Atomic cookery

Joe Pinsker writes for The Atlantic about metacookbooks:

It’s a shame that the standard way of learning how to cook is by following recipes. To be sure, they are a wonderfully effective way to approximate a dish as it appeared in a test kitchen, at a star chef’s restaurant, or on TV. And they can be an excellent inspiration for even the least ambitious home cooks to liven up a weeknight dinner. But recipes, for all their precision and completeness, are poor teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it.

This means that for most novice cooks, kitchen wisdom—a unified understanding of how cooking works, as distinct from the notes grandma lovingly scrawled on index-card recipes passed down through the generations—comes piecemeal. Take, for instance, the basic skill of thickening a sauce. Maybe one recipe for marinara advises reserving some of the starchy pasta water, for adding later in case the sauce is looking a little thin. Another might recommend rescuing a too-watery sauce with some flour, and still another might suggest a handful of parmesan. Any one of these recipes offers a fix under specific conditions, but after cooking through enough of them, those isolated recommendations can congeal into a realization: There are many clever ways to thicken a sauce, and picking an appropriate one depends on whether there’s some leeway for the flavor to change and how much time there is until dinner needs to be on the table.

The downside of learning to cook primarily through recipes, then, is that these small eurekas—which, once hit upon, are instantly applicable to nearly any other dish one prepares—are most often arrived at via triangulation. It’s like trying to learn a language only by copying down others’ sentences, instead of learning the grammar and vocabulary needed to put to paper lines of one’s own.

In our house, I am the one inclined to create a meal out of ingredients we already have. For me, this reduces waste, it encourages the use of seasonal ingredients, and it can result in novel discoveries and surprises which I think more than make up for any occasional disappointments.

My girlfriend, in one of the few areas of life that she is predominantly risk-averse, prefers the more consistent results produced by meticulously following recipes, and is not interested in such outlandish or risky approaches as ingredient substitution or generally making it up as you go along.

We’re both keen cooks with different approaches. I was working on a web design project today, using a pattern library, when it occurred to me: Pinkser is talking about breaking recipes into component methods. It’s an atomic approach.

Atomic design

Brad Frost’s 2013 post Atomic Design explores the building blocks of web design and how they combine:

A lot has been said about creating design systems, and much of it focuses on establishing foundations for color, typography, grids, texture and the like. This type of thinking is certainly important, but I’m slightly less interested in these aspects of design because ultimately they are and will always be subjective. Lately I’ve been more interested in what our interfaces are comprised of and how we can construct design systems in a more methodical way.

In searching for inspiration and parallels, I kept coming back to chemistry. The thought is that all matter (whether solid, liquid, gas, simple, complex, etc) is comprised of atoms. Those atomic units bond together to form molecules, which in turn combine into more complex organisms to ultimately create all matter in our universe.

Similarly, interfaces are made up of smaller components. This means we can break entire interfaces down into fundamental building blocks and work up from there. That’s the basic gist of atomic design.

Frost’s approach consists of five distinct ‘levels’ or ‘stages’ (he uses both terms interchangeably) of atomic design:

  1. Atoms. The core building blocks, e.g. HTML tags, form labels, inputs or buttons.
  2. Molecules. Combinations of atoms, e.g. a working form comprised of a label, input and button.
  3. Organisms. “groups of molecules joined together to form a relatively complex, distinct section of an interface,” e.g. a masthead consisting of a logo, primary navigation, search form and social media links.
  4. Templates. These are groups of organisms which together form a layout. Think of wireframes and mockups.
  5. Pages, which are specific instances of templates. All placeholder information is replaced by real content.

This is useful in many ways. People can focus on things in detail as well as having a broader view. Faced with problems, you can take a particular stage and investigate if the issue relates to how it combines with others, or if the problem is with what the item itself is comprised. You can look both ways for a solution.

Reverse-engineering cookery

Pinsker praises people like J. Kenji López-Alt for their reverse-engineering approach to cookery. Kenji’s The Food Lab column looks at a specific dish, e.g. katsu curry, by tweaking ingredients and methods and deconstructing other cooks’ approaches. He’s looking at the concept of katsu curry and seeing what approaches do and don’t work, relaying this to the reader, who then has all of the following:

  • A solid katsu curry recipe
  • An understanding of why that combination of ingredients and methods works
  • How to adapt the recipe according to what’s available
  • A set of transferable skills, e.g. making cutlets, brining, breading and frying

It offers more information than a typical recipe. It’s recipe and method together. Another proponent of this is Felicity Cloake, who’s How to cook the perfect… column for The Guardian breaks apart cooks’ approaches in search of a single foolproof recipe. There are others, too. Food52 have a Not recipes section which focuses more on a toolkit approach to a dish rather than a single recipe.

Atomic cookery

I hope it is obvious that ‘atomic’ here is unrelated to molecular gastronomy, however that is being defined at the moment. It is also unlikely to be a novel thought. Scientific or linguistic metaphors for cookery are already well-used. But it has given me a new way to think about how we approach these things in our particular house and with our particular approaches. If it’s easy to break apart a set of core recipes, and we understand how best to do this and why, we can reassemble them in new and (hopefully) successful ways.

By drawing a parallel between atomic design and cookery, we have something like:

  1. Ingredient/method/technique, e.g. eggs, deep-frying, julienning
  2. Preparation, e.g. making a soffrito
  3. Component, e.g. ragu sauce
  4. The conceptual ‘dish’, e.g. the idea of bolognese
  5. Specific recipe, e.g. a specific cook’s version of a dish, made up of components

This isn’t quite an exact parallel with the atomic design approach. There isn’t the same progression of increasing nested complexity through the list. A bolognese recipe isn’t more complex than the ‘concept’ of bolognese, for example; instead, it will use a subset of all the possible components.

Pinsker praises Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat as the best metacookbook along these lines. I’m certainly going to buy the book based on his description of the ‘checklist’ approach it instils in the cook:

Has it been sufficiently salted? How was fat used to inflect its flavor and texture? Is there acid in there to balance out the overall flavor? And should it have been exposed to a different type or amount of heat? This is the book of cooking grammar that so many novices would benefit from.

And experienced home cooks, I bet. I can also recommend An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler, which concerns itself with the grammar of good, economical cookery. I particularly like the section on soaking and cooking dried beans and pulses, and think often of ‘the fat boy in his prime’:

(Some caution to end. I’ve invoked a scientific metaphor taken from web design and also mentioned grammar while discussing food preparation and recipes. There are pitfalls of jumping too wholeheartedly into using these abstractions and metaphors. They might inadvertently impose a way of thinking that is more restrictive rather than freeing the cook to think about things in new ways. In a recent post for the New York Times, John Herrman cautions against the widespread use of the technology ‘stack’ as a metaphor, ending with a quote from computer scientist John Daugmann: “We should remember that the enthusiastically embraced metaphors of each ‘new era’ can become, like their predecessors, as much the prison house of thought as they first appeared to represent its liberation.”)