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Recipes. What would we do without them? Can you even imagine a cookbook without recipes? For most people, recipes are indispensable for preparing many dishes, especially unfamiliar ones. Yet culinary professionals will tell you that chefs never use recipes. Even the home cook, when preparing tried and true dishes will not use a recipe. Or do they? Truth is, everyone uses a recipe. It’s just not always written down.
There are three components to a recipe. The first is the list of ingredients. The second is the amount of the ingredients. And the third is the preparation instructions. Be it a professional cook, or grandma making her traditional meatloaf for the 200th time, he or she has at least two thirds of the recipe components memorized, namely, the ingredients and preparation instructions. The only factor that may vary is the amount of the ingredients. Many cooks will “eyeball” the amounts in combination with tasting to determine whether to add more salt, sugar, herbs, etc. (The exception is pastry and baking where more chemistry is involved and amounts must be more precise).
One day at a four star French restaurant where I once worked, I was awarded the dubious honor of making family meal. This is the meal that is prepared for the entire staff at the beginning or end of the shift. I was told “use the pork shoulder in the meat walk-in”, (restaurant lingo for a large refrigerator you can literally walk into). That was the extent of my instructions. Ok, first thing I needed to know is what to do with pork shoulder. Shoulder meat from any animal is tough with significant connective tissue. That means it needs a wet cooking method. Braising is the obvious answer. So then I pull up my osso buco (braised veal shanks) recipe in my head and just substitute pork shoulder. I know I need oil, vegetables, stock, wine, tomato paste and herbs. So I grabbed some carrots, celery and onion, (otherwise known as mirepoix), garlic, thyme, rosemary and parsley. I trimmed the excess fat from the meat, cut it into large chunks, seasoned them with salt and pepper, and seared them in a large pot in canola oil. Then I sautéed the mirepoix, followed by tomato paste and garlic. I deglazed the pan with red wine, added the stock, brought it to a boil, added the herbs, meat and additional salt and pepper, covered it and simmered it for two hours. I didn’t have a piece of paper but I followed a recipe, with the exception of the amounts which I needed to eyeball.
Non-written recipes allow the cook leeway for creativity and individuality. Like numerous things in life, in cooking there are techniques that must be performed in a particular manner and many that have variations. For example, there are a couple of steps I took in the above braising procedure that some chefs would do differently. All I know is the sous chef, (the second in command), told me it was excellent. My boss was happy so I was happy.
People often inquire about recipe substitutions. This is because they either: 1) don’t have or couldn’t find one of the ingredients 2) don’t like a certain ingredient 3) wish to alter a recipe to lower the fat or calories 4) don’t have a particular piece of equipment to cook the recipe as instructed.
Some ingredients and cooking steps can be substituted or eliminated and some cannot. Usually increasing or decreasing the amount of an item is not a big deal. Want more lemon on your fish? No problem. Like extra cilantro in your salsa? Go for it. When you start to switch ingredients however, then the waters can become more treacherous. Sometimes you can substitute similar products such as red or white beans, leeks in place of onions, or one root vegetable for another. But if you’re out of basil for tomato sauce and the only herb you have is tarragon, don’t even think about it. Fat can always be reduced by using less of a fattening ingredient or employing a low-fat version of it. But remember, fat adds flavor so you will change the overall taste. The area with the least alternatives is usually the cooking procedures. The pork shoulder I braised could never be put on a grill or deep-fried. It would taste like shoe leather. Finally, if you don’t have the proper equipment, most likely you should abandon the recipe.
When preparing a recipe for the first time, I recommend following it exactly so you have an initial template of how the writer intended it to look and taste. Then you can experiment from there. After you’ve made it many times you will no longer need the recipe. Or should I say the piece of paper that lists the ingredients, the amounts, and the cooking instructions?