What’s Wrong With Following a Recipe?

On recipes, spontaneity, and time: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Photograph of bowls containing flour, butter, eggs, and other baking ingredients
Marie Suchodolski / Hans Lucas / Redux

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Naz Deravian, the author of the cookbook Bottom of the Pot, grew up in a family that shunned recipes in favor of spontaneous cooking—an attitude that initially impeded her effort to write a cookbook. However, as she wrote in an article for The Atlantic, the specificity and certainty of following a recipe eventually became a source of comfort for her, especially as she grappled with national and personal stressors.

Even for those who are not facing such upheaval, recipes can be reassuring safety nets. Spontaneity has become a glamorous ideal in the food world (see, for example, the editor Sam Sifton’s recent work The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes). But at-home cooks tend to need more guidance before they’re prepared for complete freedom. Recipes can provide that. So can guidebooks, such as Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Nosrat’s work, which my colleague Joe Pinsker called a “metacookbook,” not only teaches readers how to prepare specific dishes but also helps them to develop the culinary intuition needed for successful experimentation in the kitchen. And that knowledge comes with another added benefit: efficiency. Rather than seeking out complex dishes with long prep times, intuitive cookers can follow their instincts to prepare something quick and delicious.

Still, when one does have the time, nothing beats the meditative calm of slowly preparing a longer recipe. The experience reminds us that, as Michael Pollan, a chef and the author of Cooked says, “This process we’re being told is pure drudgery is actually interesting and gratifying and satisfying.”

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading


Eric Wolfinger

Writing an Iranian cookbook in an age of anxiety

“As the world thundered, I paved a new, diplomatic relationship with my measuring cups and timer, finding solace in their certainty. Whereas only months before I’d felt restricted by the written recipe, I now relied on it.”

📚 Bottom of the Pot, by Naz Deravian


Katie Martin

When did following recipes become a personal failure?

“Well-meaning but uninspired cooks—and believe me, we have been legion since the dawn of time—long for specifics.”

📚 The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes, by Sam Sifton
📚 The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, by Fannie Farmer
📚 The Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer
📚 Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book
📚 That Man in the Kitchen, by Malcolm LaPrade
📚 A Man’s Cookbook, by Raymond Oliver
📚 The I Hate to Cook Book, by Peg Bracken

An illustration from Samin Nosrat's "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat"

Wendy MacNaughton

The why of cooking

“[R]ecipes, for all their precision and completeness, are poor teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it.”

📚 Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, by Samin Nosrat
📚 How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman
📚 On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee
📚 The Science of Good Cooking
📚 Cooking for Geeks, by Jeff Potter
📚 The Food Lab, by J. Kenji López-Alt
📚 How to Read a French Fry, by Russ Parsons
📚 The Improvisational Cook, by Sally Schneider
📚 Ruhlman’s Twenty, by Michael Ruhlman

illustration of a dining room table

Lebrecht / Corbis / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

The myth of ‘easy’ cooking

“The decision to cook from scratch may have many virtues, but ease is not one of them. Despite what we’re told, cooking the way so many Americans aspire to do it today is never fast, and rarely easy compared to all the other options available for feeding ourselves.”

📚 The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François
📚 How to Cook Everything Fast, by Mark Bittman
📚 Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes, by Peter Meehan
📚 The Glamour Magazine After 5 Cookbook, by Beverly Pepper
📚 In & Out of the Kitchen In 15 Minutes or Less, by Anne Willan

Michael Pollan cooking


Michael Pollan and the luxury of time

“Americans are transfixed with the culture of food, but not with the actual cooking of food.”

📚 Cooked, by Michael Pollan

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is An Ordinary Age, by Rainesford Stauffer.

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