On Recipes

and the cumulative learning experience that is cooking.

Cooking before the pandemic was never an event for me. It was part of the natural flow of life, and I stocked my kitchen with the same ingredients all the time, with variation only in what I picked up from the farmers’ market. Thus, I didn’t have much use for recipes. I would cook what I felt like cooking, of course drawing some insight or inspiration from the many cookbooks on my shelves, but it was never a regular occurrence for me to follow a savory recipe to the letter and seek to replicate a food stylist’s image.

But then we were home all the time, and meals became events. Nothing else was happening! Gone was the once-constant thrum of excitement in my veins knowing another trip was soon coming. They became, indeed, the focus of the whole day. Now I think about what we’ll make each day of the week, and sometimes I’m doing multi-part productions from The Superiority Burger Cookbook. Life has changed, and with it so has my approach to feeding myself and my partner.

A couple of weeks ago, we bought ingredients for a specific recipe—or, we only needed a couple of things on top of what we already had, so I was excited to do something new. While I was making it, I noticed issues popping up. Where is the acid? Certainly, this is too much liquid. I don’t think this is going to be as good a preparation of this vegetable as I usually do, but I’ll try it…

It turned out awful, inedible. We’d already been planning to go to a bar where we can drink outside in the callejón, or alley, after dinner, and so while there, I ordered chips and guacamole to sate myself after the disappointment. I had ignored my well-honed instincts about how to make food that I enjoy eating, and I paid the price, which was quite literally buying food when I was trying to avoid just that act by cooking.

Of course, I’ve followed recipes to the letter before and they’ve turned out wonderful. This is how I approach new cuisines, such as Sichuan or Palestinian or Senegalese—food worlds I don’t have an innate palate for or understanding of, but enjoy and wish to not only eat but understand on a granular level to the extent that that’s possible (variations by region are not the only limitation in really understanding a cuisine, but variation by house).

I like much of what Genevieve Ko said in her piece, “A Kitchen Resolution Worth Making: Follow the Recipe Exactly,” where she argues that it’s a way to learn other “cuisines and cultures.” While I agree that we can learn about cuisines, I stop at thinking it gives me insight into anyone’s culture. That’s a much deeper, more extensive process, and the perspective given there is too in line with the idea that food has some sort of magic ability to transgress borders, power, and difference. It doesn’t.

But through cookbooks, I gain insight and make really delicious dishes. Inevitably, I take parts of what I’ve learned and apply it more broadly; they become part of my personal technique, my personal canon. This is how my instincts are honed so that I don’t have to look at cookbooks or a recipe website every time I want something to eat. It’s a gradual process of internalizing. To me, this is what it means to love food and cooking. This is why, despite not using them all the time, my cookbook collection continues to expand with new and vintage releases alike. I learn something from them all, even if it’s something I never do again.

When I tweeted the hyperbolic note, “I never make terrible food unless I follow a recipe to the letter,” many agreed with me. Chef Hugh Acheson did not and told me I should try opening up a restaurant and experience the “endless criticism.” (I’m a writer—a woman and a leftist writing about food, at that—and what he was giving me at that moment was criticism, so it was a bit ironic.) 

I know what it is to develop recipes: I do so professionally, and I’ve also run a bakery. When I write them down, I try to give a ton of caveats and places for experimentation in the headnotes. I don’t want anyone to think that even if I tell them that a certain amount of tomato paste is the right amount that they can’t go with their own instincts. Generally, in savory cooking, that’s just fine. And when I write down a recipe for a baked good, I do the same: Let the reader know the moments where one can improvise or switch things up. I try to provide a little insight into how I cook, thanks to all the ideas and techniques I’ve internalized, so that the reader feels empowered and not hemmed in. This is my job: to make food and cooking not seem so scary.

Tamar Adler pointed out that this is the old style of recipe writing, which she wrote about for the New York Times Magazine in 2015 (as well as in her book, An Everlasting Meal). “Often old recipes hang their teaching on narrative, with an almost biblical surety that the way to cement information in the human mind is to plot it on a closely described arc of action,” she writes. “They are firmly anti-idealistic. They are full of contingencies.”

This piece of hers gave me structure for a bunch of malformed thoughts I’d had about how the recipe industry builds upon the supermarket, where one has come to expect to find specific ingredients no matter what time of year or from how far they came. Without those contingencies, without notes about using whatever is fresh that were the very bones of old recipes, one feels constrained, confined to following recipes to the letter despite what they have on hand. That’s not how it should be, and that’s why I write recipes how I write them: to guide, not rule.

As Ruby Tandoh, writer and cookbook author, added, “I think that instinct is a cumulative thing—from family, cultural osmosis, TV, recipes—so lots of people really don't have it (yet). But I do largely agree—weirdly as a recipe writer the goal is to give people enough confidence that your recipes eventually become redundant.”

To live with recipes as a guide is to live with one’s own palate, dietary needs, economics, and geography in mind rather than someone else’s. It’s freedom.

This Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Lifehacker editor Claire Lower. We discuss the importance of unions, how to write recipes with class consciousness, and how she ended up in food after studying chemistry.

Annual subscriptions are $30.

I did a podcast with Areni Global, “a global research and action institute dedicated to the future of Fine Wine,” about ingredients, the role of the chef, and the definition of “fine” when it comes to food and beverage, and whether it needs to be adjusted. It will be out on Thursday!

A piece on “ethical” chocolate for Lifehacker. An interview with The Signal about food. A RECIPE at Tenderly, for a citrus olive oil cake that so many people made over the weekend that I felt like Ms. Alison Roman!

Give Up Art by Maria Fusco. Honestly, I cannot say I really understand it at all! But that doesn’t impact my enjoyment and my effort at doing so.

One thing I always cook to the letter is the jackfruit biryani in the Dishoom cookbook. Another thing I’ve been doing a lot is blistering string beans in the cast-iron with a little olive oil, then drizzling with soy sauce and dusting with garlic powder. Incredibly easy, incredibly good! I will be very sad when there are no more string beans at the market. Above is multigrain sourdough toast with tomato grated on top, plus lemon zest, dill, and flaky salt. This is a go-to lunch preparation for me.