I hate them. Ok, I don’t hate them but I hate being a slave to them. There are thousands of books out there filled with recipes, measurements of ingredients, professionally styled photographs, and quirky little messages from the author tell you about the time they made that salad for Bobby Flay. In theory, there is nothing wrong with recipes. But in practice, following recipes ruins people.
There are three types of cooks: cooks who create amazing things, cooks who create disgusting things, and cooks who uses recipes. By this logic, if you are someone who lives for recipes, you’re just straddling the line of mediocrity. It may sound harsh because, of course, many people use recipes and their food comes out just fine, delicious even, but there is a difference between following a recipe and actually cooking. Let me clarify.
For new cooks, recipes are like training wheels. They give you stability as you attempt to learn a new skill, but they will never get you very far. Anyone can follow a recipe, just like anyone can ride a bike with training wheels. You just measure out this ingredient, put it in a pan with that ingredient and magically it’s supposed to taste amazing. So why is it that when people buy a cookbook with recipes from the French Laundry they can’t make the dishes taste as good as Thomas Keller’s? The reason is, quite simply, that recipes don’t teach you how to cook they just teach you how to follow instructions.
Cooking is about understanding the very basics, the raw ingredients. Once you acquire this knowledge, you can cook anything, anywhere, and without any recipes. Professional chefs, people who whose job it is to cook, never use recipes. They don’t measure, they don’t do things in order, and they rarely prepare a dish the same way twice. Yet, in most cases, the food comes out fantastic. You can give Herbert Keller a potato, a package of beef tips, and a bag of chocolate chips and he could create something so unbelievably amazing that you might consider buying those same ingredients and giving it a go yourself. What Herbert Keller understands, what all good cooks understand, is that the best dishes are created simply by understanding the ingredients at their core, by knowing what goes with what and how its best prepared.
This is why recipes don’t work. Recipes only teach you how to make things but what you should be learning is how to cook things. You can make chicken alfredo, but unless you know how to cook chicken, the dish will not come out right. This is why people who only make things aren’t really learning how to cook. I’m not telling you to burn all your cookbook because recipes are actually very valuable, even to Michelin chefs. I’m simply stressing that to be a good cook you should read recipes differently. In a sense recipes are training wheels, but they can also be cornucopias of knowledge. Each one will give you details as to what ingredients will work together and how they should be prepared. They are like guidelines, suggestions, but certainly not the Ten Commandments. It’s important to remember that cooking is an art, not a science. Leave the recipe following to the bakers and pastry chefs, because for a cook following a recipe is like doing a paint-by-numbers. No matter what you do you’ll only end up with the picture on the box. In cooking, as in any form of art, this kind of restriction is not tolerated. If you want to make something for dinner perhaps you have to find a recipe that sounds good, go to the store and buy the ingredients off the list and make whatever dish you’re told you to make. But if you know how to cook you can throw open the pantry, grab six or seven things, toss them into a pan and make something incredible.
It’s simple really. If you learn how to cook things, you’ll know how to make anything.