Recipes now: Not just hows but whys too

People can learn to cook from the Internet with millions of recipes at a click and even ratings by subscribers to websites. Recipes are more open-ended and do not need to be in a book.
People can learn to cook from the Internet with millions of recipes at a click and even ratings by subscribers to websites. Recipes are more open-ended and do not need to be in a book.PHOTO: REUTERS

Written instructions have shifted away from formulas towards deeper explanations of technique, offering context and lyricism

In a world where everything from a ride to the airport to the way a child learns maths has been disrupted, the written recipe - that fundamental bedrock of how we cook and share food - is undergoing its own makeover.

Like media and music, the recipe is being stretched and shattered, its conventions challenged by a generation that learned to cook from television chefs and YouTube videos. Websites like Allrecipes.com, with more than a half-million submissions from users and its ethos of public recipe rating, have democratised the form. Food bloggers have demystified it. In an age of commodity instruction, how to boil an omelette in a plastic bag can become an overnight sensation.

"One of the great things about recipes today is that you can assume a great amount of knowledge, which lets you go in a lot of directions," said Mr J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, a Cook's Illustrated veteran and Serious Eats columnist whose 950-page book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, is selling swiftly.

There was a time when a cake recipe was learnt at a grandmother's elbow, codified on a worn recipe card or in a book with stained pages. It was a straightforward march: ingredients, instructions and maybe a tip or two scribbled in the margin.

Now, you can learn to bake a cake from a comic book, or by diving deep into a manifesto on leavening. You can pick the whimsical complexities of a New York City baker or the whimsical simplicity of a woman on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma.

FLEXIBLE COOKING

One of the great things about recipes today is that you can assume a great amount of knowledge, which lets you go in a lot of directions.

J. KENJI LOPEZ-ALT, a Cook's Illustrated veteran and Serious Eats columnist

The shift may seem subtle to someone who rarely picks up a pan, but editors, professional cooks and booksellers and others say recipes have become more open-ended and broader in their approach. Instructions have shifted away from formulas towards deeper explanations of technique, offering context and lyricism in ways (American culinary expert) Fannie Farmer could not have imagined.

The best recipes still get dinner on the table, but they also teach the reader to be a more intuitive cook, a cultural change that reflects a nation that is cooking better than it has in decades.

"The average person is a much better cook and so much more sophisticated than they once were," said Mr Wylie Dufresne, the New York chef who, along with the New York author Peter Meehan, is writing an exacting cookbook based on his restaurant WD-50 which closed last November. "They deserve to know not only how but why."

In other corners, the recipe is being blown up altogether. No-recipe recipes, in which pictures or short bursts of text are used to describe how to put together a dish, are in vogue in mainstream publications like Every Day With Rachael Ray and more-specialised cooking platforms like Food52.

Recipes also are taking their cues from novels, with artful prose woven into the steps. They are being turned into graphic novels, an approach pioneered by Ms Amanda Cohen, who in 2012 published Dirt Candy: A Cookbook: Flavor-Forward Food from the Upstart New York City Vegetarian Restaurant.

"We wanted our recipes to be a little more free-form so they get people to think," Ms Cohen said. "People can learn to cook on the Internet. They can watch a video. There are 10 million pictures of our tomato tart online. You don't need to have it in a book."

LESS HAND-HOLDING
 

I feel like 95 per cent of the time, I am instructing copy editors to not follow the style guide and leave a little room, an uncertainty in the method, for people to discover how to cook.

JENNY WAPNER, executive editor of Ten Speed Press, which next year will publish a Korean comic book with recipes by the New York cartoonist Robin Ha

This new way of thinking is not an erosion of standards; for traditional publishers, the importance of a well-tested recipe has grown. But editors say that the form the material takes has to change to match a generation of cooks who need less hand-holding and have access to better ingredients.

"I feel like 95 per cent of the time, I am instructing copy editors to not follow the style guide and leave a little room, an uncertainty in the method, for people to discover how to cook," said Ms Jenny Wapner, executive editor of Ten Speed Press, which next year will publish a Korean comic book with recipes by the New York cartoonist Robin Ha.

The shift is not dissimilar to changes in how children are being taught maths, said Ms Jordana Rothman, whose book Tacos: Recipes and Provocations, with the chef Alex Stupak, will be released by Clarkson Potter on Tuesday. Maths teachers are being encouraged to drop rote memorisation of the multiplication tables in favour of teaching methods that emphasise flexibility and functionality. The recipe is no different.

"As a culture we are much more interested in how and why things are happening," Ms Rothman said. "People want a road map but they don't want you to drive them there."

Although many chefs may cringe at the thought, food television has had a profound effect on how people expect cooking instruction to be presented. A book without clever kitchen hacks seems flat. Personal perspective needs to infuse every part, not just the headnotes.

Consider two recent approaches to cochinita pibil, a dish from the Yucatan Peninsula in which pork is marinated in citrus and spices, wrapped in banana leaves and traditionally roasted in a hand-dug pit.

BETTER WRITING NOW
 

Recipe writing is getting better and better. I don't think recipes in the past were as full as they are now.

CELIA SACK, who owns Omnivore Books in San Francisco

In her new book, chef Ruth Reichl takes a lyrical approach, adapting the recipe for the stovetop. She gently reminds the cook to leave enough time to defrost the banana leaves and to trim their frayed edges before heating them over a gas flame. "I love watching the way the colour change ripples across the leaves, turning them shiny in a matter of seconds," she writes.

Chef Stupak, on the other hand, dispatches an oven method in a page but spends six more detailing his epic battle to dig an actual pit. The instructions includes shovels, 70 red clay bricks and a reference to his recipe for handmade corn tortillas, of which you will need 60.

Ms Celia Sack, who owns Omnivore Books in San Francisco observed the progression. "Recipe writing is getting better and better," she said. "I don't think recipes in the past were as full as they are now."

She uses fish recipes to trace the arc. The classic wedding present book, Joy of Cooking, marched cooks home-economics-style through a comprehensive litany of recipes for fish fillets dressed in butter, cream, lemon and parsley. It gave way to books like The Silver Palate Cookbook, which had more personal flair and global complexity in ingredients. Then came The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, in which chef Judy Rodgers carefully wrote about how and when to salt fish and how to encourage a perfect fumet (or stock) from the protein in fish bones.

"Now there are all these books that tell you how to fit the fish recipe into a lifestyle," Ms Sack said.

As Food Network personalities, country music stars and actors flood the zone with frothy books filled with simple recipes, the cook who can write with a certain literary complexity is becoming a treasure.

"I am working with chefs who are really good writers, so the story is not only very interesting from the content but it is a real pleasure to read them," said Ms Emilia Terragni, the publisher of Phaidon, which this month released The Nordic Cookbook, with 700 recipes from the Swedish chef and writer Magnus Nilsson.

Other recipe writers are going deep into science and technique, knowing their cooks will fortify their recipes with quick looks at the Internet for videos on how to braid challah (Jewish bread) or images of kung pao chicken as rendered by a restaurant in China.

The roots of the technique-first movement can be marked by Mr Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, which was published in 1984 and revised in 2004. Chef Julia Child's 1989 book The Way to Cook, which was organised by technique, not ingredient, popularised the style.

Mr Michael Ruhlman picked up the baton in 2009, publishing Ratio, which tossed out recipes in favour of common ratios needed to make things like pie crusts, and went on to write a series of books that focused on specific techniques. His saute book comes out in the spring.

"People are coming to realise it is not about the recipe," he said. "They want to know how to think about food."

Still, for traditionalists, there are experts who will not be creating a personal narrative around their spongecake recipe, or drawing the dish on a faux-stained page or making a science experiment out of it.

Ms Dorie Greenspan, who wrote her first cookbook 25 years ago, and in 1993 wrote Baking With Julia, based on one of Ms Child's television shows, recently had some young photographers at her house to work on Dorie's Cookies, which comes out next year. They browsed her bookshelves packed with books from Marcella Hazan, Edna Lewis and Craig Claiborne. They are the books from which a generation learnt to cook.

"They were shocked there wasn't a photo in any of them," she said. "We learned to cook from the words and our own curiosity."

She still writes all her recipes assuming the cook will have no other information, and in an encouraging way that anticipates any pitfalls.

There are those, too, who are holding out against the open-ended recipe. The chef Jacques Pepin is one of them. "The recipe for me has to be exact and useful and usable," he said. Mr Pepin's new book, Heart & Soul in the Kitchen, is a compilation of the dishes he most often cooks at home. He insists that home cooks make a recipe at least once and preferably twice exactly as it is written. By the third time, they will understand it enough to improvise.

Chef Chris Kimball, the founder of Cook's Illustrated magazine and the television franchise America's Test Kitchen, maintains that in the cacophonous bazaar of modern-day recipe writing, cooks will ultimately return to the straightforward and well-tested.

"The core thing should remain core and stripped down and useful and clear," Mr Kimball said. "I don't think people want to read 400 words to make scrambled eggs."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 25, 2015, with the headline 'Recipes now: Not just hows but whys too'. Print Edition | Subscribe