Kitchen Garden

A Recipe Can Lead to Disaster

My recipe book.

We have plenty of recipes in our household. When I’m cooking, I rarely follow any of them. No worries. The end product has always been edible.

Every cook understands following a recipe exactly can be a disaster. A recipe functions like a tool in the kitchen, not a computer algorithm. Recipes are also the starting point for developing one’s own cuisine, not the end result. Cuisine is about actual dishes created and eaten from a kitchen, not some abstraction of design.

An example is the recipe for lemon chicken my maternal grandmother prepared from time to time. I asked her to write it down. Somewhat reluctantly, she did: on the back of an envelope, in front of me, from memory. There was an omission. Lemon was not listed in the ingredients. I had watched her prepare the dish and saw her squeeze the lemon. The interplay of memory with cooking is an underappreciated aspect, and little to do with written or printed recipes.

When baking, I follow ingredient amounts in a recipe carefully because the science is more specific. Even so, actual temperature in the oven, what kind of baking dish is used, humidity, and elevation above sea level all play a role and can create variations in the end product. Learning how to cope with variations is part of being a cook.

Variation on a recipe is expected and usually welcome. Chef Jacques PĂ©pin explains it better than I in this short video. As he might say, “Happy cooking.”