The Recipe Convention That Dooms Home Cooks

The Recipe Convention That Dooms Home Cooks
Certain vital duties are especially ill-served by the convention of vague summary, foremost among them the matter of seasoning.Photograph by Simon Burt / Alamy

My job is to help chefs write cookbooks, but I came into this profession with very little of my own cooking skills. An expert at cooking undercooked chicken, overcooked salmon, and incinerated broccolini, I know, like everyone else, that amateurs in the kitchen can fail with written instructions. I am well versed in a myriad of ways.The goal of a recipe is to bridge the experience of someone who has already mastered the dish with the experience of someone who wants to make it for dinner.The key to writing good stuff is the chasm It's all about estimating the size and identifying what information is needed to shrink it, but you can't close it completely.There are too many variables to control. A medium height on one stove burner is a medium low on another. A two and a quarter pound winter squash may be sweet one day and bland the next. Details have to be sacrificed due to the brutal spatial constraints of print publishing: "mix until a dough forms".Furthermore, anyone who has ever tried to describe the pleats of dumpling skins But as we can attest, cooking techniques often require nuances that defy verbal description.

Certain important missions are particularly rendered useless by the practice of obscure summaries. Perhaps more than any other independent task, this one can rip off or derail what you're cooking. You may have simmered it until it's done, but if the resulting soup doesn't have enough lemon and salt, or too much, the rest of your efforts will be wasted. , before we consider a dish ready to serve, it is for this crucial step that we cookbook writers tend to abandon the reader with the obscure maxim of "season of taste." It's a pity... the order of phrases attached to the end of myriad recipes is so ubiquitous that it achieves a kind of broad cultural resonance beyond the realm of culinary instruction. If you're lucky enough to find a restaurant named Dredge in Flour or a book titled "Drain, Discarding Solids," you can dine at a eatery in Cambridge, Massachusetts called Season to Taste. ) and the memoir of the same name (from an aspiring chef who temporarily lost his sense of smell). "Salt to Taste," a popular variation that focuses on the most basic condiments, is the name of his 2009 cookbook by Marco Canora, chef and owner of Manhattan restaurant Hearth. Cooking is not a question of formula, but of skillful intuition. "The best cooks I know rely primarily on their senses," Canola writes in the book. “They taste, smell, listen and observe what they are cooking to determine what it takes to achieve the effect they want.”

I will someday assess the doneness of a duck breast by tapping it with my fingertips, or whether a dish is properly salted, as legendary Italian chef Marcella Hazan is credited with doing. I often dream of being a chef who can make decisions. Sniff alone. But really, the condiment "to taste" strikes me as an ambitious talent code that I, and most others, will never acquire. It seems like a breakout in the form of a shrug of "you're up to you from here on out" rather than a welcome slogan. The underlying problem may be the false implication that my tastes can be trusted, as the late Judy Rogers wrote of condiments in his excellent Zuni Cafe Cookbook: . people do. Still, like most people I know, I cook for fear of traveling abroad. I've seen people grab a handful the size they use if they've had a fight with a very large man in the . He wanted sand in his eyes. Ridiculous, I always kosher watching her crystal avalanche fall into the pan until the chef offered me a taste, when she produced a saline sludge, how on earth did this person treat herself I was wondering if I could be considered a pro. can be But cowardice runs rampant in my own cooking.

The best cookbooks usually make space in the preface to convey the author's accumulated wisdom on basics such as seasonings. Samin Nosrat's 2017 cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, devotes about 40 pages to the types, scientific properties, and uses of salt, and says, "Taste everything you cook early and often. By doing so, we encourage “to develop a sense of salt.” Rodgers says to try and cut up whatever the cook made, then "add a little bit of what you think is missing (you can guess), taste it again and see if you like it." Ask yourself if it's right for you." Such advice feels vaguely self-explanatory and revelatory, and seems intended to foster cooks who don't follow recipes at all. but what if you want to have a solid meal tonight? No need to flip through or study in advance.

Working on his one cookbook, "Pok Pok" by Andy Ricker, he emphasized the need to creatively tailor seasoning advice. Most hearty dishes are popular in Thailand, but many Westerners are unfamiliar with them. Therefore, we hired recipe testers who had a little knowledge of Thai cuisine, made them according to our instructions, and reported the results. I got it. On a typical note, she described the flavor of kaeng kanung, a northern Thai curry with young jackfruit, as "a little strange" and suggested she consider adding a sweet or sour taste to the recipe. The Ken Kanun I was trying to recreate exists in a very special register and, admittedly, might seem a little strange if you were expecting a green curry. Our tester's reaction reflected our failures on her, not hers, and her comments prompted us to include her profile description of each dish's intended flavor along with the recipe. About kaeng kanun, it means 'salty, earthy, herbal, meaty, slightly sour'. So at least there was a goal to aim for.

Still, that's not quite the same as guiding the reader through the seasoning process. When I worked with Mexico City chef and restaurateur Roberto Santibañez, I learned about the proper seasoning when preparing pico de gallo. I learned the difference that fees make. Pico de Gallo was previously known primarily as a mild collection of chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro. It came with my fajitas on a Tex-Mex chain. When we were cooking together and coming up with recipes, Santibañez would dice and scatter while I worked, occasionally sticking a measuring spoon into his face and recording the amount of each ingredient he used. After adding what I considered a fair amount of seasoning, he diced 2 tablespoons of lime juice, 1.5 teaspoons of salt, and 2 chopped jalapenos to just 1 cup. I put it in a tomato. result. For my taste it was perfect, a vibrant wallop of salad that was nice to have in a heap with tortilla chips. Still, Santibañez was not finished. If you can eat pico de gallo comfortably with chips, you said that the seasoning is not enough. He continued to adjust and taste, eventually adding just enough lime, salt and pepper to the mixture to serve its intended purpose. That is, ignite the meat tucked into a bowl of beans or a tortilla with a small spoon.

Still, when it comes to writing out recipe instructions in both Ricker's and Santibañez's books, I must confess that we've once again returned to the phrase "season of taste." , and out of a desire to share the joy of a properly made Santibañez pico de gallo, I recently revisited the recipe. is the taste of Santibañez.

Pico De Gallo

This recipe is based on "Truly Mexican" by Roberto Santibañez.

About 2 cups


  • 3 jalapeno or serrano peppers, to season
  • 3/4 lb. firm but ripe tomatoes, cored and finely diced (about 1.5 cups)
  • ¼ cup finely chopped white onion
  • 1/4 cup heaping finely chopped cilantro
  • 2 tbsp. lime juice (2-3 limes), for seasoning
  • 2 tsp diamond crystal salt, or 1 tsp. Morton Kosher Salt and Other Seasonings


  • Cut off the end of the chili pepper stalk and carefully sniff the cut end. The stronger the aroma, the spicier the chili. One very spicy pepper, two mildly spicy peppers, or if slightly spicy he chops all three.

  • Combine finely chopped chili, tomato, onion, coriander, lime juice and salt in a nice large serving bowl. Stir gently but well.

  • Savor a small spoonful. You want just enough tartness to induce a little wrinkle, salty enough to make you think you've gone overboard, and intense enough salsa to immediately raise an eyebrow. You may need to gradually add lime juice, salt and pepper to get there. I added up to 2 tbsp. additional lime juice, 1 tsp. additional Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, and 3 tbsp. additional chopped chilies. If you're worried about overdoing it and ruining your salsa, scoop a few spoons into a small bowl and play around with it.

  • Serve immediately.

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