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The Constant Reinvention of No-Recipe Recipes

The earliest cookbooks were light on instruction and heavy on assumed knowledge — a style our recent, prescriptive recipe-obsessed food culture is now looping back to.


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You don’t need a recipe. Really, you don’t.

So chastises the back cover of Sam Sifton’s 2021 book New York Times Cooking: No-Recipe Recipes, which, despite its own pretensions, is full of recipes. Here we have a delightful-looking Asparagus and Boursin Tart (send to mom, I wrote on a Post-it), some pleasantly ’90s-sounding Miso-Glazed Scallops, and a handful of ways to make weeknight chicken, the home cook’s holy grail. These are recipes you’d expect to find on the New York Times Cooking app, which Sifton helped to launch, and for which he has written a weekly newsletter for years. They’re dishes you can make in under an hour, without too much fuss or too many ingredients, after getting off work.

No-Recipe Recipes translates the utility of the cooking app into something analog while reworking its central format. Here, the ingredient lists do not include amounts, recipes offer no yields, and directions are kept to a single paragraph. Some include little footnotes for tips (make sure your pasta water is salty as the sea) and modifications (instead of asparagus, cook some frozen peas in butter). Sifton writes in the brusque but encouraging tone of a neighborhood dad coaching a soccer game. That asparagus tart recipe ends with a shout: Let’s go!

The aim of the book, as outlined in its three-paragraph introduction, is to get the reader riffing: “Cooking without recipes is a kitchen skill,” Sifton writes. “It’s a proficiency to develop, a way to improve your confidence in the kitchen and makes the act of cooking fun.” Formal recipes are like sheet music, he explains, a useful tool for learning by mimicking. He doesn’t go so far as to say that this book will impart unto its reader the living spirit of kitchen-jazz, but the implication hangs in the page’s white space like an echo. On the next page, Sifton encourages the reader to “join me in cooking this new, improvisational way, without recipes.”

But new to whom, exactly?

“I love Sam’s new book and when I got it, immediately thought of old Viet cookbooks that I’ve used for research, and to cook from,” Andrea Nguyen, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and occasional New York Times Cooking contributor, wrote when I emailed her for this story. Her favorite of those old books is Lam Bep Gioi (Cooking Well), which she describes as “the book of its time” and “akin to The Joy of Cooking” in its popularity among Vietnamese cooks, housewives in particular, upon its first publication in 1940.

In the book’s recipe for pho bo, author Van Dai omits and assumes just as much as she instructs. “She doesn’t tell anyone what the seasonings are in the broth,” Nguyen told me over the phone, translating the recipe and laughing at its brevity. “She just goes, ‘choose your noodles wisely. You need them on the thick side. And don’t overcook the meat, you need it to be kinda chewy.’” The last line echoes the suggestive tone of Sifton’s modifications: “If you want it to be really tasty, add a little MSG into each bowl.”

The recipe is what Nguyen calls a “talk-through,” exclusively prosaic instruction with the necessary ingredients mentioned as they are chopped, sprinkled, or added. Quantities are rare. “It actually is formal writing,” Nguyen clarifies, “but it’s not a recipe as we would identify it.” Not in 2021, at least, where nearly all cookbooks adhere to a standard format: title, headnote, ingredients, yield, instructions.

Dai’s omissions and assumptions reflect the implied cultural proximity between author and reader. Old cookbooks like Lam Bep Gioi “were written for an audience that had a common knowledge of a particular cuisine and culture,” Nguyen told me, “so you didn’t have to say much for people to understand.” Her readers know which bones to simmer for pho broth, and for how long. It’s a laconic sort of instruction familiar to anyone who has snooped through old community cookbooks or taken a mild interest in cookbook history.

The paragraph form has been around since the 1500s, or as long as cookbooks have been printed. American cookbooks really kicked off in the mid-1800s, and for their first hundred years or so, their recipe formats were scattershot, even within a single title. Some are quick talk-throughs; some include the sort of exacting ingredient lists modern cooks are used to. But most look more like the pho recipe in Lam Bep Gioi than anything recently published in Bon Appétit: They assume more than they explain, and they get to the point quickly. A recipe for macaroni in the 1904 book Cooking in Old Creole Days by Celestine Eustis reads like an older version of something Sifton would include in a newsletter, beginning with the basics and then spiraling out into variations to suit your mood. Like many of Sifton’s not-recipes, it is less a recipe than a suggestion with guide rails:

Macaroni must be thrown into plenty of boiling water to cook it well. Then drain it off and put it in a dish with salt and a little powdered mustard and put it in the oven until there is a nice crust on top. Grated cheese of any kind may be added, or a few tablespoonfuls of well cooked tomatoes, or a few tablespoonfuls of Italian mushrooms stirred up with chicken livers, or the remnants of pâte dé foie gras, or chopped ham or salt tongue, in fact almost anything that will give it a nice relish.

This style fell out of favor in the mid-20th century, when, according to Celia Sack of San Francisco’s Omnivore Books, “women suddenly found themselves without kitchen help — help who were raised to cook and not to need delineated recipes — and had no idea how to ‘make a batter’ or how long to ‘bake until done.’” These women needed more specific guidance, exacting quantities, and cooking times, and thus the modern recipe began to evolve. As the needs and circumstances of housewives shifted, so too did the recipe format. This changing shape, then, can trace the modern history of home cooking.

In a 2020 paper titled “Recipes for Reading Recipes? Culinary Writing and the Stakes of Multiethnic Pseudonarrative,” Delores B. Phillips attempts to untangle the question of whether recipes count as a narrative form. Narratologists often claim that they don’t — after all, nothing happens in a recipe — but, Phillips explains, “recipes adopt narrative’s sheen like borrowed light, accruing narrative’s features the closer they are to the stories that give them context.”

A 29-word recipe for cornbread published in 1881 and reprinted in Toni Tipton-Martin’s Jubilee, which traces and celebrates the history of African-American cuisine, doesn’t offer the traditional makings of narrative. As with many of the older, excerpted recipes in her book, it exemplifies the brevity of many old recipes, which assumed their readers already knew how to cook. But woven into what Tipton-Martin calls a “family tree” of cornbread, it begins to light up a story that starts with hot water cornbread and ends with souffle. Conversely, when a recipe is stripped of its narrative, it risks becoming a mere suggestion that deprives its reader of a deeper learned experience. A tree becomes a two-by-four.

What narrative does No-Recipe Recipes reflect? Maybe it’s the story of our highly digitized culinary world, as exemplified by the Times cooking app. (I should mention here that between 2019 and 2020, I was a regular contributor to the Times’ Hungry City column, a gig for which Sifton approached me; I am also a paying subscriber and enthusiastic user of the app.) In recent years, the Cooking section and the app have made important efforts toward recipe equity, both by adding bylines for cooks and authors who wrote an original recipe excerpted on the site, and by hiring and promoting the work of a wider range of contributors. But it still reflects an international palate that has historically been shaped by white tastes, and a style of cooking that treats putting food on the table as a primarily bourgeois hobby rather than a necessity. Sifton’s recipes rely heavily on a well-stocked pantry, which he outlines in the early pages of the book. His is the sort of global pantry newly embraced and encouraged by traditional food media outlets: stocked with gochujang, hoisin sauce, tahini, curry powder, furikake, Aleppo pepper, chile crisp, chutney, fish sauce.

When used like a mix-and-match set, this globalized pantry can quickly remove place from food. A Celery and Beef Stir-Fry with gochujang is, according to its three-line headnote, “a fast and loose stir-fry that recalls but does not replicate a classic Sichuan dish with a fantastic name — Send the Rice Down.” If you don’t have gochujang, Sifton explains in the modifications section, you can use chile-bean paste. (He knows his readers are already familiar with the spicy-sweet Korean chile paste, but doubanjiang isn’t there yet — hasn’t yet had its chile crisp moment — and needs an anglicized translation.) Once the beef is starting to get crispy and delicious-looking, he tells you to “hit it with a big, sloppy tablespoon or two” of your paste of choice.

That freewheeling instruction made Nguyen a little jealous. “When I was reading this I thought, man, at what point would I feel comfortable doing something like that?” she told me. “Because I’m always trying to push people to make things that they’re unfamiliar with.”

Nguyen has written four Vietnamese cookbooks, including two hyper-focused, single-subject books on foods like banh mi and pho to hook more people into cooking Vietnamese food at home. “That’s why I love the book so much, because he just says, ‘you can make this. And here, make some Crisp Fish Filets with Delicious Sauce.’ I couldn’t possibly write a recipe title like that, because I would be like, ‘okay, that’s not really true to the original language that the recipe is in,’” Nguyen says. “But for his audience, they just want to make the food.” Those who take up the job of educating readers on a cuisine, particularly a non-Western one, often can’t get away with playing things so fast and loose. Their authority, too, is often chained to their heritage, and they are expected to honor externally imposed standards of authenticity. Nguyen had to prove herself by writing definitive, meticulously researched cookbooks on Vietnamese staple dishes. But for white writers and editors with institutional backing, authority is more variable, typically requiring little more than a passion for cooking and a wide-ranging pantry.

As Navneet Alang wrote on this website last year, incorporating ingredients from nonwhite cultures into fusion-y dishes for a majority-white audience deracinates those foods, each of which has its own history and culinary tradition. When mainstream recipes are developed for the widest possible (usually white-assumed) audience, their ridges of identity are often worn away in the service of ease of consumption, turning recipes — cultural documents that contain personal history, community history, cultural history, anecdote, contradiction, personality, and “fantastic” names — into highly digestible and endlessly mutable things.

There’s a long-running complaint online that recipe bloggers precede their recipes with too much personal narrative. We don’t care about your great-aunt’s knee surgery, the complainers wail, just give us our casserole. As if their computer’s scrolling functionality had gone on strike. A website launched a few months ago to try to appease these people: Called Recipeasly, it billed itself as “your favorite recipes without the ads or life stories [doughnut emoji].” A righteous uproar ensued, with complaints that the website diminished the labor of these bloggers, stole their ad revenue, and neutered their IP, all without consent. The website quickly shut down.

The project had a whiff of dog-whistle sexism, too, as Jaya Saxena wrote for Eater. It’s a modern version of the long-running institutional disrespect for recipe collections, particularly those unpublished, that Phillips outlines. Those who decry recipes and cookbooks as lacking narrative identity imply that household literature doesn’t deserve serious consideration. But they are often the richest source material we have for those domestic lives. “The annals acquire life,” Phillips writes, “not as repositories of information to await recovery and deciphering but as innovative textual feats that preserve the character of the communities from which they arise. The political mission here is obvious: Recipes tell stories because groups who write them need an archive, lest their stories disappear.”

At their most consequential, cookbooks document the ways in which history lingers and lives in kitchens. A great example of this is Bress ’n’ Nyam, the new cookbook from chef and farmer Matthew Raiford. In it, he tells the story of his family — six generations of farmers descended from the Tikar people of what is now Cameroon — and their land on the Georgia coast. It’s a document of Gullah Geechee culinary history, as well as the story of a self-described “prodigal son” returning to the land that raised him.

Raiford’s recipe for Smoked Ossabaw Island Hog (or How to Host a Pig Roast) looks about as far from a not-recipe as you can get, but retains some hints of the historical form. Over a spread of six pages, Raiford explains his preferred breed of hog; how to build a roasting pit (for which he uses the old box springs from a mattress); how an apple in the beast’s mouth will keep the heat circulating nicely. He briefly explains the tradition’s historic significance. And as with many recipes in his book, he points the reader toward success rather than holding their hand too tightly. An accompanying recipe for chicharrones instructs the reader to begin here: “Remove the skin and the fatback from the roasted hog. Render the fatback into a leaf lard that you can use for frying, pastries, and sausages.” It sounds a bit like a hundred-year-old recipe; technically, it’s older. The instructions for the skin that follow are more precise, but these first lines assume a certain knowledge in the reader, or at least a certain instinct.

“One of the things that I learned really early on, even before I became a young chef, was that a recipe is a guide, not the rule,” Raiford told me of his recipe-writing ethos. “A lot of times people consider it to be a rule and a guide. But that leaves no space for the person that’s cooking to realize that if I don’t taste it right about now, it might taste like this” — too salty, say, or not salty enough. “There’s a lot of ‘to taste’ in my book, because that’s the way my family cooked.” These aren’t improvisational recipes per se, but they teach the sort of intuition that future improvisation requires.

Roughly half of the recipes in Bress ’n’ Nyam (which means “bless and eat” in Gullah) are family recipes. Research for the book meant not just calling up his mother to ask about her pound cake, but reading through his grandmother’s old recipe cards (thorough, written-through recipes) and 10 or so “really old” cookbooks that Raiford found in the house, from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of them only offered a list of ingredients or “shorthand notes,” Raiford says, and vague directions, like “cook it until it’s soft.” As a trained chef and lifelong cook, he was able to make the assumptions that the original readers had been asked to make, a set of assumptions that were obvious back then: “Because who would take on cooking who didn’t know how to cook?”

Adapting his grandmother’s recipes was a little more straightforward, partially because so many were written the way he had learned them at her side. “All I did was take those recipes and go, okay, if I was telling someone this verbally, what would it come out like?” Raiford says. “I tried to recreate the things that were written as though you and I are having this conversation right now.” It channels an intimacy and trust between writer and reader that defies any lack of personal connection. That intimacy is strengthened by the personal and family histories that accompany Raiford’s recipes, lending to each dish that “narrative sheen” that Phillips described.

Most modern cookbooks aim to make their readers more confident cooks; improvisational cooking is an explicit result promised by some, and an implicit one for many. It’s also a style that professional cooks and housewives and other sorts of parents have practiced throughout modern history, and it’s a way many people have learned through watching and listening and doing, in home and professional settings. Cookbooks, in their way, are oral histories in formal dress. This improvisational style of cooking is not new, but trying to codify it is. Sifton’s book belies the difficulty of that effort: Outlining an improvisation is not the same as teaching someone to improvise on their own. Concision and empowerment don’t always go hand in hand.

The teaching of intuition, I wager, requires more space on the page. In considering Sifton’s book, I kept thinking back to Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, from 2017. The book takes up a similar goal as No-Recipe Recipes — to teach the reader to be a more confident, improvisational cook — but uses the opposite approach. The first recipe begins on page 217; before that are chapters on the elements of good cooking and flavor, a generous crash course in what makes good food good and how you might create it in your own home. (Nosrat has also contributed to the Times’ Cooking section, and was until recently a contributor to the Times Magazine’s Eat column.)

Nosrat takes a good three pages to explain the process of braising. She opens with a story: the memory of being 19 and new in the Chez Panisse kitchen, nervously watching chefs turn their backs on searing hunks of meat to chop onions in preparation for a braise. She explains a braise’s components, and what defines the category. She walks you through each step carefully, providing tips for things to watch out for, avoid, or expect. She explains the different routes you could take — wine or beer to deglaze; which vegetables hold up nicely to the process. With this extensive advice, Nosrat not only gives us all we need to know, she creates a trust, a faith, between herself and the reader. It’s a necessary inversion of the trust that authors like Van Dai had in their readers: from you know enough to cook this to I’ve written enough for you to learn from.

Later in the book we have a recipe (two full pages) for Pork Braised with Chillies, followed by variations, followed by “Everything You Need to Know to Improvise a Braise.” This takes the idea of learning to improvise and offers a hypothesis: You’ve got to follow the recipe, or at least understand the technique, before you can begin riffing. “The beauty of it all,” Nosrat writes, “is once you’ve got this braise in your pocket, you’ve got a hundred others in there, too.”

Marian Bull is a writer and ceramicist living in Brooklyn.
Allie Sullberg is an illustrator, designer, and artist who lives in Portland, Oregon.

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This post originally appeared on Eater and was published July 14, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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