With holidays come traditions, with traditions come food, and with food comes beloved family recipes. And those recipes, whether on stained index cards or in an uncle’s mental lock box, try to preserve and reproduce an eating experience that is both singular and completely familiar. So it isn’t surprising that over time people may start to question why the cannoli filling isn’t as tart as anyone remembers, why the tamales aren’t as soft, or why the kolaczki haven’t been the quite same since your great aunt passed away. Maybe your ovens are just a little bit different. Maybe the preferred brand of ricotta has changed hands over the years. Or maybe the recipe has steps like “fill the yellow bowl with flour” and “cut in butter until it feels right” (not hypothetical examples).
After years in the world of science communication, and a lifetime in the kitchen, I have come to love recipes and cookbooks for the personal and practical divide they seek to bridge. Part protocol, part memoir, recipes have a chance to bring together both the how and the why. As a scientist and storyteller, my shelf of cookbooks has started to span the how-to-why spectrum. And, depending on mood, I may reach for books at one end or the other.
Consider the roast chicken. Given how many authors claim you can judge a cook or restaurant by their ability to prepare this particular dish, it only seemed fitting to compare their approaches to writing about it. Do you want feel welcomed, like you are entering a kitchen to make a favorite comfort food? Roast Chicken and Other Stories opens the door with, “Roasting a chicken is a joy for me; and if I am pressed to name my favorite food, then roast chicken it must be.” How to Cook Everything is equally inviting, with “We associate roast chicken with elegance, but it is also a great weeknight food, since it takes just about an hour from start to finish.” Looking to feel a bit more like you are about to up your game? The Food Lab has the pricklier sentiment, “But, to be perfectly frank, most of the time I don’t like roast chicken, because most of the time, well, chicken just isn’t roasted very well.”
There are aspects of the process on which all of the writers seem to agree, though they vary in how they express it. For example, take the importance of starting with a quality bird. Roast Chicken and Other Stories starts with “The better the bird, the better the dish cooked.” How to Cook Everything uses more of a warning tone, with “most supermarket chicken is more than mild – it’s downright bland.” And Julia Child takes it even further in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, with “If you are interested in price alone, you will often end up with something that tastes like the stuffing inside a teddy bear…”
There are aspects on which they disagree. Joy of Cooking says that the slow, low heat roasting “has gained popularity because it is carefree.” Mastering the Art of French Cooking expresses it a bit differently: “While it does not require years of training to produce a juicy, brown, buttery, crisp-skinned, heavenly bird, it does entail such a greed for perfection that one is under the compulsion to hover over the bird, listen to it, above all see that it is continually basted, and that it is done just to the proper time.”
Should you truss the bird? Mastering the Art of French Cooking includes a multi-page diagram on the process as part of a creating a neat table presentation. How to Cook Everything argues it “adds a step to a simple process without providing a great deal of benefit.” And The Food Lab is so in favor of other preparations (spatchcock, etc.) that the simple roast chicken recipe is headed by the caveat, “If you value the presentation of a whole bird at the table, this is the recipe for you.”
And how do you know the bird is done? Joy of Cooking and How to Cook Everything have details about temperature and food safety. Mastering the Art of French Cooking has additional clues, like looking for a “sudden rain of sputters in the oven” and if the “drumstick can be moved its socket.” The Food Lab expresses some particularly strong feelings about the how the government “started to recommend cooking poultry to the state beyond death known as 165°F.” For the most comprehensive handling of meat and food safety, I turn to the encyclopedic On Food and Cooking. Though this book doesn’t contain any recipes or sentimental anecdotes – and the information is in such appetizing sections as “Domestic Meat Birds” and “The Transformation of Muscle into Meat” – it was the first explanation that fully clarified the role of radiant heat and why it is so detrimental to leave the oven door open for longer than absolutely necessary.
But as varied as the approaches and voices may be, they have one overarching quality in common: They set out to tell you precisely how to roast a chicken. It would not have even occurred to me to question that a recipe should, in fact, just teach you how to make the dish named in the title. But someone recently handed me a copy of Cook’s Illustrated and introduced me to the writers of America’s Test Kitchen. There may only be a dozen or so recipes in each issue, but each dives into both the how and why with an almost obsessive specificity.
It isn’t just a recipe for lemon bars… it is a recipe for “The Lemoniest Lemon Bars.” These may not be the traditional steps and ingredients of your grandpa’s recipe, but they serve a specific goal. And the process of pursuing ultimate lemony-ness is itself illuminating. Lan Lam takes the reader through the decision to choose a fuss-free crust, brainstorming with colleagues about crumbliness, testing different versions, and even using feedback to identify the ideal crust-to-filling ratio. Pursuing lemony flavor led to a sidebar into the nature of flavor itself. Dipping into kitchen expertise, the author explains “With lemon juice specifically, you taste only the tartness of its citric and malic acids on the tongue, while the fruity, lemony flavors come from volatile compounds that shoot into that back door to your nasal passage when you exhale.” Zest has more volatile flavor than juice, and cream of tarter has a sour taste all its own. A literal recipe for intense, lemony flavor.
Other recipes have other messy moments of insight. In attempt to speed up the sometimes-laborious process of crafting a layered carrot cake, one author was struck by the genius of cooking it in a single, thin cake on a sheet pan and stacking the ready-made layers. Unfortunately, their hopes were dashed when the carrots came out crunchy when the rest of the cake was cooked. (Another science-laced fix of boosting the pH with baking soda fixed the carrot issue without sacrificing the newfound speed.) In addition to more refined pursuits, some recipes explore relatable endeavors – like making a creamy and delicious soup from canned beans (now a staple in our weeknight menus).
Cook’s Illustrated authors let their failures and frustrations shine through, with one author making cookies so fussy that “A few batches into my recipe development, I wanted to retire.” Recipe development – if only I could re-frame all of my struggling pursuits in such a productive way. Reading along with this process of refinement welcomes readers to stand up for adjustments and judgment calls of their own. There is a freedom to experiment, a respect for technical knowledge, and a willingness to acknowledge the value of even the most personal pursuits. It is a process, and – like with any other skill we might seek to develop – just comes down to a willingness to try.