Just Good Food

Common Sense Cooking:
Simplifying Recipes

by John Ryan


Someone is always trying to complicate things.

Take the recent trend where cooking dinner is treated like a science project. Instead of describing a dish's taste, texture, or how it fits in one's daily life, magazines, newspapers, and books present molecular diagrams and exhaustive recitations of methods and procedures. Besides being about as interesting as my high-school lab manual (which for some reason I still keep),

I always find myself getting irritated at these articles. Not because I have a science phobia or am somehow anti-knowledge, but because these writers take their right brain so seriously. I suspect that these are the same people who turn a walk in the park into something to be monitored, measured, recorded...and then improved upon.

If I thought this approach was simply boring, I'd avoid those articles. But as the trend gathers momentum I want to question whether it does more harm than good. For instance, ultra-exact measurements are a by-product of the lab-manual approach and they have been insinuated into nearly all recipe realms. with such precise measurements, cooking stops being sensual and becomes cerebral. Again, I have nothing against accuracy or measuring, but it drives me crazy when I see, let's say, a bread recipe calling for "2 cups plus 2 teaspoons flour."

To begin with, the "plus 2 teaspoons" is just stupid. It's stupid because flour measured with a cup is going to be off by at least a couple teaspoons because some cooks scoop and level, others can't help shaking the cup a little, and others gently spoon flour into the cup. And—here's the kicker—in the real world these differences don't matter—if there is one category of cooking that doesn't need sub-atomically calibrated measuring devices, it's bread. Besides being unnecessary, the "plus 2 teaspoons" school of cooking actually 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" leads us to believe that the secret to bread dough is micromanaged measuring. Not so. Actually, anyone can get a great dough measuring flour with a toy shovel. All that's needed are good directions. Most cooking is like driving in this respect. When you go someplace new, it's helpful have an odometer and know approximately how many miles to drive, but as you get close, you don't need an instrument that measures yards and inches, you need something to look for, like a street sign, a gas station, or a Taco Bell.

It's the same thing in the kitchen. That's why I find recipes that simply say "sauté onion for 3 minutes" so irritating. The instruction forces the cook to pay more attention to a timer than the onion. And while such precision appears helpful, it leaves a cook stranded with questions when he is actually standing at the stove—How hot should the burner be? Are the onions supposed to brown? What am I trying to accomplish or avoid by stopping at 3 minutes? Sure, it's good to know about how long something will take, but our five senses are far more sophisticated than a timer is. Directions should tell us what the onion smells like when it's done, what it looks like, how it tastes, maybe what it feels like in the pan, and sometimes even what it sounds like. So why does any of this matter? Partly because the recipe-as-formula mode of cooking is mildly insulting, it insinuates that we don't have common senses. And partly because it drains the fun right out of this little island of daily creativity. And finally, such precision often doesn't yield very good results. All of which works against cooking. After all, if we're made to feel that we have to understand biochemistry and own a set of calibrated measuring spoons to make a decent meal, I'm afraid that most of us will skip it and simply call out for pizza. And settle for lousy pizza at that.


Making Pockets with Tomato/Mushroom Filling

The saying "close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades" should be extended to bread dough as well. Bread dough is one of the most forgiving recipes in the repertoire. There's really only one rule: Don't kill the yeast. And that's easy to follow. If water is uncomfortably hot for your finger, it's too hot for the yeast. I call these pockets, though they can be called turnovers or calzones. Along with a green salad, a pocket makes a pleasant meal, and when they come hot out of the oven I can't resist knocking one off right away. But pockets also make great leftovers: they're great to take along instead of a sandwich. Getting perfect half-moon pockets takes some practice. One thing that helps is working with cold dough because it's easier to roll and shape than warm dough. Which brings up a good point: dough doesn't have to rise in a warm place, it does just fine in the refrigerator.


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 1997. Modified August 2007.