In a world where everything from a ride to the airport to the way a child learns math has been disrupted, the written recipe – that fundamental bedrock of how we cook and share food – is undergoing its own makeover.
Like media and music, the recipe is being stretched and shattered, its conventions challenged by a generation that learned to cook from TV chefs and YouTube videos. Websites like Allrecipes.com, with more than a half-million submissions from users and public recipe rating, have democratized the form. Food bloggers have demystified it. In an age of commodity instruction, how to boil an omelet in a plastic bag can become an overnight sensation.
“One of the great things about recipes today is that you can assume a great amount of knowledge, which lets you go in a lot of directions,” said J. Kenji López-Alt, a Cook’s Illustrated veteran and Serious Eats columnist whose 950-page book, “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science,” is selling swiftly.
The shift may seem subtle to someone who rarely picks up a pan, but editors, professional cooks and booksellers and others say recipes have become more open-ended and broader in their approach. Instructions have shifted away from formulas toward deeper explanations of technique, offering context and lyricism in ways Fannie Farmer could not have imagined.
The best recipes still get dinner on the table, but they also teach the reader to be a more intuitive cook, a cultural change that reflects a nation that is cooking better than it has in decades.
“The average person is a much better cook and so much more sophisticated than they once were,” said Wylie Dufresne, the New York chef who along with the New York author Peter Meehan is writing an exacting cookbook based on his restaurant, WD-50, which closed last November. “They deserve to know not only how but why.”
In other corners, the recipe is being blown up altogether. No-recipe recipes, in which pictures or short bursts of text are used to describe how to put together a dish, are in vogue in mainstream publications like Every Day With Rachael Ray and specialized cooking platforms like Food52.
Recipes are even being turned into graphic novels, an approach pioneered by Amanda Cohen, who in 2012 published “Dirt Candy: A Cookbook: Flavor-Forward Food from the Upstart New York City Vegetarian Restaurant.”
”We wanted our recipes to be a little more free-form so they get people to think,” Cohen said. “People can learn to cook on the Internet. They can watch a video. There are 10 million pictures of our tomato tart online. You don’t need to have it in a book.”
This new way of thinking is not an erosion of standards; for traditional publishers, the importance of a well-tested recipe has grown. But editors say the form the material takes has to change to match a generation of cooks who need less hand-holding and have access to better ingredients.
The shift is not dissimilar to changes in how children are being taught math, said Jordana Rothman, whose new book is “Tacos: Recipes and Provocations,” with the chef Alex Stupak. Math teachers are being encouraged to drop rote memorization of the multiplication tables in favor of teaching methods that emphasize flexibility and functionality. The recipe is no different.
“As a culture we are much more interested in how and why things are happening,” Rothman said. “People want a road map but they don’t want you to drive them there.”
Other recipe writers are going deep into science and technique, knowing their cooks will fortify their recipes with quick looks at the Internet for videos on how to braid challah or images of kung pao chicken as rendered by a restaurant in China.
The roots of the technique-first movement can be marked by Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” which was published in 1984 and revised in 2004. Julia Child’s 1989 book “The Way to Cook,” which was organized by technique, not ingredient, popularized the style.
Michael Ruhlman picked up the baton in 2009, publishing “Ratio,” which tossed out recipes in favor of common ratios needed to make things like pie crusts, and went on to write a series of books that focused on specific techniques. His sauté book comes out in the spring.
“People are coming to realize it is not about the recipe,” he said. “They want to know how to think about food.”
Still, for traditionalists, there are experts who will not be creating a personal narrative around their spongecake recipe, or drawing the dish on a faux-stained page or making a science experiment out of it.
Chris Kimball, the founder of Cook’s Illustrated magazine and the television franchise “America’s Test Kitchen,” maintains that in the cacophonous bazaar of modern-day recipe writing, cooks will ultimately return to the straightforward and well-tested.
“The core thing should remain core and stripped down and useful and clear,” Kimball said. “I don’t think people want to read 400 words to make scrambled eggs.”