Just Good Food

Cooking As Science

by John Ryan


Someone is always trying to complicate things unnecessarily. Take the recent trend to treat cooking as science. In magazines and even newspapers you can find molecular diagrams, controlled experiments...the whole nine yards.

This happens to be one trend I don't think is driven by popular demand. I mean, call me out of touch, but I don't think the cooking public has been dying to learn how proteins bond. No, I think this trend is simply window dressing, a garnish as it were, to make recipes look definitive.

Diagrams and long descriptions of experiments can be glossed over, but ultra-exact measurements are a part of the trend that has crept into recipes. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against measuring or understanding how things work, but it drives me crazy when I see a bread recipe that calls for "2 cups plus 2 teaspoons" flour.

To begin with, it's stupid. It's stupid because flour measured with a cup is going to be off by at least a teaspoon because some cooks scoop and level, others can't help shaking the cup a little, and others gently spoon flour into the cup. But these differences have never mattered— I mean, bread dough never has required sub-atomic precision.

What really frosts me about "plus 2 teaspoons" is that it misdirects our attention. It's like the kid who says "Hey look, Santa Claus" and then swipes your candy bar when you look.

"Plus 2 teaspoons" makes you think the secret to bread dough is micromanaging flour. Not so. You can get a great dough measuring flour with a toy shovel. All that's needed are good directions.

Cooking is like driving in this respect. When you need directions, it's helpful to know approximately how many miles to drive, but as you get close, you don't need yards and inches, you need something to look for—a street sign, a gas station, or a Taco Bell.

Same thing in cooking. That's why it bugs me when I'm not told what to look for, when I'm only given "sauté onion over medium heat for 3 minutes."

Why does any of this matter? Partly because the recipe-as-formula approach drains the fun right out of cooking. But also because if you feel like you have to understand biochemistry and own a set of calibrated measuring spoons to make a decent meal, you'll probably just call out for pizza.



Pockets with Tomato Mushroom Filling
Bread Dough Tips
Wild Mushroom Risotto

John Ryan

Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.

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This page created 1996