How recipes can be undermining your cooking

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At one point in our evolution, cooking was simple: poke a stick through some meat and thrust it into the flames. Over the millenia, humans have made more than a few refinements to this formula, leading to the present time when complicated recipes are everywhere. Many cooks scour the internet or pore through cookbooks, searching for the perfect recipes for each meal, from a quick weeknight dinner to an elaborate feast. 

Food writers and chefs have embraced this trend, churning out new recipes at a breakneck pace. While this has been good for cooks in many respects, it has harmed them as well, says Phil Daoust. He writes about ten ways that recipes are undermining our cooking, especially if one is a novice cook. 

Daoust posits that this happens because too many recipe developers "overcomplicate both the dishes they describe and the craft of cooking. Rather than educate the readers, you - we - de-skill them; instead of creating a springboard from which they can leap to ever-greater heights, you - we - lead them into a quagmire of ignorance and self-doubt."

Daoust offers ten tips for recipe writers to avoid this fate. His first piece of advice is for writers to stop being dogmatic. He uses pasta as an example, noting that while most recipes are insistent that the water must be salted and/or oiled, you can just as effectively season the pasta after cooking, and keep it from sticking by a employing a few quick stirs of the pot. Since there are very few - if any - absolutes in cooking, you shouldn't write as if there is only one possible way to do something.

Another suggestion is to recommend substitutes for exotic herbs or spices. "If your recipe works with basil instead of curry leaves, or without either, for God's sake, say so," says Daoust. "It won't make you look sloppy or laissez-faire. It will suggest that you have a clue how normal people live and cook." 

One of my favorite admonitions is to reduce the number of dishes to be washed if at all possible. As Daoust notes, "Your readers don't have staff."  There is no sense in dirtying a work surface for kneading dough, for example, if it can just as easily be kneaded in the same bowl used for mixing.

Which of the ten suggestions resonates with you?

5 Comments

  • lgroom  on  7/9/2017 at 9:38 PM

    The dishes one. One famous TV chef makes great stuff but she dirties 20 bowls and pans as she goes. I read through recipes before I make them and if it is dish excessive, forget it. As the oldest of eight kids, I spent enough of my formative years washing dishes to do me the rest of my lifetime.

  • readingtragic  on  7/10/2017 at 2:08 AM

    No. 4 - tell me what something should look like, rather than how long - I have stirred custard for forty minutes to get it right, rather than the fifteen suggested; not even close!

  • Teruska  on  7/10/2017 at 6:37 AM

    I am all over the "Don't micromanage." ~ in most aspects of life but certainly in cooking. Give me a suggestion and let me interpret it to work for me.

  • KLeverett  on  7/10/2017 at 8:57 AM

    #7. Way too many cookbook(and cooks) have you using way too many bowls and pans. It really squashes one's enthusiasm for the process right off the bat. I have always appreciated Jamie Oliver's style of using minimal prep-ware and cookware. I can count on not having a sinkful of dirty dishes with his recipes.

  • Kirstin_the_Kiwi  on  7/10/2017 at 3:27 PM

    I like it when they provide substitute ingredients... I dislike when they specify a particular type of fish (especially UK books) but don't tell you what kind of fish it is so that you can find a local option.

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