Years ago, while teaching a baking class, I looked across the room to witness an eager new baker in the back, his arm deep in a bowl of wet chocolate-cake batter, blending it with fervent enthusiasm. “The recipe says to stir it by hand,” he replied to my offer of a spatula, clearly anxious to accurately follow instructions.
Of course, anyone attending a cooking class is there to learn, and often my presence makes them pay even closer attention to the detail of a recipe I’ve set out for them to follow. And yet, while a big part of my job is writing recipes, I can’t help but feel that prescribing a list of detailed instructions and precise measurements can actually hinder the development of culinary intuition. A cake or curry is not an IKEA bookshelf; there are no precut pieces with one set of directions from which the merest diversion would result in disaster. Great food is not always the result of a prescribed formula; experienced cooks – we all seem to have some in our families – turn out enviably perfect pies and biryanis by feel, adding salt and spice without the aid of a measuring spoon and just enough liquid to “make the dough feel right.”
A recipe writer may decide that precisely two teaspoons of thyme yields the right flavour for her or his half-dozen chicken thighs, but ingredients vary and taste is subjective. Why do almost all recipes feed a family of four to six? And when is it ever necessary to measure the oil you use as a starting point in the bottom of your soup or stew pot? Yes, measurements can act as a guide – and are arguably more important when it comes to baking ratios – but always specifying a precise measure can teach the cook that success relies on repetitive meticulousness.
There was little precision in the kitchen before the arrival of standard measures; literal teacups and teaspoons were often enlisted as the similarly sized instruments most likely to be in most kitchens (old recipes often call for “butter the size of an egg”), and it’s believed that the Boston Cooking School Cook Book, published in 1896 by Fannie Merritt Farmer (and later republished as the Fannie Farmer Cookbook), was the first to utilize standardized measurers. Soon after, it was decided across much of the Western world that cooking should be part of school curriculums, which meant it was necessary to establish a consistent format of step-by-step instruction, with an ingredient list for the instructor and students’ easy reference. Directions remained succinct enough to fit more than one recipe on a page, far from the exhaustive step-by-steps with detailed doneness indicators we are hand-held with today.
Even up until the seventies and eighties, a basic cooking knowledge was assumed – in the original Best of Bridge series, which sold millions of self-published copies to Canadian home cooks, instructions were blunt: “cook the pasta”, “brown the meat in a skillet,” or “bake until bubbly.” Yet today, as Tasty-style cooking videos dominate Facebook and we carry access to every recipe that has ever been published plus unlimited culinary resources in our back pockets, when I share simple processes on social media – boil new potatoes, squish them with a fork, drizzle with oil and roast at 425 F until golden – people inevitably reply, “This sounds great! Where’s the recipe?”
I try to comply, but not everyone needs the same quantity of roasted smashed potatoes at any given time. We don’t all have the same taste for spice and salt, and there are no standard-issue baking dishes. Some of us have a bottle of canola oil beside the stove, some keep olive oil, others a tub of ghee. Kitchens come loaded with variables – the material your pots, pans and baking dishes are made of, the accuracy of your oven and whether it’s gas or electric, traditional or convection, the way you mix, fold and sauté, where your flour was milled and how you measured it, the size of the scoops of cookie dough you portioned out onto your sheet, even the temperature of your kitchen. Cookbook authors can test and retest in the name of reliability and accuracy, and write recipes with ultraprecise measurements and temperatures, but in the end, there will be variables we can never account for. “Season to taste” takes our diversity into account, but also relies on the cook’s ability to adjust seasonings – salt, spice, acid – as needed. It relies on some level of innate cooking knowledge.
So, does this increased level of hand-holding make for better cooks or force people to become more dependent? Is it time for a new, or at least updated, standard recipe format for the digital age? It’s likely that this century-old, if wordier, composition of a recipe – an ingredient list followed by step by step instructions – is so ingrained in our cultural psyche, there will never be a new standard. Recipes themselves are refreshingly analog; only their delivery method seems to evolve, moving online, transmitted digitally, often in spurts on Instagram stories. “If you can follow a recipe, you can cook” is a common mantra, but perhaps we need to let them go once in a while, and attempt to hone our culinary instincts – at the stove, with a pot and spoon, without an iPhone or guidebook.