The trouble with minimal-ingredient recipes

tomato sauce

One of the most frequently clicked recipe subcategory for many food websites is the “5 ingredients or fewer” section. Cooks looking for simple meals flock to those minimalist recipes. Bonnie Berwick investigates this phenomenon in a recent Washington Post article, wondering why these recipes often leave out a few essential ingredients – and why they frequently disappoint.    

Most of these recipes, Berwick points out, don’t mention salt or pepper even though they are usually called for in the instructions to the recipe. Other spices don’t get the same treatment. But is this lie of omission really that important? Probably not, and there is a reason they’re left out. Rozanne Gold, author of the James Beard award-winning cookbook Recipes 1-2-3 (published in 1996), states that the “idea of ingredients you can count on the fingers of one hand has to do with cooks not being intimidated.” Her simple recipes were created as a counterpoint to the mid-90s trends of “pile-on” restaurant dishes. Gold felt that these overly complex foods got in the way of truly appreciating quality food.   

The bigger problem many limited-ingredient recipes (especially those touted as “quick and easy”) face is that the results can be so disappointing, Berwick says. The reduction in ingredients can lead to bland, forgettable results. While some items, like garden-fresh produce, don’t require a laundry list of flavor enhancers to make them pop, other minimal ingredient recipes can be lackluster, especially if the main ingredient is not a perfect specimen. Lisa Ekus, literary agent behind last year’s well-regarded Victuals cookbook, says that with these shortcut recipes, “you can’t have cheap – meaning economical – and fast and good. Something’s got to give.” 

But like most rules, there are exceptions. Gold’s cookbook discussed above is praised by both Ekus and Berwick. It was the inspiration for the long-running “Minimalist” column in the New York Times. Gold passed on writing the column due to a scheduling conflict, but wrote an additional eight cookbooks in the same vein.

I think we can all appreciate the depth of flavor you can coax out of a few ingredients, like Marcella Hazan’s simple yet exquisite four-ingredient pasta sauce  counting the salt!), pictured above. What is your favorite minimal ingredient recipe?

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  • ellabee  on  January 27, 2017

    Five ingredients or _fewer_. But who's counting? …

  • ellabee  on  January 27, 2017

    To answer the question – favorite minimalist recipe is spaghetti carbonara.

  • Frogcake  on  January 28, 2017

    My favourite minimalist recipe is cacio e pepe with three ingredients not counting the spaghetti and pasta water.

  • madamepince  on  January 28, 2017

    Gold's recipes are amazing! And as she says, just because the ingredient list is simple doesn't mean the techniques are.

  • averythingcooks  on  January 28, 2017

    Grape tomatoes oven roasted with red onions, whole garlic cloves, torn fresh basil and olive oil ……serve over pasta with grated Parmesan and freshly ground pepper. Simply delicious.

  • wester  on  January 28, 2017

    Melissa Clark's roasted broccoli with shrimp – 5 ingredients, and that's counting cumin, coriander and lemons. Though The Tomato Sauce is good too. And Chicken and Bell Peppers from the Flavour Thesaurus. And Mahogany Roasted Endives from Roasting: A Simple Art (Two ingredients!). And Nigella's Moonblush tomatoes. And roasted kale (any recipe, really). And…
    Basically I think the problem is not the paucity of ingredients but the fakeness of many of the ingredients in those books. They take a recipe that really needs more ingredients and then substitute all kind of ready-made mixes, instead of really taking a long hard look at all the ingredients and see if the recipe really needs them.

  • darcie_b  on  January 28, 2017

    ellabee – good catch! I will make the change on less vs. fewer. I should know better.

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