I can almost feel all the eyebrows lifting out there, and I’m sure it sounds contradictory coming from someone who has posted—ahem, 257 recipes in the past two years. But here goes, anyway. I don’t like recipes, and they are not my friend. Whew, that was tough to admit. Despite the immense collection of cookbooks in my kitchen, home office, attic storage, garage and the new one that I just bought two weeks ago, I don’t like recipes. The reasons are many, but I have boiled it down to a few, and they all point to the same issue: recipes hardly ever teach you anything, and they can even set you up to fail. Kind of like the way GPS can get you more lost than you’ve ever been.
When I clicked “publish” on my first Comfort du Jour post—exactly two years ago today—it was my mission to share ideas for elevating classic comfort foods and demystifying more extravagant dishes to make them more approachable for the home cook. My hope, of course, is that cooks of every skill level will find something interesting on my blog, something worth trying themselves and perhaps with a few changes to make one of my dishes their own. Inspiration—that’s my goal. Short of having you literally join me in the kitchen, however, some of my ideas might leave you with more questions than answers. And that’s the problem with recipes.
Like almost everyone I know, I have successes and failures in the kitchen, and some of them are spectacular on both ends of that scale. In my opinion, it is better to work toward developing one’s own skills in the kitchen rather than following recipes, because understanding techniques will carry you through any new dish. As I embark on my third year of food blogging, my new (or, I should say, additional) goal will be to help explain how I have honed my cooking skills so that learning or trying new dishes feels natural and fun.
With that in mind, I offer what I consider to be the top 5 problems with recipes. Rebuttals are welcome, of course, as are your own recipe peeves and observations. Here we go!
5. Recipes can be too vague or too detailed
Have you ever tried to follow a recipe that seems to assume that you graduated from culinary school? This happens to me when I look at many older cookbooks, and even some of the cookie recipes left behind by my own dear grandmother. What if I didn’t know, for example, that “mix all ingredients together” really means to cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time, blending after each, then stir in the vanilla and then stir in the flour? When my Gram passed away in 2019, I was startled and saddened to realize that I only had four of her recipe cards in my collection—four! But my panic quickly turned to relief when it dawned on me that I have a whole backlog of memories to guide me. During all the afternoons I spent in her kitchen, she taught me her techniques, and that is worth a million recipes.
On the flip side of that, too much detail in a recipe can be just as bad as not enough. If the author of the recipe assumes that you have zero cooking abilities, you may have trouble following all those words. And if you should happen to need to double or half a recipe like that? Ugh, forget it. I have literally wrecked the simplest of recipes because the wordiness made me lose my place or second-guess my own instincts. It is embarrassing to admit, but I lost my mind a little bit because I couldn’t figure out when to add the toasted pecans to a carrot cake in the Bobby Flay book. The recipe literally did not address it, but I should not have needed it in writing. When I lose my confidence in the kitchen, I also lose my joy. Don’t let this happen to you! 🙂
4. Ingredient lists that are too long or don’t offer substitution ideas
A dish needs what it needs, but one that uses a miniscule amount of every condiment and spice in my kitchen isn’t going to happen. This is exactly why I have never made pad Thai—a fantastic dish, but 25 ingredients is too darn many for me! And if you can’t find two or three of the ingredients, does that mean you can’t make the dish? There is a substitute for almost everything in the world of food, and the more unusual the ingredients, the more likely you’ll need to know what those substitutes are. This is also true for those with food allergies or sensitivities; understanding how a substitute ingredient will behave in the recipe is as important as knowing how it will taste. Gluten-free flour cannot be substituted evenly for wheat flour in a yeast bread, but it may work fine in a pancake recipe. The protein in dairy milk might play a role that can’t be handled by almond or cashew milk. Aquafaba, the liquid in a can of chickpeas, can be a vegan substitute for eggs in one dish (if the eggs are primarily a binder) but you obviously cannot scramble it up into an omelet. A perfect recipe would describe how to adjust for substitutions but spelling out every possibility will lead back to the problem of the recipe being too detailed.
3. Recipes with steps that are based on time
I recently bought the book, Beat Bobby Flay, because my husband and I are somewhat addicted to watching the competition show on Food Network. One of the first recipes I checked out made me shake my head because it described cooking a mixture for 5 minutes, adding an ingredient and cooking 2 more minutes, adding something else and stirring constantly for 2 minutes. And I wondered to myself, how does Bobby know how long it will take on my stove, with my pans? There are so many variables from one cook to the next—everything from your stove to your cookware to the ambient temperature in your kitchen can shift the cook time on a recipe. Even the various burners on the same stove will perform differently, so unless the recipe also describes the visual cues to watch for, don’t trust the time marks. Bobby Flay is a very accomplished chef (and one of my favorites), so this is not a slam against him—just a reminder that knowing how to cook is a prerequisite for using recipes. The clock has very little to do with it, except for planning what time to get started.
2. Recipes that sound too easy to be true
With the advent of social media came the prevalence of recipes that have not been tested prior to publishing, and there seems to be a newfound fascination with recipes using the least number of ingredients (which is a joke, given that each “ingredient” has its own lengthy ingredient list). I’ve seen some flat-out crazy things on Pinterest, and some TikTok users get their kicks by posting impossible recipes—I suppose just to see if people will click on it so they can go viral. If you honestly believe that self-rising flour and mashed sweet potatoes will produce the fluffiest dinner rolls you’ve ever seen, and that they can be baked in the microwave, then you might also be interested in buying some oceanfront property in Kansas. Not to discourage experimenting, of course, but trust your judgment. If a recipe smells like a scam, it probably is, and I hate wasting food.
1. Recipes are made for the author’s taste, not yours
If you don’t believe this one, just look at the online “reviews” for any recipe. It won’t take more than a minute for you to find a review that gripes that the dish is too salty, followed immediately by another review that says the dish has no flavor and needs more salt. This is not a problem with recipes as much as it is a reminder that taste is subjective, and the more you are able to understand and adjust a recipe on your own, the happier you’ll be with the finished dish.
So let’s hear it. What are your thoughts on recipes, and what makes them better or worse for you?
And speaking of recipes, get ready for some more inspiration from me, including—you guessed it—some new dishes I’ve been cooking up in the Comfort du Jour kitchen. I’ll do my best to avoid these common recipe pitfalls as I describe the techniques behind my creations.