Recipes are the listicles of the food world, and I say this as one who has written more than his fair share of both recipes and listicles.
Both are short, incomplete collections of vaguely interesting but not entirely useful information designed for ease of consumption, but which ultimately convey very little of the knowledge required for their purpose.
In truth, writing a recipe is doomed from the start. Listing common ingredients like “one carrot” or “one tomato” cannot account for the enormous variations in size, flavour and quality of produce.
A recipe for cooking a steak could be as short as, “season well with salt and cook in a hot frying pan until done to your liking”. Or you could write encyclopaedic volumes on the intricacies of grass-fed versus grain-fed, breeds of cattle, the differences between cuts, when to salt the meat, selecting the correct pan or grill, how much oil or fat to add to the pan (if at all), resting times, how to make best use of the pan fond, or any of the other hundreds of factors that will affect the final flavour.
What about cooking times? They’re dependent on stove output, fuel type, ingredient quality, pot size and shape – so a recipe that instructs you to cook something for three minutes per side, or simmer for an hour, is broadly illustrative at best and misleading at worst. Accuracy doesn’t even enter the picture.
And are they even worth the trouble? The world is filled with millions of recipes, with tens of thousands of new ones created every day, all accessible at the click of a mouse or a turn of a page. If you’re halfway interested in cooking, you’ve probably skimmed a dozen recipes this week already, and yet statistically the average home cook rotates through just five dishes – not even enough to get through a full week. Most of the world’s recipes will languish uncooked forever in the depths of the internet.
But the biggest problem with recipes is not that they are imprecise or ineffective. Their greatest failure is that they treat cooking as a discrete unit, something to be (with apologies to the excellent Jamie Oliver) executed completely in under 30 minutes on a school night.
Recipes teach a modern style of cooking that is focused solely on eating meals, to the exclusion of kitchen craft and home economics. Making a simple dish that’s over and done with in under an hour is all well and good, but it is also a very inefficient way to cook.
No cuisine in the world could ever have been created in discrete packages. A standard Japanese meal contains three dishes: soup, rice and pickles. To make that from scratch three times a day would be impossible, but with good kitchen craft it’s possible to eat a full meal every time with a minimum of effort. Pickles, rice or simmered dishes are cooked with no specific meal in mind, and then stored and used over days and weeks as elements in multiple meals.
The basics of French cookery require stocks, preserves, mustards and other preparations that must often be made weeks or months in advance. If you’ve ever thrown extra vegetables in the bottom of the pan of a roast dinner in anticipation of bubble and squeak the following day, you’ll understand the importance of basic kitchen craft.
All this is not to say that I dislike recipes. After all, I’ve published thousands of the bloody things over the years and most of them, I think, are really quite good – if I do say so myself.
Recipes are flawed by their very nature but those flaws are not fatal. Understanding the limitations of recipes can make them very useful indeed. They’re often our first step in exploring new dishes, new ingredients, new cuisines – and with them, new ways of living. They are an arrow pointing the way, not the destination itself.
Without recipes pushing us forward, we’d barely get into the kitchen at all. But you need to go beyond the recipe and see that cooking is more than a clever trick, a nifty shortcut, or a magic combination of secret herbs and spices. Cooking is an understanding of ingredients and processes, done as simply and efficiently as possible.