The Myth of ‘Easy’ Cooking

An entire industry has been built on the premise that creating gourmet meals at home is simple and effortless. But it isn’t true.

Lebrecht / Corbis / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

I write about food for a living. Because of this, I spend more time than the average American surrounded by cooking advice and recipes. I’m also a mother, which means more often than not, when I return from work 15 minutes before bedtime, I end up feeding my 1-year-old son squares of peanut-butter toast because there was nothing in the fridge capable of being transformed into a wholesome, homemade toddler meal in a matter of minutes. Every day, when I head to my office after a nourishing breakfast of smashed blueberries or oatmeal I found stuck to the pan, and open a glossy new cookbook, check my RSS feed, or page through a stack of magazines, I’m confronted by an impenetrable wall of unimaginable cooking projects, just sitting there pretending to be totally reasonable meals. Homemade beef barbacoa tacos. Short-rib potpie. “Weekday” French toast. Make-ahead coconut cake. They might as well be skyscraper blueprints, so improbable is the possibility that I will begin making my own nut butters, baking my own sandwich bread, or turning that fall farmer’s market bounty into jars of homemade applesauce.

The disorienting part in all this is that so many of these recipes carry promises of speed and ease. Amazon’s “quick and easy” section is 8,000 titles strong; The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day is a bestseller. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything empire, launched in 1998, was updated last year with How to Cook Everything Fast. Jamie Oliver published a book of 30-minute meals in 2011, but has more recently shaved the time commitment down to 15. Just yesterday I read about a new cookbook from the editors of Lucky Peach magazine called 101 Easy Asian Recipes, filled no doubt with obscure sauces and vegetables that I have absolutely no hope of finding at the Pioneer supermarket on the corner. Everywhere, there are magazine features proclaiming that making and freezing my own chicken stock is a “no-brainer”; homemade Calabrian chili oil is an “easy” way to add big flavor; the secret to making effortless breakfast granola is to simply do it in big batches.

The problem is that none of this actually easy. Not the one-minute pie dough or the quick kale chips or the idiot-proof Massaman curry, every last ounce of which is made from scratch, from ingredients that are sourced and bought and lugged home and washed, peeled, chopped, mixed, and cooked. Meanwhile, technology has made appetizing, affordable cooking alternatives easier and easier to come by. Food delivery services like Seamless, Munchery, and SpoonRocket carry prepared meals to your home in minutes. Kitchensurfing will send you a personal chef at reasonable cost. The rise of fast casual restaurants from Chipotle to Sweetgreen has made counter-service takeout a dinner option that won’t make you hate yourself in the morning.

All this means that tonight, I can order excellent pad thai from my phone in under a minute.  Or, I can find a recipe for “easy” pad thai, run—literally, run—to the grocery store at lunch, hope that grocery store sells fish sauce, then spend 40 minutes making the dish and 20 minutes cleaning up. 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.

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It wasn’t always thus. Promises of ease in the kitchen took hold in the 1940s and 50s, thanks to the flood of women entering the workplace, a newly industrialized food supply, and the invention and marketing of a whole range of timesaving kitchen gadgets. Before that, books about cooking largely admitted what every homemaker knew to be true: that feeding people was backbreaking work, and then you died. But suddenly there was GE’s “Care Free Cooking Electrically,” a pamphlet promoting the electric range; Glamour magazine’s After 5 Cookbook for the working woman; Good Housekeeping’s Quick & Easy Cookbook. What separates these from the books we have today is that the recipes are, largely speaking, actually pretty easy. Take, for example, this salad recipe from the After 5 Cookbook: “Break escarole in pieces. Sprinkle with 1 tbs. lemon juice. Serve with mayonnaise.” It’s practically a haiku.

Things shifted in the late 1980s. Food culture emerged. Dean & DeLuca started doing a brisk business in luxury foods, dining out became a sport, and Americans aspired to make much more sophisticated food in their homes. It was the age of pesto, quiche, and imported olive oils, and suddenly recipes calling for “a can of asparagus” or “a box of lime Jell-O” no longer seemed au courant. But the recipes continued to be labeled “quick” and “easy,” and there the problems began.

Take, for example, a panzanella recipe from the “Speedy Salads” section of Anne Willan’s In & Out of the Kitchen In 15 Minutes or Less, a cookbook from 1995. The recipe fills an entire eight-by-10-inch page and requires one to mince garlic, chiffonade basil, de-seed and small-dice a cucumber, small-dice two onions, et cetera. Estimated time commitment: 10 minutes, which is roughly what it would take me to locate all the ingredients in my kitchen (and if 10 minutes is too long, Willan has a from-scratch Chicken in Chili Coconut Sauce that you should have no trouble dashing off in nine. Nine minutes!)

Over the course of the past two decades, as food culture has exploded, recipes like Ms. Willan’s have become commonplace. More of our cookbooks are written by chefs publishing recipes adapted from their restaurants, as opposed to the self-taught home cooks who traditionally authored the lion’s share of the category. Ingredients have gotten more exotic, and less likely to be collected within a trip to your average American grocery store. Za’atar? Yuzu juice? Persian cucumber? For a special cooking project, fine, but galling to discover in the ingredients list for a weeknight dinner.

At the same time, magazine test kitchens have shifted from being staffed by seasoned home cooks to young culinary-school graduates, trained in the practices of the professional kitchen (which are entirely based around the premise that a corps of cooks will be working 12 hours a day to create the dishes). Even when these recipes are simplified for home cooking, the fundamental approaches often aren’t practical.

So, why does it matter that recipes marketed as easy often aren’t? A few years ago, I would have interpreted it as a harmless pretense—maybe even a good deed—to nudge people with the lure of simplicity toward cooking for themselves. Now, pulled in a million directions by the demands of a young family, I’m not so sure. Despite the much-ballyhooed increase in men cooking, women still do the lion’s share of the food preparation in this country. And the weight of expectation imposed by our cooking culture, which offers unrealistically complex recipes while at the same time dismissing them as simple, can be crushing.

Food editors are, for the record, acutely aware that their (mostly female) readers want sophisticated meals but feel that the complex recipes offered by chefs are incompatible with their harried lifestyles. So, they make efforts to simplify and streamline, without ever admitting the one thing that cooks really need to hear: that real “easy” cooking, if that’s what you’re after, is far too simple to sustain a magazine and cookbook industry. It relies on foods that can be purchased at a single point of sale and involves a bare minimum of ingredients and a small repertoire of techniques. It leans heavily on things your mom taught you. There are no garnishes of thyme leaves in simple weeknight dinners, and no appetizer salads. Homemade breakfast smoothies are many things, but they are not an “easy” alternative to one of those squeezable yogurt things that you can eat with no hands in the car.

It’s not that the best way to feed yourself is always the fastest one—it almost always isn’t. I love to cook, and wish I still had those wide-open Saturday mornings in which to make wholly unnecessary coffee cakes, or lazy Sunday afternoons for poring through old cookbooks, hunting for new projects. But I think we should talk more realistically about what’s involved in from-scratch cooking, the sacrifices it entails, and the fact that little of the complexity offered by today’s published recipes is really essential to cooking a delicious meal.

Quick cooking rarely comes from a recipe so much as it does from intuition built over the course of hours and hours mucking around in a kitchen. It requires parents to expend some real effort in involving their children in meal preparation, and maybe even home economics curricula returning to schools to teach kids the basics. And whether you’re a parent to young children, a single man or woman with a career in overdrive, or simply an average human deciding what to do with an hour on a Thursday night, if you manage to resist the urge of push-button prepared food and cook a meal for yourself, I tip my hat to you.