Balancing Creativity and Calculation in Cooking
Teaspoons. Tablespoons. An assortment of measuring cups including ¼, ½, and ¾. A timer on standby. A printed out recipe or well-loved cookbook lying on the counter with hand-written annotations in the margins. All set to cook.
In the midst of the pandemic, about 54% of American adults report cooking more, with 75% saying they have become more confident in the kitchen, according to 2020 research by HUNTER. Naturally, with this rise in cooking, a rise in searching up relevant recipes is sure to follow. In fact, 34% of adults surveyed shared that they are looking for more recipes. This can range from healthy recipes, recipes for how to use existing ingredients in one’s pantry, or just searching for simple, practical recipes. Recipes give solutions, guidance, and instruction. How might one’s relationship with recipes affect their approach in the kitchen? There is certainly a practical element of cooking (sustenance for survival), though individuals decide the extent to which they choose to be explorative when cooking. Stick to the recipe? Veer off? Try something different? This differs on a person-to-person basis.
Personally, I have always approached cooking in terms of measurements, precision, and planning. Following a recipe to its definite measurements offers a sense of security and repeatability. If I repeat the same sequence of steps in the same manner, a good product is guaranteed every single time. After spending hours in the kitchen, working with all sorts of ingredients, who would not want a palate-pleasing outcome?
There is no harm in following recipes down to the footnotes. However, in my effort to shoot for only positive outcomes, I realized something deeper at stake: my fear of failure. My pursuit of perfection suppresses my creativity, innovation, and freedom to experiment in the kitchen. I soon discovered there comes a point when depending on solely measurements becomes limiting instead of liberating. My grandmother’s style of cooking helped shift my perspective to welcome more experimentation.
My grandmother, who I affectionately refer to as “Nanidear,” keeps the precise measurements mostly for baking. Everything else she measures her own way. Eye-balling it, a handful of this, a pinch of that but it really isn’t a “measurement” as I previously understood it. It is cooking by taking context into account, changing up ingredients based on what we already have, trying something new by modifying a base recipe, adjusting accordingly, or having fun with it. “Made with love,” as Nanidear says. And boy, is her food heavenly. Cooking with her allows me to contemplate the role of calculation and creativity in preparing food.
On a chilly mid-May day (New England weather is like this), Nanidear brought me into the kitchen to show me how to make Hyderabadi chicken korma. “I want you to make it,” she told me with a smile. Ah, the classic “learning by doing.” No printed out recipe here.
Bewildered since I didn’t know the exact specifics of the recipe, I hesitantly took out ingredients I thought would go in the trusty pressure cooker. Chicken (obviously), Desi yogurt, ginger garlic paste, fresh mint leaves, almonds, assorted spices, oil, fried onions… I’ve watched my mother make the dish hundreds of times, but somehow I felt unsure without a recipe to cling to for safety.
My grandmother then directed me to put all the ingredients in the pressure cooker. “Uh… how much of each ingredient do we need?” I asked. Nanidear knew I was a stickler for measurements, so with a twinkle in her eye she urged me to try my best without measuring tools. I had to figure it out myself using only a wooden spoon and my hands. I carefully placed each ingredient in the pressure cooker with how much I thought would be needed. All Nanidear would say was “a little bit more” or “that’s enough.” I was challenged to really scrutinize what I was putting into the pot, and “feel” how much was best in order to understand how the proportions of ingredients work together. So if I was changing the serving size from small to large, I would know how to adjust accordingly.
Since this version of cooking chicken korma is done using a pressure cooker, it is simple in that all ingredients go into a single pot. Once all the ingredients were in and well-mixed, we turned on the stove and let it cook. “That’s it?” I asked. “That’s it,” she nodded, then added “So easy, right?” She was right. It was easier than I imagined. Not to mention, I didn’t have to wash a pile of different measuring cups I would have otherwise used. Yay.
After a couple of steams, we opened the lid to check on the chicken. This is where the variable nature of the pressure cooker comes into play. It is imperative to monitor the meat to ensure it is cooked all the way through. A recipe gives guidelines, but everything between each step is up to the cook. Not everything is written out, so developing a “sense” is critical.
Nanidear shared with me that depending on the chicken, heat, cooker, and other factors, cooking time may be longer or shorter. She decided to increase the cooking time to allow the flavors to meld together and chicken to become tender. No korma dish will finish cooking at the same exact time. Therefore, it is important to adjust as needed depending on the context.
Once the dish finished cooking, Nanidear opened the lid. The comforting, delicious smell of korma instantly greeted me. After Nanidear tasted the gravy, she pulled out our metal spice box to add a little more red chili powder. I tasted it. It was absolutely divine. Prepping the fresh naan and basmati rice is all that was left.
My grandmother inspired me to view step-by-step recipes as tools to help with the direction of a dish. Not getting so caught up in the measurements as before, I welcome experimentation, and thus, the possibility of failure. However, it really isn’t a failure but an experience to reference in the future. Knowing how to adapt in different situations, like Nanidear changing the cooking time of the korma or adding more spices to taste, is a skill in itself.
In my experience, destroying self-imposed pressures of perfection invited a sense of playfulness and creativity. Not only did I discover newfound freedom, but also strengthened confidence and trust in my abilities. Perhaps with more Americans embracing cooking as a result of the pandemic, attitudes towards recipes can welcome adventurousness and experimentation, like I am warming up to.
Of course, every person and circumstance is different. Calculations are necessary in many dishes, and straying too far from a standard can transform a dish into something completely different—for better or for worse. Recipes and instructions have merit. However, in dishes where there is some leniency, perhaps seeing a recipe as malleable instead of fixed could invite new creations.
Experimenting outside a recipe can have its perks. For example, chocolate chip cookies were invented in the 1930s by Ruth Graves’ hard work testing, developing, and perfecting the cookie we all know and love today. A home test kitchen is born when calculation and creativity can intermingle. Both elements can exist and open the door to new possibilities. What is your next concoction?
Featured Cover Image by Williams Sonoma