Mad Scientist slash Baker
December 31, 2009 12:24 PM   Subscribe

How do I start making my own recipes?

I've been baking for a while now--mostly cookies, muffins, cakes etc. and I love trying really unique, CRAZY recipes (like fig curry cookies). I've played around with different ingredients and substituting nuts or dried fruit, but I really want to start developing recipes completely on my own.

I've tried eye-balling cookie recipes and it's usually a crap shoot--sometimes they're great, sometimes they taste like crepes that have been sitting in the sun for three weeks.

I'm assuming this is going to take some sort of chemistry-esque cookbooks, but does anyone have ideas on where to start experimenting?
posted by allymusiqua to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
With baking there is less wriggle room than in other cooking for playing with recipes because it's nearly a formula to create things like dough, etc. But the fillings, flavors, textures can be played with.

Continue to experiment. It's more fun "eyeballing" sauces, soups and stews.
posted by marimeko at 12:29 PM on December 31, 2009

The Flavor Bible by Karen Page, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, and Ratio by Michael Ruhlman are three good books about isolating the basics.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:32 PM on December 31, 2009 [6 favorites]

You need to start examining recipes for what makes them different from one another. What is the difference between sugar cookies and shortbread? Look at ingredients and techniques. Then try taking basic recipes and fiddling with one ingredient or technique at a time. You'll gain a deeper understanding of the roles ingredients at different proportions play. Read up on cookbooks that give master recipes and variations on a theme.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:33 PM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

2nding all of Sidhedevil's choices. Ratio in particular is the book you want.
posted by neroli at 12:36 PM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think you can go about this one of two ways.

First, you can take some solid recipes for things that you already like and have mastered, then slowly start creating variations, changing one thing at a time. Maybe you add more or less of an ingredient, or add one thing, etc., but only one change at a time. Try the result. If it's good note the change and try changing another aspect. This process will be slow and eventually end in some failures, but is pretty simple.

The second option involves learning about food science and the chemistry of cooking (learning what ingredients influence the pH in what way and the effects on the outcome, how starches behave at different temperatures, the differences between saturated fats and unsaturated fats, etc.). If you can master food science, you can make up recipes on the fly based on theory alone that will usually turn out how you would expect them to, although such an education takes a lot of study and experience and is why top cooks make big bucks.

As a starting point, I would recommend watching a show called Good Eats with Alton Brown. It's an entertaining show that teaches a little food science and is fun, and some of the things he makes are really great.
posted by Menthol at 12:38 PM on December 31, 2009

At the risk of stating the obvious: for the chemistry side of things, you might want to check out baking episodes of America’s Test Kitchen and Good Eats. I think both of those shows have a tendency to get too clever—“this recipe has been made for 150 years this way, but because of this property of ingredient X, I’m going to assume I know better”—but they both usually cover the why in recipes. I imagine that would come in handy when you start modifying recipes or inventing your own. (For example, they’ll explain why you would substitute baking soda for a portion of the baking powder in a base recipe to which you’ve added a new acidic ingredient.)

For coming up with new flavors, I’ve heard good things about The Flavor Bible, which suggests good ingredient pairings.
posted by Garak at 12:40 PM on December 31, 2009

This one didn't look good at the beginning, but now that I own it, it's been fantastic for exactly how ingredients work (plus some food history). On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. In part, it's not just the abstract science but the application of the material is in a useable format.

Other good books that have been useful and interesting: Ratio by Michael Ruhlman, The Flavor Bible by Page and Dornenburg. It looks like McGee has other books which I would definitely consider if his other book is any indication.

Molecular Gastronomy is the science of food which questions and challenges and researches the nature of ingredients, preparation, cooking and other culinary processes. We got Kitchen Mysteries by Herve This for Christmas and it looks good along these lines but I haven't worked through it. There are others if you look up molecular gastronomy.

Less useful has been The Science of Good food by Joachim and Schloss

These are oriented around the processes associated with food and understanding but not necessarily adopting cultural practices of food from the past. They are about food and aren't generally good cookbooks in themselves. I do not think that books such as The Professional Chef are really as good unless you want to learn the standard culinary processes for standard recipes, or unless you're short generally on basic culinary technique (in which case, this is a good one).

The standard technique of recipe creation is to take 4 (or more) recipes and from them invent your own plus variations. These are good books to provide you with good tools to help you do that successfully and to take greater risks to go farther afield.

On preview, Sidhedevil and I are up the same alley.
posted by kch at 12:54 PM on December 31, 2009

Two book recommendations:

1. Bakewise: The Hows and Whys of Baking.
This book explains the effects of increasing or decreasing the amount of ingredients you add, and how to achieve certain characteristics like making your cakes moister, etc.

2. Ratio by Ruhlman
Helps you to think of baking as a continuum. For instance, the difference between say a pound cake and crepe mix is that one uses half the egg. Read this book and you may not need recipes anymore.

Finally, use your senses. The amount of flour one would use will change daily for any recipe depending on how much moisture there is in the air. Cooking times will vary from oven to oven and vary depending on altitude. Recognizing the consistency you want, checking for doneness, etc. is more important to better baking than trying to use exact amounts. That said, baking is a lot more like science than most cooking.
posted by xammerboy at 12:54 PM on December 31, 2009

Nthing Ratio. Buy it. Read it. Love it. Now.
posted by mollymayhem at 1:02 PM on December 31, 2009

How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, who also writes The Minimalist column for the New York Times. He has a particularly useful way of thinking about the relationships between different flavors and textures. Once you use this kind of thinking to get to the essence of what makes a recipe good, it becomes easier to experiment.
posted by mai at 1:27 PM on December 31, 2009

A friend of mine once observed that baking is less open to interpretation and invention than other cooking is because "baking is kind of like alchemy." Some of those ingredients are there for pretty specific reasons. You may want to start experimenting with something like soups or stews instead first.

However -- there was a very good GOOD EATS episode where Alton Brown took a single chocolate chip cookie recipe and tinkered with it 3 different ways in order to demonstrate "here's what happens if you change the amount of flour...or add an egg...or the amount of butter..." and letting you see how to, by example, make a crisper, chewier, or crumblier cookie. If you can find that, that may be worth watching.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:39 PM on December 31, 2009

Make the same thing over and over again. I think 50 is a good number of times to have made something, if you want to get a good feel for it. Keeps notes. Many published recipes leave out steps that the reader might find too fussy, or too much bother for the payoff. For instance, if you are peeling tomatoes by placing them in a pot of boiling water, you could use mint tea instead to intensify the tomato flavor, (smell a tomato stem and you'll smell mint.) You can expand any recipe with your own smaller steps and touches, by methodically experimenting.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:56 PM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Khymos is an interesting bog, with book listings.

For inspiration, you might find some articles on instructables to be interesting: here is a list of recipes featured in their `best of' book.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 3:54 AM on January 1, 2010

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