No-recipe recipes may sound like a fun idea for busy people who have no time to follow convoluted recipes and the no-recipe recipe trend being promoted by the New York Times seems to be a popular one. Fun as they might be, no-recipe recipes are also a shortcut to kitchen nightmares. Now there’s a new cookbook full of them.
In what may be the longest pre-release book publicity campaign ever, Sam Sifton, the New York Times Cooking editor began touting the notion of no-recipe recipes back in March 2019, when I first wrote and posted the story below.
As Sifton has been promoting his recently released New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes cookbook this month – and doing such a good job of it that it’s risen to #1 of Amazon’s New Releases in Cookbooks, we thought we’d re-publish this post.
The book looks stunning, with its striking tangerine cover and well-lit images. But it’s still packed with no-recipe recipes, i.e. recipes with lists of ingredients without measurements and conversational instructions – which include, at a guess, 80% of the measurements missing from the ingredients list.
And there’s a whopping 100 of these no-recipe recipes for “improvisational” dishes such as ‘Weeknight Fried Rice’, ‘Amatriciana on the Fly’, ‘Pressure Cooker Chicken Tacos’, and, um, ‘Meat Sauce and Eggs’ – which is actually a kind of pan-cooked chilaquiles with eggs.
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Published 12 March 2019; Updated 31 March 2020
No-Recipe Recipes Cookbook – Fun Idea or a Shortcut to Kitchen Nightmares
Before the recently released New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes cookbook, each week New York Times food editor Sam Sifton, the founding editor of NYT Cooking, has sent out a newsletter in which he suggests recipes for dishes you could cook for the week ahead.
Sifton links to recipes secured behind a paywall, and then asks you to subscribe to access those recipes. Ironically, he is also galvanising a no-recipe recipe movement. Fun idea or short cut to kitchen nightmares?
No-Recipe Recipes – Fun Idea or a Shortcut to Kitchen Nightmares
“But I don’t just cook with recipes, and I am not alone,” Sam Sifton said when he first introduced his no-recipe recipes project back in early 2019. “Indeed, cooking without recipes is a kitchen skill same as cutting vegetables into dice. It’s a way to improve your confidence in the kitchen and to make the act of cooking fun when sometimes it seems like a chore.”
No, cooking without recipes is doltish unless you’ve been cooking your repertoire of dishes for years, you’re cooking for yourself, you’re a chef experimenting, a food writer or recipe developer, or you’re just a naturally good cook. When it comes to preparing and measuring ingredients, most chefs say it’s quite meditative. In fact, for them it’s the quiet before the storm of service.
But cooking without recipes is not the same as cutting vegetables into dice – these two ’skills’ are not remotely related. This no-recipe recipe gibberish is just a way to sell more subscriptions to New York Times Cooking, which is ironic considering subscribers signed up for actual recipes with ingredients measured out. It’s an odd move when recipe writers are increasingly measuring ingredients down to the gram, instead of just writing ‘1 red onion, sliced’.
It’s not just the idea that’s ill-advised, some of the no-recipe recipes are just not great cooking ideas. Take, for instance, ‘Steak Tacos with Pineapple Salsa’. I’ve been in kitchens where a chef can prep the mis-en-place with painstaking precision, but given beef, pineapple and pickled jalapeños, I guarantee the chef is going to be asking “why is this protein not pork?”
Off the top of my head, one of the only cuisines that I can think of that combines beef and pineapple is Chinese. The classic Mexican tacos al pastor, such as the one in the image above, straight from the streets of Mexico City, has pineapple on top of the vertical spit and pineapple is sometimes served on the side with the tacos.
But the protein is pork, which is often paired with fruit. Think prosciutto and melon or pork chops with apple sauce. In our part of the world, there’s this Cambodian pork and pineapple curry-like soup. Oh, and ham and pineapple pizza – contentious as it is – is another example.
But here’s the non-recipe recipe for Sifton’s steak tacos with pineapple salsa:
“Get some fresh tortillas and a pound of skirt steak, then make salsa from mostly fresh or canned pineapple, pickled jalapeños and a healthy couple shakes of chili powder, along with plenty of chopped cilantro. Shower the steaks with salt and pepper, and broil them for 2 to 3 minutes a side until they’re perfect and rare. Warm the tortillas. Grate some Cheddar. Rest the steak, slice it, and serve with the tortillas, cheese and that awesome salsa. Anyone want to watch a movie after dinner? We have time.”
Not marinating the meat for tacos is the first mis-step. You could call canned pineapple, pickled jalapeños and a healthy couple of shakes of chili powder a ‘salsa’ if you insist, but it’s not even remotely as good as even a store-bought, overly-sweet tomato salsa from a supermarket. And cheddar cheese? Can you not source queso fresco or quesillo in New York? I’d wager that the fresh tortillas are wheat not corn tortillas either. And “we have time”? How much time did you actually save by not weighing ingredients – besides the “pound of skirt steak”?
The next non-recipe recipe that caught my eye was ‘Steamed Mussels with Tomatoes and Chorizo’.
Once again Sifton insists “This is a no-recipe recipe, a recipe without an ingredients list or steps. It invites you to improvise in the kitchen.” If you asked a well-trained chef or cook to make steamed mussels with tomatoes and chorizo, they could knock out a pretty good version without having to measure anything. But where’s the creativity?
Here’s the non-recipe:
“Simplicity itself, if you can find a bag of mussels at the store. Scrub and debeard them as necessary. Then grab a big pot, and use it to sauté some cubed chorizo in olive oil over medium-high heat. When it starts to crisp, add a few handfuls of halved cherry tomatoes and a clove or two of chopped garlic. Let the tomatoes blister in the fat, then add the mussels and a glass of white wine. Cover the pot and allow the mussels to steam open. (If at the end you have mussels that haven’t opened, ditch them: They’re dead.) Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with plenty of toast for the sopping.”
Here’s what we have if we put that prose into an actual recipe format:
INGREDIENTS (serves 2)
1 kilo mussels in their shells
200 g fresh chorizo sausage, cubed
2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1-2 pieces of garlic, minced
1 glass of dry white wine
1 handful parsley, chopped or torn to garnish
1. Scrub and debeard the mussels as necessary in a bowl of water. If the mussels are slightly opened, tap them and see if they shut. If they do not shut, or they float, they are probably dead and should be discarded.
2. In a big pot over medium high heat, add the olive oil and the chorizo.
3. As the chorizo starts to colour, add the cherry tomatoes and the garlic.
4. As the tomatoes start to blister, add the wine and the mussels and cover tightly with a lid.
5. Cook the mussels for 5-7 minutes and serve with plenty of toast on the side. Garnish with the parsley.
6. If any mussels are not opened, don’t discard them, open them with a knife and give them a smell test, if they smell fine, they’re still good to eat.
Now I know that the ‘dead’ mussel theory is controversial, but science backs up the fact that mussels that open early that are not cooked for at least 5-7 minutes are more likely to make you sick than the ones that don’t open. If you’ve never cooked mussels before, the ‘recipe’ gives incomplete advice on how to handle mussels. What do you do if half the mussels open? Ditch them when you could just cook them longer?
But this recipe is a good jumping off point, depending on your taste. You could add some chilli flakes to give the dish a little more heat, and use a tomato paste instead of the tomatoes.
The whole thing is a tad disingenuous. The New York Times didn’t conceive this dish. They have just reduced a very popular recipe to a paragraph. Google ‘steamed mussels with tomato and chorizo’ and start sifting through 337,000 entries and pages and pages of recipes. There is no experimentation or creativity in this non-recipe, although you’ll have to use your imagination to guess the amounts of ingredients to use.
There are other no-recipe recipes that appear awfully familiar. ‘Amatriciana on the Fly’ is, well, Amatriciana with some bad advice to drain the pasta and then add butter to it before adding it to the sauce. No Italian chef or home cook drains pasta and adds butter. I guess that’s the ‘creative’ non-recipe component.
There’s also ‘Pasta with Sausage and Parm’ which is very similar to ‘Pasta with Sausage and Sage’ if you read the non-recipe. Google that one for plenty of actual recipes. But read this part of the non-recipe:
“Scatter sage leaves over the whole, drain the pasta, and add a little of the pasta water to the pan with the sausage to make a velvety sauce. Combine with the pasta, grate a lot of Parmesan over the top, and let me know how it goes.”
Scatter sage leaves over the whole what? And, once again you’re draining the pasta with the added magic trick of retrieving the pasta water from the sink to add to the pan. So I guess it didn’t go so well. If you’re of the ‘drain the pasta’ school, you know to reserve a cup or so of pasta water before draining the pasta.
The New York Times’ no-recipe recipes project might seem like a fun idea for busy people with lots of mouths to feed who don’t have time to follow recipes. But to me it seems like a tactic to get readers who don’t want to pay for access to recipes to pay for access to no-recipe recipes – or buy a No-Recipe Recipes cookbook.
Because what is a recipe, after all? Does it even need to have an ingredients list with precise measurements and numbered steps to be a recipe? Most early recipes did not. They were merely the kind of conversational paragraphs that Sifton is now calling for…
According to culinary historians and archaeologists, some of the oldest recipes are for stews. Simmering meat in liquid over fire until it’s tender dates back some 8,000 years according to archaeological evidence, but one of the early recipes for a Scythian stew, dating to between the 8th and 4th centuries BC, was documented by ancient Greek philosopher Herodotus, who wrote:
“… put the flesh into an animal’s paunch, mix water with it, and boil it like that over the bone fire. The bones burn very well, and the paunch easily contains all the meat once it has been stripped off. In this way an ox, or any other sacrificial beast, is ingeniously made to boil itself.”
There may not be precise measurements or numbering, but there are ingredients and there are steps. Herodotus’ ox stew could perhaps be the first no-recipe recipe. Except it’s not. It is a recipe.
Please do let us know if you buy the New York Times’ No-Recipe Recipes cookbook and what you think of it. We’d love to hear your thoughts.