Recipes Are Made To Be Broken, Part One

I love reading cookbooks, but I rarely follow recipes exactly. I treat recipes as learning tools and think that - most of the time - exactly following a recipe is a mistake.

When someone creates a recipe, they are creating it from a particular point of view with a particular set of tools. Ovens and stovetop ranges all have their peculiarities. The oven in the house I grew up in had some issues, including a definite hot-spot. Baking in it would be a very different experience than baking in a high-end oven with incredible temperature control, much less one of those newfangled hybrid radiant/convection ovens. Even a medium heat on a high-end Viking gas range is going to be different than the medium heat on a forty year old electric burner.

The recipe author and I are unlikely to be using identical ingredients. Fresh foods not only have a different taste, but (due to things as simple as moisture content) they can cook differently than foods that have been stored. The source of your food matters - what sort of soil were your vegetables grown in? It will make a difference. Spices and dried herbs lose flavor with age. How fresh are the ingredients being used by the recipe author? Are they fresher than yours? Not as fresh? Even among ingredients of similar freshness, there are going to be significant differences. Not all tomatoes are created equally. Even processed ingredients can vary. Different brands of butter might have different salt content. Even the same brand in another country will often have a different formula.

The other thing to keep in mind is that people have varying preferences. Even if you had the recipe exactly as prepared by the author, it might not be designed to suit your tastes. While you select recipes based upon what sounds good to you, chances are good that the recipe author didn't have you in mind when they created the recipe. So, while the general flavor profile of a dish might be appealing to you, there's a decent chance that it can be tweaked so that you'll like it even more.

I treat recipes as frameworks. A recipe, to me, is a set of guidelines for creating a dish. I might change very little, or I might substitute something in for nearly every ingredients.

In this series of posts, I'm going to discuss how I use recipes, how I learn from them, and how I break them up into little pieces and put them back together again.

    Read part two and three.


I totally agree with these comments. Every oven has its own personality!!

I hate being told what to do so I never follow recipes exactly ;)

My wife teases me about my inability to leave it be. I just gotta try something to make it different. I'm always looking at something and thinking, "What can I do to trick it up a bit?"

Sometimes that works for me, sometimes it doesn't...

Plus, I cook mostly in the dutch oven on my back porch, so a lot of the "normal" recipes, I have to mod a bit to make it work. It's all good, ya know? Taste is the final arbiter...

I so agree with you. A recipe in a book is a framework...On the rare occasion I follow the recipe exactly, I end up eating the meal saying to myself 'now if I had done it this way, or added that, I think it would improve this dish.

I am starting to experiment more lately, but still have a tendency to stick pretty close to the original recipe the first time I make a dish. You must love Mark Bittman's cookbooks (I think of them as a choose-your-own adventure book for foodies).

Stuart Broz's picture

Bittman is pretty good.

Good luck experimenting!

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