Is It Important to Follow Recipes?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

An important concept stressed in practically every cooking class is that cooking is 10% art and 90% chemistry. Recipes are to cooks what formulas are to chemists - important instructions for a consistent result. In the same way that a chemist is only one missing ingredient away from disaster, the difference between a birthday cake and a pancake can be a pinch of baking powder. For consistent results, it is very important for cooks to follow recipes whenever possible.

It's generally important to follow recipes with bread.
It's generally important to follow recipes with bread.

One vital cooking element provided by recipes is proportion. A cook may already know the basic ingredients of a pancake batter – flour, eggs, milk and so on – but only recipes supply the proper ratio between the ingredients. There's a reason why some recipes call for two eggs, not one or three. Professional cooks who prepare these recipes already know how much flour can be incorporated into a measured amount of milk, for example. Without knowing the proper balance of ingredients provided by recipes, cooks can easily end up with glutinous masses of bread dough instead of waffle batter.

A cookbook typically includes a range of different recipes.
A cookbook typically includes a range of different recipes.

Another benefit of following recipes is consistency. An amateur cook may experiment in the kitchen and create a unique casserole or sauce, but it could prove nearly impossible to duplicate. Recipes provide all the technical and artistic elements necessary to produce and reproduce a successful product without fail. Cooks may feel inspired to change some of the proportions or flavorings, but the basic recipes will always produce the desired results. Important technical notes in recipes include cooking times, temperature settings, signs of doneness and serving instructions.

Chicken breasts are a key ingredient in many culinary dishes.
Chicken breasts are a key ingredient in many culinary dishes.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for cooks to follow recipes is the science of cooking. As stated earlier, cooking is primarily a practical exercise in chemistry. Each ingredient in recipes serves one or more specific purposes, from generating gases to creating glutens to binding other ingredients together. Eliminating one of these essential ingredients also removes the chemistry behind it. While it may be tempting to leave out a pinch of salt, for example, the remaining ingredients may not bond well without it. Many recipes call for ingredients such as baking powder or baking soda for their specific chemical properties.

There are a few instances in which traditional recipes may not be strictly necessary, but until a cook gains enough kitchen experience and learns enough cooking theory to improvise, recipes should be treated as the roadmaps to culinary success.

Proportion is a vital cooking element provided by recipes.
Proportion is a vital cooking element provided by recipes.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments

TruthRoller
I really disagree with the premise of this article. Let me say that Ultimately, I think this whole topic is subjective and I don't think it necessary to convince someone who believes in following a recipe not to follow one. To each his or her own. But this article states that it is important to follow recipes and that "cooking is 10 percent art and 90 percent chemistry". I really disagree. I find cooking incredibly artful, creative, and for me, that is incredibly cathartic. I love looking around my kitchen, seeing what possible ingredients I have to work with, and somehow turning them into something delicious. Very often, I may be about a quarter of the way into my preparations and I still not know what I'm making yet.

For example, I may start off with a basic foundation of sautéing onions, garlic, and peppers. At this point, the dish could be anything, and even further, and even more exciting, the ethnic direction my dish could take is still up for grabs! At that stage, I could make a Chinese stir-fry if I add some ginger, soy, and water chestnuts. It could be Indian chicken curry if I had turmeric, cumin, and tomatoes; a Thai curry if I then add some coconut milk. It could be an Italian dish if I add oregano, basil, and tomatoes; a Spanish dish if I had some saffron and cumin. And the list goes on and on. It's fascinating to see both the differences and overlap in regions of the world as represented by food.

Cooking comes from the heart. It's family and love and tradition. And it's also experimental! Without it, how would we ever enjoy fusion cuisine, or really any "recipe" for that matter -- that recipe had to begin somewhere. Cooking is a creative expression and a recipe is not necessarily needed. The example the article repeatedly gives to support its claim is actually "baking", not cooking. I might venture to say that baking is much more scientific, with precise chemical reactions that result in specific outcomes like how a cake will rise. Therefore, the argument for recipes and the chemistry element is much more relevant for baking, although even there, there is still room to "wing it" and come up with some new and exciting stuff.

Ultimately, I think, it depends on the chef. That's who gets to define whether a recipe is needed or not. If s/he enjoys the structure and the absoluteness of following a recipe, well, have at it! If s/he is like me and hates boundaries and rules and likes to make it up as she goes, by all means, throw that cookbook out the window and the sky's the limit!

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