I think that is what the OP is trying to get at.

      IMO, recipe books etc are essential when learning a new dish, but once you have made it many times, your skills can develop the dish. Likewise your abilities in a kitchen.

    2. There are too many great cuisines to cook and dishes to behold to eschew recipes.
      Maybe I'm just an average home cook, but I will always need recipes to expand my base.
      I can't imagine not learning anymore.
      Sure, I can improvise, but I'm not so self assured that I can claim to whip up all sorts of dishes without guidance.
      Wouldn't even want to.
      I adore my cookbooks. They are my inspiration, and they most certainly do teach one how to cook.

      2 Replies
      1. re: monavano

        Well said. When I taste a dish that holds all sorts of subtle flavors, I, an amateur, could never hope to recreate that without recipe(s). Well, I could but it would likely be woefully inadequate. Why do that when we have so much knowledge that others have shared? One of my life mottos is 'don't re-invent the wheel.'

        And I'll say again, those that say they never use recipes may not be quite as great cooks as they think they are :)

      2. You're equating preparing food with piloting an airplane or performing surgery?

        Everyone learns in their own way. For some it's by following recipes. For others, it's by winging it. You can get stuck too long in one phase.

        8 Replies
        1. re: 512window

          It's an analogy use rhetorically to make a point..

          Actually not all ways of learning are equivalent, nor useful.

          If someone buys an expensive set of cookware, doesn't understand it, finds in that person's hands it yields poor results, but continues to use it for 25 years before disposing it, that is "learning" but pretty poor learning. Don't you think?


          1. re: law_doc89

            That site is truly ironic. It is called no recipes, yet directly under the title is a link to.... Wait for it.... Recipes!

            1. re: nat8199

              Not only is it chock-full of recipes, but contradictions, too.

              There's this:
              I'm Marc, and I want to teach you some basic techniques and give you the confidence and inspiration so that you can cook without recipes too!"

              And then there's this:
              "I’m a freelance food photographer, recipe developer, and marketing consultant who’s loved cooking since before I could see over the kitchen counter."

              So Marc wants us to cook without recipes, yet he develops recipes for us? What the hell?

              1. re: DuffyH

                It's as ironic as this lady, who said "Real cooks don't use recipes" (on national tv), writing a cookbook, with guess what? Recipes!


            2. re: law_doc89

              You don't seem to see value in the middle ground, which most cooks, and some damn fine ones at that, inhabit. Why must it be all or nothing? After learning a technique, why must one then never use a recipe again?

              Example having mastered the technique of stir fry, must one then never use a recipe for stir fry again? If one does, are they then NOT a "true cook"?

              Where does this all or nothing attitude come from? One presumes from reading your other posts that you consider yourself a "true cook". Do you NEVER use a recipe? Not even for a complicated dish that you haven't prepared in several years? Seriously?

              1. re: law_doc89

                Hi, law_doc:

                As learning goes, slow progress beats sliding backward by assuming one knows it all.

                You seem to assume that this hypothetical person was: (a) not skilled to start with; (b) not learning more over time, despite crappy cookware; (c) *only* following recipes; (d) not understanding something as simple cast iron; and (e) bereft of technique.

                These are dangerous assumptions, and I know one such person for whom ALL of them would be wrong. But you *are* consistent, I'll give you that.


            3. I dunno. I followed many recipes for beef stews over the years, and now I have a 'method' for making beef stew without a recipe.

              6 Replies
              1. re: julesrules

                But doesn't your version then become a recipe? And didn't it come from a compilation of other recipes?

                1. re: c oliver

                  It is all about method.. I think Julia...

                  Learn the basic... then you can be creative....works for me...

                  Baking vrs. cooking....

                  1. re: c oliver

                    That's exactly how my BBQ sauce recipe came about. I began with 2-3 recipes, made small batches of them, tested them on family/friends, then began tweaking. Each tweak was recorded until I had my own recipe that is entirely unique, at least as far as I know.

                    1. re: DuffyH

                      This is how many of my recipes get developed-- most recently, banana muffins.

                  2. re: julesrules

                    Yes, now you have YOUR recipe that you use to make beef stew. Even if it's just in your head, it's still a recipe.

                    My contention is that if you are a jaz band and you have a jam session, everyone is improvizing, it can sound great or maybe not so great, but either way they can't repeat the performance because it was all improvization. You can do the same thing with cooking, but if you have a winner, wouldn't you like to be able to make that same dish again with the same results?

                    1. re: mikie

                      But when you try to explain the beef stew recipe to someone else, what happens? How do you get the nuances to transfer without a common understanding of technique?

                  3. I don't think the comparison is apt. "Paint by numbers" does not even come close to approximating the way that a painting is made by a real artist. It is more than ultra-simplified, it is something else altogether.

                    In cooking, however, a recipe might be ultra-simplified, but could also be quite sophisticated and intended to produce a result comparable to what an experienced and expert cook would make. The latter might explain the reason for a way of doing things, and might suggest optional ingredients or ways of proceeding, intending to educate the user of the recipe in the art of cooking. A good example can be found in Julia Child, who contrasted her recipe for coq au vin with simplistic recipes going by that name.

                    I don't think many cooks aspiring to expert status could get to a decent coq au vin entirely on their own by studying only principles and techniques of cooking. Not easily, anyway. Most would start with a serious recipe, then try other recipes, and perhaps sample some restaurant versions, before developing their own variation.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: GH1618

                      I love French Onion soup, and Mrs. mikie tried to make it for me many many times, none were up to what I have had in good restaurants. Then I discovered Julia Child and her recipe for French Onion soup. I made it myself following the recipe as closely as possible. This was several years ago and trust me, back then I had no, nada, nill cooking technique or skills. The difference between my success and my wife's failures was a good recipe not cooking skill or technique. And yes, I continue to make it following the recipe, because I like it and want it to be jsut as good the next time I make it.

                        1. re: mikie

                          “Once you have mastered a technique, you barely have to look at a recipe again”
                          ― Julia Child, Julia's Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking

                          “Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed. Eh bien, tant pis. Usually one's cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile, and learn from her mistakes.”
                          ― Julia Child, My Life in France

                          “One of the secrets, and pleasures, of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; and one of the lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed.”
                          ― Julia Child, My Life in France

                          “To be a good cook you have to have a love of the good, a love of hard work, and a love of creating.”
                          ― Julia Child, Particular Passions: Talks With Women Who Have Shaped Our Times

                          “The more you know, the more you can create. There's no end to imagination in the kitchen.”
                          ― Julia Child, Particular Passions: Talks With Women Who Have Shaped Our Times

                          1. re: law_doc89

                            Julia Child's method for educating Americans who desired to coom in the French manner was, of course, to collect French recipes and adapt them for the American kitchen.

                            1. re: GH1618

                              And then emphasize techniques. Recipes were only the hook, you know.

                      1. <Some here seem to think that ever slavish following recipes is learning to cook. >

                        I think most of us are not on the two extremes of "always cook by following recipes" and "never cook anything using a recipe". Most of us probably fall in the middle, and this is a very good thing.

                        <One does need to learn about cuisines, and recipes have a role in teaching cuisine, but then one must move on. >

                        It depends on the situation. If the idea is to change and to create, then it is important not to follow a recipe (words by words) all the time. If the idea is to reproduce to have good QC and QA, then it is important to follow recipes, which many restaurants have to do on a daily basis.

                        <who can't improvise based on developed skills>

                        I agree with cowboyardee's previous point. It is fine to follow recipes, but it is also important to have the knowledge to understand the recipes. In other words, the ability to improvise if needed. The ability to improvise proves deeper understanding.

                        We need to agree that we all start some somewhere, and this somewhere is almost always someone' recipe. Even something as simple as pouring milk into a bowl of cereal or boil a instant noodle package in a pot of MSG broth. Someone taught me these. However, as time goes, we experiment. We decide to try to boil the noodle a bit longer or a bit shorter, to try to cool it with running water or not, to turn down the heat or turn up the heat after adding the instant noodle....etc. Deviating from a recipe is part of learning. In fact, a very essential part.


                        4 Replies
                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          This disagreement is starting to read closer and closer to "The Chicken or the Eggs?"

                          Techniques? What techniques can you possibly have that you can call yours? All of your techniques come from someone's recipes!

                          Recipes? Recipes are just a compilations of someone's else techniques. Get out of the recipes mode and develop some of your own techniques!

                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            If I have followed a recipe and I think it's absolutely perfect, why would I want to develop my own. I'm not that arrogant. I'm thinking right now of Marcela Hazan's Green Lasagna. For me and it seems the people I've served it to, it is perfect. I don't need to tinker with it. If someone does, then go for it. But it's still taking someone else's recipe and making changes.

                          2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            Agree with what you've said and add that cooking and taste are largely cultural and recipes offer a chance to navigate unfamiliar cuisines without first becoming an amateur anthropologist.

                            I almost never follow recipes and I also almost never cook dishes from unfamiliar cuisines. I'm a Southerner with some recent German ancestry who's particularly interested in Spain and central Europe. I make a good biscuits and gravy and can cook German-ish, Spanish-ish, and "Pan-Slavic"ish pretty well without recipes because I have good understanding of the places, cultures, history and (sometimes) languages.

                            In contrast, I don't know a whole lot about Asia and I can't for the life of me make anything resembling a curry and my "Chinese" food is usually horrible - probably precisely because I don't like to use recipes.

                            1. re: caganer


                              <Agree with what you've said and add that cooking and taste are largely cultural and recipes offer a chance to navigate unfamiliar cuisines without first becoming an amateur anthropologist.>

                              An excellent point indeed. This is why I follow my Indian cookbook very closely. I have very little command of Indian cuisine. Established recipes give me a chance of understanding the reference point. On the other hand, my Indian friends can easily cook their food without looking at books or notes. They can improvise on the spot. They have the cultural palate which I do not.

                          3. A true artist is one who masters technique and skill then applies that learning to the art. It frees one to then create The Art on one's own. Cooking is many things and among them is Art. Art that incorporates learned techniques, skill gained from practice. and imagination.

                            I doubt that any person desiring to cook, never having cooked before, walked into a kitchen and proclaimed, "Tonight I shall make Manchego Quince Paste Napoleons". Cookbooks and recipes provide the necessary information to successfully cook a complete dish. They provide important instructions to produce a consistent desired result. Key word: consistent.

                            Since 90% of cooking is science, recipes provide ratios and proportions needed for ingredients, just as chemists need formulae. One missing ingredient and the final product is off.

                            When techniques have been learned and understood, when a certain skill level has been attained, when there's a basic understanding of the science of cooking, then one is free to create. I don't mean tweaking a recipe. I don't mean throwing some things in a pot and calling it dinner. I mean thoughtfully creating one's own Napoleon.

                            9 Replies
                            1. re: Gio

                              But are we only talking about people just starting? And, should a beginner learn to follow recipes? I love the scene in Julia/Julia where Julia Child has a mound of chopped onions as she is learning to chop the right way.

                              A few weeks ago, one of the CH’ers referred me to a link for a Scottish dish, skirlie, a kind of Scotts risotto made with oats. I read the recipe to learn what the technique is for cooking oats in this fashion. Since then, experimented with using my LC saucier, and an All-Clad NS pan, used the oats with and without wine, steel cut and rolled oats, various additions to obtain a feel for cooking the oats as a vegetable this way. So just last night came over to a friend’s and made a variation with mushroom, leeks, carrots, and steel cut oats, because that was what was there. Have yet to follow the recipe. Can you adapt any of your recipes on the fly?

                              Why not think about transcending the recipes? Strive for more!

                              1. re: law_doc89

                                "are we only talking about people just starting?"
                                You're the protagonist.

                                "read the recipe to learn what the technique is for cooking oats in this fashion."
                                Did you recreate that recipe to see what It's Suppose To Taste Like? How can you know about something if you haven't experienced it? Tasted it? One can't use imagination in this instance.

                                "Can you adapt any of your recipes on the fly?"
                                First of all I don't have to "adapt". I can recreate.
                                For example. Apple pie.
                                When visiting a friend's house for an impromptu dinner after an event she asked me to make an apple pie for dessert. She gave me the ingredients she had on hand and left me to it. Dessert was served, the pie was the hit of the meal. And these people were fantastic cooks in their own right. Why did they like it? Because I had perfected the technique, could recall it from memory, and recreate it at will. That's what recipes will do for you. BTW: the crust recipe was from a late '60s article in the NYT. The filling was remembered from several other recipes I had experimented with over time then rewrote.

                                1. re: Gio

                                  "First of all I don't have to "adapt". I can recreate. "

                                  Then can you really say you know how to cook or are you painting by number

                                  In actuality, you prove my points?
                                  : Because I had perfected the technique.." No because you recreated from memory. Now what would you have done with pears?

                                  1. re: law_doc89

                                    If asked to make an apple pie and given pears I would have made a pear pie ;)

                                    1. re: mikie

                                      But can adapt apple pie to pears?

                                    2. re: law_doc89

                                      You are so totally, completely wrong! Not only are apples and pears interchangeable in virtually every recipe that calls for either of them, but they are extremely closely related botanically, both in the rose family. That's why the Asian Pear is also called the apple pear.

                                      Now, seeing that you have no idea what you're talking about, I'm out too. And by the way, I almost never use recipes though I did the first time I made Jacques Pepin's braised pears with a caramel sauce, after seeing him making it on TV and mentioning that the recipe works just as well with apples.

                                      1. re: greygarious

                                        Really! How do you keep the flavor of pears from thinning? Apples are tart. Braising can make flavors emerge, but we were talking about pie. Yes, you can poach either, but if you bake a pie with pears as if they were apple, you will get the flavor of sugar, not the pear.

                                        Thank you for proving my point: when you follow a recipe, you don't know why you are doing what you do. If you fail to learn, you are a paint by numbers.

                                        1. re: law_doc89

                                          Not all apples are tart. Fuji's, Golden Delicious and Wine Saps are sweet like candy. Granny Smith and Gravenstein's are tart. Just saying.

                                2. I think you have set up a straw man here. Following a really nice recipe perfectly because it produces great results takes some attention to technique, usually. And basically, who cares really? if the food is good and was prepared by a happy cook/chef, then the important thing is how it tastes to the people cooked for.

                                  I do think that home cooks need to learn some techniques, because they will be able to do more things and do them efficiently. But I really don't see a stark divide between the two ways of doing things that you postulate.

                                  1. Recipes help all cooks learn techniques without wasting food. And there is ZERO equivalence between surgery or airline piloting and cooking for yourself or family. A pilot follows a precisely memorized sequence (a recipe) while preparing to land - if you're ever in a cockpit you'll hear them say "landing checklist" and go thru those steps.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: MidwesternerTT

                                      Until something goes wrong.

                                      And, you can poison your family if you don't know what you are doing. More deaths per year from food poisoning than plane crashes. Cutting board technique for starters.

                                      Was it Clifford Odetts who said "Awake and sing ye who dwell in the dust?"

                                      1. re: law_doc89

                                        I think perhaps it was him who said of someone: "Frequently wrong but never unsure."

                                    2. Enjoyed your recipe/paint-by-numbers analogy.

                                      Although I would argue that for 99.9% of us, cooking is more of a craft. A fine craft or a skilled craft if you will. Very few reach the levels where cooking could be considered "art" (painter by training here....).

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: pedalfaster

                                        Painter by training here too, pedalfaster, but I would ever so politely disagree with you. People who are able to apply skills and techniques to food they create ad lib, and recreate them, are definitely cooking artists in their own realm. Thinking of René Redzepi, Noma restaurant; Grant Achatz, Alinea; Fergus Henderson, St John restaurant; and the daddy of them all: Ferran Adrià, E Bulli.

                                        1. re: Gio

                                          I agree with you...but as I was trying to say in my post, most of us will never be Achatz or Adria.(or Mondrian or Monet...)

                                          1. re: pedalfaster

                                            My first response is, Why not?. When asked "how do you get to Carnegie Hall, the wag responded, "Practice, practice, practice."

                                      2. I learned techniques by following recipes.... just sayin'

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: juliejulez

                                          I've learned them from Youtube videos, too. Like she said... "just sayin' ".

                                          I've no desire to paint or become and artist, but I do enjoy crafting things, from time to time.

                                          And I absolutely agree with sue, we've been handed a straw man.

                                          1. law_doc 89, why must your hypothesis be all one or all the other? I have spent many years in the F&B field including six as an instructor at a professional school. Our students were taught the classic techniques as well as recipes. One will not work without the other. Each method complements the other.

                                            Let's be honest here, a good recipe is a roadmap. It takes us to the final dish over and over again with predictable results. There are classics which do not need to be reinvented.
                                            Notice that I said "good recipe". With the proliferation of internet blogs, recipes are pandemic. Some are good while others are mediocre at best. A well-written recipe is a gem, a lousy one is just that - lousy; a waste of time and ingredients. A good cookbook author has tested and retested a recipe until it is perfected. There is no good reason to discard this hard work under the guise of "I don't cook with recipes". Combining good technique with good recipes can yield a good, maybe great, result.

                                            Slavishly following recipes - what you refer to as 'paint-by-numbers' - is a mindless automon in the kitchen without either a palate or care for the final dish. These people who mindlessly combine ingredients give cooking a bad name for they are souless.

                                            Can the palate-deprived be taught to taste as they go? Can they learn to substitute ingredients? In time, with care, desire and attention, can they actually learn to cook? Of course!

                                            The more knowledge one has and the frequency of practice one accumulates the better the final outcome whether it is cooking, surgery or piloting.

                                            6 Replies
                                            1. re: Sherri

                                              “Good french cooking cannot be produced by a zombie cook.”
                                              ― Julia Child, My Life in France

                                              1. re: law_doc89

                                                I cooked for and with Julia Child so you need not quote her to me. She was adamant about technique AND quite free-wheeling with improvisations when it suited her. This is also the crux of my argument -- use both. As I stated at the beginning of my original post, it is not necessary to choose one side of the fence or the other. Technique and recipes can complement each other.

                                                1. re: Sherri

                                                  Of course. But those who cleave to recipes are like a kid who has been ruing by training wheels, and never abandons the, How fortunate that you worked with her. I was quoting her in support of what you said and in reference to some comments by others above. In what capacity did you work with her?

                                                  And good for you in knowing the "e."

                                                  1. re: law_doc89

                                                    Right.... I saw a bunch of 40-y.o.s on bicycles with training wheels the other day.

                                                    Now I know that if they had rolled directly from the womb with the talents of a true cyclist...

                                                  2. re: Sherri

                                                    I was recently at a dinner that, in part, was to honor her role in the OSS. The "recreated" a menu of hers. No comment.

                                                2. re: Sherri

                                                  I'm curious to know the difference between following a recipe to get an expected result and "slavishly following" a recipe? Really, I'm curious.

                                                3. Great cooking is an art, and like all arts, the basics have to be grasped before they can be cast aside.

                                                  1. Life Rule:

                                                    Learn the rules before you break them.

                                                    1. agreed. Alton Brown managed to compartmentalize and formalize cooking by cooking technique and baked goods type

                                                      1. From your thread opener:

                                                        <Some here seem to think that ever slavish following recipes is learning to cook. >

                                                        And yet, when learning to cook, it is important to slavishly follow recipes to learn to do it properly.

                                                        You seem unable, or more likely unwilling, to grasp the simple concept that most of us Chowhounds, who would by almost any measure would be considered true cooks, sometimes follow recipes and sometimes wing it, as circumstances and our desires dictate. This has been pointed out to you by several of us, more than once, and yet you stubbornly cling to your all or nothing silliness.

                                                        Like others, I'm done with you and this thread.

                                                        I apologize to all for the run-on sentence.

                                                        4 Replies
                                                        1. re: DuffyH

                                                          When learning to paint, you do need a model. You cannot simply learn color and strokes. But the model is not the end, it is a means to technique. Slavish adherence to recipes is self defeating. Call me any names you wish, and characterize my posts any way you wish, the reality changes not a whit: recipes are a means to an end, and only a beginner really ever uses them, and a real cook rarely does. Oh well!

                                                          BTW Velveda is not real food.

                                                          1. re: law_doc89

                                                            This whole argument is silly, because of this straw man you keep presenting. Cooks do not adhere to recipes "slavishly," as you keep writing. One can use a recipe without being a slave to it, and most cooks do.

                                                            1. re: GH1618

                                                              Thanks. I meant to address the use of the word "slavishly." I don't know any CHs who fall into that category.

                                                          2. I agree that doing nothing but slavishly following recipes will not make you an excellent cook. But casting off recipes as pointless will also result in a sub-par cook.

                                                            You need to build up a cook's intuition to cook without recipes. Sheer trial and error can work to some extent, but it's very inefficient. If you've grown up watching people cook, and helping them, you tend to have already developed a good level of intuition by the time you're cooking on your own, though personal instruction and example. You know that the water boils before you add pasta, and meat and onions in stews tastes better if they're browned first (and how to brown them), and ground cloves need to be used sparingly. You know what order stuff goes in the pot when making a pasta sauce, and the difference between using lean and fatty ground meat.

                                                            If you don't have that background, recipes are useful for learning how a particular dish is made. Once you've made a recipe and had it work, you can then vary it and see what happens, building up intuition that way. Or you can look at multiple versions of a standard dish, and see how the recipe can be varied. I've seen people with zero intuition vary recipes, and the results can be pretty scary.

                                                            Recipes or other instruction are also essential for learning new cuisines where you don't have that intuition. If you've never made vindaloo before, you don't know what spices go in in what proportions, how much vinegar you add, that you need to marinate it for a very long time, etc. If you haven't cooked Indian food, toasting and grinding whole spices each time you make a dish may not be intuitive.

                                                            And recipes are essential for reproducibility, even if that recipe is known so well you can make it without measuring or consulting a book. If you want to make a particular dish exactly, not just a reasonable approximation (even if that approximation is quite tasty) you need to use a recipe.

                                                            Personally, I cook without recipes about 85% of the time, mostly just getting dinner on the table. I use recipes as a guideline about 10% of the time - I'll want to cook X, so I check a few recipes to see how it's done, and then wing it from there. About 5% of the time I use a recipe exactly, usually to get a particular result.

                                                            That's after 20 years of cooking regularly by choice, and growing up in a family where 95% of what we ate was home cooked from scratch, with parents who canned and made their own sauerkraut, so I started from a fairly high level of intuition.

                                                            1. Personally, I wouldn't give the time of day to someone who posts and thinks they know it all...best to just not respond so they can know it all to themselves....

                                                              1 Reply
                                                              1. I have been shopping, growing a lot of my own produce and fruits and cooking from scratch for decades. My mother was an exceptional scratch cook who had access to the best ingredients available and I learned at her knee. I was also fortunate to have taken a comprehensive home economics class in middle school that taught us all you ever wanted to know about food but were afraid to ask. Later when I was in my late 20's I met my late FIL who taught me a whole new way to view food, ingredients and dietary habits. He was Asian and taught me how to ratchet up the fresh vegetables and use small amounts of meat, fish and shellfish to feed my family. So even though I consider myself a competent home cook I still follow a recipe for any dish I am unfamiliar with. Someone wants their ego massaged:)

                                                                1. I understand what you're saying and do agree that someone who can cook an outstanding, complex meal without a tablet or recipe card in front of them is an enviable trait. It shows a complete understanding of several techniques and a general mastery of the science behind cooking. But what happens when that master is asked to make something they have never attempted, much less tasted? It's foolhardy to assume they can just whip something out that would earn them Michelin stars off the top of their head. They'll research, test, attempt multiple variations, all from recipes gleaned from cookbooks, friends, the Internet, what have you. The recipe is essential. Fixing a meal when something in the recipe isn't present, or doesn't go right, or the milk has spoiled does take skill, resourcefulness, and ingenuity but that shouldn't devalue the recipe as a "thing."

                                                                  It's the same concept as when you're battling a stuck fastener on a vehicle engine and have to come up with an inventive way to get it loose. You have to understand your tools and the process - there is no recipe for that. It's putting together different bits of seemingly-unrelated knowledge to accomplish a complex task.

                                                                  Anyone can write a recipe (note I am not saying anyone can write a good recipe). Anyone can follow a recipe. I fully admit I do most of my cooking from recipes. I am a hobbyist home cook who wants tasty food prepared the way I enjoy it but it's a hobby, it is not my profession. I am not in a position where I am invited over to friend's houses and expected to whip up an apple pie on a moment's notice (great story by the way!) but if I were asked to do that, I'd get out my phone and find the recipes I use and make it. I don't cook to impress, I cook to enjoy and share the fun of cooking with guests in our home. The attitude you convey in your posts gives me the impression that you feel I am beneath you when it comes to cooking. I may not be able to do the things you can do, but I can still cook for my friends and family and that should be applauded and repeated, not judged as inferior or being a "fake cook."

                                                                  So, while I understand what your overall point is, your obvious intelligence is unfortunately lost in a sea of arrogance and pretentiousness. Have fun with that.

                                                                  5 Replies
                                                                  1. re: toddrhodes

                                                                    "But what happens when that master is asked to make something they have never attempted, much less tasted?"
                                                                    If possible, that master will taste a well-made version of it and then ask the guy who made it to show him how it's done. Even better... do this repeatedly.

                                                                    In general, it seems to me that really great, masterful cooks (most often professionals, but not always) shy away from printed recipes as a primary reference and prefer to go to the source. They then might apply some of their own knowledge and some trial and error (and maybe even some variations picked up from scanning a bunch of recipes) in order to make a dish their own. But that comes later.

                                                                    (I'm nit-picking you, I know)

                                                                    1. re: cowboyardee

                                                                      One could also make the analogy it is similar to the musician who hears a complex piece by ear and can virtually reproduce it from hearing it and a little practice. That is a level that I aspire to, obviously, but takes an enormous amount of time spent with a given activity. I do not have a great palate for tasting different ingredients in dishes. I wish I did, I think life would be so much easier if I could detect that the flavor I really like in something I eat out is from ingredient or a combination of ingredients equal to X.

                                                                      I appreciate the conversation, in any event!

                                                                    2. re: toddrhodes

                                                                      <But what happens when that master is asked to make something they have never attempted, much less tasted?>

                                                                      First of all, at this very moment he/she is not a master, but a student. This is an important point to make. If he/she is a master of this dish or cuisine, then the situation would have been different. Second, I agree with cowboyardee. At this point, this person can find another person to learn from or to follow recipes. Most importantly though, he/she need to have tasted what this dish should taste like which will give him/her an important reference point.

                                                                      <The attitude you convey in your posts gives me the impression that you feel I am beneath you when it comes to cooking.>

                                                                      Based on law_doc's original post, I am surprised that so many people are being defensive toward his words. I think law_doc was saying that a person who simply following a recipe to the tee is focusing the energy in the wrong place. It should be used to focus on the techniques and knowledge behind these steps.

                                                                      This shows great respect toward recipes actually. If I were to write a recipe, I would hope the readers can follow my instructions, but also read past the steps, and seek the meaning/reasoning behind the steps.

                                                                      I can use the same example I used earlier about a chemistry student need to understand the reasoning for each steps.

                                                                      The truth is that many of us are doing this anyway. There was just a post asking about the reason for warming up/melting the butter before mixing it with other ingredients. This is a prime example of someone wanting to know the technique and reasoning behind this step. There was another post about bringing the egg to room temperature before pan frying. There were questions about using instinct yeast vs active yeast....etc These are worthwhile questions.

                                                                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                                        I was one of those who posted about live yeast :) I'm actually not debating the OP's overall point, more the delivery and HIS defensiveness in his replies. In a sense, I am being nitpicky as well but I see this often on forums - no ability to see other points of view as possibly being correct. I think that is a character flaw and it's not unique to the OP of this post. I think the overall intent of this post is actually very good. It's like following someone to a destination, driving a car - I'm not sure I can always repeat the steps to get back there without following someone else if I'm in unfamiliar territory. I'm so focused on the person leading me to my destination, I fail to take in all the things I could be observing about what got me there. That's cooking - it's a process, scientific yet subjective; iron-clad yet open to interpretation. It's why I love it, despite not being a master of, well anything IMO. Very nice post, by the way.

                                                                        1. re: toddrhodes

                                                                          <In a sense, I am being nitpicky as well but I see this often on forums - no ability to see other points of view as possibly being correct>

                                                                          Ah, you know, I agree with you on this. I thought the original post could have written his/her post a bit more careful -- certainly to allow a bit more room for the opposing view.

                                                                          < I'm not sure I can always repeat the steps to get back there without following someone else if I'm in unfamiliar territory.>

                                                                          Ah, are you talking about me? Because it sure sounds like me. :)

                                                                          After I purchased my GPS, I am now able to go to many places which would have been much more difficult before. Now, I don't need to get a map out the night before. I don't need to study alternative routes. I don't even have to know which street/road I am driving on. Amazing! I can just get in my car and drive.

                                                                          Yet, I have becoming a worse driver after I bought my GPS.

                                                                    3. In the thread that spawned this one, I was basically on the anti-recipe side. So I guess I feel somewhat obliged to make the same case here.

                                                                      I'm not strictly opposed to using recipes, and I do use them myself without shame when the situation calls for it (inspiration, gleaning a working knowledge of unfamiliar dishes, some specific preparations where exact ratios are particularly important but I don't make em often enough to remember off-hand - usually pastry).

                                                                      But I do think recipes can become a crutch. (in the other thread, I wrote about this here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9612... )
                                                                      Essentially, recipes allow you to cook without developing much understanding of what you're doing and why. You might develop this understanding from your experience, or you might learn this elsewhere as you continue to also use recipes. But to fully develop as a cook, you have to develop a broader understanding of cooking. A cook might develop this understanding and still prefer to use recipes, but it is also very possible to stay reliant upon an external set of directions because you only ever learned about cooking in terms of doing what said set of directions tells you to do.

                                                                      Equally interesting (to me at least), in the other thread we discussed different methods of learning to cook. (I wrote about this here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9612... ). I had two major points to make

                                                                      1 - Developing an understanding of generalized cooking technique early on is fundamentally different than/separate from following recipes, and changes your horizons as a cook as you continue to learn.

                                                                      2 - Relying on printed (or even televised) recipes as a primary means to learn has some big disadvantages. When possible, learning by cooking alongside more experienced cooks is just so much better at helping you develop the kind of intuition tastesgoodwhatisit wrote about upthread. Cooking is inherently a sensory experience, and there is so much better sensory feedback available when a good cook shows you first hand how to cook something the right way than when you're trying to translate words on the page into smells in the air, textures in your hands, tastes in your mouth.

                                                                      2 Replies
                                                                      1. re: cowboyardee

                                                                        No argument whatsoever, honestly. This thread is funny because now that I have upgraded my cooking tools to better match what I want to be able to do, I feel a bit dissatisfied with my reliance on recipes. Even simple things that don't really require a "recipe", I pull it up online, print it out, and use it. The funny thing is once I've printed it out, I rarely follow it to the letter, it's just a set of basic instructions and I go from there. But that's the thing, I have X amount of ability to remember things. I choose to devote 90% of X, or whatever that is, to stuff that has nothing to do with cooking. I guess that's how I rationalize my dependence on recipes. I unfortunately did not grow up around any sort of food culture. My mom, bless her heart, isn't a foodie. We had no seasoning, burnt, dry food, frozen sides, that was life growing up. I knew there had to be a better way which is why I started learning to cook in the first place. And as such, I don't consider myself a chef, nowhere even close, I don't have the palate nor do I actually like a lot of things that actual chefs have to use. Anyway, I'm rambling but I do agree with your point and to my point, it was a much better delivery than the OP who comes across as really just feeding his or her ego, as another poster mentioned.

                                                                        1. re: cowboyardee

                                                                          Well said, recipes are very useful, and they are the condense knowledge passing from one person to another. Yet, it is also useful to understanding the concepts and the foundations of the recipes.

                                                                          Someone in the earlier thread mentioned that a chemist has to follow the instructions of every steps to run a chemical synthesis. This is true, but this is only part of what a chemist does. A chemist need to understand the reactions. He/she should able to optimize (which means deviate) from the reaction paths.

                                                                          I have an Indian cookbook, and my creations based on that book are pretty good. However, I am still very much in the beginner mode in Indian cuisine. Although I can make good Indian dishes (based on the book), I am very weak in creating Indian dishes from the scratch because I have no command of this cuisine.

                                                                        2. Interesting observation. I started cooking at the age of 12 out of necessity. Never really learn how to cook by the book, rather observe the people in my parent's kitchen. I have developed some more skills, especially in baking, bread and cakes, which needed a more precise measurements than cooking food. To expand my cooking horizon, I read recipes occasionally and implement some into my learned skills. Never attended any cooking class at all. Wallah, all these time, I only received raves and compliments by those I entertained. A pinch of this and a pinch of that...taste and add more this and that. It guarantees good outcome!

                                                                          1. Bring that theory to a michelin star chef and you will be lucky to be a dishwasher in their kitchen.

                                                                            4 Replies
                                                                            1. re: Bellachefa

                                                                              Devils advocate:

                                                                              "Recipes tell you nothing. Learning techniques is the key."
                                                                              -Tom Colicchio (admittedly not starred currently, though the repeated omission of Craft on the list has caused no small number of commentators to wonder 'wtf, michelin?')

                                                                              "I would like [home cooks] to collect techniques, not recipes. Once you understand how you make a great pesto, you can do a basil pesto, you can do an asparagus pesto, you can do a roasted pepper pesto. That's where the fun in cooking is -- adapting techniques with the seasonal produce that you have and spreading out those techniques throughout the entire year."
                                                                              - Michael Chiarello (not starred, not eligible AFAIK, still reasonably renowned)

                                                                              "Once you understand the foundations of cooking - whatever kind you like, whether it's French or Italian or Japanese - you really don't need a cookbook anymore."
                                                                              -Thomas Keller (Michelin gives this guy stars like a kindergarten teacher who's high on life and/or drugs)

                                                                              1. re: cowboyardee


                                                                                I recognize you're playing devil's advocate and don't agree with those statements. Here's the reason I was so offended by the OP.

                                                                                I'm a home cook. I might make something 2 times a month, sometimes less. Suppose that a ratio for a given thing should be about 3-1-1-2 or some such. I might have trouble remembering what the ratio is, what the 4 items are, and which is which in the ratio. Additionally, I'm likely only making this thing a couple of times a month. Now multiply that for many things I cook. No, I just can't remember it all. I NEED the recipe to get it right, or even close to right.

                                                                                The OP said in his original post that I haven't learned to cook. All because I need a reminder about ingredients and their amounts, despite having mastered the techniques involved in cooking the food. Seriously???

                                                                                This is why this is such a heated topic. The OP was seriously offensive and hasn't backed down an inch from that ridiculous stand.

                                                                                1. re: DuffyH

                                                                                  Be confident in who you are as a cook, and these arbitrary postulations mean nothing.
                                                                                  To get offended is to take this rubbish seriously.

                                                                                2. re: cowboyardee

                                                                                  It all boils down to this. Do you want a specific result -a recipe for roasted chicken that is the best you ever tasted with an unusual sauce or do you want something that tastes great because because you have learned to combine all the bits you have learned over time and you have a pretty good idea what to do. Both work for me.

                                                                              2. So, what is techinque without ingredients? A hungry camper. Technique is not food, technique is " . . . basic physical movements . . . the ability to use such movements . . . " As such, technique would consist of slicing, dicing, baking, frying, rolling, cutting, crimping, boiling, sauteing, flipping, etc. By definition, Webster's, not mine, it has nothing to do with the combining of ingredients in ratios that are pleasing and desireable to consume.

                                                                                I will grant any of you that if you can't do these things, you can screw up a perfictly good recipe (set of ingredients and ratios) regardless of where said recipe resides, your head or a piece of paper.

                                                                                Techinque is one leg of a stool, it alone will not produce food. And winging it makes great HG TV, but doesn't do much for someone making dinner for 2.

                                                                                One final thought, what do you get when you cross an Angus with a Dorking?

                                                                                Bull-chick, and that about sums it up.

                                                                                1. Recipe-
                                                                                  a set of instructions for making food
                                                                                  a way of doing something that will produce a particular result
                                                                                  a method of accomplishing a desired aim

                                                                                  from the Merriam Webster dictionary

                                                                                  Not a huge difference.

                                                                                  Much of the discussion in the previous thread was over the definition of the word recipe. Some thought the word was only limited to the written from vs the broader definition above. I could not find any definition in any dictionary that referred to a recipe being written.

                                                                                  Most of the discussion followed this statement by the op here.
                                                                                  " Recipe followers are slave to information that is often fraught with omitted data"
                                                                                  I disagree with that premise entirely. I find very few written recipes with something left out.

                                                                                  "Recipe followers are not true cooks."

                                                                                  What the heck is a "true" cook?

                                                                                  Very few cooks learn in a vacuum. They learn from others. I cook almost always without a written recipe in front of me but the building blocks of cooking come from the many cooks that have shown me how to do something or written it down so I could read and study it. To learn a new dish I might read 1 or 15 written recipes and take what I like to make it be what I want it to be. I like to read cookbooks just for ideas and hear what other cooks have to say. I like to watch some cooks(as opposed to TV personalities) and you can learn a lot on youtube or other videos . Sometimes I might follow a specific recipe to a tee if it is a specific cook that I like, I have had the dish and the cook was kind enough to share the recipe, some baking and candy making or when learning about a new cuisine.

                                                                                  I have been cooking for 50 years( starting as a little child ;-))
                                                                                  I find myself now considering the idea of written recipes to have more importance in my kitchen life. I guess we come full circle. My kids have asked me to prepare a dish like the last time and while it might be generally the same, it isn't exactly the same. I think to be consistent, it would help to write my recipes down and add notes. I used to do this more in my cookbooks at one time.
                                                                                  Then there may come a time like this and I might need a peripheral brain in front of me.
                                                                                  "Older People's Brains May Be Slower, But Only Because They Know So Much, Study Says"

                                                                                  The other consideration is that they want me to write things down so that they can refer to the recipe and they can be passed along. I am fortunate my grandmother did this for me. I learned many things in her kitchen but I do liketo refer to her handwritten recipes because seeing the recipe in her handwriting evokes a connection and a cascade of memories as well as bringing details to mind that may be lost over the passage of time.

                                                                                  What counts in the end for me is what is the food like? Do you like it?

                                                                                  I have a friend who most consider a great cook. She does follow recipes meticulously but she makes all kinds of things. Everything I have had at her house is tasty and her home is a warm and welcoming place. Now would I rather have dinner with a true cook or this "hack"? Hmmm. Side note if I like something she made she will share the recipe with me and in fact several of her recipes are in my regular rotation. I can make them without the written copy in front of me.

                                                                                  I have quite a few original pieces of artwork that I love and I have seen many original pieces that I don't like or are just amateurish and bad. I have a paint by number painting of a poodle upstairs that is funky, whimsical, a great mix of colors. I love looking at it. Food is the same way-likes are very subjective. How it happened in the kitchen doesn't matter a bit to me if I like it.

                                                                                  1. It's pretty clear that absolutely no opinions are being changed by this thread, and not surprisingly, the discussion isn't very friendly, either. We're going to lock it now.