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Every time I teach a cooking class, I ask the group how many follow a recipe exactly. Inevitably, about a third raise their hands, some sheepishly, with a few on the fence noting that baking is different – with baking you have to, they all agree, because it’s more science-y. It’s not uncommon to stray from the instructions: We all know a fantastic baker who relies entirely on feel. A friend recently lamented that when he asked his mother how much flour she used in her dough, she replied, “You know, until it feels right – I use my purple cup.”

And yet, there remains an air of fear that anything but strict adherence to a prescribed formula leads to the great unknown, that such recklessness is an almost certain recipe for disaster.

There are plenty of debates over whether recipes are useful or infantilizing, and if the hand-holding erodes our ability to cook for ourselves. Some insist that the only legitimate cooking is free-wheeling, relying on our own taste and culinary intuition. Others argue that we all have to eat, and not everyone has the ability to cook – for them, that hand-holding is vital. But what’s often missing from these discussions about what makes a good recipe is the recognition that these guides, what they mean and how we use them, has changed over time, as our relationship with food has evolved.

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When cooking was more of a domestic obligation, the few cookbooks that were published were thick, didactic collections of brief instructional blurbs, the recipes often merely ingredient lists offered as guidance. Vague directions, such as “butter the size of an egg” or “bake in a moderate oven until done,” were the norm, allowing for kitchen and ingredient inconsistencies and scarcities. Since cooking expert and cookbook author Fanny Farmer standardized both kitchen measures and what we now accept as the “proper” recipe format (ingredients listed in order, followed by instructions) more than a century ago, recipes have evolved to be far more detailed, replete with glossy step-by-step photos. Over the last 20 years or so, cheap printing and the influence of the internet and social media have not only accelerated the pace of change, but exponentially increased the number of recipes and our access to them.

“The new generation hasn’t grown up in a household with their grandmother and great aunts teaching them about cooking and their food culture,” says Soo Kim, past food director at Canadian Living, who has also spent part of her career in the test kitchens at Chatelaine and Homemakers magazines. “Although we devour every slick cookbook, food show and food news, and purchase all the hot gadgets, people aren’t cooking as much as our parents and grandparents were.”

Kim is right. For many, cooking is not the necessary daily task it once was: 54% of Canadians eat out at least once a week, and we lean heavily on prepared foods and Uber Eats, often diving into elaborate culinary projects on the weekend, making time in the kitchen more of a leisure activity or creative outlet. For the food secure, dinner decisions are often determined by mood or what we see on our social feeds, rather than what’s available that needs to be used. We buy ingredients to make a recipe we’re inspired by, rather than scavenge our fridge and turn what we find into a meal. Here, the recipe becomes the starting point; the rule to be followed.

There are great cooks who follow recipes, and great cooks who don’t. While there is plenty of science involved, particularly when it comes to baking, most recipes with similar characteristics also have similar ingredient lists in varying ratios. This suggests that precise measures may not be as important as understanding the role each component plays in the end result. Most chocolate-chip cookie recipes, for example, contain butter, white and brown sugars, egg, vanilla, flour, baking soda, salt and chocolate chips, with the quantity of each (plus factors such as method and oven temperature) determining how flat, chewy or cakey the resulting cookies will be.

And here’s something interesting: Even formulas for biscuits, which tend to have a universally defined ideal (tall, flaky, tender, buttery), can vary widely. The definitive biscuit recipe put out by The New York Times calls for 2 cups flour, 2 tablespoons baking powder, 5 tablespoons butter and 1 cup milk, while Bon Appétit’s best biscuits call for 3½ cups flour, 2½ teaspoons baking powder, 1 cup butter and 1 cup buttermilk. The ratios of dry to liquid to fat are wildly different, as is the quantity of leavening – and yet both have earned five-star ratings from thousands of home cooks. So, isn’t straying from one recipe merely wandering into another?

Recipes on the internet have likely surpassed the billions, and there are more cookbooks published than ever before, suggesting there is no lack of demand for instruction or inspiration, whether our needs are more technical or emotional. In modern-day terms, the objective of any good recipe is continuity – clear enough direction for anyone to recreate the same dish, no matter who or where they are, with identical results.

But should predictability be the ultimate goal? Restaurateur Vikram Vij once told me his customers sometimes comment that his chicken curry “isn’t the same as last time.”

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“Good!” he would reply. It shouldn’t be the same dish every time. This is the essence of cooking, he says – how your masala, and thus your curry, turns out depends on the day, the ingredients you have – and the mood of the cook.

Recipes are tools, like the knife that has the right balance in your hand, and how we use them varies as widely as our creative processes do. Some feel better knowing exactly what size of pot to boil their water in, and others will instinctively pull out the one they know will allow their pasta to move around. Regardless of their level of ambiguity, recipes allow us to get a feel for our ingredients and tools, to try something new or slip out of our usual comfort zone. Whether we cook untethered or with some virtual hand-holding shouldn’t matter to the end result – food on the table for the people around it.

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