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Which are your family's recipes are the most secret/heavily guarded?

I'm curious: What are the family recipes that you (or your family members) are still protecting? Does only one person know them or is it okay to share them within the family? Are they so good that they're worth protecting?

Sarah is Food52's senior staff writer & stylist.

asked over 1 year ago
33 answers 1991 views
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added over 1 year ago

My bubby (er...grandmother) had a strawberry jam recipe that was the be all and end all of jam. She used to give it to bankers, doctors and their secretaries to make sure she got treated well back in the day, and it worked for her. When she died (few months shy of 100), we hoarded all the leftovers...my brother had a few jars and would eat them by the teaspoon but they're gone now (or so he says). The family rumour is that my aunt (one of my grandmother's four daughters) has a hoarded collection, and also has the recipe but won't share it. It's kind of a point of contention in my family. On one hand, I get why she doesn't want it shared: if it falls into the wrong hands outside the family it would be chaos...Smuckers would be bankrupt in a week. On the other hand, every time I put store bought jam on my Montreal bagel with cream cheese (that's a thing by the way), I cry a little bit.

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Susan W

Susan W is a trusted source on General Cooking.

added over 1 year ago

That is such a great story.

84baef1b 1614 4c3d a895 e859c9d40bd1  chris in oslo
Greenstuff

Chris is a trusted source on General Cooking

added over 1 year ago

When I was growing up, a family friend had a dish that she brought to every pot-luck occasion, Ruth Barrett’s Sour Cream Baked Lima Beans. She carefully guarded her recipe until another family friend weaseled it out of her. That friend promptly had it published as her own contribution to a local church charity cookbook! Chaos ensued.

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Sarah Jampel

Sarah is Food52's senior staff writer & stylist.

added about 1 year ago

How on earth did she weasel it out of her?! She must have been very persuasive.

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Cav
added over 1 year ago

I'm interested to see the answers to this. I grew up with one grandmother who never cooked and one who was an absolutely terrible cook. The one time I asked my mother for what I thought was a family recipe (Oliver's chocolate pudding), she happily showed me the Family Circle book she got it from. So I only ever really encountered the notion of a special secret family recipe in sit-coms and commercials. The idea that a recipe is too good to share, that it's so precious only a precious few could know its details strikes me as absurd and the opposite of cooking with love. The only reason to keep a recipe to yourself is the embarrassment of admitting it was taken from the back of a jar. But that's my cynical self.

However, the idea that a certain recipe can be only made well by one person, that it's their signature and unrepeatable is well founded. Daniel brings up a strawberry jam, and I would say my mothers strawberry jam is better than mine even though we use the same recipe. Her strawberry patch is between apple trees in England. Mine is at the end of a tomato bed in Illinois. Hers is made to use up a surplus of berries, mine is made to remind me of home. Her sense of taste is different to mine, her experience in jam making far greater. So the same recipe doesn't produce the same jam, but each is ours.

I'm always happy to share a recipe and when asked a secret, the answer's normally a splash of bourbon.

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added over 1 year ago

I agree with all of this, including the splash of bourbon. We share recipes in our family (even the ones that come off the back of the box) and I hope always will. But different cooks have different styles and the truth is nobody makes our signature family risotto as well as my grandfather did and I can't tell you why, it was just his personal touch. But I saw him do it a thousand times and I know it's not because he was keeping secrets.
While I make some of my mother's classic dishes, mine are a bit different (I wouldn't say not as good, just different.) As I get older I find I tweak some of these recipes more and more to take advantage of ingredients that weren't available back then or just to suit my personal tastes. And sometimes I come across a better way to do something or a superior ingredient and it's really an improvement. My sister makes some of the same recipes but they never taste the same as mine or my mother's. I think that's what I like about cooking so much - it's really a very personal thing and food often reflects the personality of the cook.

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cv
added over 1 year ago

French chefs often sneak in a splash of cognac into dishes.

Unsurprisingly, French cuisine has earned a spot on UNESCO's "intangible" cultural heritage list.

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added over 1 year ago

I have the same problem with making lasagne. When I serve mine to people who haven't tasted my mum's it's all fine, but when I serve it to people who have tasted hers, the comment is always "It's very good, just not as good as (your) mum's". On the one hand, I put so much effort into making the best lasagne I can, I can't help but feeling a little disappointed, on the other hand, I am so glad my mum's lasagne is always going to be better than mine. I find it comforting.. the same way she is always going to be better than me at getting rid of red wine stains.

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PieceOfLayerCake

PieceofLayerCake is a trusted source on baking.

added over 1 year ago

While I like the idea of having iron clad, take-to-the-grave, super secret family recipes....I always think its such a shame not to share good tips and good food. That being said, I personally have many recipes that I have simply "neglected" to share with others. My grandmother's marinara sauce, while I've never actually recreated it successfully, isn't mine to share, so I don't. That's my justification.

The only recipes I will absolutely never part with (I may give them to my child, if I have one) are some phenomenal-yet-simple French/Belgian baking recipes that my mentor gave to me. Things like lemon madeleine, canelé, brioche, pastry cream, lemon cream, chocolate-orange moelleux, Belgian rye bread, and puff pastry. Things that may seem basic, but are quite unique!

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Greenstuff

Chris is a trusted source on General Cooking

added over 1 year ago

I am eternally grateful for people who share, even if it takes a while for a public recipe to appear. For example, I have more Swedish cookbook recipes than any third generation person could possibly need. Who could have imagined that a new favorite would pop up in "Secret Cookies," https://food52.com/recipes... ? Veronica's headnote: "This recipe has truly been kept a "Secret" for 30 years but now is the time to release it. It was given to me by an elderly lady who had been given it by an even more elderly Swedish lady. The proviso: "After I'm 'gone', you may give out the recipe." The same proviso was given to me...so, here it is."

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AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

added over 1 year ago

Kind of like Willa Cather's letters . . . though we had to wait about 65 years for those. Well worth it. ;o)

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added over 1 year ago

And now that I think about it for a second, some of it is also that ingredients do change over time. For example, a lot of meat cuts are leaner than they were in my Mom's day so I've found that I've had to switch to different cuts than she used in order get the texture of her meat sauce recipe right.

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added over 1 year ago

This question made me laugh because of the particular situation in my family right now. I was very young when both my grandmother passed. Both were amazing cooks.
Both my parent swear that my cooking tastes just like my different grandmothers. One Italian, one French.
Both parents insisted that they asked their mothers for recipes and both said there wasn't a recipe, you just cook. But the watched and write down their favorites many times. But they never taste quite right. But mine are perfect. They insist I have some hidden cookbook, they are only half serious. And they try to write my recipes, but I have only ever used recipes as guidelines. And I NEVER measure. I guess my grandmother just taught me cooking instict.

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cv
added over 1 year ago

People have cooked like this for millennia, without written recipes. Heck, most people throughout history didn't even know how to read.

The written recipe gradually emerged in the late nineteenth century, but as you have experienced, many people throughout the twentieth century who simply cooked like centuries before.

Heck, I'm guessing that there are at least a billion cooks on this planet today who don't open a recipe box, cookbook, or web browser to figure out how to cook dinner.

Personally, I think the written recipe can be a crutch. It helps with consistency if it can be executed reliably with similar ingredients each times. For sure, written recipes aren't necessarily better than what's in a good cook's head and you've discovered that.

I know this site is operated by a bunch of nice folks who worship the Almighty Written Word, but that's simply not how humans cooked for the majority of our species' existence on this planet.

For the unwritten recipes, it is more important to watch and remember. That's how many great cooks learned, by watching older family members in the kitchen.

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Leith Devine

Leith is a trusted home cook.

added over 1 year ago

My grandmother's pierogis, "cabbage delight" (actually delightful!), garlic dill pickles, and her homemade polish sausage. I finally learned the pierogi recipe, and I just conquered the pickles, but the cabbage eludes me. She lived near an Italian family in NJ and learned to make amazing ragu and lasagna. According to my mom I haven't gotten those right either. I cook like they did.... I throw ingredients in without measuring and make it up as I go along! Posting recipes on Food 52 has forced me to measure :) By the way my grandfather was a chef for the Waldorf Astoria before/during the Depression. Sadly I missed out on his secrets, hopefully I got some of his talent!

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added over 1 year ago

Would Greenstuff please post Ruth Barrett's Sour Cream Baked Lima Bean recipe?

84baef1b 1614 4c3d a895 e859c9d40bd1  chris in oslo
Greenstuff

Chris is a trusted source on General Cooking

added over 1 year ago

Really?? After my story of betrayal? Is this a test?

84baef1b 1614 4c3d a895 e859c9d40bd1  chris in oslo
Greenstuff

Chris is a trusted source on General Cooking

added about 1 year ago

Let me know what you end up doing and how it turns out!

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added over 1 year ago

Not a test and not a betrayal--just sounds so good! Time to move forward--you will feel energized and comfortable with the decision. Thanks!

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Greenstuff

Chris is a trusted source on General Cooking

added over 1 year ago

Well... all right, it's been about 50 years since the they were included in the charity cookbook. Here's to Mrs. Barrett and her beans:

1 pound dry baby lima beans
3 teaspoons salt
½ cup butter
¾ cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon dried mustard
2 tablespoons molasses
1 cup sour cream

Soak beans overnight. Drain and cover with fresh water. Add 2 teaspoons salt. Boil very gently for 45 minutes or until just tender. Drain and place in a bean pot or casserole. Add remaining salt, brown sugar, mustard, and molasses. Melt butter and add. Stir gently. Stir in sour cream gently. Bake 1 hour at 350F.

(I confess that I think they're too sweet and would cut the sugar. But that's me; the recipe as is was very popular in the 1960s.)

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AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

added about 1 year ago

Chris, those look amazing. Utterly decadent and supremely delicious - but I agree that the sugar needs to be reduced.

I've put this on my must-make list for the holiday season that lies ahead. Thank you so much for posting it. ;o)

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added over 1 year ago

Thank you so much; am in the mountains in Montana; heading home to Illinois in 2 weeks; will let you know how they turn out; a great vintage recipe is always fun!

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boulangere

Cynthia is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

added over 1 year ago

None. I Love sharing family recipes and the memories and stories behind them. When I posted my Belle Foley's Chocolate Cake, an amazing connection was made via the Hotline.

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Kristen W.

Kristen W. is a trusted home cook.

added over 1 year ago

Wonderful thread! In response to cv's post, I have to say that personally, I do not equate the utilization of written language to talk about food and it's preparation on a cooking website with "Worshipping The Almighty Word". Words are simply the medium of choice for most websites. I point his out because I, for one, historically had no one really to demonstrate to me how to cook anything properly, and so recipes -- in cookbooks, on websites, what have you -- were an essential jumping off point for me in learning to cook. Now I use recipes more as references, but without the written word to follow I never would have developed the basic facility which ultimately led me to a more improvisatory, technique-based approach. Hopefully my daughter, if she chooses to cook, will have the best of both worlds - lots of experiential cooking-wisdom, but also the option to research any dish or technique she can dream of with just a few keystrokes.

Back to the topic at hand...since there were no carefully guarded recipes in my family, I am with those who are not at all inclined to carefully guard anything I am lucky enough come up with.

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cv
added over 1 year ago

It's worth noting that this site's operators make no real effort to create any substantial amount of video content. It really is a bunch of writers.

There are a handful of photographs, but almost exclusively of the final product, rarely additional imagery showing mise en place, preparation steps, alternate plating ideas, despite the ubiquity of smartphones, digital cameras, and other gadgets that could easily capture such moments in their test kitchen. This Almighty Word Worship bias isn't unique to this site; many other food sites are essentially text factories as well.

Here's an example of a recipe from another site:

http://www.seriouseats...

Not only does it have a photo of the final product, but six other images on the same page, many showing intermediate steps. That old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is true.

I find that the some of the best food writers are ones who also cook live in front of a camera. Julia Child is the quintessential example of this. Yes, Julia wrote some classic cookbooks, but her on-air appearances are really what turned her into an institution. Her episodes on Jacques Pepin's show are priceless. Julia correctly understood that video simulated the real world learning process for 99.99% of all cooks through human history.

One of genius decisions was to *air* mistakes. She would screw up occasionally and just laugh it off because THAT'S WHAT HAPPENS IN REAL KITCHENS. I wish more cooks would show their mistakes, whether it be in print, photographed or videotaped. As much as it helps saying what you need to do, the adage of "learning from your mistakes" is not an artificial phrase. Sometimes it really helps to say, "here's the mistake I made, and if you do you the same thing, here's what you will end up with" and show the disaster.

Today, I think some of the best food educators are the ones who appear on camera as well as write books: Aaron Franklin and Mario Batali are two greats.

Heck, Vivian Howard of PBS series "A Chef's Life" hasn't even published a cookbook, and yet her TV series is undeniably one of the best examples of food education produced in the past twenty years, and yes, that includes deadtrees cookbooks. Like Julia, every one of Howard's episodes has Vivian working with someone else (typically a home cook) and she is not afraid to show her mistakes and/or ignorance. I learn way more from video.

Of course, every site is free to create their own editorial direction. Clearly, this site is a writers' place. Sure, I'm enjoying it for now however there's a lot this site does not offer. I'm an Internet nomad so soon I move along.

Anyhow, there are no secret recipes in my family either, not that they wrote down many of them (basically they're all baking recipes).

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cv
added over 1 year ago

Also perplexing to me are the food sites that have a recipe and something like 6-8 photos of the finished product from various angles. Sure, okay, a shot of a whole pie, then another shot of a slice is fine, but eight shots of a salad really doesn't add anything.

Again, these are individual decisions about the editorial direction of any given site, but when you find yourself at a site that includes multiple shots of preparation steps and video, well, it's clear how much is missing at other sites that omit such content.

I've been on the web since the Nineties and it's so peculiar how few food lovers really get the medium.

People are eager to whip out a phone for a selfie, yet lack the foresight to take a quick image of their mise en place or key steps in food preparation?

So odd.

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Kristen W.

Kristen W. is a trusted home cook.

added over 1 year ago

Let me rephrase that last bit (edit function, where ARE you??): I am with the people who are not at all inclined to guard whatever THEY come up with, not whatever "I" come up with. Sorry, self-imposed grammar-nazi here...

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added over 1 year ago

When my grandmother died I became custodian of her recipe box. One day I got a call from a family friend asking for her perogi dough recipe because the friend had lost her copy. When I gave it to her as my grandmother had written it she told me that Grandma used to give it leaving out one ingredient. I had no idea Grandma was protective of it. The secret was cream cheese in the dough.

On the other side of things, when my husband and I had been dating for a while I asked his mother to teach me how to make his favorite steak pie when she was visiting. She told me "No, If I show you that what will he need me for?" A few years later she invited me in the kitchen when she was preparing it. She claims to have no memory of refusing to let me in on the secret before.

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Susan W

Susan W is a trusted source on General Cooking.

added over 1 year ago

I come from a family who happily shares family recipes as do most of my friends. I can't fathom why someone would want to keep them a secret. I can't wrap my head around that.

The only exception to that was my Yia Yia (Greek Grandmother). She refused to give out recipes, but that was only because she never measured a thing. She made her own Phyllo dough and never even measured for that. After I moved away to college, I called her to get her taco and meat sauce recipes. Yes, my Yia Yia made the best tacos and spaghetti on the planet. Her answer to me was "Honeymoo, come home and cook with me".

One of my mom's best friends was very secretive about her recipes. She'd shoo everyone out of the kitchen while she cooked. She was an amazing cook. I dated her son for a short period of time in High School. I convinced him to absconded with her beef stroganoff recipe. Shhh... I giggle a bit every time I look at it in my recipe box. I have never even told my mom what we did for fear of imprisonment or something.

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AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

added over 1 year ago

We share everything. Anything else would not be generous -- simply unthinkable. End of story. ;o)

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added over 1 year ago

I shared some with a friend, and regret it every time one of "my" recipes shows up at a potluck or party or on one of her friends' blogs. I won't make that mistake again. While I share lots of recipes, I like to have some really delicious ones that are considered my specialties. Several of those passed down in my family I have not found online yet.

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PieceOfLayerCake

PieceofLayerCake is a trusted source on baking.

added over 1 year ago

There's definitely not a "right" or "wrong" way to do it...it all comes down to personal choice...and recipes are often just that: personal. Just like you get to do what you want with any sort of artistry, that same choice should apply to one's cooking.

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added over 1 year ago

I was the most frustrated for years that my mother would not share with me the recipe for tortiere. I could not for the life of me figure out the spice mix, and she would not share. Even worse, this came from Dad's side of the family, so technically I had more rights to it than she did if push came to shove. Eventually I got the recipe, which I make annually. I also passed it on to my daughter and my husband's family because my sister does not like it so she won't make it or want to share. It's just too good a recipe to let die. BTW - I'm looking to keep it in the family, so I'm not sharing here.