I don’t believe that reinventing the wheel is the only way to achieve ownership of a recipe. Although truly novel dishes are something I aspire to, sometimes a great recipe could come from adapting a recipe you love – say, a really fabulous chicken marinade – to a new situation, maybe as a salad dressing (NOT after it marinates a raw chicken…obviously). Relatedly, my baseline level of recipe creation at the start of this project happens when I decide to try a new recipe and realize I can’t get my hands on escarole at my local supermarket, or the specialty hen of the woods mushrooms are wayyyyyy too expensive. Substituting ingredients in someone else’s recipe gives it my own flair, and also helps cement my understanding of the ways ingredients relate to each other.
To that end, I consider combining pieces of different recipes to also be a form of recipe creation. After all, it represents an appreciation of what flavors go together. I have a recipe for a cilantro crema (sadly can’t remember the origin, but whoever you are out there, I salute you) that I put on pretty much every fish, bean, or vegetable-based taco I eat, but I don’t think it would be good with a ground meat base (I’m sure this sauce recipe will make an appearance here soon). At the opposite end, sometimes I compare a few different recipes for a dish and try to distill the commonalities before adding my own twist.
Pop quiz: is it easier to build a Lego car from a kit or from a box of random legos? Hopefully you said kit, because otherwise this analogy doesn’t make any sense… The point is, humans can only handle so many choices. And some parts just don’t fit together. Starting from a dish that has a confined set of ingredients, like a cocktail or tomato sauce, gives your recipe a strong foundation. The broader the category gets (like “cake”), the tougher the challenge. Confining yourself can also come in the form of aiming for a dish for a particular diet – like gluten-free or vegan, or that pulls from a particular culture (like Indian). These choices will likewise narrow the options and make the problem a bit easier to manage.
This is the one I lack the most education on, but also the one that speaks to my scientist heart. While it is totally true that a great thing about cooking is that there are no rules, sometimes there are rules… And those rules can be really helpful/important. The two places this comes to mind are in cocktails and baking. In cocktails, the ratio of 2 parts alcohol: 1 part sour: 1 part sweet is more of a suggestion, but it can put you firmly on the path to success (and I would argue that a glass of orange juice with a teaspoon of bourbon in it is not a cocktail. It’s something… but not a cocktail). In baking, following the chemical ratios is the difference between a cake and a cracker. I have no idea what ratios apply to different baked goods, but I plan to find out! Stay tuned to the tips and tricks page for more!
Expanding upon the rigid idea of ratios brings me to flavor balance, which I think may be the most effective way to create a crowd-pleasing recipe. Why do so many people love chocolate covered pretzels, or sweet and sour chicken? It’s about contrasts and balance! A dish that is all sweet or all sour will taste exactly that, but it won’t be complex or surprising. When I’m in doubt about where to go in a recipe, I’ll go back to the basics and try to ensure that the sweet, salty, sour, bitter, fatty, and spicy flavors are in balance. And remember – texture is also an opportunity for balance!