Do We Really Need Recipes?

Scene 1: In a lovely Upper East Side apartment, an impeccably put together woman leans forward and confides: “You really don’t need recipes to cook. I took a class at Macy’s Degustibus and the chef teaching the class explained that. He said that you don’t use recipes, but instead go to the market, see what is fresh, take it home, and then just cook it. If you know how to cook, you don’t need recipes.”

Scene 2: In a cooking school classroom in Chelsea, a student puts down a large stack of cookbooks she just bought. She is taking the professional pastry program so that she can leave her job working as a chef in an executive dining room to start a new career as  a pastry chef. She bought the cookbooks on the street en route from the professional kitchen in which she worked all day to the classroom where she learned for five hours, four times a week. She also does wedding cakes on the side and has a sick husband and children that need her attention. Why does she have time for cookbooks? Why is she reading Tom Colicchio’s Think Like a Chef?

Scene 3: One mother confesses to another: “My mother makes the most delicious cakes and pastries–traditional Hungarian specialties–but she doesn’t have recipes. She just makes everything from her head, and each time it is a little different. I tried getting a recipe, and the I watched her make the recipe, and the way she made it was completely different from what she wrote down I should do!”

Scene 4: One sister tells the other: “I’m not making pizza dough. It is easier to just buy the dough from the pizza store.”
The other sister points out that making pizza dough is just a matter of mixing flour, water, salt, and yeast. “It takes two seconds to mix together, and you don’t even need a recipe. Just dump about three cups of flour in a bowl, add a little yeast and salt, and pour in about a cup of warm water and mix it around and let it rise. Who wants to get in the car to go the pizza place to buy dough? Once I am there, I can just buy the pizza already made!”
“Well,” points out the first sister, “maybe it is easy for you to make pizza dough, but for me it means following a recipe and it takes time and it just isn’t worth it.”

So, what do you think? Do we need recipes? Sure, we get lots of ideas from cookbooks, but wouldn’t cooking be easier for us and save lots of time if we mastered a repertoire like our grandmothers so that we didn’t need to look in a book every time we wanted to make something?

Personally, I like to experiment, but I try to record what I do, so that I remember for next time and so that I can pass the recipe along. Even when I am cooking without a recipe, I try to write down a recipe from my experiment. I get lots of good ideas from cookbooks and from other people. On the other hand, looking through recipes takes up a lot of precious time that I could be spending actually cooking. Needing a recipe is what keeps people from cooking because it can be the difference between something being easy to make or too hard.

6 Responses to “Do We Really Need Recipes?”

  1. Rivki Locker (Ordinary Blogger) Says:

    Great topic! I find, like you, that recipes help for inspiration but also for proportions – especially with baking; proportions really do matter when it comes to breads and cakes. More than anything, though, I enjoy reading cookbooks! I read them like I read fiction. I wouldn’t give that pleasure up for the world!

    • pragmaticattic Says:

      I agree! I love reading cookbooks, too.Your point about proportions is also a good one. Although, once you have figured out proportions, you can make up your own recipe! Have you ever seen Ruhlman’s book Ratio? (I love how there are books for cooking that are all about being freed from cookbooks; there is something delightfully ironic about that–Another good cookbook for not needing a cookbook is Pam Anderson’s How to Cook Without a Book).

  2. Rochel @ barefootandcooking Says:

    I’m pretty sure that many of us, myself included, cook from instinct most of the time. However, recipes and cookbooks allow me to try cuisines and dishes that I know nothing about. Cookbooks and food blogs are, to me, more about inspiration than actual recipes. I don’t think there is any shame in following recipes exactly; but, I do think that at some point it’s important to trust yourself in the kitchen and create as you cook.

    • pragmaticattic Says:

      Good point: It is so true that recipes open our minds to new ideas, but it is also important to have enough confidence to create on our own. I think some people–very independent types–dislike being tied down to following an exact recipe and invariably deviate from whatever recipe they try. Other people feel obliged to hew exactly to the recipe as written. I think it not just a matter of creativity, as you observe, but also efficiency. Being tied to a cookbook can really slow you down in the kitchen.

  3. Lauren Says:

    I really go back and forth on this issue, especially when I think about giving recipes for my blog. There are a lot of things that I make but I have no idea how much of anything I use! Plus, I almost never make a recipe as written.

    I don’t think recipes are absolutely necessary once a person has cooked and baked (successfully!) for a while. However, I think they’re great for beginners and for fresh ideas. No way would I give up my shelves of cookbooks!

    • pragmaticattic Says:

      It is interesting what you say about being hesitant to give a recipe when you are not sure about amounts. I think it is okay to give a vague recipe to someone who is confident in the kitchen–they can figure out what to do from an ingredient list and a general idea of how the recipe goes. Someone who needs a real recipe would be totally lost.
      My grandmother had a recipe box with recipes from friends and some are precise and others are shorthand, with instructions like “add enough water to make a soft dough,” or even just “make a dough” or “make a snow” (meringue). My grandmother knew what to do, so she didn’t need more than that.

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