Do Recipes Make You a Better Cook?

Good cooks rely on recipes, but only to a point. Chef Daniel Patterson examines the pitfalls of written directions and urges a return to a riskier—and ultimately more rewarding—approach.
FoodandWine Recipe

I've never been much for technology, so when I bought a car recently that came with GPS, I imagined that the device would go largely unused. But a few months later, on my way to visit friends at their new home in Oakland, California, I decided to give it a try. A patient yet firm woman's voice guided me easily to the exact location, and much to my surprise, I fell in love with the feature. Then one night, as I drove to see my friends for the fourth or fifth time, I realized that I had no idea how to get there. I'd been blindly following instructions from a disembodied voice without paying attention to where I was going.

This troubled me to no end. I liked to think I wouldn't automatically take the path of least resistance, yet here I was, in full capitulation mode. As I drove along, I considered the possibility that our national obsession with convenience was adversely affecting other areas of our lives as well. Like how we cook.

I have always thought of recipes as culinary road maps, demarcating a route from a list of ingredients to a finished dish—not so much hard-and-fast rules but a set of guidelines to lead the way. Not everything is accounted for in a recipe. The ingredients, the pans, the ovens, even things like humidity all play a role in the final outcome. Just as driving directions don't include tips like "Stop at red lights" and "Don't drive into oncoming traffic," recipes assume a certain baseline knowledge. But from perusing the kinds of recipes being published these days, it's clear that the baseline has fallen dangerously low. It seems that people have started to use recipes the way they use GPS—something to follow unthinkingly as a way to get from one place to another, without noticing the route.

Good cooks rely on recipes—to a point. In a professional kitchen, recipes are essential to creating consistent food, so that everyone takes the same path to the same place. But cooks who rely only on strictly codified formulas miss out on what is really important. Are the carrots more or less sweet, more or less tender? Is the ginger very strong, so that less should be used, or too weak for the amount specified? Or the thorniest problem: How long does it take something to cook, in a specific oven, on a specific day, with a certain set of ingredients?

When I wrote my cookbook, the how-long-should-it-cook-for question reared its head early and often. My publisher seemed to assume that the recipes would be followed by people who were inattentive and easily confused. I did my best to be accurate, but telling someone to cook a piece of fish for exactly five minutes is like saying, "Drive for exactly five minutes and then turn right." Sometimes you'd hit the road, other times the side of a building.

It wasn't until I spent the past year out of restaurant kitchens and cooking at home with friends that I started to get a sense of what was happening. People who are comfortable cooks—often with quasi-training (a year of catering or some such) or who learned to cook from a family member—start with the ingredients on hand, and then weave them together into cohesive dishes. The more literal ones stumble when the conditions don't precisely match that of the recipe creator's kitchen, often with alarming results. They would then tell me either, "The recipe doesn't work," or more frequently, "I'm just not a good cook," to which I would answer, "Nonsense." Anyone who can raise kids, pay bills and otherwise participate as a functioning member of society can learn how to make good food. It's all in the approach.

Take kale, for example. When I brought some over to my friends' house in Oakland as my contribution to dinner one night, I was met with grimaces. I don't remember the exact exchange, but the words tough and chewy figured prominently. So I showed them a simple, foolproof way to prepare braising greens: Cook sliced onion in olive oil with a little salt in a covered pot, over low heat, until tender. Add kale that has been washed and cut into two-inch pieces, a little water and more salt. Cover and cook over moderate heat, stirring every once in a while, until it's tender. Not tender yet? Keep going. Water evaporates? Add more. Before serving you can season it with olive oil, lemon, chili flakes, really any flavoring you like. I refused to answer their repeated queries about how long it takes to cook, saying only, keep tasting: When it tastes good, then it's done. This was a revelation to them, and cooked greens became a staple of their meals, perfectly cooked every time and easy, because they understood the why behind the how.

Baking, everyone says, is different; it's all about the precision of the recipes and how closely they are followed. But that's not entirely true. Last year in Park City, Utah, I made what were supposed to be moist, delightful, baked-to-order chocolate cupcakes for a party. I followed the recipe precisely, forgetting that I was in ski country. As I discovered the hard way, altitude affects moisture content, which resulted in dry, not in the least bit delightful baked goods.

When I got home to San Francisco I decided to remedy my baking shortcomings. I started by re-creating recipes from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible, and then used those basics as a jumping-off point to create new ones. There were some notable disasters, like my first attempts at a cornmeal butter cake. I used the book's yellow cake recipe as a starting point, then made a guess as to what to add or subtract to adjust for the new ingredient. On the first try, the ratio of cornmeal to flour was too high, and the cornmeal grabbed more than its fair share of liquid, resulting in a yellow bricklike affair that went directly into the garbage. But I kept trying, adjusting the measurements each time, and in the process learned things like how sugar affects moistness and how salt changes structure. The recipe improved with each subsequent attempt, until I finally arrived at a delicious result. I conducted similar experiments with other recipes, and now when something I'm baking goes awry, I can usually fix it.

Part of the problem with recipes today is that they seem to be predicated on the idea that a good recipe should eliminate the possibility of mistakes. But here's a secret: Good cooks make mistakes all the time. They take wrong turns and end up in strange places. Their attention sharpens as they try to figure out where they are and how they got there. Eventually they either reach their original destination, or discover that wherever they stumbled into is really the best place to be. Sometimes it's important to get lost.

I know, I know. Who has time for getting lost? Two-income families, kids, commutes—nothing about the pace of life today allows for the same luxury of time we had a few generations ago. As someone who eats way too many PowerBars, I am acutely aware of this phenomenon. Yet oddly, even though we are cooking less, we are reading more cookbooks. Cooking has become entertainment, something to watch on TV while sitting on the couch with a Hungry-Man dinner. As our interest in cooking has become more voyeuristic than pragmatic, the recipes that we do follow have become automated in their simplicity, largely a way to get as quickly and mindlessly as possible from one place to another. In our single-minded pursuit of the destination, we've lost our love of the journey.

But the journey is what a recipe is all about. Cookbooks should teach us how to cook, not just follow instructions. By paying attention, a cook should be able to internalize the process, rendering the written recipes obsolete. The point of a recipe should be to help us find our own way.

When I visited my friends a few weeks ago, I decided to turn off the GPS. At first everything seemed oddly unfamiliar, and I was uncertain about exactly where to turn or to merge. I got lost, of course, but only a little. I started to recognize a street here, a house there. When I finally arrived they had dinner ready. Roast chicken. And kale.

Daniel Patterson, an F&W Best New Chef 1997, is the chef and owner of Coi in San Francisco and the co-author of Aroma.