Hand an experienced chef a recipe and he or she will quickly glance at the ingredient list and the name and return it to you. Generally, it’s not out of arrogance or stubbornness that the chef won’t read the cooking instructions, but the chef already knows how to make most dishes. Once you have learned the professional basics, there isn’t much else to say about it.
Of course, there are exceptions. For instance, I don’t have enough baking experience to wing a loaf of bread, but hand me a chicken and I’ll hand you the wings—no recipe needed.
When I sit down to type the articles you have come to enjoy, I always reach a certain point where it gets boring. The process, that is. I thoroughly enjoy writing about food, but I lose interest when I get to the inevitable recipe portion. I do my best to disguise that from the reader, and often try to insert a joke or a trade secret directly into the middle of the mandatory ingredient list. A list should be funny, right David Letterman?
Being a food writer and, in contrast, someone who doesn’t care for recipes is like being a mechanic who doesn’t care for fixing Fords. That’s the market. The Ford is always broken, and the reader wants to know how to cook the food which the writer is so passionately describing. There is a definite obsession with recipes these days; the other Quintilian food writers and I exasperate the problem.
Not to say that there isn’t a good use for recipes, but the reader should first make an attempt to learn the cooking process before bothering to learn the ingredient list. If packaged dinners didn’t have instructions for how long to microwave or sensationally simmer in a skillet, would families starve? They would just put it in the oven or skillet and check on it more frequently, until eventually they learn how to tell when it’s done. Perhaps some black pizza crust is a better teacher than I can ever be.
There’s an old joke, “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll call out of work once a week.”
I’m not a teacher, I’m a writer. Heck, I’m not even a writer. I’m a chef. Really, honestly, I’m a cook. The word “chef” doesn’t always sit well with me. It indicates a Gordon Ramsey like, cocky, unapproachable attitude. There is a pea sized difference between the arrogant chef and the confident cook. You can learn to cook, or you can learn to be a cook.
If you want to learn how to be a cook, the first and probably hardest piece of advice to swallow is lose the recipe. If it feels like you’re driving with your eyes closed, that’s all right. Think of it this way: If your car’s digital navigation system directs you to a boat ramp, you should shut it off. If you must use the recipe, use it as a guide, just don’t drive into the river.
Consider the source of the recipe. In order to decide if it is a good one, you must first decide if it was written by a recipe writer or a cook. Chances are, if it was a really good cook, the measurements won’t be perfect.
By the way, that’s a disclaimer.
That’s not done by design. No one is holding back here, but cooks, or chefs if you must, often don’t measure anything. I use “glug” as a measurement when instructing young, inexperienced cooks. They always start out by adding a “drizzle” to whatever they’re making.
I correct them, “That’s not a glug.”
I grab the ingredient and pour, until I have satisfyingly heard, seen, felt—call it measured—the requisite amount of “glugs.” It’s similar to a bartender’s “four-second pour,” which can vary greatly depending on whether the bartender counts seconds with “Mississippi” or “one-thousand.”
If the recipe was written by a recipe writer, than you can probably trust that it is going to come out just like it looks on the internet, it will taste pretty good and you can snap some pictures of it for your social media friends. They will like it. But if you follow it precisely, never deviating, you will not learn anything. You will be trapped forever in the trend—remember kale chips? that was a thing—and may never make something that your kids remember you for. If you follow my advice, when they ask you for that family secret, hand them a list of ingredients with a name on top, and let them figure out the rest. It will be the secret which will feed them for generations.