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What Is a Recipe, Really?

Recipes should be more like templates than immovable scripture — so why don’t we treat them that way?

An open hand-written cookbook and a mound of flour with an egg yolk for making pasta. Shutterstock

Lately, it’s felt a bit like I am pouring my anxiety into every pan I own. From long-simmering bolognese or experiments like chickpea-flour pancakes to the familiarity of chili omelets or Punjabi cuisine, I have been cooking up a veritable storm these past few weeks. Clearly, I am not alone. To the contrary, like half the people I know, and likely half the people you know too, I have taken to cooking more during this, the era of COVID-19.

Of course, this being 2020, we are not just cooking; we are also posting what we make and eat to Instagram or other platforms. Denied the opportunity to gather around a table, it feels like we have committed to a virtual communal experience as substitute.

The reasons for turning to cooking in a time like this are obvious. With restaurant dining rooms still largely closed, takeout a source of worry (even if it’s irrational), and few other places to go, it makes sense that people are spending time in their kitchens. Fear and worry about the virus are everywhere, and despite how heartening it is to see the reckoning with police violence and anti-Black racism that activists have pushed into the national consciousness, it has somehow only added to that oft-repeated sentiment these days that these are unprecedented times.

Cooking, by contrast, is at least familiar, or even an act of care. More than that, following a recipe can be ritualistic, the practice of repeating established, sequential steps a comfort when the world feels uncertain. That’s the pleasure of cooking sometimes: not just that you’re creating sustenance, but that you get the satisfaction of “first this, then that.” Recipes can feel like received wisdom or repositories of knowledge, precious texts that not only promise the pleasure of something delicious or the gratification of creating something, but also a link to history and a broader culinary and cultural world. There is a reason recipes are passed down from generation to generation. As sirens wail, and news about the virus blares from every screen, it can feel affirming to use food to connect with both a culinary past and the culture around you. And if cooking itself isn’t exactly an act of faith, it is perhaps akin to what in Sikhism is called seva — the service you perform to both God and others in pursuit of a faithful life.

I’m not sure, but maybe this is why, especially these days, underneath almost every food thing I post or see posted, there is a nearly universal reaction: “recipe?” As images of comforting or novel food appear on our screens, it seems we all want a script to follow to recreate them for ourselves.

It’s an understandable impulse. Recipes are helpful guides, a map to uncharted territory, particularly for people who find cooking intimidating or just unfamiliar. Yet, as logical as that is, the recipe is also an ideal that walks a fine line between being familiar and, well, boring. For some, recipes are like scripture, and the cook a literalist devotee.

In some Christian traditions, the Bible is thought of as the literal word of God. In Sikhism, too, the holy Guru Granth Sahib book is thought of as the final representative of God on Earth. You surely know people who treat recipes in a similar way: as coherent, literal wholes to be followed, obeyed, passed down, followed to the letter, even treated with a sort of reverence. The recipe is a thing to be followed precisely, and stands as something to be judged as it is. And like scripture, recipes are strict sets of instructions that can, like scripture, become nearly unassailable.

Yes, there are clearly times — most obviously in baking, but also in deliberately minimalist, technique-driven dishes like cacio e pepe, or a French omelet — when following the letter of a recipe is quite necessary because riffing on it will change the basic character of the dish.

But an orthodox take on food can end up misrepresenting what a recipe can be. Because the other, arguably more interesting sense of cooking is less about scriptural rigor than what you might call intertextuality — that is, about how recipes inform one another. So many of the things we cook are actually composed of parts that are, if not exactly interchangeable, then at least analogous, related.

An intertextual approach to food is about treating cooking as units to be deployed in different ways: a caramelized base to add flavor, a technique or ingredient to add umami, a herb or pickle to add a bright or spicy high note. It is the idea of taste as a kind of melody — the bass notes of umami, the highs of acid or heat or bitterness, the midrange of earthiness — but also of cooking as a skill that emerges from how you put bits of technique and ingredients together. It’s sort of the difference between a cookbook as a collection of recipes, or something like Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which the Atlantic accurately described as more like “a cooking philosophy” than a step-by-step guide.

To think of a recipe as an intertext of parts is especially useful now when so many people are either stuck at home or forced to adapt how and what they eat, in part around what they can actually get. If instead of process, a recipe is thought of as something that evinces a logic, then it won’t inform you just how to make one dish, but rather how to cook more generally.

Consider, say, a rich Italian meat sauce, or a classic North Indian curry. They each start out with onions and garlic in fat, caramelized to bring out sweetness and depth, then the same process is repeated with tomatoes. Some vegetables, like a soffritto, or spices, like the North Indian trinity of turmeric, cumin, and coriander, round out flavor, and then time helps them develop complexity. After the main body is added — ground beef, hunks of chicken thigh — some cream might be added for richness, and bright basil or cilantro each brighten the dish.

Sure, you could follow a recipe for those things: first this, then that. But those dishes are perhaps better thought of as templates for a way to approach food, building blocks of technique and flavor that mean dishes can be put together in both expected and unorthodox ways. And as we find ourselves hemmed in, a scriptural approach to recipes can be unnecessarily limiting. Absolutely, if you have two kids underfoot who are driving you crazy, or the stress of, you know, living through a global pandemic is dragging you down, follow that recipe, make that boxed mac and cheese. But if you feel like a stretch, or even if you’re just bored: I mean, it occasionally feels like the end of the world out there. Live a little — allow yourself the freedom of a little blasphemy.

Navneet Alang is a technology and culture critic.