Every Wednesday at about midday, my day gets a little brighter: Sam Sifton’s newsletter arrives in my inbox. The assistant managing editor of the New York Times and founding editor of NYT Cooking writes four of these a week, but Wednesday’s is my favorite, because it’s the day Sifton comes out with his no recipe recipe.
The title sounds counterintuitive, but it’s actually quite simple. These recipes do away with the discipline of a traditional recipe (a teaspoon of this, a quarter cup of that), and instead rely on pantry staples, a squeeze of improvisation and a little pinch of intuition. “Like the way a grandma would cook,” said Sifton, who has a house in Greenport.
In his new cookbook, “The New York Times Cooking No Recipe Recipes” — a collection of 100 of these recipes from the weekly newsletter — the “recipes” are formatted without measurements and the directions aren’t numbered, but written in paragraphs. I chatted with Sifton about the new book, cooking without restraints and what’s for dinner at his house.
What is a no recipe recipe?
I’ve spent a big part of my career reporting on chefs and trying to translate restaurant food for home cooks. I would ask a chef how they make a dish and they would tell me in narrative form that didn’t include a lot of specifics about how much or what temperature. I just found it so much more successful for myself when cooking it at home. I would get a better result when following that than their written recipe. A number of years ago I started including every week a no recipe recipe, which was just a kind of narrative prompt for how to make a dish. And I kept it kind of loose and vague, so that the reader could make the dish. If you made it the way I wrote it, it would probably be pretty good but if you wanted to make it a little differently, you could certainly do that and it would probably be pretty good as well. At a certain point, it seemed like maybe we should collect these together and offer a photograph to go with each so-called no recipe recipe because people might respond well. And they seem to have responded well.
Is this how you most often cook, without a specific recipe?
It’s how I like to cook. I’m not like most home cooks because I’m trying to come up with new recipes for the New York Times all the time. I spend an enormous amount of time being hyper-specific about how much salt, what temperature, how long. And so for me, there’s a real freedom to being able to cook without a recipe, because it allows me to improvise when I don’t have an ingredient. It allows me to do something on the fly just because it seems like a smart thing to do in the moment. So while this isn’t my default kind of cooking, because I do a lot of different kinds of cooking, it’s certainly one of my more enjoyable meals of the week.
As somebody whose job it is to oversee recipe developers and develop recipes of your own, being hyper-specific with everything, did creating these no recipe recipes feel against your nature or was it nice to break free from those restraints that come along with traditional recipe development?
It certainly was a nice break to be able to write recipes this way, but I want to be perfectly clear. We did it in such a way that these recipes could be tested. So I gave all these recipes to someone who then executed on them and said “Yeah, this worked out just like you said.” Even if they ended up doing it slightly differently, I know they work.
In the beginning of the book, one of the first things you start out with is a list of pantry staples (butter, cheese, beans, salt, etc). How important are those staples for people when they are cooking through this book?
Well, I don’t know that it’s important to have my staples but it’s definitely important to have your staples. No recipe cooking is hard to do if you don’t have ingredients. So, the more I think about it with this book, the more I realize that no recipe cooking is about bringing big flavor to things. And a really easy way of bringing big flavor is to have a lot of staple condiments on hand— prepared sauces or tinctures that make things taste better. So that’s soy sauce, hoisin sauce, gochujang, a Korean red pepper sauce. That’s having mustard, that’s having some vinegars, some oil. That’s making sure that if you want to put it on a bed of rice, you have rice. Because this is the kind of cooking that you can do on the fly, you need to have stuff that you can execute with on the fly. A lot of these recipes you should be able to do with what you have. Like if you have some chicken thighs, you go through the book and you’re like, “Oh here’s something that I want to make with chicken thighs and yes I happen to have some dried bread crumbs and I happen to have some mustard and have red pepper flakes.” That just makes it easier. I think building out a pantry that matches your personal tastes helps this kind of cooking a great deal.
The New York Times has put out cookbooks before, but this is the first cookbook from NYT Cooking. Why did you want it to be the no recipe cookbook as opposed to a collection of other well-known NYT Cooking recipes?
I think, in part because I wanted this cookbook to be about New York Times Cooking. And New York Times Cooking comprises recipes that are created just for the site and recipes that are published in the newspaper and recipes that are published in the magazine. But the no recipe recipe has never really gotten a chance to shine. They don’t exist in the database, or they didn’t exist in the database at the time, because we didn’t photograph them. They were just things I put in the newsletter. Taking 100 of them and photographing them means that they’re now actually part of New York Times Cooking. This was a way of memorializing them, and I like that this thing that emerged as a digital idea, that showed up in your inbox on Wednesdays, are now collected in a way that I hope is fun to use.
So I read in the intro of the book that you called a traditional recipe that has specific ingredients and measurements like sheet music. If you were to give a no recipe recipe a musical metaphor, what would it be?
I think there are a couple different musical metaphors that describe the no recipe recipe. One of them is a chord chart, where it’s just seeing that chord chart, and knowing that the melody is that we’re doing here. You kind of know what the result is going to be, and you can build it off of those chords. The other is the kind of flipside of that. It would be a rough play: “Look man, it’s pretty simple, like doo doo doo doo.” It’s much less structured than the sheet music of a so-called proper recipe.
Last question, and probably most important — what are you cooking tonight?
I’ve been promoting the book so I had to do a bunch of cooking no recipe recipes. And that’s been leaving me with lots of leftovers. So, in the book, there’s a no recipe recipe for a meatball salad where I tell people to make meatballs however they make their meatballs and put them on the salad with this delicious dressing. So I had a bunch of meatballs leftover and a couple of torpedo rolls that I picked up from the IGA, and I’ve got too much mozzarella. So, what I think I’m gonna do is make a no recipe recipe for meatball sub Parmesan. I’ll heat everything up, get them on the rolls, put the cheese on there with some red pepper flakes and put them in a hot oven just like you would in a pizzeria and have a meatball sub for dinner, no recipe recipe.