Thursday, April 30, 2015

How To Learn Any Classic Recipe

If you like to cook, you've probably had this experience before: you see a dish on TV or in a magazine, it looks great, so you decide to look it up and learn how to make it. The problem is that when you search for specific recipes, their are a hundred different versions, so which one is the best? And how do you find that specific one?

To answer this question you have to know a little about food history. The way a dish develops is that several basic ingredients are combined by different cooks over years, sometimes centuries. At first there are many variations, because each cook has their own specific taste. (This is the far left side of the graphic above.) But with each small change, they get feedback from the people that they are feeding (a mother cooking for her family, a chef for the guests at his restaurant), and the recipe gets altered accordingly. Eventually, all of the myriad versions converge to what most people prefer. (This is the narrow point in the center of the graphic.)

Here's where the story get's tricky. People who cook a lot get bored with even a perfect recipe, because they are cooking and eating more than the average person. So they start to experiment, retool, reinvent, and the recipe diverges again into many distinct forms. (This is the right side of the graphic.) It isn't that there is anything wrong with these new reincarnations; for a seasoned chef, they are probably more interesting. But for most everyone else, the dressed-up version isn't quite as good as the time-tested classic.

The problem that we find ourselves in is that, for most dishes, we are on the far right of the timeline. The perfect recipe was found and then partially lost in an array of flashy re-imaginings. So how do you get back to that sweet spot?

How to Learn Any Classic Recipe

Step 1. 

Read through several recipes for the same thing. Don't worry about memorization, you don't need all the details, just the overall method.

Step 2.

Whatever ALL versions have in common is the classic recipe!

That's it. You've extracted the basic recipe from the many variations. Let me show you an example. In the last few episodes of Iron Chef America someone made a bolognese sauce (a rich, rustic Italian sauce with tomatoes and meat, similar to a ragu.) So I read through five or six recipes and found that most had veal, many had pancetta, and some had cream, but the absolute essentials were these:


  • Cook diced onions, carrots, celery, garlic, thyme, and bay leaves in oil.
  • Add a combination of ground beef and ground pork to the pot and brown.
  • Deglaze the pan with red wine. Then add beef stock and a tomato product (puree, paste, whole tomatoes) and simmer until the meat is tender (about 90 minutes).
  • Serve over papardelle and garnish with Parmesan cheese.

The recipes you find online are what a bolognese CAN be. But this is what a bolognese IS. It may still take a couple of tries to get it perfect, but tinkering is easy once you know the fundamentals. The great thing about learning to cook this way is that you don't need a copy of the recipe any more, because you know what the dish is. You understand it. And you probably learned a lot about cooking along the way.