Recipe bound vs. Improvisor

Are there two types of people: those who religiously follow recipes even though they've made them many times and those improvise and make their own recipes? Is there a transition point where someone who has always depended on recipes turns into a Great Improvisor?



FutureChef January 29, 2013
Tim Ferriss: 4 hour chef just released over Thanksgiving. Took me from follower to improviser in weeks. And I've been following recipes for years--anything from magazines to cookbooks meant for chefs. Also just an amazing read. I say that every time I read one of his books though, but there's a reason he's a globe trotting, multi-lingual, national best-selling author millionaire that got to work with the country's best chefs (i.e. achatz, blumenthal, myhrvold, dorenberg, page, bittman and upwards of fifty more).
Pegeen January 29, 2013
@prandial: You ask if there's a point at which someone becomes a Great Improvisor. There is absolutely no clear path to success except for practice, practice, practice, practice, fail, practice, fail, practice, practice, fail, practice, fail, practice. Between some of those commas, you will have some successes.

I am sincerely trying to be helpful: if you really did use baking soda instead of powder, and thought pasta should cook as long as the sauce does, then a very simple step is to read labels and directions on packages, and actually follow recipes. Then, there's reading books and taking classes. Previous generations learned by cooking at someone else's elbow. If you have a friend or relative whose cooking you like, ask them if you can hang around them while they cook and would they explain things to you. (But do what they say and in exchange for their help, offer to wash pots and pans!)
QueenSashy January 29, 2013
There is a great degree of mastery in being able to create the very same dish every time you make it. And there is a great deal of mastery in being able to create an entirely new dish from the same old one. Philosophies aside, for me personally, there are recipes I stick to religiously, and then there are recipes that just call for experimenting.
Pegeen January 29, 2013
A favorite quote:
"Plans are nothing. Planning is everything." - Dwight D. Eisenhower
Kristen W. January 29, 2013
Speaking as someone who made the transition from being extremely recipe-bound to being much more comfortable with improvisation in just the last few years, I think a combination of reading and practical experience is key. Rather than read cookbooks that have a lot of explanation but little technical information, I gravitate towards books that teach technique and cooking concepts (I also indulge in a lot of chef-memoirs as well, from which I've picked up many excellent tips). One book I'd recommend is "Michael Ruhlman's "Ruhlman's Twenty", which gives a thorough explanation of techniques and general concepts essential for cooking confidently, and also "Ratio", by the same author. On the other end of the style spectrum is Tamar Adler's "An Everlasting meal", which is a very practical and home cook-oriented kind of cooking manifesto which can also go a long way towards liberating a recipe-bound cook.

Of course there's no substitute for experience. Improvising means making oneself more vulnerable to failure, as some have mentioned above. Personally, if I screw up too many improvised dishes in a row, I'll go back to recipes for a while until I feel like trying something on my own again. In the meantime I might do some research or post a question here about what might have gone wrong with the dishes that failed. Finally, I really feel that there is nothing inherently superior about either following recipes or now following recipes; I learn so much from both and to me a preference for one or the other can just be a matter of personal style and process.
smslaw January 29, 2013
Usually, what causes me to deviate from a recipe is realizing that I don't have an ingredient, so some sort of substitution is necessary. I also sometimes find that after I made something according to the recipe, something isn't quite right. I'll make a note, so next time I'll alter the recipe to reflect experience. For example, I made Otolongi's black pepper tofu-delicious, but about three times the pepper needed.
prandial January 29, 2013
? Is there a single resource with all the Tenets of Cooking so you know which laws are inviolable and those that can be bent? For example, one would not keep a pot of pasta simmering on the stove until the sauce was ready (I've done this). Or one would not switch out baking soda for baking powder (also me). Or one would not use cinnamon instead of paprika because "they look alike, why not?" (not me, but my grandmother). Any advice on how to pick up the Truths from which you can then improvise?

Voted the Best Reply!

ChefOno January 29, 2013

It's not nearly that simple. Following a recipe is, for many people and for different reasons, a method to ensure nothing is forgotten. Concert musicians, pilots, lab scientists all do the same thing even though they may have practiced a procedure thousands of times. Is there any doubt in anyone's mind Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger can fly by the seat of his pants? Does he run down a checklist every takeoff and every landing? Following a recipe doesn't mean a cook isn't capable of improvisation but it does mean they are capable of repeatability.

usuba D. January 29, 2013
In the "Dark Ages" when I trained as a chef, I was give one book, "Le Repertoir de la Cuisine". This was our bible to use at all times. It is just about every classical French (read Escoffier) dish. The book has no amounts, only the ingredients . . . think of it as a box of certain colour paints and you have to create a defined picture. I have always felt that a recipe is nothing more than a guide to an outcome. The art and science of cooking is so much fun . . I have created as many disasters as works of art. I think it is more important to know what doesn't work as much as what does work. Don't be afraid to fail . . you will learn more from that then if you succeed.
aargersi January 29, 2013
Interesting question re: the turning point - I know my brother (an engineer) follows recipes religiously. That is how he feels comfortable and that will never change. Me, I use recipes as a starting point and often start to mess with them before I have made them even once - doing what I am told makes my eye twitch - though I DO try to follow along with baking, mostly. I guess a person might make the leap into the improv abyss if they start out not knowing much about a certain kind of cooking, but then become more confident as they try it and learn the ins and outs ...
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