The Art of Not Following Recipes

Perhaps the best skill for any home cook is learning how not to follow recipes. That may seem like an odd thing to read in a book that contains a bunch of recipes, but I would very much encourage you to not follow the recipes in this book, or more accurately, to not follow the exact recipes. Recipes should be looked at not as a rigid set of instructions, but as a source of ideas and inspiration.   If you want to get the most enjoyment out of any recipe, you need to learn how to customize the recipe best appeal to you and your dining companions.

The most important thing you need to understand about recipes is which ingredients you should modify and which you shouldn’t. Building a recipe is a little like building a house in that there are some ingredients that are structural and some which are cosmetic. If you get a set of house plans, you can easily change the colour of the paint or the type of moldings without consulting with the architect, but if you start making changes to the foundation or the roof trusses you may find your house collapsing on top of you after you build. The same goes for recipes; if you tinker too much with the structural ingredients you may find your recipe collapsing into an inedible mess.

Every recipe has a foundation of recipes that make up the underlying structure of the dish as well as some flavouring ingredients like herbs and spices that give it some added character. Provided you have an understanding of what herbs and spices pair with various foods you can go ahead and modify quantities or make substitutions without any worries of ruining your food.

Understanding the structural ingredients in baking is particularly important. You generally should stick pretty close to the recipes ratios of things like flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. While cooking may be more like an art, baking is much more of a science, so you should not be too much a maverick when it comes to the structural ingredients in baking recipes. You can feel free to aggressively add or take away flavours. For example, you can take any recipe that calls for raisins and substitute chocolate chips, or double the amount of chocolate chips. One of the most reliable rules to live by in baking is to always substitute chocolate chips for raisins. Don’t like walnuts in something? Then use another nut or no nuts at all. It won’t make a difference.

When you are identifying structural ingredients, you need to look at what that ingredient is doing to the dish. Is it adding flavour, is it carrying flavour, or is it assisting the cooking process? When you add flour or cornstarch to a stew, it is doing little or nothing to alter the flavour of the stew; they are just meant to thicken the liquid in the stew. You can choose not to use any thickening ingredients in a stew, but you need to be aware that you will be fundamentally altering the look and texture of the stew. Substituting sage for rosemary will only affect the taste, not the structure. It is the culinary equivalent of changing the colour of the kitchen.

Later in this book I will provide a great recipe for baked chicken wings that uses baking powder. The baking powder makes the wings attain a level of crispiness that you might have thought was only possible with a deep fryer. You should feel free to modify my recipe by using spices with more or less heat or going with some more savoury spices, but if you don’t want to use baking powder, then you should just look for another recipe. It is the use of baking powder that distinguishes the wing recipe. Likewise, using these same ingredients with ribs will lead to spectacularly awful results.

You may have noticed that I have not referenced onions or garlic as structural ingredients. That is because I do not generally consider them to be structural ingredients, and even though most chefs seem to think that onions and garlic must form the base 95% of all recipes, I believe that in many, if not most cases, you can easily alter or omit these from recipes without hurting the taste. In some cases you may even improve the taste. Of course, there are recipes like French onion soup, garlic butter, or aioli sauce where onions are garlic are clearly the foundation of the recipe, but for many recipes their importance is overstated.

After understanding the structural ingredients of a recipe, the next most important thing to understand is what you like and what you don’t like. Some people like fiery hot spices while others will get physically sick from so much spice. If you don’t like too much spice and a recipe calls for jalapeño, then you can substitute poblano for it. If you prefer things the hotter the better, then substitute a serrano pepper. Garlic content can also affect people in different ways. A lot of professional cooks have built up a tolerance for garlic that the average home cook simply does not have. You will routinely encounter recipes that call for an entire head of garlic, but unless you are roasting the garlic first, most of your dinner guests will be overwhelmed. Personally, when I see a recipe that calls for an entire head of garlic I just use a clove or two.

Recipes are suggestions, not commandments. You are not going to turn a great recipe into a vomit inducing mess just because you used a half a teaspoon more thyme or left out a clove of garlic. Not only should not worry about altering a recipe, but you would be better off if you actively looked for ways to alter recipes, even ones that you enjoy.

Home Cooks Need to Learn When to Ignore Celebrity Chefs

If you like cooking, you may also like watching cooking shows on TV or reading recipe books from your favourite celebrity chef. There is a lot to be learned from someone who has worked as a professional chef for many years, but there are also plenty of things to ignore. Knowing when not to take a celebrity chef’s advice is an important skill that every successful home cook needs to acquire.

You need to understand that to be a professional chef, you need to eat everything. To run a successful high end restaurant you need to serve a wide array of dishes as you have a wide array of customers, each of whom generally likes to try something new every time they come back to the restaurant. You can’t master cooking a recipe if you never actually taste what you are cooking, so chefs are by their nature extremely open minded and adventurous when it comes to trying something new. And because they are always pushing the envelope to create new and bold flavours, they have are much less sensitive to strong tasting foods. The average home cook, and particularly the friends and family members that he or she is cooking for, tend to have much less adventurous culinary tastes.

A huge proportion of the North American population eat pretty much the same thing over and over. Tacos are about as exotic a food as half the population has ever eaten, so when you want to try to impress a dinner guest with something new, you need to sometimes be careful not to try something too new. Maybe that Asian stew with the fish sauce and habanero peppers is not the way to go. Also, a lot of people don’t like their fish to be looking at them while they eat. Celebrity chefs love to serve a whole bass, but your neighbours are not celebrity chefs, so perhaps serve them a filet instead.

There is not a single chef in the world who likes their steak well done, or more accurately, there isn’t a single chef who would admit to liking their steak well done. The prevailing wisdom in the cooking industry is that the less a food is cooked, the more flavourful it will be, and so sophisticated diners who appreciate great food will have their food cooked as rare as possible while the uncultured, simpleton diners will lean toward well done. Don’t listen to any of that. Cook your food to whatever level of doneness you and your guests prefer. You are the one buying the food, not the chef on TV, so cook it however way you like it.

It is also important to know how to adjust recipes. For example, I find that most cookbook recipes call for at least twice as much garlic as I can handle, so whatever recipe I see, I always cut the amount of garlic in half. I also find that many recipes will overdo the onions, so I will often cut back a little bit, sometimes by using a small onion or substituting with shallots. When I see fish sauce I either omit it from the recipe or omit the recipe altogether. If you like the taste of rotting fish, feel free to add it. The point is that you need to adapt the celebrity chef’s recipes to your tastes, not adapt your taste to their recipes.