Boring or explicit?
December 19, 2001 11:26 PM   Subscribe

Boring or explicit? Do you want actual specific directions, or just gentle guidance when you cook? As a poor and nervous cook, I want everything spelled out as much as possible, but Laura Calder wants flavor. (salon link.)
posted by stoneegg21 (16 comments total)
Perhaps it would be better if there were a distinction made between cookbook and recipe book. The sense of taste itself gets very little attention in the literary world, and if you are willing to consider food an art form, it is easily one of the least represented in non-procedural form. Imagine if ninety percent of books about painting were instructions on making happy trees?

Take The Supper of the Lamb, by Robert Capon, for example. The whole book is, in essence, one recipe and the fractal offshoots of that recipe. He gives several pages to the peeling of an onion, and while some might find that shamelessly excessive, it reads so wonderfully I would never think to complain at the digression. I've used it as a recipe book, though it’s not particularly suited to the task, but more than that I've used it as inspiration. It provides not just instructions but a philosophy of cooking. The cook is represented in the recipes.

I personally much prefer a cookbook that gives me a deeper understanding of cooking, or at the very least a peek at the person who committed their culinary work to paper, but I own many, many procedural cookbooks for reference as well. It's not an either/or thing, really.
posted by Nothing at 12:31 AM on December 20, 2001

Cooking is tedious and messy. Hours spent researching, preparing, serving, and consuming the meal that Keats, Lamb, and Wordsworth ate at Haydon's would be hours well spent. Otherwise, a meal that takes more than a few minutes to slap together is a meal I'll happily pay someone else to make. A cookbook with no background is like a woman with no past: effective, simple, boring.
posted by pracowity at 1:01 AM on December 20, 2001

I like to experiment. I use a cookbook to give ideas and go from there, adding or subtracting elements that I like.
If cooking for others however, I'd probably stay closer to the cookbook.
Not everyone like curry, garlic chili sauce and onions as much as I do...
posted by black8 at 3:13 AM on December 20, 2001 I gotta go friggin' eat somethin'.
posted by HTuttle at 4:19 AM on December 20, 2001

Well the modern recipe is a promise, really. It's a promise that someone who can read and follow directions will produce the same results as the author of the recipe. There are a number of people who cook this way and need the guidance that a strict framework affords. My mother, for example, is in this camp. She needs everything spelled out.

I do not. Sometimes I will follow a recipe as it is written, but most of the time I read the recipe between the lines and begin an improvisation. For example, as far as I'm concerned there are really only two or maybe three soups in the world and the rest are mere variations on a theme. If you can make one, you can make them all. This is the spirit of soup, after all: a means of effectively using the ingredients you have on hand. Salad dressing is the same way. Haven't bought it for years because it's really just oil, vinegar/acid, and "stuff" and I know that I've never made the same one twice because I don't try.

Some people find it freeing to follow a recipe--freeing from having to think through what is what and how it's put together. I find it freeing to ignore the words of the recipe and follow the intent.
posted by plinth at 5:31 AM on December 20, 2001

If I want food background, I put on TV Food Network (who else thinks Alton Brown is the man?), read, or I get a book about food (i.e. not a cookbook). But when I'm in the kitchen and surrounted by ingredients, I want a recipe. It doesn't have to be a strict process-oriented recipe, but neither should it be the complete works of Jorge Luis Borges.
It's not that the two are necessarily incompatible—it's just that what makes for interesting reading often isn't practical in the kitchen.
That 'lettuce heart salad' thing makes me vaguely ill, for the record. It sounds like Martha Stewart trying to be extra-pretentious.
posted by darukaru at 5:44 AM on December 20, 2001

Alton Brown has the best show on FoodTV if you want to learn why things are done the way they are. Once you know that, the recipe is just an ingredient list.
posted by revbrian at 5:54 AM on December 20, 2001

Well, it's a food thread, so here I am.

I used to cook professionally. Procedure to me is much more important than exact recipe, and I think it always was, even when I was a kid and futzing about in Mom's kitchen. Getting the basics down and then improvising is all of the fun.

Except for pastry. Pastry work is a more exacting science, less forgiving, and I tend to stick to proportions more in the pastry world.

And there's nothing I would rather do than cook in - I have been so not interested in eating out the last few months. To me, an perfect evening is five or six friends over, hanging around the kitchen chopping things and drinking wine, grilling steaks, and then playing Trivial Pursuit. Color me old and boring, but I like it.

Alton Brown does in fact rule, as we have said before. I find myself noticing more and more mistakes and inconsistencies in Good Eats though, especially between what he says and what's captioned. Odd.

And guess what's under my Christmas tree? The new, revised and shiny Larousse Gastronomique. A must read and an invaluable reference. It's been all I can do not to rip that puppy open early.

Have I touched on everything? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
posted by ebarker at 6:19 AM on December 20, 2001

It's interesting. I like to cook and make things, but one of the things that I've begun to realize over the last year or two is that confronted with just a pile of stuff, I don't have a deeper understanding of what I could do. I've realized that there's more to cooking than just putting things together and have been slowly trying see the grander picture. I just lack the encyclopedic knowledge that allows to me not start from a recipe but rather from just a list of ingredients.

Of course, it probably helps that I've been watching Good Eats and Iron Chef during that same time period.
posted by warhol at 6:19 AM on December 20, 2001

It all depends on the nature of a recipe. If I'm baking, precise ingredients and instructions are always appreciated. I need to see that full list of ingredients and quantities listed beforehand and if I can get some cool explanation of *how* the vitamin C, say, helps bread rise properly, all the better. (See Shirley O. Corriher's "CookWise". She's appeared on Good Eats several times, too).

But most stews, curries and soups I make are improvisations on a theme. For example, I have two basic vegetable soup recipes.

Orange soup: heat some oil in a large soup pot and add a couple of soup bowls of chopped onions, leeks, shallots and/or garlic. Saute for a minute, then add twice the quantity of chopped orange, red or yellow vegetables of your choice (e.g. carrots, rutabaga, turnip, sweet potato, parsnip, beets, tomatoes, squash, fresh or canned pumpkin -- I wouldn't use all of these every time, but hey, you just might). Add more oil if necessary and saute for about 5 minutes to encourage the vegetables' sweetness.

Add enough chicken stock to cover everything by at least one inch for a very thick soup, 2-3 inches for a thinner soup. (If you don't make your own stock, those tetra pak cartons of Campbell's stock are quite good).

Bring to a boil and simmer until all is tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. Use an immersion blender to puree and add a small amount of cream to meld everything (usually a half cup of 10% is just fine).

That's the basics. I sometimes add herbs, spice or other flavour agents at the saute stage. I found that a rutabaga-carrot-parsnip combo (with just a bit of leftover canned pumpkin) and a heaping teaspoon of Patak's medium hot curry paste worked out beautifully. Sometimes sherry or cheese will show up in the soup, sometimes it won't.

(Based on this, you can probably figure out my green soup recipe).
posted by maudlin at 6:21 AM on December 20, 2001

Unless it's something delicate that requires a lot of tending to come out well (souffle, angel food cake from scratch) I don't want paint-by-numbers instructions. Every kitchen has its own quirks- what kinds of herbs you have on hand, how your oven heats, the size of your eggs, etc.. I'm not a pro (just a mom and housewife,) but I have plenty of experience, and I can usually figure out how to make the end product from a good general description. For me, it's more valuable to learn why or which things go together, flavor and texture-wise. If you know that, you can put together almost anything, or create something entirely new.

The drawback to that is if someone asks you for a recipe and they actually want measurements, they're SoL. My lasagne recipe starts out, "Well... take some olive oil, onions, and crushed garlic... how much? I dunno, enough."
posted by headspace at 6:37 AM on December 20, 2001

Cooking to me is about taste, smell and (ususally forgotten about but very important) appearance.
I learned the basics of cooking (ie. how to cook certain types of ingredient, how to thicken sauce, how to roast etc.) then the rest has been nothing but following my instincts.
Speaking to people who like to rigidly follow recipes I find that it's the fear of doing something wrong which stops them from experimenting or deviating from the prescribed ingredients - experimentation and observation are the two key factors here.
Good quality ingredients make a big difference too, some of my (and my girlfriend's) favourite dishes are very simple but use good qualty fresh ingredients.
Once you know what your ingredients do when cooked in different ways, how they taste and what can be used to bring out or alter the taste then recipe books become more of a guide to what works well together rather than a dictum to be followed. I often leaf through recipe books in the bookshop before I go food shopping, the pictures and ingredient lists are usually enough to give me ideas on what to pick up later.
I love cooking for friends, we have a large kitchen and as ebarker says, it's great to have a few people over, put some music on, open a couple of bottles of wine and make a meal together to enjoy together. Informal and sociable.

Baking and pastry require far more discipline and accurate measurement than I am willing to muster however.
posted by Markb at 6:41 AM on December 20, 2001

ebarker hits on a good point. Baking requires a lot more precision of measurement and technique, largely because the chemistry of baking is finicky -- not enough yeast, too much water, temperatures off, etc. all can spoil pastry or baked goods. Cooking is far more forgiving as the ingredients generally do not react to one another with as many complex interactions.

I suspect many home cooks learn to bake first and then cook, and like the exactness of recipes because that's how they learned to bake. This is the case with my wife, who refuses to cook anything without a detailed recipe.

Julia Child's role in all of this can't be ignored, because she was one of the first people to popularize engineered recipes in her cookbooks.
posted by briank at 6:57 AM on December 20, 2001

On the few occasions I actually have time to cook a real meal, I don't find cutesy stuff like "a scrape of sugar" at all helpful. Would that be a metric or imperial scrape? Just gimme the numbers, I'll modify it to suit my taste the next time around.

Country-Style Groundhog
1 groundhog
1/2 c. flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/4 tsp. soda
1/4 c. cooking oil
1/2 tsp. sugar
NOTE:Clean and skin as soon as possible. Remove all scent glands. Cut off head, feet and tail. Cure in cool place by suspending from hook approximately 4 days. When ready to cook, lard according to recipe.

Dress groundhog as for rabbit, removing the small sacs in the back and under the forearm. Soak groundhog overnight in salted water to remove wild flavor. Combine flour, salt, pepper and sada; rub into groundhog pieces. Brown grounhog in hot oil in skillet; sprinkle with sugar. Reduce heat; add 1/2 cup water. Cover; simmer for about 30 minutes or until tender. Remove cover; cook for 10 minutes longer.
posted by groundhog at 7:51 AM on December 20, 2001

The current recipe-as-engineering-plan style actually started at the turn of the century with Fannie Farmer and the Boston Cooking School. It became the dominant form because most people really don't like to cook and don't have (and really don't wish to acquire) the techniques. The good thing about step by step recipes is that they makes the recipe accessible to everyone, not just some culinary intelligentsia.

Still, there is hardly a dearth of books on cooking that depend wholly on ingredient lists and steps. As Nothing points out (damn - I really really want that to say "as nobody says" - so close), a distinction needs to be made between cookbooks as reference and cookbooks as instruction or reading. It's like the difference between a dictionary and Elements of Style or Bird by Bird for writers. If I run across some nice fresh carrots & want some ideas as to what to do with them, I'll pick up Joy, or the Victory Garden (kinda the equivalent of looking up definitions for carrots). If I'm just looking for ideas or want to learn about a new technique or ingredient, I'll read one of the many books out there about eating, cooking or food.

Personally, on my feeble attempt at a cooking site, I try to include both anecdotes about meals (which usually give an experienced cook enough info to replicate the meal) and traditional recipes (but more of the former because the latter is really a bitch to put together - Julia and Alton both rule!)
posted by dchase at 10:10 AM on December 20, 2001

I prefer the "engineered" approach, just to have a place to start from, and because I often forget - is that a tablespoon of spice [x] or a teaspoon, esp. with recipes that I make less often.

the things that I make all the time, I've often written myself little notes "start the pasta well ahead of the sauce" - "drain before adding flour" - sometimes it's an addition to the recipe, sometimes even a contradiction, when I don't like how it worked out in the printed recipe. or I make notes about the amount of ingredients, things I've added or subtracted.

my mother always made this macaroni & cheese when I was a kid; the original recipe came out of an old good housekeeping cookbook, and the first time I tried to make it myself, it didn't turn out "right" at all. then I realized she'd made a few changes to it (velveeta & evaporated milk, instead of cheddar & regular milk), so when I copied it down for myself, I put those changes in, and have been making my own notes on it since then.

but I like to have the engineered version to start with, because I'm not a particularly daring cook.
posted by epersonae at 11:08 AM on December 20, 2001

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