In defense of recipes

There’s been a proliferation in recent years of a different type of cookbook, one that deemphasizes recipes in favor of a more relaxed style of cooking. It it isn’t exactly a recent trend – Pam Anderson wrote How to Cook Without a Book in 2000 and there are even older books in a similar vein – but it has gained steam in the past few years, with cooking shows also leaning into this style. Books like No Recipe? No Problem!: How to Pull Together Tasty Meals without a Recipe and The New York Times Cooking: No-Recipe Recipes promise to teach you how to be free from recipes in the kitchen. Eater’s Jaya Saxena thinks recipes still play an important role in cooking, however, and explains why we still need them.

Saxena says that being able to cook without a recipe is a kind of privilege because it means you either had someone who taught you how to cook or had the extra time and funds necessary to learn it yourself through trial and error. “Not everyone gets a parent who is at the stove every day, drilling techniques into your brain, and not everyone gets lazy afternoons where you try to make something, anything, with what you have around,” says Saxena, noting that “Recipes democratize this knowledge.”

As someone who learned to cook mainly on my own through cookbooks and magazines, I am glad I live in an age where there are books on almost any type of cuisine or dietary restraint imaginable. I grew up in a rural area in the upper Midwest where the most ‘ethnic’ food in the local grocery store was canned chicken chow mein, and without access to cookbooks I would never have had the courage to try foods I had only read about or seen on television. Now that I am a much more confident cook, I still consult recipes prior to trying something I haven’t mastered because they will give me needed insight on timings or ingredient ratios, and offer useful tips.

Even dishes that I think I have mastered can benefit from a return to recipes. Not too long ago I happened upon a recipe for a stew that I make frequently. I haven’t used a recipe for the stew in ages, but after reading this one I realized that over time I had incorporated several shortcuts that resulted in an inferior version compared to the one I originally made. Re-reading the recipe reminded me that few tweaks can make a big difference in the outcome of the dish, and also reinforced how important a good recipe can be.

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  • Mrs. L  on  December 11, 2022

    I grew up with a single Mom during a time when opening up a can of Armour Beef Stew was considered a fine dinner. Didn’t live near my grandparents. Never learned to cook. Cookbooks were my friend.

  • Soulkitchenjen  on  December 11, 2022

    Cookbooks are how I learned. It’s how I’ve learned cuisines that I wasn’t raised around. My mom never cooked with a recipe and she was a horrible cook. I figured if someone went through all the trouble of writing it down, it had to be better thought out than dry AF boneless, skinless chicken breast.

  • Rinshin  on  December 11, 2022

    My mother was a terrific cook and never used recipes. I have no idea how she knew how to make great tasting spaghetti with meatballs, perfectly seasoned and seared T-bone steaks, beef stews, white stews, hamburgers etc since these were not foods she grew up with. Her Japanese foods are still incomparable in taste and I don’t think I can ever reach that perfection in taste. She did lots of subbing of ingredients too when we first came to the US such as using ground beef for gyoza, shumai, and wontons because ground pork was harder to find. I normally do not use recipes for those foods either unless I want to try or test new versions out of curiosity.

  • Vanessa  on  December 11, 2022

    Cooking without a recipe is an expression of “privilege”?! ROFLMAO.

    Having all.the.cookbooks might be a bit privileged …
    Let alone having the colonialist attitude and audacity to attempt dishes from other cultures …

    But cooking without a recipe is what most of the world does!

  • matag  on  December 11, 2022

    I love trying new recipes. And I’ll try anything…. Twice!
    But I also have no problem using a recipe as a starting point. Personal and family preferences have a big place in my cooking. I have often substituted another ingredient for one I have allergies to or often will add a little more vanilla than a recipe calls for.

  • GenieB  on  December 11, 2022

    When I was growing up in a Midwestern city in the 50s and 60s, I did learn to cook some things from my mother. She was a pretty good cook, but not an adventurous cook. But she tended to cook the same things on some sort of rotation. I like much more variation. But I was fortunate than when I moved away from home, I did know how to cook for myself and others.

    When I was an adult, I became vegetarian, later vegan. Mother’s recipes (and she did keep a box of recipes cards) just don’t work in those terms. Cookbooks have made my cooking much more interesting, and kept me interested in cooking. I have made hundreds, if not thousands, of recipes in my 50+ years of cooking. Some are good enough to be repeated, others get one try and oblivion.

  • Plutarch  on  December 11, 2022

    Cooking without recipes is fine so long as your family tolerates your experimenting. It’s just another culinary approach, a bit like free climbing pushes the boundaries of that activity I suppose.

  • dmco6863  on  December 11, 2022

    My mother was an old school cook that boiled everything to death, then drowned it with white sauce and nutmeg. At the grocery store I used to convince her to buy soft cover international cookbooks that I still have. It was a comforting to know there was more out there than what was being served at our table.

  • ellabee  on  December 12, 2022

    One of my online friends is a thirty-something millennial who occasionally posts photos of dishes he’s cooked to recreate menu items from his big city’s many fine eateries. He prides himself on never using/reading recipes, which to me is such a guy thing. It’s obvious from his posts that he reads food writing, and I think his Spanish mother was a pretty good cook, so he must have internalized the important processes & principles. His photos are refreshingly in-styled but still very appetizing.

  • ellabee  on  December 12, 2022

    That should be “refreshingly un-styled”.

  • MarciK  on  December 12, 2022

    My mom never wanted people in the kitchen in her way when she cooked, so her dishes were something I only had a general idea how to make. However, I know there are some where she pulls out the same old recipe she’s had for decades. And whenever I’ve asked how to make something from childhood, she always was able to pull out the recipe card for me, no matter how many times she’s made it herself. I learned to cook mainly from recipes, whether they were my mom’s, or those I acquired in my high school “basic foods” course, or from the cookbooks I’ve collected over the years. I feel grateful to the recipes both for being able to revisit old favorites and for allowing me to learn about flavors and techniques from all around the world or even just new combinations I never thought about. When people tell me “I don’t need a recipe to cook,” I always feel they are missing out on something. I don’t either, but they make cooking and eating a lot more pleasurable.

  • TeresaRenee  on  December 17, 2022

    I am much better at following and tweaking recipes than creating new ones. When I cook without a recipe, it results in edible but very boring meals.

  • MFJ196  on  December 30, 2022

    I love reading recipes, and have learned so much from the hundreds of cookbooks I own in both paper and digital format. They were my absolute salvation in learning to cook as a newly married 20something, and I still have my original ‘Mama D’s Italian Cookbook” on my shelves. Joy of Cooking really was a joy! My mother was unfortunately hostile to the whole idea of cooking, so relying on her guidance would have sentenced me to a lifetime of takeout and frozen dinners!

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