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Jacques Pépin says following a recipe can lead to disaster

April 13, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
Have you ever had a dish turn out wrong no matter how closely you stick to the recipe? According to legendary chef Jacques Pépin, recipes describe a process that can never be duplicated exactly; what you need to understand is the “idea” behind the recipe, and use it as a point of departure.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a NewsHour essay.

Chef Jacques Pepin arrived in the United States from France in 1959. He is the author of the widely cited French culinary text book “La Technique,” the star of several PBS cooking shows, including one with his friend and fellow cook the late Julia Child.

Tonight, Pepin shares his idea on the essence of a recipe.

JACQUES PEPIN, Chef: For someone who writes recipes, there is a paradox between the written recipe and the creation of a taste.

When writing a recipe, one records a moment in time which can never be duplicated exactly again. 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 exact reproduction of a taste, which is what the making of a dish is, only works when the processes, timing, and ingredients are adjusted and changed to fit each particular situation.

There is a gap between the step-by-step procedure and the completed dish, just as an artist cannot equate the technical process of painting with the finished work of art.

Several years ago, I wrote a recipe for pears in caramel sauce. The idea was, you peel the pears, cut them in half, remove the seeds, sprinkle them with sugar, and place them in a very hot oven. Exposed to the heat, the juice of the pear seeps out, combines with the sugar and creates a caramel. By then, the pears are cooked.

Add cream to the caramel, and the resulting sauce is poured around the pear in a serving dish. As the sauce cools and thickens, it is finished with a bit of pear brandy or cognac.

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.

The next time, I used pears that were more ripe, and they were done in 10 minutes. But the liquid around hadn’t yet turned into a caramel. So I removed the pears, reduced the liquid to a caramel, and finished it with cream.

The third time, I used Bosc pears that were very hard. No juice came out of the pears. The sugar started burning. So I had to add water to the pan to create a caramel. The pears needed almost an hour of cooking, even though my recipe said 30 minutes. Yet, at the end, the three dishes looked and taste the same.

If the recipe had been followed to the letter, the finished dish would have been a disaster, but understanding the idea in the platonic sense behind the dish enables the cook to adjust and compensate for ingredients, temperature, humidity, et cetera.

So, what is the point of at recipe? 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.

I have had dinner many times at the home of friends who cooked from one of my cookbooks and have often been amazed at how far away the dish has moved from the original recipe. But it is not necessarily a negative experience. In fact, it is sometimes better than the original.

And I end up getting credit and thanks for a dish that has nothing to do with me anymore.

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