Saturday, February 17, 2007

Recipes: Rules vs Guidelines

I was thinking about this on the way to the grocery store this morning. If somebody were to analyze the nature of a shopping list, as I did during the short drive to the store, one might think of it as a set of rules. It's a somewhat vague set of rules, requiring the correct interpretation, kind of like a programming language. Consider the following:

10 PRINT "Hello, I am the TRS-80 Color Computer."
20 PRINT "What is your name?"
40 PRINT "Hello " + A$ + ", how are you?"

This is the kind of thing I did when I was six years old. I thought it was the most brilliant thing in the world, and I copied those four lines out of the book that came with the computer all the time. That piece of BASIC programming code is mostly self-explanatory, but it still requires the proper interpreter. Now consider the following:

a loaf of bread
a carton of eggs
a container of milk
a stick of butter
chocolate cream pie
cream puffs

Let's pretend that this was my shopping list this morning (it wasn't). Knowing that this is a shopping list, most people would instantly understand the rules implied: I need to buy all of these items, and only these items. It's a simple set of rules, but it doesn't tell the whole story. My wife has been asking alternately for cream puffs and chocolate cream pie for a couple of weeks now. Knowing that either would make her happy, I put both on the list with the intention of choosing one or ther other when I got to the store.

While I was walking around the store, my wife called me and reminded me that her family would be stopping by tomorrow, and that maybe we should pick up something special for them. That was when I decided to buy both the cream pie and the cream puffs. On my way there, I walked by the baby aisle and decided to pick up some baby wipes. We won't be needing them for a while, but they were on sale, I had a couple of extra bucks, and we would need them eventually.

As you can see, the shopping list really wasn't a set of rules. It was a set of guidelines. It was a reminder of what I thought I might want to get when I wrote it. And that's kind of what I wanted to get into with recipes.

A lot of people see a recipe as a set of rules. The ingredient list specifies a set of items that must be added, no more, no less. This is all fine and good if you cook at a restaurant, and things like consistency are key to their business. But even restaurants keep in mind instructions like "to taste". Not every stalk of celery is going to be the same, nor every pound of chicken. One batch of soup may end up needing a teaspoon of salt, and the next two or three. When one makes that batch of soup at home, they feel like adding parsnips to it, or swapping out the chicken for beef. The recipe is a guideline that can be used to create a version of that dish that is most appropriate for the moment.

A lot of professional bakeries refer to their recipes as formulas. In the baking world, it's important to be exact, but that's not the only reason they use formulas. There a whole new language that bakers use, whose intepretation can seem pretty arcane. Flour is always 100%, and all other ingredients are compared to flour by weight. One recipe might call for a pound of flour and perhaps 12 oz of eggs. That comes out to 100% flour and 75% eggs.

So if bakers are so exact as to use formulas instead of recipes, then why do they use things like bench flour? Why do they check for things like consistency? Not all bakery ingredients are equal. One bag of flour might contain 12.1138% protein, while the next might have 12.0042% protein and another might have 12.2600% protein. It is darned hard to find two eggs that weight exactly the same amount. Bakers have to watch for these inconsistencies and compensate as necessary. In the end, for all their formulas and equations, bakers still have to rely on guidelines.

Next time you whip out that stroganoff recipe for dinner, or that chicken curry recipe, take a closer look at that list of ingredients next time and maybe even that set of instructions. What do you think you could do differently? Maybe it would taste good with marjoram instead of oregano. Maybe you could use beef chuck instead of chicken breast. Or maybe there isn't really anything you want to do with it. That's okay. Try it out tomorrow. Maybe next time you come back to that recipe you'll have more ideas. Eventually you'll be able to make that dish without needing a recipe at all.


  1. This blog sure brings back memories.

  2. You know the pain is trying to figure out where you can improvise, and where you need to follow the rules. Especially since the cookbooks don't really give any help in that area. But I have found some amazing things can happen when you greatly reduce the sugar in a recipe.


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