The Recipe Convention That Dooms Home Cooks

I am as familiar as any lay person with the myriad ways in which written instruction can fail amateurs in the kitchen. The goal of a recipe is to bridge the experience of a person who has already mastered a dish with that of a person who would like to make it for dinner. The key to writing a good one lies in assessing the size of the chasm and identifying the information necessary to shrink it—yet there is no closing it completely. Too many variables are impossible to control. One stovetop burner’s medium-high is another’s medium-low. Two and a quarter pounds of winter squash might be sugary sweet one time and bland the next. Detail must be sacrificed to the brutal spatial constraints of print publishing: “mix until dough forms.” What’s more, culinary technique often requires the sort of nuance that defies verbal description, as anyone who has ever attempted to explain the pleating of dumpling wrappers can attest.


To me it seems that if you can’t learn to cook by taste, you’ll be stuck at a beginner level. And perhaps an inevitable part of learning that is ruining some dishes.

Neither Marcella Hazan nor anyone else can smell whether a dish has enough salt, nor is the smell of a chile a reliable indicator of how spicy it is—especially with jalapeños, which have been bred to have a wide range of spiciness.

I find that Grey Kunz’s book Elements of Taste has the best instructions on how to taste and season that I’ve seen. He has a good 20 pages in the introduction on how seasoning effects flavor + then each dish had tasting notes.

Think it’s a highly underrated book


The problem is not everything can be taste-tested in the cooking process. For example I’ve seen meatloaf recipes that say “salt and pepper to taste.” I’m supposed to taste the raw ground beef, egg and bread crumbs to check the seasoning level? If I really want to use that recipe I’ll look for another one with roughly the same proportion of ingredients that includes actual measurements for salt and pepper.


That seems like an unprofessional recipe. Though there’s nothing wrong with tasting raw beef or eggs if you’re using good ingredients.