The simplicity of a list is awfully appealing. Knowing the 10 best books of the year does make it easier to navigate the bookstore. And if you’re lucky enough to find just one new book that you love, then the list has served you well. The same thing is true of lists that cover movies and restaurants.
Among all the lists that people make, we think recipe lists are especially valuable. When coupled with reliable recipes, a thoughtful list will actually make you a better cook. (Of course, this assumes you do more than read the list.) Let us explain why we think a recipe list can be a tool for self-improvement.
Why Lists Matter
If your mother, grandmother, or great grandmother was an accomplished cook, she likely had a very limited repertoire. If her family was lucky, she made several dozen dishes really well. Those dishes were identical (or nearly identical) to the ones made by her mother. In fact, she probably learned these dishes at her mother’s side.
So why does this matter? The fact that your grandmother had a manageable list of recipes is one reason—perhaps the main reason—she became a good cook. Repetition and practice are keys to success in the kitchen. A good cook will learn from his or her mistakes and then make a dish better the next time. Make the same dish 10 or 20 times and you’re likely to master it. Make the same dish 50 times and it becomes second nature.
In this age of information overload, recipes are a particularly notable example of excess. Google the word “recipe” and you get nearly 50 million results—and that’s just in English. AllRecipes.com, the largest recipe website in the United States, has more than 50,000 recipes in its search engine. An inquiry for roast chicken yields 737 results on this website, while someone looking for mashed potatoes will find 1,001 options. And these numbers keep increasing!
A good recipe list can cut through all this clutter. You don’t need a thousand brownie recipes, you just need one great one. And if you dedicate yourself to mastering a short list of recipes, you can dramatically improve your cooking skills and your confidence.
The good news is that you don’t have to make all 100 recipes in this book. Start with a handful and make them until you understand how each one works in your hands and in your kitchen. Even if you only master 20 recipes in this book you will have earned the right to call yourself an accomplished cook.
The Making of Our List
In addition to its educational function, a recipe list tells us something about our culture—about where we come from as a people and where we are going. We recognize that this is the controversial part of this project—actually picking those recipes that belong and excluding those that don’t.
We don’t expect you to agree with every recipe on our list. You might think half of them have no place in your kitchen. That’s fine. We welcome the conversation. We feel less strongly about the particular recipes on this list—even within our test kitchen we can make arguments for including recipes not in this book—than we do about the act of making, and using, a list.
So how did we create this list? We considered three factors—utility, inventiveness, and diversity. Some recipes are just so useful we couldn’t imagine leaving them out. Scrambled eggs, spaghetti with garlic and oil, and roasted broccoli fit the bill. Other recipes highlight our test kitchen at its best—recipes where our work has forced a reevaluation of how a classic dish is prepared. Slow-roasted beef, poached chicken, and pie dough fall into this group. Finally, our nation is changing and our collective taste is becoming more varied and adventurous. And once esoteric ingredients are now available everywhere. It’s an incredibly exciting time to cook. We think recipes like pho, Italian almond cake, and vegetable curry all make sense in the 21st-century American home kitchen.
So, let’s get started. Whether you’re a novice cook looking to improve skills and confidence or a seasoned cook looking for new challenges, mastering a short list of new recipes will help you achieve your goal. Our advice is to flag five recipes in this book and make them each five times over the next three or four months. Select your own top five, or use the fun lists of lists to get you thinking.