Jacques Pepin on when not to follow the recipe

 caramelized pear custard

Have you ever followed a recipe to the letter only to have the dish turn out terribly? It might not be the recipe’s fault, says veteran chef and television host Jacques Pépin. He recently spoke to Judy Woodruff of the PBS Newshour on why following a recipe exactly can lead to disaster.

Pépin notes the contradiction between writing a recipe and cooking from it. “When writing a recipe, one records a moment in time which can never be duplicated exactly again,” he says. “The paradox is that the recipe tells the reader, this must be done this way, when, in fact, to get the result you’re looking for, the recipe has to be modified each time.”

The example he provides is a recipes for pears in caramel sauce that he has made many different times with different pears in varying stages of ripeness. “When I first created this recipe, the pears were done in 30 minutes. That amount of time only reflects the unique set of circumstances I faced, ripeness of the pear, type of roasting pan I used. This is what happened on that particular day,” Pépin notes. But on subsequent occasions, the pears took different amounts of time to cook, and once actually needed a bit of water to help them along. Had he followed the 30 minute instruction to the letter, he would have had mushy pears or rock hard, scorched pears.

You might wonder what is the point of a recipe if it’s always in flux. Pépin believes recipes are important, however. “A recipe is a teaching tool, a guide, a point of departure. You have to follow it exactly the first time you make the dish. But as you make it again and again, you will change it, you will massage it to fit your own taste, your own sense of aesthetic,” he says.

Photo of Caramelized pear custard from from Jacques Pépin Heart & Soul in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin

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  • sir_ken_g  on  April 17, 2016

    Agree totally. Learning how to modify a recipe is a necessary skill.
    I cook a lot of ethnic and sometimes ingredients are not available.
    You need to be able to know when and how to substitute or ignore.

  • annmartina  on  April 19, 2016

    Yes. You have to develop an instinct for knowing when to adapt times, temperatures, liquid, etc. When recipes give tips for what to feel, look and listen for it helps you find that instinct. The change in the bubbling sound as a sauce thickens, the look of bread dough as it develops gluten.

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