Cooking by the Numbers

2 April 2009 at 12:03 am 3 comments

| Peter Klein |

Management by the numbers is out; will cooking by the numbers be next? The WSJ reports:

[A]s people look for quicker and easier ways to make everyday meals, some are moving away from the rigidity of recipes and advocating improvisational cooking, where measurements are approximations and ingredients are interchangeable.

It’s common to distinguish between two personalities in the kitchen: the deliberate, systematic, careful personality, which tends to excel in baking, and the wilder, risk-taking, adjust-on-the-fly personality, which does better with other types of cooking. But the use of careful and precise measurements has been a staple of most kinds of home cooking for a hundred years:

The rise of recipes that use precise measurements is widely credited to Fannie Farmer, a student, and later, director of the Boston Cooking School, who published “The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook” in 1896. Until Ms. Farmer’s manual, cookbooks were written in prose, calling for a pinch of this or a handful of that.

“The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook,” which survives today as “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” featured nearly 2,000 recipes that gave detailed instructions using a standardized system of measurement (teaspoon, cup, etc.). Ms. Farmer also included scientific explanations with her recipes, and wrote essays on housekeeping and cleaning. The rising middle-class and subsequent growth in the number of women looking to homemaking as a profession turned Ms. Farmer’s book into a hit — it has sold more than 4 million copies to date.

Today’s recipes are still built on Ms. Farmer’s model of listing level measurements for each ingredient and directions that include exact temperatures and times. But with more people having little understanding of the basics of cooking and how to adapt it, plus the advent of chef cookbooks featuring hard-to-recreate restaurant recipes and stylized photos, some home cooks are overwhelmed by what they call excessive details.

Cookbook author Sally Schneider sounds like a management consultant when she writes about structure and process, rather than measurement and data — get Harold Geneen out of the kitchen!

Ms. Schneider focuses on teaching cooks to deconstruct dishes into their basic tenets: know how different ingredients taste, build on successful meals and be okay with making mistakes.

“Once you learn to look at recipes, you can see that there is a structure to them,” Ms. Schneider says. “That might be the thing to respect until you learn the variables. Suppose you see a recipe that has peas in it, and you go to the market and don’t see peas, but you see lima beans. Using similar ingredients is a way to start.”

See also: Kitchen Hierarchy

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Food and Agriculture, Management Theory.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. REW  |  2 April 2009 at 2:17 am

    Get Harold Geneen out of the kitchen and put Harold McGee ( in!

    But, if you wish to know the systematics of home cooks, see the results of Cornell research:

  • 2. What’s in a recipe? « Ledarsmak  |  2 April 2009 at 7:55 am

    […] jag en hel del om recept. Nu märker jag att en av bloggarna jag följer (men sällan håller med), Organizations and Markets, har en utmärkt kommentar om Cooking by the Numbers. […]

  • 3. Michael F. Martin  |  2 April 2009 at 11:51 am

    This is a very under-appreciated point. As even Geneen notes in that piece you link, numbers are useless without comprehension, and comprehension requires theory. Numbers, theory, and comprehension have to work together in unison. Sure ignoring numbers is going to hurt your end product. But ignoring theory will do just as much damage.

    I would say that the reason that more “dynamic” theories are now in vogue is because the older theories that were used to comprehend the numbers (like the Sloan/Brown model) were too static in the Newtonian sense. There was not enough room for change built into the theories. That was fine when macroeconomic dynamics were slowly changing with respect to micro (firm-level) changes. But these days, the large-scale changes are observable even in local-scale dynamics. New theory needed!

    Interestingly, ITT now does a lot of work on flow and motion. Geneen’s philosophy lives on in a more dynamic form. If only their techniques could be applied to accounting reform!

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