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Recipes Are Guides Not Formulas

Judging by the comments in some cookbooks, you would think recipes are chemical formulas to be measured out and carefully mixed. It just ain't so. A favorite line of editors always refers to the measurements used, which are often given in both metric and Imperial. You are cautioned to use one set of measurements or the other, but never to mix them. The implication is that if you do, disaster will be the result.

It's a bit like the exhortation which goes something like "three free-range eggs", as if the dish cannot be produced with any other type of egg. This is the sort of thing that has inexperienced cooks quickly turning the pages, looking for a recipe with less ingredients or abandonning the idea altogether and heading for the takeaway. I call it 'the tyranny of the recipe'. It's as unnecessary as it is silly. If you are one of those who ignore a recipe simply because the list of ingredients is too long, or looks too complicated, please keep reading.

You don't need to change your cookbook. You just need to change your mindset. The first thing to remember is that recipes are written by people trying to pass on a method they use to cook something.

They are a convention for exchanging information which has developed over many years and which, on the whole, work very well. But that's all they are. You are not dealing with chemical formulas that will blow up in your face if you measurements happen to be a few grams out, or you change one ingredient for another. In just about any recipe you can not only change ingredients around, alter the amounts used and so on, you can also leave them out altogether.

You may not achieve exactly the same dish as the cook who wrote the recipe, but so what? Who's to say that your version won't be just as good, or even better? Good cooks, and that really means experienced cooks, will read through a recipe, grasp the general idea, and proceed to put it all together using previous knowledge and their own tastebuds. How things taste to you, and even how they look, are far more important than any written instruction and far more liberating. Try this simple test. Open two different cookbooks at the chicken recipe section and compare the recipes. It will very quickly dawn on you that the recipes in one are simply variations on the listings in the other, the biggest variation being in the flavorings used. So the conclusion must be, if the recipes can be varied in flavors and quantities between cookbooks, you can do exactly the same thing and still come up with some stunning dishes for your friends and family.

Using cookbooks as a source of ideas only is an enormously liberating experience for most people, turning a chore into a pleasure. As a bonus, it often produces far superior results as well. For example, did you know that many of the dishes published in cookbooks have never actually been cooked? They are frequently just rewritten from notebooks and archives. That's because the professionals know that the contents are not critical. It just makes us look more highly skilled if we pretend they are. Don't be trapped in this way.

One of the most influential cookery writers of her day, Elizabeth David, put only the barest of information in her recipes and often didn't bother to mention quantities at all. Beginner cooks might have struggled a little, more through nerves than anything else, but more experienced cooks were quickly at home creating their own versions of classic French recipes. And that's something to bear in mind when you are cooking for the family. Professionals did not invent cooking, ordinary people did. Many of the classic Italian and French dishes are not the results of swanky restaurant posing, but simple food prepared from fresh ingredients with many regional variations.

They have nothing to do with the culinary antics of celebrity chefs. Take a break from tyranny. Close the cookbook and make something you have cooked before, but change it a little - or a lot if you wish.

Add, substitute or take away one ingredient, taste or smell everything before you use it and get used to the idea of cooking with your palate, which really means your nose. You will probably find that you surprise yourself by how much you instinctively know and how much you have learnt. You will also be pleasantly surprised by how much easier life in the kitchen has become. Copyright 2006, Michael Sheridan. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

Michael Sheridan is a former head-chef as well as an acknowledged authority and published writer on cooking matters. His website at contains a wealth of information, hints, tips and recipes for busy home cooks


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