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September 23, 2007

Cooking style: Empiricist

Halo Effect, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

Amanda asks: What is your cooking style?

I love cookbooks and recipes. I'm especially fond of family recipes.

I love America's Test Kitchen because they are models of evidence-based cooking. They aren't afraid to experiment, but they subject their results to blind tastings and test their recipes exhaustively. If I make something out of ATK book, I can be confident that it will actually turn out the way it's described.

If I'm cooking from a recipe, I always follow it exactly the first time. If I like the results well enough to replicate the dish, I may repeat it exactly several times in order to make sure that I really know how to make it. Then I'll start tweaking it, one variable at a time, to get it exactly the way I want it.   My pad thai recipe is a very slight variation on the ATK pad thai. (I found I liked more shallots and a little less oil than they called for. I omit the beansprouts.)

It drives me (irrationally) crazy when people neither follow, nor write down their own recipes. I applaud innovation. There's no reason anyone should be bound to someone else's recipe. But if you don't write down your own procedure, how can you duplicate your results next time, or systematically improve on them?


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"if you don't write down your own procedure, how can you duplicate your results next time, or systematically improve on them?"

You don't; you know how to cook from years of cooking, as opposed to knowing that this recipe produces these results (with ceteris paribus boilerplate.) Non-"systematic" cooks engage available ingredients, the occasion, the company with something closer to tact than rule- or recipe-following.

Recipes are essential for explaining to other people how to get your results if you can't show them in person. They're incredibly hard to write clearly, vividly and exactly.

Heuristic rules about what goes with what and in what proportions. That, and tasting as you go.

I get better results this way than following recipes to the letter. I find many recipes have some sort of proportion or cooking time error*, but when following a recipe I usually make the mistake of gritting it out to the bitter end even when something seems wrong because surely the pro chef that wrote it knows better than me, right? Wrong.

My recipes (to other people) are almost always littered with "Add X to taste" and "cook until done".

Of course, I don't bake. Baking is chemistry, and you really do need to get the proportions right or the chemistry goes wrong. But even baking, there's some trial and error: getting the moisture content of pizza dough right varies with the climate, so no recipe can help you there.

*For example, Mario Batali's recipe for Bolognese sauce has you simmer it for AN HOUR! Absolutely nothing good happens in those last 40-45 minutes.

I have a whole "bread and soup combinations" cookbook that has three, yes, three excellent recipes in it and as far as I've explored, the rest isn't worth tinkering with to make them palatable. Odd business.

What is this "cook" you speak of? Some sort of process involving food I take it?

I am very careful to write down the numbers of good delivery places so I can replicate the results the next time I need to eat.

Dock Miles, I don't think I've ever found a cookbook with more than a half dozen recipes that I liked enough to repeat. With all the recipes on the internet and in books at the library, I'm don't see why anyone bothers to buy an entire cookbook anymore.

Despite my liberal progressive tendencies, I follow an authoritarian approach to cooking---most of the time, I follow recipes to the letter. If you season to taste, the terrorists have already won!

When my main goal is to get a nice, balanced dinner on the table before 7:00, I generally don't use recipes. I typically cook dinner for my family at least five nights a week, and though I usually have a general plan in advance, when it comes down to it, I just cook. Trying to follow a recipe when you have a toddler running around fraying your attention is a losing proposition, anyway.

For example, tonight I used a particular formula that I often use to cook cruciform vegetables. I don't know where I learned it -- possibly I just made it up. Basically, you steam your vegetables (in this case broccoli) until not quite tender, then saute them for a minute or two with spices (in this case whole cumin seeds) and finish with a splash of something acidic (in this case, cider vinegar). It never comes out the same way twice, but that's kind of the point. When I started chopping up the broccoli tonight, I knew more or less what I was going to do with it, but I didn't know exactly what until I actually did it.

I do sometimes write out a recipe when something I've made comes out particularly well. Then I usually lose the recipe.

I use recipes mainly when I'm teaching myself a new technique. My most recent explorations have been with canning -- I made some killer marmalade with the last few oranges harvested off our tree, and now I've got the bug. This is the kind of thing I think of as my "off-hours" cooking -- the stuff I do when I have a few free hours at home alone.

I often use recipes when I'm cooking meat, because I was a vegetarian for many years and I still feel inexpert about things like cooking times and what to do with different cuts of meat.

Of course, I use recipes for baking, which is a much more precise business. Ditto making candy. Recently, I've been experimenting with pate de fruits.

I think of recipes as sets of customizable modules.

For example, one ur-recipe is the "boil and fry." One module is the boiled component, where you boil up some pasta, or some rice and lentils, or some cous-cous (okay, technically you don't boil the cous-cous -- you boil the water first then put it in, more typically), or other things, each with possible variants (add cauliflower to the boiling pasta? How 'bout swiss chard? Kale?). Then you also have a fried component, which generally includes onions, garlic, and olive oil. Some might prefer to use, say, peanut oil, or butter (I'm vegan, personally, but I'm just mentioning it). What else? Red bell pepper? Eggplant? Diced potatoes? Zucchini?

There are many possible variants, but the core ur-recipe is boiling stuff, frying stuff, then combining the two into one dish through mixing. Each component, however, is to some extent an independent module.

Other ur-recipes might "dry starchy conveyor and gooey sweet ingredients," which could include peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, blueberry pies, apple crisps, and other things.

This is not to say that all modules function perfectly well with each other within a single ur-recipe. A peanut butter and jelly crisp, for example, is probably not a good idea.

The point is, though, that's how I think of recipes.

Spoken like a true little kitchen scientist.

I like the idea of cooking, but in practice I suck at it. I'm that hapless chef in last summer's rat cartoon.

Even when I think I'm following the recipe slavishly, it never quite comes out right. So forget about variations on a theme, much less improvising.

It's not that I'm the gustatory equivalent of tone-deaf or color-blind. I love treating my tastebuds to an orgy.

But any kind of cooking that involves the combining of flavors is alchemy to me.

Since the ingredients can vary without any help from the recipe, I tend to work around the curent status of the ingredients. Recipes are good guideposts to better cooking but slavish attention to them can result in missed oppurtunities.
Exception has to be made for baking where exact balance of ingredients can be the difference between success and failure but two ingredients are often left out of written recipes- altitude and humidity. Thus experience has to be used to adjust for differences.

I love ethnic and regional cookbooks with beautiful photographs; I'm not usually slavish enough, though, when I'm following the recipes for the first time. It may be arrogance or just a lack of self-discipline, but either way I should've learned my lesson by now.

My problem is that, even the first time I make something from a recipe, I always end up improvising. (Obviously, I don't bake.)

I recently got my hands on the famous Chasen's chili recipe, and followed it, for the most part...but in the end, I added some stuff, cuz I like my recipe better, or I should say, the results of my recipe better. Is that so wrong?

I have over 200 cookbooks, many of them vintage. My friend all have dibs on who gets what in the event that something untoward should happen to me.

I love recipes for their own sake, you don't even have to make 'em.'s the trick...even if it's just a small stake, sear it in oil on high heat on all sides, then put it in a pre-heated 375ish oven and, if it's a small steak, take it out in 5 minutes and let sit for 5 minutes (it will go on cooking itself even after you take it out of the oven.) I'm assuming you like your stake rare to med-rare. More time in the oven, depending on the size of the meat. Now here's the real trick...serve your steak sliced...cut the meat on the bias, that means against the grain, and at an angle (not straight up and down.) With fish, oven, stove top pan cooking, or on the grill, it's better to under cook it than over cook it.

Always remember that if you let any kind of meat rest before serving, it will go on cooking itself, not to mention, the juices will circulate through the meat.

That's a beautiful shot itself, by the way.

while I appreciate the empirical approach, most of what I cook is really dependent on the ingredients
How hot are these habaneros, how sweet are these banana peppers, what does this wine taste like, am I use fresh spices of ground etc and because they change every time I cook something I have to taste as I go no matter how well I wrote it down the first time.
I keep recipes around more to tell me what flavors are supposed to be in a dish, rather than to tell me how to get the flavors.

i am a recipe follower. although once i feel that i have the chart down as written the jazz baby in me takes over and the improvisation begins. i love baking, braising, all of it. when i started my blog i was expecting to write about politics and the music industry, turns out people look forward to my food posts the most.

especially when i write about chocolate.

I cook by taste. I'm lucky--I can remember tastes fairly accurately, and I can taste absences and figure out how to fill them.

Yes, I cook mostly things that can be tasted while cooking.

Love braising! You can't go wrong.

"if you don't write down your own procedure, how can you duplicate your results next time, or systematically improve on them?"

I agree with Dabodius - plus I have very little interested in eating the same things over and over again. If it's different every time then I get to eat something new every time.

oh NO !! You may 'force' a change in my tactics. After I lost a family member very unexpectedly I developed this habit of getting 'lost' in the kitchen. As long as someone was there to make sure I didn't burn the house down.

Anyway .. I was always whomping up YUMMY stuff. I have zero idea how to re-create these things I whipped up flawlessly for months. People are always asking for them, too.
Cashew Chicken. Can be traveled, camped or elegantly dined on. Baked not fried. That's what I remember ...
And, it's GOOD.
Don't know if we'll ever see it again ...

"if you don't write down your own procedure, how can you duplicate your results next time, or systematically improve on them?"

Using actual fresh ingredients also make duplication of results difficult.

Sometimes the broccoli is tougher and somteimes more tender, or the squash has a more floral flavor or a grassier one, or the garlic can be either more intense or milder. It drives me crazy, why can't nature create identical, changeless, unseasonal products so that all my meals are replicable and incrementally improvable?

A little variety is always nice and I can guesstimate weights and measures with the best of them...the problem is mellowing the spices so it is edible by people with sensitive tastebuds and bellies.

Fuck picky eaters I say!

But if you don't write down your own procedure, how can you duplicate your results next time, or systematically improve on them?

You can't. I fully admit that laziness with writing down recipes has probably lost a few stellar dishes to the universe.

For me it depends on why I'm cooking. Most days, I do the lazy cooking--saute or boil whatever veggies I have and perhaps some tofu, throw it on potatoes or rice, and throw some spices or sauce on them. Occasionally I will try something more elaborate, in which case I work off a recipe (I usually don't have all the ingredients and make substitutions).
Most recipes are a bit vague on purpose. If you're cooking something as simple as spaghetti, the last bit is cook to taste--I can write this down, but what it means to someone else is different and the time it takes will depend on how fresh/what type of spaghetti it is (and the humidity and ...). Even with a recipe, the results won't be the same each time.

Clearly some of us dare to risk disimprovement, since we seek to improve unsystematically.

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