A Recipe-Filled Post About Why You Shouldn’t Follow Recipes

By Spencer Ackerman

Having some trouble loading the image, but I just made these deviled eggs. Festive, no? Odd as it may sound, I never ate deviled eggs in my life until the IFA’s own Emily Thorson served them at a party and they turned out to be delicious. So this morning I saw in my RSS that Washingtonian’s Recipe Sleuth had instructions for preparing the deviled eggs that 2 Amys serves. Now I’ve actually never had the deviled eggs there. But why not experiment? And that’s the reason for this post.

I get a little worried that food blogs, including this one, sort of pass along recipes without a caveat that following recipes misses the point of cooking. When I want to cook, I don’t want to do homework, and I don’t want to trace another person’s work. I want to create something my way. So if I read a recipe, I read it just until I understand the principles at work behind the dish, and then I think about what I might be able to do to make it more to my liking. Wouldn’t that be better with paprika? How can I get some bacon fat into this thing? It’s the difference between hearing a band play a straight cover and hearing it take the themes of an old or familiar song and work them into its own music. Patti Smith probably could have played a great faithful version of “Gloria.” But she changed the world by doing it her way. In a much less melodramatic or grandiose way, that’s how I feel about recipes. (Like Billy Beane and postseason baseball, my system doesn’t work for the exactitude of baking; but maybe that’s why I don’t bake.)

So I’d encourage you to read the 2 Amy’s recipe and do it your way. Here’s how I did mine:

Hardboil the eggs by putting them in boiling water for like 10 minutes. Put them in an icebath to cool and then crack the shells off. Slice them in half and scoop out the yolks. Place the yolks in a food processor. Into the processor, put some paprika, salt, arugula, lemon juice, a garlic clove and some chopped up pickles. Whazz. Taste until you’ve got something you like, changing as necessary. Scoop the mixture into the egg cavity and enjoy.

If you don’t have any of this stuff in your fridge — I used arugula simply because I had some in my fridge that was on its last legs and I find that most recipes calling for parsley taste better when substituting arugula — who cares. Use what you have. Experiment. Don’t stress. Don’t worry about proportions. Chances are if you cook you have an intuitive idea of how much of what to use. Experiment. Experiment some more. This is supposed to be fun, not stressful. Put on music. I broke out Wayne’s Da Drought Is Over 5 mixtape, because Amanda bought me The Carter documentary for Jewish Christmas; what a good friend.


11 responses to “A Recipe-Filled Post About Why You Shouldn’t Follow Recipes

  1. Excellent point. Especially about Billy Beane.

  2. Your system also works for baking. There’s just more theory to absorb before you can start tweaking. I know there’s a lot of skepticism about Cook’s Illustrated at IFA, but its baking features are a great starting point for the would-be improvisational baker. Each one is a detailed narrative about how the testers manipulated parameter X and got result Y. The blog Pastry Methods and Techniques is a goldmine for the improvisational baker. The blogger is a professional pastry chef who explains why a certain ratio of starch to fat makes a pound cake tender, or why you add the aromatics when you’re beating the butter instead of with the liquids. If it works for vanilla, it will work for any boozy flavoring that strikes your fancy.

    For the bread bakers: “Artisan Baking Across America” and “Artisan Bread in Minutes” a day.

  3. I’ve been saying this for awhile. Recipes are learning tools. If you use them properly, you don’t follow them.

  4. You need to check out Michael Ruhlman’s book Ratio. The Alton Brown blurb about the book sums it up well.

    Cooking, like so many other creative endeavors is defined by relationships. For instance, knowing exactly how much flour to put into a loaf of bread isn’t nearly as useful as understanding the relationship between the flour and the water, or fat, or salt. That relationship is defined by a ‘ratio’ and having a ratio in hand is like having a secret decoder ring that frees you from the tyranny of recipes.

    Ruhlman’s book has sections about the ratios behind doughs, stocks, sausages, sauces, and custards. It would be a good companion to the blog that Lindsay mentioned.

  5. Second Lindsey that this can also apply to baking. In addition to what she said, one of the most important things I learned during my month of cookie baking was NOT to follow the recipe when common sense/instinct/personal preference urged me to do something different. Since I was working with new recipes for new types of cookies, some kind of conflict between the recipe and what I thought I should do came up just about every time, and it was universally the case that when I listened to my instincts/prior content knowledge/common sense over the recipe, I was happy I did so, and when I followed the recipe against my leanings, I regretted it.

  6. This only works if you really are able to understand the principles involved in the thing just be reading the recipe, and if you’re familiar enough with the ingredients, methods, etc., that your judgment that a little more paprika actually might be nice is reliably formed (and will not be like the young MFK Fisher’s idea that a little more curry powder in the egg dish she prepared would be nice). This is not a state in which anyone can find him or herself right off the bat and it remains true that, as Kant said, recipes are the go-cart of judgment (and it’s also quite possible that the niggardly provision of a step-motherly nature will in some cases prevent one from getting much successful recipe-independence at all)—while it’s true that experimentation is necessary for understanding, it has to have some basis. Besides, who knows but that the indicated amount of paprika (or whatever) wouldn’t please you just as much, albeit differently, than the amount you’d be inclined to use? Following the recipe can count as experimenting, too.

    Of course, I find the rhetoric of doing it your way kind of silly. IMO it’s meaningless to speak of having your own way right out the gate. I prefer fxcuisine’s “this is not [one] of these I-add-a-little-ginger-as-a-personal-touch kind of blog” attitude.

  7. I completely agree. I post a lot of dishes with a paragraph that describes how I did it more than a list of exact measurements because most often I don’t do it the same way each time, and most of my recipes can be vegan or not with the use of butter or olive oil, so I always try to give options. I think your description on how you decide on recipes is a great guide I also employ. I always find great recipes because I kind of know what will work from experience and I don’t just blindly look at a photo then follow a recipe. That NEVER works. NICE ARTICLE!

  8. Alas, wish I had that skill. I’m afraid, however, that this is all-too-representative of my (pathetic-but-passable) culinary practice:


  9. The boiling of the eggs can be real tricky. It ain’t good when the shells don’t easily separate from the eggs.

    After several years of debate this is what I’ve found works best.

    Allow eggs to come to room temperature. Put in pot with water also at room temperature. Boil five minutes. Pour water off and allow eggs to again come to room temperature. Peel shell from egg. It should be easy.

    Believe me, one time peeling eggs when the shells stick to the eggs will get your attention.

  10. I follow recipes in terms of the availability. But it is true that you have to make changes also. We can include cultural change as one of those adjustments. But here is a recipe I love following to the core. Hope you like it too!http://dinnertrade.com/42/recipe-thai-sesame-noodles
    Heather(dinner group enthusiast)

  11. Pingback: Pay No More For Condiments Forever! « The Internet Food Association

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