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On Your Own: Doing Thanksgiving, or Any Meal, Without a Recipe

On Your Own: Doing Thanksgiving, or Any Meal, Without a Recipe

The world of cookbook and culinary publishing is dependent upon the shared notion that people require guidance toward great, or at least passable, cooking. Most of the guidance comes in the form of easily navigable recipes, containing clear lists of ingredients, measurements, and techniques. If we, as consumers, were to confidently shun the use of recipes, well the publishing world would likely be out on its Asiago. But the likelihood of that happening is pretty slim, and there are no real signs of people easing up on their recipe addiction. That said, there exist a movement of sorts to move beyond the shackles of the recipe and embrace the improvisational, as well as experimental, aspects of cooking.

During a season when people seem to be hopelessly dependent upon the gospel of the recipe, it seems to be brazenly going against the grain to even imagine cooking a meal (let alone a big family meal) without constantly checking your work against the oil splattered page of an open recipe book. But a batch of cookbook authors, some well-known and others not so much, are insisting that we shake our blind faith in the recipe and start cooking with our senses, and a little more confidence. Mark Bittman, made famous by his Minimalist column in The New York Times, has recently embraced something that resembles a looser version of the static recipe in his recent writings for the Times. Michael Ruhlman, author of the anti-recipe book, Ratio, breaks cooking down to its component parts and breaks cooking down to the less romantic notions of ratios and proportions – a system that is intended to work for everything from biscuit dough to vinaigrettes. There is Sally Schneider, author of the appropriately titled The Improvisational Cook, which embraces more of a specified spontaneity pairing select ingredients with pantry essentials, and this will hopefully yield something inspiring and delicious. And then we have Phillip Dundas, author of the fairly explicitly titled Cooking Without Recipes, a book lacking any real recipe and instead providing just advice on utensils (you need fewer than you think), shopping for ingredients (example: only buy jam with 60% fruit), and helpful information about their properties to help you experiment more successfully. Dundas, rejects the cult of the celebrity chef, and is all about putting food first, using the best quality ingredients (as we all know ingredients make the dish), and being responsible for what you create. His mantra is simple: “In your kitchen, there are only rules that you make.”

Despite this new movement to imbue home cooks to trust their instincts and allow the ingredients to shine, more so than the celebrity chefs with the sweet publishing deals, it is really difficult to imagine a true paradigm shift. That said, there are countless cooks out there that never, and I mean never, even glance at a recipe, but still turn out amazingly inspired dishes, whether they were inspired by any of the above titles or not. Your great grandmother likely had a few staple recipes that she would lovingly recreate each time, or tweak to her liking (depending upon availability of ingredients and the luxury of time). So, are you up for the challenge? While most of you are not likely to be throwing out those recipe books for the upcoming holiday season, are you any more likely to cook in a more improvisational manner? If so, what do you think could be gained from such an approach (besides more self confidence)? Can you be tempted away from your dog-eared cookbooks and gravy-splattered recipes?

Read more: All recipes, Blogs, Christmas, Following Food, Food, Thanksgiving, , , , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

35 comments

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2:52PM PST on Nov 28, 2011

I usually use a recipe whenever I cook but I don't always follow it exactly to the letter. I do better if I have a recipe to follow as opposed to just throwing stuff together and hoping it tastes good.

9:06PM PST on Nov 27, 2011

I love recipes.. and need them ..ouch!

3:58PM PST on Nov 25, 2011

I love recipe books and quite often sit down and read it like it was a magazine. Having said that, like many of you I rarely follow the recipe and add/subtract ingredience to my own tastye. If I follow a recipe the family rates it out of ten and I add my own comments. Great for family discussions and getting evryone opinion

3:58PM PST on Nov 25, 2011

I love recipe books and quite often sit down and read it like it was a magazine. Having said that, like many of you I rarely follow the recipe and add/subtract ingredience to my own tastye. If I follow a recipe the family rates it out of ten and I add my own comments. Great for family discussions and getting evryone opinion

7:17AM PST on Nov 24, 2011

Recipes are great. Think of them as a diving board-- you spring off and dive in, then it's up to you to stay afloat. I learned to cook from my mother-- she never used a recipe, but that meant, I only knew how to cook what she cooked. If I wanted a wider range, I had to venture out. THE JOY OF COOKING was my diving board.From there, I got inventive-- add a little of this, don't use that, substitute this-- next thing you know , you're inventing recipes, while your daughter watches closely to add to her skills. Of course, now, she adds a little of this and substitutes that...

6:57AM PST on Nov 24, 2011

Cooking is a traumatic experience for me. Can't imagine winging it,

6:05PM PST on Nov 23, 2011

As with most readers, I too love to read a recipe, but when I actually make it, I always change it. I add more of something, leave something out completely and add something not called for. This is how we make it our own recipe.
Only we know what we would like in a dish. We know our own tastes better than the person who wrote the recipe. It was written to suit them, not everyone. So make all the changes you need to so that the end result is satisfying to you and your family. If you don't, you will more than likely toss out any leftovers, and that's a waste of food.

10:55PM PST on Nov 22, 2011

Thank you, Eric.:)

8:00PM PST on Nov 22, 2011

I love to read cookbooks, but rarely use them to actually cook. Sometimes I use it "loosely", adding things, leaving things out, whatever works for me and those I cook for. Baking is another matter. Usually I follow the recipe for cookies, cakes, and pie crust. The pie filling is usually all mine. Even so, I envy those who make sauces and fancy dishes, as most of what I do is fairly simple. Thanks for an interesting article.

6:25PM PST on Nov 22, 2011

Thanks.

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