Sunday, 8 June 2008

Are recipes redundant?

Unwelcome news from a publisher's press release. A book's coming out this autumn called Recipes to Know by Heart. I discussed a book with almost exactly the same title a couple years ago with a journalist friend. The idea was that I'd come up with the master recipes and he, as an amateur cook, would test them. We got as far as floating it informally with a publisher but because I was working on another book at the time I let it drift. So my fault entirely but it's maddening to find we've now been pipped at the post.

In fact cooking without recipes, or at least exact measurements, has become a bit of a mini-trend, started by Nigel Slater a few years ago with Appetite. (Actually it started even further back with Elizabeth David - recipes didn't use to be nearly as prescriptive as they are now.)

Since then there has been Nicholas Clee's Don't Sweat the Aubergine which I mentioned the other day, a couple of others whose names I can't remember and most recently veteran cookery writer Glynn Christian's How to Cook without Recipes which I'm reading with great enjoyment at the moment.

Obviously there must be a demand for these books otherwise publishers wouldn't keep coming up with copycat versions but, despite having thought of it myself, I wonder who buys them? Even as an experienced cook I quite like to read a recipe to see how a writer achieves the end result, even if I stray off-piste and do my own thing with it. When I first started to cook I followed recipes to the letter and I would say that people are less confident in the kitchen these days.

So what do you think? Does this type of book appeal or do you prefer a conventional cookery book? If so which ones do you refer to most often? Or do you ignore cook books altogether and do your own thing?


notSupermum said...

I'm one of those people who cannot cook without a recipe - I need it written down in black and white and I follow it to the letter. I've always envied 'intuitive' cooks who just know what to do to get a good result.

I haven't bought a recipe book for ages, because I now - in my frugal state - find recipes online or in magazines rather than pay for them. I tend to use Sophie Grigson's books a lot, her recipes always turn out great, and Delia Smith's Complete Cookery course is an old favourite.

Jane K said...

I think even those who cook without recipes have had some "craft knowlege" taught as some point e.g. half fat to flour as a basic pastry recipe. If you don't have that you will use all of the recipe all of the time.

I agree with "supermum" about using the web for recipes. Your own oatbread was fantastic by the way! The online Sat and Sun papers are a real joy in this respect.

Nicholas Clee said...

Thanks for the nice mention, Fiona.

Cooking without Recipes was the working title for my book. Like you, I felt that many recipe collections did little to help or inspire home cooks. Understanding how things work is much more useful. Without that, recipes are daunting; and they rarely work precisely as they promise to. As Notsupermum says, some writers are better at giving fool-proof instructions than others; but I suspect that Notsupermum is a pretty good cook in the first place. One always has to improvise, because not even Sophie Grigson and Delia Smith can anticipate how varying equipment, oven temperatures and so on will behave.

There's another point: recipe writers often use, as a shorthand, the standard formulae of the genre. Some of these formulae -- such as, in my opinion, sweating aubergines -- are unnecessary, and some -- such as, for example, browning a large quantity of mince in a pan in which you have already softened onions -- are very difficult to achieve.

I gained a lot of sympathy for recipe writers, though. I started writing the book with the aim of including no recipes, but soon found that to be impossible -- all I could come up with was complicated wodges of prose. You can't get away from recipes: but you can try to suggest, as Nigel Slater did, that they are only templates.

The dishes you and I write about have their roots in recipes, but are mostly improvisations. I often find, when writing them up, that I have only a vague notion of the quantities I used.

Fiona Beckett said...

I'm torn about this. Like notsupermum I used to rely heavily on recipes but found they weren't infallible. As Nicholas points out ingredients and cooking equipment vary - as does the skill and conscientiousness of the author!

Now I mainly start with an idea of something I want to cook, look up the way that one or two people have tackled it and have a go. And pray that the end result works for other people (glad you liked the oatbread, Jane!)

The problem, I think is that most cookery writers have a clear idea of what they want to achieve but it's sometimes hard to get that across, as you've found, Nicholas, without writing a very long recipe.

So hats off to Delia, one must say - despite the latest book - for giving so many people confidence in the kitchen.

What did you all think of 'How to Cheat' btw?

Hippolyra said...

I have just read "Don't Sweat the Aubergine" which I greatly enjoyed, and learnt from, then passed it to my boyfriend that cooks far less than me and is learning far more from it than I did, as he now understands why I do things like I do in the kitchen.

Apart from baking I just chuck everything in, but now I am blogging I measure/weigh as I chuck in so I can write the recipes down, I know how mich oil it needs, but someone that does not cook lots may not know. Similiarly with explaining how to do things.

I wrote a note on a recipe the other day that when zesting and juicing citrus you needed to zest first and then juice as it is almost impossible the other way round. I learnt this the hard way when I tried to do it the other way round!

Fiona Beckett said...

I do that too, hippolyra. It's sometimes a bit frantic scribbling down quantitities in the middle of cooking but it's hard to remember everything otherwise.

Good point about zesting your citrus before squeezing it!

Kadeeae said...

The first time I use a recipe I follow it to the letter. From then on anything goes ;-)

Even if the first try was a good result, I often find that I like to tweak it a bit to suit my own tastes or try substituting different ingredients. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't . . .

I have a few cookbooks I refer to all the time (and I just happen to have each and even one of Jamie's) - Once in a great while I will try making "my own" recipe, from scratch, but only with ingredients I know (after years of cooking) will work together.

So yes, I suppose I would say that I have to have a recipe to follow, but how closely is another matter.

Fiona Beckett said...

Jamie's recipes are pretty inspirational I agree, kadeeae,but not always frugal, I have to say!

kadeeae said...

True, frugality is not his strongest point - most of the recipes can be altered for substitutions rather easily though.

Fiona Beckett said...

Have you got a favourite Jamie recipe you've done that with kadeeae?