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The Dirty Secret of ‘Secret Family Recipes’ (atlasobscura.com)
262 points by prostoalex on Mar 7, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 160 comments



I can do them one better: my family has a meta-secret recipe. It didn't used to be secret, but it became secret through no effort or intent of our own.

For a long time, decades at this point, my mom has been known for the brownies she brings to events (and, by extension, that my sister and I bring to events). People would rave about them and demand the secret, which my mom, my sister, and I would all freely give out: it's from a box, Betty Crocker, make sure you get the "Supreme" kind and don't overbake it. That's it.

But. But! A while ago, maybe 3-4 years at this point, my mom noticed that the brownie box had changed. She had a stockpile (being known for the brownies, you see) but tried the new box before exhausting the stockpile. And it was not the same. The new recipe had different amounts of every ingredient and it just did not come out right. At all. She called the company to complain and actually managed to escalate the call far enough to get someone to admit a dark truth: the recipe on their end for the mix hadn't changed, but for various reasons to do with what they wanted to put on the "Nutrition Facts", they had changed the instructions of how to prepare them and the amount of the mix that was in each box.

My mom, not leaving this to chance, did a little bit of kitchen science and verified that what came out of the old box (from the stockpile, following the recipe) was either identical or a very close match to what came out of the new box (but following the old recipe), albeit a little inconvenient as you now needed roughly 1.25 boxes' worth of mix to make one batch of brownies. But this was but a minor hurdle for the truly devoted; and it meant that we now had, wait for it, a bona fide secret family recipe. The easiest one ever, since it still involved just making brownies from a box. (And keeping a jar of "remainder brownie mix" for use in the next batch.)

The epilogue to the story is that although the good recipe had been stable for a really long time, we were evidently not the only ones to notice a problem with the new one, because the box recipe has changed on several occasions since then—each time, as far as we can tell, without changing the blend in the underlying mix (because if we follow our Secret Recipe it still turns out fine). Really, I'm just waiting for them to throw up their hands, give up, and return to the original recipe, which would sort of deprive my family of a good story, but everybody would get better brownies so it's a win overall. :)


Good on your mother for persisting until she got to the bottom of the brownie mystery! It’s a bit of a pity the company tampered with such a successful recipe!

My brownie recipe is from a cookbook and I tried a lot of variations on it and then had to concede that the person who wrote the recipe got it just right. I make it with high quality chocolate and butter and then am very careful not to over bake it and they turn out deliciously decadent every time!


I recently discovered that you can cut moist brownies with a plastic knife and avoid them sticking and falling apart.

For those moments you just can't wait for them to cool, although, even cooled a good moist brownie tends to stick to the knife.

Your welcome.


> I tried a lot of variations on it and then had to concede that the person who wrote the recipe got it just right.

Part of this phenomena comes from 20th century cooking (especially for sweets): the ingredients are mass produced to high standards of consistency, and hence there may be one just right recipe (especially if you're backing in a climate controlled kitchen at sea level). Consider, instead, artisanal bread baking in 2018. Your flour comes from a food coop which used to get it stone ground by an Amish cooperative, but now switched suppliers to a local farmer -- and the recipe needs to change. Your sourdough starter turned acidic because you went away on vacation and it sat in the fridge -- change the recipe again! It's an unusually damp and chilly day, and the loaf is sitting out during its second rise -- you'll need to change the recipe!

Of course this is part of the thrill of this sort of baking -- that you have to understand the underlying processes, not just the well-made building blocks, to end up with good results. Sort of like switching from running OS X or Windows to, say, Linux from Scratch...


I suspect the butter is the result of two substitutions. This has happened to many recipes.

First, there was a money-saving switch from lard to commercial shortening or margarine. Either one was made of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Second, due to trans fats or a desire to be less fake, that got switched to butter.

Lard makes wonderful brownies. Compared to butter, the taste comes out far cleaner. The purity of the chocolate really comes through.

Another fine option is coconut oil.


The humanity in this comment is invigorating. I appreciate the time you took to share it!


That is an awesome story. Although I am a bit leery of the 'Nutrition value' argument. It sounds like the manufacturer wanted to do what everyone else seems to do which is reduce the quantity of product in the same size box rather than raise the price, and when they did that the 'old' recipe would not work correctly. Which they "fixed".


Well, smaller brownies, less calories. So perhaps both are 'reasonable', and compatible hypothesises.


I've always been a fan of the Edmonds Cookbook coconut chocolate brownie recipe, if you ever want to try out a non-boxed recipe. I see it can be found online here: http://edmondscooking.co.nz/recipes/slices-squares/coconut-c...

One bonus of the Edmonds recipe is it also uses only ingredients you probably already have (except maybe the desiccated coconut).


My family’s “famous” chocolate cake recipe is from the side of the Hershey’s Cocoa container. It is way better than any other chocolate cake, even from baking cookbooks. I should write it down in case they ever change it...


Is this the one with the cup of boiling water that you pour into the batter right before it goes into the oven? I don't know why more people don't make that, it is my mom's (and of course mine now) go-to chocolate cake, and it is truly excellent.


Yes, that's the one! (I just checked the back of my cocoa powder to make sure)


So, mind sharing a formula for getting it right, irrespective of which version of the box one has? E.g., what the ideal quantity of mix is?


Sorry, should have included this!

    3¾c. of brownie mix (again, Betty Crocker Original Supreme)
    2 eggs
    ¼c. water
    ⅓c. vegetable oil
    and the included packet of Hershey's syrup
The baking times on the old box were: for 13x9 pan, 28-30m at 350°, for 9x9 pan, 35-40m at 350°, and for 8x8 pan, 50-55m at 325°. (We usually use the 13x9, can't speak as much to the other sizes.)

As of the original redesign mentioned in the story, the amount of brownie mix in a box was cut back to 3 cups, the recipe involved 1 egg instead of 2, and I don't remember how the water and oil were affected but they were different.


Thanks! Bonus points for anyone who posts the quantity of Hershey's syrup in that packet :)


I'm seconding this. Use to love the boxed Betty Crocker brownies but have noticed in the last few years that they do not come out correctly anymore.


That was a really fun read and now I'm dying to try your secret family recipe brownies.


They can't return to the old recipe because marketing demands the box say certain things about fat, sugar, etc. This marketing demand is usually greater than product quality.


they had changed the instructions of how to prepare them

Is the quantity now the only difference?


it's actually a big difference. lower quantity in the same tray will make less volume and overcook faster and even adjusting time to avoid overcooking since the volume/surface ratio is different they'd be well cooked but still more dry


I'm sure it's a big difference, but people here want to know how to make these brownies!!

So, if we do the 1.25 thing and follow the instructions, they'll be perfect?


there's only one way to tell! double blinded study with repetitions!


Your mother could walk into a boardroom job at any Fortune 100 company.


my secret familiy recipe is cheesy rice with sausages. It's secret because it only comes out good if you add to the mix kraft cheese, which is widely regarded around here between cheapening out on your guests and not caring about using quality ingredients.

so I just use it and people love it, but I literally can't tell them or they'd think I'm serving them rubbish


> The new recipe had different amounts of every ingredient and it just did not come out right.

So what are the right amounts if you please?

PS. I've heard of people adding an egg to a box of cake mix when it isn't required.


There is a marketing story of a company that created a cake mix with everything in the box: "just add water and bake".

Sales were poor, and market research and perhaps focus groups determined that people felt slightly guilty that they weren't doing enough work in creating a cake - so the company went back, removed the egg components from the mix, changed the instructions, and sales rebounded.


It's also somewhat similar to the "IKEA effect": https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S105774081...


I remember reading an old parable about a woman who always cut off the ends of her meatloaf before serving it. At one point someone asked her why she did that, and she said that her mother had always done it that way. So she went to ask her mother, and got the same answer. The two of them went to the woman’s grandmother who said that the serving plate she cooked the meatloaf was too small, so she cut off the ends to make it fit. I have many doubts that this is true, but also I think it does illustrate a good point about how these things get started.

Most of my family’s “secret” recipes come from a big Soviet cookbook, but adapted for limited availability of products (cooking in Moscow where the book was published was always very different than cooking in Soviet Ukraine).

I actually wonder how many of the Blue Apron/HelloFresh recipes will wind up being “secret family recipes” in a few years.


Primo Levi told a similar story about tracking down the source of a lacquer recipe when he was working at a paint factory. There was a point in the recipe where the instructions called for adding half an onion into the vat of lacquer. As a chemist, he was fascinated by this because he could not think of any way the chemicals in the onion, in that quantity, could affect the end product. He eventually found a retired employee living nearby who was able to explain that the onion was used to check the temperature of the lacquer. When the onion started to bubble, the mixture was hot enough to proceed to the next step. By the time Primo Levi was working at the plant in the 1940s, the plant had upgraded to modern equipment with integrated temperature gauges, but the onion remained in the recipe.


That's very clever. Reminds me of doing plumbing with copper piping and using bread to stuff the pipes before soldering them in order to not have the leftover water flowing to where you are soldering, making it impossible.


You're a genius. Absolutely. That's such a good solution! I had considered using a rag or something, but I was concerned about it getting stuck around a bend, as well as the awkwardness of rolling it up just right. If you overheat the pipe, the bread will just burn off harmlessly, and if it gets stuck, you could just turn the water on and it'll dissolve it or pop it out.

Thank you. There's an awkward pipe in my bathroom whose shut-off won't quite close enough. My wife will be so thrilled.


Oh I’m no genius. This was a trick someone told me after I spent 6 hours on a single horizontal joint. (Fortunately?) I haven’t had a chance to try it. I also don’t know what would happen if the bread headed straight for your water heater. But aside from that, I do think this is a valuable trick. Hope it works for you!


Luckily, the joint I've got to deal with, the worst case is that the bread would end up inside the faucet and might require a bit of cleaning. Seems like just running some water through it aught to dissolve the bread and let things carry on. I'll use crappy white bread to make sure it's easily dissolvable :)


Cue: the forgetting curve.

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16534480

(It applies not just to recent learning, but institutional and cultural memories as well.)


Both of your comments fit in to my life. My wife's family has a ton of secret family recipes that were passed down from her Grandma who was born and raised in Pennsylvania. One day we're at a used book trade and I happened to come across a cookbook published in 1971 called Pennsylvania Dutch Cook Book[0] and it had all of the "secret" recipes in there.

Fast forward almost 50 years and we've had Blue Apron for over a year. We always rate the recipes and keep the recipe cards for the ones we like the best. During weeks that we need more meals, those are the ones we make. They are starting to turn in to our secret family recipes. So you definitely aren't wrong.

[0] https://isbnsearch.org/isbn/9780486226767


> I actually wonder how many of the Blue Apron/HelloFresh recipes will wind up being “secret family recipes” in a few years.

We have already incorporated a few we liked into a recipe box with hand written cards....

Also our oatmeal cookie recipe comes from the back of the McCann's quick oatmeal box....don't care...it's delicious.


The version I heard, the item being cooked is cut in half because the grandmother had a smaller oven, and otherwise it would not fit.


My mom made the best pie crust anybody who ate it ever tasted. Her recipe came from a Crisco label.

One of the steps specifically said to slowly stir a liquid into the mix with a fork. Everybody else who attempted the recipe used a spoon and didn't get anywhere near the proper texture. So her difference was simply that others wouldn't follow the directions exactly.


It's more than that.

I have an amazing chocolate cake recipe--I'm SURE it's cribbed from some magazine, chocolate container, or something. I have stopped giving it out as people simply can't get it right.

There are three classes of failure:

The first class of failure is in not following directions. When it says "1/2 teaspoon", they mean it. Baking is like lab--small things often make big differences. "Helping" one of these people is frustrating--"Um, try actually following the recipe."

The second class of failure is that a lot of people don't have basic cooking skills. "My chocolate is weird"--yeah, water does that to melted chocolate. "I can't whip this meringue"--yeah, you can't get even a trace of yolk in that or it's not going to work.

The third class of failure is that people don't seem to pay attention and learn. Hmmm, that cake recipe doesn't seem to like humid days. Uh, oh, there aren't any bubbles in my batter--my baking soda/baking powder are probably bad. Sniff, sniff--that doesn't smell right--did you use margarine or butter to prepare that pan?

One of my favorite for this was reconstructing my grandmothers kalach recipe. It just never smelled right. Until I remembered that she used to have a container underneath the cabinet that she used for the recipe--as a kid that never meant anything. As an adult, I was like "Hmmmmm, I bet that was lard." Sure enough, that made it smell right.

Cooking requires paying attention, but baking, especially, is in the details.


Yes, in cooking you can fairly freely adjust ingredients and quantities to taste, but baking is science for hungry people.



We're getting into Reddit levels of off-topicness here, but I actually kinda like where QC went: robot-sexuality is now a valid subject, as are light-hearted probes into the personhood of AIs, in a slice of life-esque drama.


What do you think is wrong these days?


Oh fsck didn't see the answer 7 days ago hopefully you see my reply.

Jeph started without a story and mediocre drawing style but loveable interesting characters. We got our weird relationships of our nerdy main character with many interesting side characters. Over time his artstyle got better and we got to know the main characters with their backstories, quirks and robot sidekicks.

What went wrong (imo) is that jeph wanted to experiment. We now got inconsistent personalities and people acting out of character. There are many people we got to know who now only get occasional cameos, but every week a new sode char (at least it feels like it). In this process marty dates a trans person and had sex with her, faye fell in love with a robot and everything "controversial" what you can think of was tried leaving established characters behind and just showing me an empty shell of a webcomic I once really liked.

There are no indy music references, much less robotic weirdness and every small robot seems to get a humanoid chassis. The comic lost the edge it oncehad tryimg to be edgy.

At least that's what I think and I'm still sad that I'm alienated from the comic.


I kind of agree that some things are bit different, and I do miss some of the obscure indie music stuff, but in general I like it a lot more than the very beginning (like the first 1-2 years) with the different art style - I felt it was a bit episodic and mopey. I also only read those first years afterwards, when I was already a fan. Now I'd say it's definitely different, but I don't think it's worse in a noticeable - at least for me. On the other hand I'm glad it's changing, I couldn't continue watching e.g. The Simpsons after 10 years - too similar and no development.

Thanks for elaborating :)


On the first class of failure, sometimes people take it a bit too far. I've watched people stress about how they level off their 1/4 tsp because if it's too heaped, it will be too much, or if there is a divot, it will be too little. As a percent error, there really isn't a real difference. Just the differences in brands and batches of ingredients will cause more error in your recipes than a slight miss-measure.

There's definitely a need to measure well, but that third class of failure you mentioned is probably better to pay attention to. If you know your ingredients and operating conditions, you'll definitely fair better.

On the topic of measuring, I do wish more new recipe books went back to using weights. Baking with a scale is so much easier/faster/less clean up. It surprises me how many people I know who think it is too much work to use a scale until they see me do it and how little effort it really is.


I find it amusing you downplay the importance (not that I disagree) of precision, and than advocate for measuring by weight for entirely different reasons. Precision is the typical argument people make for scales.


I see the similar behaviour with measurement on scales though. There is this need to make it EXACTLY 2.50 pounds. If it is 2.52, well that just unacceptable, and the seesaw of removing and adding begins. I'll admit, I occasionally fall into this trap until I consider what the consequences are (pretty much nothing in terms of what I'm baking, but a decent waste of time).


My wife sees me bake bread by weight (basically putting all ingredients in the same bowl, pressing "tare" between each), and still believes it's more work that way... (?!?!?)

Just try measuring 1 cup of butter accurately without making a mess.


The problem is while recipes are facts and can be freely spread, prose about how to make cookies is copyrighted. So you get lots of recipes but the important instructions are losts, and people get used to the idea that a recipe is just ingredients and easy to follow steps. The results is lots of recipes that are pretty easy follow, but as always when a design meets a user someone is going to misinterpret your fool proof design. So good simple recipes is a lot like UX when the needs are simple. Think: Recorder app vs. Audacity.


My wife and I always hate reading recipes online. We finally spent like $50 and bought three of the most amazing cookbooks. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which explains how cooking works, Food Lab, and America’s Test Kitchen.

I made a baked potato with a perfect inside and perfect crisp skin from the books, it involved like 4 steps of how to cook, like bathing them in a specific mixture of salt water, baking for 45 minutes, then running olive oil on the skins, then baking for another 15 minutes.

If they didn’t explain the why in the book, which I guess is the copyrighted part, and what the results are, I never would have tried that recipe.


Food labs actually levelled up my cooking to the next level. So many great recipes and ideas. It was a very readable book too, I pretty much read it cover to cover. The best thing was buying a meat thermometer. Why did I cook for so long without it?

I’ll have to try your other recommendations now. :)


I should try that just to see if it's better than my old standby: poke potato a few times, microwave for 10 minutes, brush with oil and bake at 400F for 10 minutes.


Interesting fact - recipies cannot be copyrighted. Pictures can, but the recipe itself cannot.


The list of ingredients can't. But the instructions/explanation and description might be (in addition to the pictures/illustrations, as you mentioned.)

https://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl122.html


There is a fine line you have to thread while copying instructions, usually you can't copy them verbatim. It is a rather strange quirk, if you rewrite a literary works you get slammed by the copyright hammer but not with recipes.

So a selection of tropes can be copyrightable.


A recipe can't (in USA and UK, AFAIK) but the specific presentation of the recipe can. It's an extension of facts not falling within copyright.


"Hmmm, that cake recipe doesn't seem to like humid days. "

I wouldn't even know to pay attention to this, as someone who cooks but doesn't bake (at least not anything more complicated than a batch of cookies). Ironically, now that I think about it, my mom has a thing she bakes that she won't make on humid days...

I also majored in chemistry and stopped doing it because everything I did in actual labs (as opposed to lab classes where the details were a little more worked out ahead of time by people in charge of the class) failed. Sometimes because water got into the reaction vessel that wasn't supposed to.

There's probably a connection here.


I had to take 2 semesters of Chemistry in college. The first semester I took honors chemistry, and the labs were done all individually. I learned I'm terrible at it.

The second semester I took non-honors Chemistry where the labs were done in groups. I said "I will do all of the lab write-ups if I never have to touch a beaker." My lab partners were more than happy with that arrangement and I got an A instead of a C on the lab portion of the class...


My wife found this amazing cookie recipe online.

My mom gave her some of her 1950s cookbooks. That exact same recipe was in this cookbook. We just laughed.

At least my family is lazy, when they use a recipe from a box, jar, or whatever, they just peal/cut it off and stick it to a 3x5 card or put it in a recipe book on a blank page. So you know where that "family secret" actually came from.

The only unique sauce I've ever tried was my grandfather's BBQ sauce. It's just a bunch of other sauces mixed together, but it's pretty different. He was always changing it up but most everyone in my family has a bottle of grandpa's "condiment concoction" as my evil-ex called it.


I use the cooks illustrated chocolate chip recipe, which specifically says to mix wet and dry ingredients, then let it stand for a few minutes, and repeat a few times in a row.

Apparently someone in the test kitchen was sidetracked by something, stepped away, and when they returned to finish the mix, the resulting in a better cookie.


it never ceases to amaze me the people who won't follow a recipe then complain it is not a good recipe. the number of people whom I led down the road of cooking; this is especially true for techies who seem adverse or even scared to try; is quite long and it came down to one thing.

start with simple recipes. follow exactly.

then work your way to complex items and personal variations but the key to understanding cooking is to follow a recipe and see why it works.

if you want to scare yourself later go play with browning butter, reducing, and for real fun making candies


This is a common trope on recipe sites that allow comments or reviews.

"I halved the amount of butter it called for and added 3 tbsp of cinnamon and 4 cloves of garlic. This recipe is awful, one star."


Making caramel and butterscotch were some of the most terrifying kitchen moments the first time. It was quite clear to me that the mixture I had going there was quite a bit hotter than the boiling point of water (the water had all cooked off). The thought of a sugar burn was concerning. But it all turned out ok, and we had some delicious syrups. Just had to be careful.


> if you want to scare yourself later go play with browning butter

what's scary about browning butter? It seemed to work great for me on the first try. Whole kitchen smelled delicious, and so were the chocolate chip cookies I was browning it for.


My great grandmother had the best pie crust I've ever had, and she got it from Crisco as well.

She did something odd though, like running the dough under a stream of cold water in the sink while making it, or something like that. After all, it's not the ingredients but how you go about it.

I, on the other hand, have my own personal not-secret sauce recipe for ravioli I created from scratch. It's made to my personal tastes, so I'm biased. Not all secret recipes are from the label.


I'm pretty sure that specifically "cold" water is listed in that Crisco recipe as well.

These little tricks & tips are actually part of the recorded recipes, as people knew they were differentiating factors that made it turn out really well, and made sure they were noted.

Edit: https://www.crisco.com/recipes/classic-crisco-pie-crust-1242 Fork, ice cold water, lots of very specific tips, etc.


I think a specific step is what makes my wifes whipped cream stand out. It can't be the ingredients.


Uh, you're not being very clear but I feel I have to say this: some people add sugar when whipping cream, more or less automatically. It's not at all strictly necessary in order to, you know, whip the cream, but it will affect both flavor and texture. If you like your sweets, you're probably going to think that the cream with added sugar tastes better.


Or salt.


Here's an opposite example: I have a friend who has amazing grit[0]. One time he figured that the cheesecake he's making would use some improvement so he experimented with a sort of an evolutionary algorithm where he would change one or two things, note the results and combine some of the changes on another try(or that's how I understood his process).

After over forty instances he has perfected the cheesecake. It's now much better than store bought in terms of taste and also usually better looking. The recipe itself isn't secret, but you'd be hard pressed to replicate his work. Apparently it's rather the skill than the procedure that makes it so great.

[0] He rewrote "The Hobbit" in Tengwar several times using a fountain pen.



Shades of the level Heston Blumenthal was prepared to go in terms of experimentation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triple_Cooked_Chips

Various programmes showing the results of his experiments around.


When you say Tengwar, do you mean English transliterated into Tengwar, or Sindarin/Quenya?


Transliteration only, since most of his works were meant as gifts, so he wanted them to be readable.

Also this wasn't done in english, but that's just a minor detail.


> he experimented with a sort of an evolutionary algorithm where he would change one or two things, note the results

I do that when baking. A little more water, a little less, note the results. Bake it a bit longer, a bit hotter, or cooler, etc.

I think of it as "experiments" and "science" rather than "evolutionary algorithm" but whatever model helps.


> he has perfected the cheesecake

This assumes convexity, no? ;-P


For me, the most important part of the "secret family recipe" is the element of curation. There's surely hundreds of recipes for almond kringler out there, but I know that the one my mom uses at Christmas is extremely delicious. If your family has decided they really like the sugar cookie recipe in the 1985 edition of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, perfect! The "family" part of "secret family recipe" means that it's the recipe your family likes best, and the fact it came from such-and-such a cookbook can be the secret.

When I go online and search for a recipe, I'm taking a chance that it may be awful. That's why when I find an online recipe I enjoy, I write it down in a special notebook. This also has the advantage of letting me cut out all the prefacing garbage ("my husband and my 3 beautiful children LOVE coming home on a crisp winter afternoon to a delicious bowl of this yummy soup blah blah blah") and trim down the directions to the sort of terse and informative stuff you'd find in a real cookbook. Then if I ever want to make it again, I don't have to deal with the absolute garbage of modern recipe sites popping up notifications about how butter is on sale 2 miles away, and how I can sign up for the email newsletter, etc.


On the "fudge guy" who was using the recipe from the marshmallow container, or the Toll House cookies winning 2 of the top spots: there's a lot more to good results than just the recipe. Equipment, skill, the idiosyncratic ways you don't follow the recipe or fill in where it's underspecified... Don't necessarily give in to the temptation to ascribe the phenomenon merely to irrationality or sentiment.

Plus, it must be said, the Toll House recipe is pretty darn good. Not what I use myself but sometimes the classics are classics for a reason.


Oddly enough, the toll house recipe was our secret family recipe. It was traded for a lifetime supply of chocolate (and the publicity of inventing a beloved staple).


How interesting. Any way to verify this tale?


Assuming poster is a relative of Ruth Graves Wakefield..his user profile seems to match this story.

"On March 20, 1939, Wakefield gave Nestlé the right to use her cookie recipe and the Toll House name. In a bargain that rivals Peter Minuit’s purchase of Manhattan, the price was a dollar—a dollar that Wakefield later said she never received (though she was reportedly given free chocolate for life and was also paid by Nestlé for work as a consultant)."

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/sweet-morsels...


Totally accidentally shilling for SE right now, but I learned a bunch of really cool tricks for cookies from an analysis about the different variables in cookies [1] that basically let me basically "build" my own secret recipe. Stuff like browning the butter before mixing it into the dough, resting dough overnight, using precise mixes of egg/flour, using chopped chocolate instead of chips, etc.

[1] https://sweets.seriouseats.com/2013/12/the-food-lab-the-best...


Kenji López-Alt alt has a really good book too called Food Lab, taught me all about sous vide in a cooler (which led me down the road to making steaks that are better than you get at a restaurant every single night).


Agreed, that book is great. I keep pushing off getting a real sous vide setup because the cooler is 'good enough'.

Last year I went to a fancy steak house in Las Vegas, and my thought was that I prefer my own steak. I was surprised, since I assume that restaurants have access to better cuts and can age it better. I mean, it was a fine steak, but I preferred my own.


I have been a firm believer in my own steaks for a number of years since I got my Big Green Egg. Picked up a sous vide circulator in January and it is AMAZING!

I highly recommend the ChefSteps Joule.


I have a BGE as well! I got the steel plate-setter for searing and it's incredible. But TBH, I often just use a skillet and our stovetop for finishing.


A couple secret-recipe idiosyncrasies are legend among those handed down in my family. For example, wherever grandma's recipes say "a spoon of sugar", she was actually using a ladle.


There's a recipe my mom got from a friend of my grandmother - that friend had to actually make the cookies to figure out the recipe, because the whole thing was phrased in terms of a green bowl full of flour and a blue bowl full of sugar and of course my mom didn't have the same bowls my grandmother's friend did.


there's a lot more to good results than just the recipe. Equipment, skill, the idiosyncratic ways you don't follow the recipe or fill in where it's underspecified

This is important. My mother-in-law apparently made the best bread, yet despite my wife having both the recipe and having watched/helped her mother bake that bread several times she has never been able to replicate it. Also, my sister and I were both given exactly the same 'family' cookie recipe from our grandmother (she got it from a newspaper) and our cookies turn out quite different.


Our chocolate chip cookies were like this. Toll House recipe, except: 1/2 white flour, 1/2 wheat flour; 1/2 butter, 1/2 shortening; double vanilla; extra chopped pecans. Although probably a big unmentioned determinant of quality is ensuring the cookies are consistently the right size relative to cooking time and temperature, which is difficult to describe; IIRC the bag just says "spoonfuls of dough".


My mom made Toll House cookies as her "go to" dessert for pot-lucks &c. Everyone always asked her for the recipe and then didn't believe her when she said it was from Nestle chocolate chips bag.

The only thing she did that was at all unusual was to use an oven thermometer; she found that ovens would be up to 20 degrees off from their set-point.


I sometimes make tablet, a Scottish variation on fudge, and although the recipe is simple one of the most significant variables is the stirring once it's cooked. You need a very strong arm and patience to keep mixing as it crystallises, that's one of the 'secrets'


Indeed, my mother (unsurprisingly) uses exactly the same recipe as my grandmother did for chocolate chip cookies (I suspect it also came from the side of a chocolate chip bag). The cookies turned out very differently, however, depending on who made them.


Oooh - we have this. Where some of my family members refuse to include the salt, or prefer butter that melts like crazy, and they get harder, flatter versions of the cookies. My aunt (who married a chemist) pointed out how the salt actually means something, and I started including it again, and the cookies got so much better (in my opinion.)


Butter handling is key in my own chocolate chip cookies, I've found. Let it soften too much, or overbeat the batter, and you'll end up with Frisbees. Ideally you want to cream the butter and sugars until just combined; they'll get more thoroughly mixed as you add flour and other ingredients.


Salt is generally good for you, and enhances sweetness in baked goods. There is no good reason to omit it.


My mom has a box of cards with recipes on them. These are preprinted cards to handwrite on, but they have blanks for the name of the recipe, who you got it from, and how many it serves. One of them is the Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe, but it says it's from my aunt.

(My aunt is not known for her cooking.)


Even the way you stir has an effect on the result in confectionery...

Making emulsions consistently is hard process science. Sometimes even dispersion is not what you want. Picking right cake form or cookie size is critical too as it changes water evaporation.


Not a direct reply to you, but on the topic of the Toll House recipe, and on experimentation - I am lactose intolerant. I rely heavily on Smart Balance as one of few margarine products that doesn't contain dairy and actually behaves and tastes like butter. With the Toll House recipe (that I once believed was my mom's secret family recipe), I'm able to do a perfect 1-1 swap of butter/Smart Balance, and replace milk chocolate chips with Enjoy Life chocolate chips, and those are damn delicious cookies that won't upset your tummy.


Not to be that guy, but if you have that much if a reaction to butter, you are probably allergic to milk proteins rather than lactose intolerant. Butter (and most cheese) is very low in lactose. Of course, everyone is different (I'm lactose intolerant myself, so I avoid milk and cottage / ricotta cheese, but can eat butter and curd cheeses)


I don't think my original comment was the place to elaborate on the various processes I took to identify my intolerance! However, suffice it to say that I can consume some low-lactose items such as hard/dry cheeses with minimal effects, but when I cook or bake with butter, my body seems to react with some mild aversion. The problem, in this specific case, might be the massive quantity of chocolate chip cookies I tend to consume...


There's another interesting angle in this, which is a demonstration of how important memory and emotion is in food. The restaurateur who had created Michelin Star-winning restaurants thought the standard Hellman's potato salad recipe was very good. Now, I'm not that much of a chef, and I'm not going to say it's a bad recipe, but a chef of that caliber ought to taste even a very-well prepared instance of that recipe and immediately come up with half-a-dozen ways to improve it. I could do that in my kitchen, which is really not that well stocked with that sort of thing. There's classes of improvements; use a more interesting vinegar, use a more interesting oil, use more interesting herbs, make your own mayonnaise, use different potatos, each of those representing half-a-dozen options on their own, to say nothing of the work you can do with combinations.

If you served the Hellman's recipe to a Michelin reviewer, you're not getting a star. And I'm sure that Danny Meyer would know that instantly, were he not influenced by his memories and emotions.

Also, to be clear, I am by no means being critical of him for bringing his emotion into the dish. If it's anything, it's a positive thing, in my opinion. I'm just showing this as a very clear example of how complicated reactions to food can be.


You are right about the role of emotion in the enjoyment of food, but I think you are actually underestimating its effect on the hypothetical food reviewer.

I think it actually is very possible to earn a Michelin Star serving a Hellman’s recipe. If the atmosphere is good, the service and presentation of the food high quality, and the overall experience classy, that potato salad is going to taste really good to even the most critical of food critics. They are susceptible to the emotional parts of the food experience just as much as anyone, and is in fact part of the review.


I’m sure Michelin Star chefs don’t always eat that quality of food. How would you ever be full? Beside there are always inspirations for fancy dishes dishes.

Trying to the remember the series but I watched something about the history of Creole/Cajun food with a focus on Shrimp Creole and PoBoys. They took the dish all the way from the early 1900s when it was made by workers to some relatively current dishes being prepared at fine dining places. The dish started as basically ketchup, fresh shrimp, and whatever vegetable scrapes avaiblable.

My point is there is usually some inspiration for a dish that is attached to emotions. Think the movie Ratatouille. You could do something similar with Potato salad.

I know you weren’t trying to be critical of the chef but it cerntainly feels like you are judging him.


I'm not convinced by this idea of "more interesting" ingredients. Sesame oil is interesting, but that it's certainly not a better choice for this purpose than a neutral oil of some sort. Sometimes plain white vinegar is the right flavor, even if others may have more personality. This is the attitude that gets us constant Romaine lettuce and microgreens, when the freshness of iceberg lettuce is one of life's great pleasures.

(I'll give you fresh-made mayonnaise — I can't think of a time I regretted that, except when it came time to do dishes.)


Book recommendation, if you're into this stuff... The Cooking Gene - A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, by Michael W Twitty. I'm currently halfway through, and it's fascinating. It delves deep into the roots of pre-20th century recipes and food traditions, and how African, European, and Native American cooking techniques and ingredients (along with the social structures of slavery) joined to create what became Southern cooking.

Take that Thanksgiving standby, sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top. That dish can be traced directly to slavery in the Caribbean! Yams were a big part of the diet (a food from Africa), and on sugar plantations, they would take cooked yams to the boiling vats and ladle boiling sugar juice directly onto the yams. This came to America via the slave trade (many American slaves came from the Caribbean rather than directly from Africa), and evolved into new dishes that preserved the flavor without easy access to giant vats of boiling sugar.

The tracing of family recipes back to their origins is amazing.


I’ll also add the recommendations I usually make.

Anyone interested in learning to cook, Americas Test Kitchen Cooking School (And also Cooks Illustrated Cooking Science and Science of Good Cooking) would probably be good for much of HN's audience. It is much more of a cooking "textbook" than most cookbooks. It explains what you are doing and why you do it instead of just a big list of recipes. There is also Modernist Cuisine but those are really pricey.

These books tackle the “science” side of cooking rather than your recommendation’s history side. Both are, of course, excellent approaches and are much better than your standard cook book’s vomit of recipes with no context.


As long as we're doing recommendations :-) Before the days of Alton Brown, I lived by The Cake Bible https://www.amazon.com/Cake-Bible-Rose-Levy-Beranbaum/dp/068... I'm amazed that it still costs about the same that I paid back in 1988!

Classic Home Desserts (https://www.amazon.com/Classic-Home-Desserts-Treasury-Contem...) seems to be back in print!!! Yay!!! Not as theoretical as The Cake Bible, but it has interesting notes about the origins of various recipes. Try the Jack Daniels Raisin Roll -- one of my favorites.


Certainly, The Cooking Gene is not just a straight cookbook - it's barely a cookbook at all. Instead, it's a history book more than anything, using the evolution of a cuisine to trace the cultural history of the African diaspora in America, and its broader impact on American culture. The appearance of certain foods, of ingredients and techniques, is a map of history. Fascinating stuff! (I got it on recommendation of a friend in the State Department, who called it the best book she read in 2017.)

As for learning to cook... yeah, the more I see "recipe" books completely decontextualized, the more bizarre they seem to me. Cooking is cultural, and arises from available ingredients, available tools, and known techniques. The idea that you can just make dishes completely in isolation from their cultural context is weirdly postmodernist.


So I'm making weird, postmodernist curries, pho, and tacos? Fun!


One could argue that the ready global availability of ingredients, plus YouTube and blog recipes, has itself created a new cuisine. But without a coherent form, it's hard to say what that actually is. So yeah, postmodernism...

I wonder how this ties in with the observations about Green Revolution agriculture and its impact on obesity and other modern dietary diseases? Like Michael Pollam's research?


A few years back, I was backpacking through Central America and spent a few weeks in the highlands of Guatemala staying with a Mayan family while taking Spanish lessons.

Part of the deal was you ate dinner with the family, and they cooked for you.

One of the first nights I was there, she made this amazing rice and meat dish, which I assumed was some kind of traditional Mayan thing, so I asked her what it was. After a few minutes of her struggling to understand my Spanish, she hopped up, walked into the kitchen and came back...

With a soy sauce bottle — on the side was a recipe for ‘stir fry’


This brings back some great memories. My mom made fantastic home made jams. All through my childhood family members and friends would clamor for her jams she made at Christmas.

This year I finally got her to give me her recipe....it was basically the recipe on the packet of Sure Jell :-/ She did note that the important part was to by fresh fruits for the jam and not frozen so I guess there was that. Regardless it was a huge let down to know the secret was the recipe on the box of pectin that was $.50 each.


To be fair, if the jams are canned it’s important to make sure you have the right amount of sugar and acid to make it safely shelf stable. I make jams every summer to give to family and friends and I still follow the recipes in the box of Pomona’s pectin. The thing I’ve been perfecting over the years is finding the best fruit at the farmer’s market and then processing it (peeling/blending/cooking) it in a way that yields a pleasing jam.


The processing is key; the prime example for me is peach jam, where if you just chop the fruit up, you end up with peach suspended in mostly-clear gel. If, on the other hand, you blend the peach mixture, you end up with a delicious consistency that's flavorful all the way through and easy to spread.


This might be biased because a "secret recipe" doesn't hold very much of its secret in the ingredients or instructions (all chocolate chip cookie recipes are quite similar) but the little tricks.

Adding a bit of something, or the timings of certain steps might be undocumented and make the secret recipe better than the famous one.


I have a recipe that I know is original (since I developed it myself) and I do my best not to keep secret. Good recipes are way better when shared.

Date chicken:

Cut two pounds of chicken breast into thin strips and marinate in red pesto [0] (one jar) for at least an hour. Bring two cans of coconut milk to boil with a pound of dried stoneless dates. Reduce heat and let simmer for half an hour, beating with a whisk to break up the dates. You should end up with a sauce that you can easily pour on the chicken later. When you start the sauce, start heating an oven to 250°C. Put the chicken in an ovenproof container and grill the slices for about 15 minutes, turning the slices over at least once. Pour the sauce on top and top off with feta cheese cubes (use dry feta, not the olive-oil drenched salad cubes). Grill till golden brown.

Serve with brown rice.

[0]: https://www.ocado.com/webshop/product/Filippo-Berio-Red-Pest...


My grandmother found some old family recipes from pre-independence India. I've never made any of them because they're sometimes denominated in units that no longer exist (a "viss" for example), and some of them are even measured in currency ("buy 10 rupees of x"). Maybe I could try and account for inflation and local prices 100? years ago but...I'm not optimistic.


You might want to talk to the editor of the website India of the Past [0] who collects not only old recipes [1] but also interesting facts on how much money bought how many items [2][3].

[0] http://www.indiaofthepast.org/contribute-memories

[1] Recipes | http://www.indiaofthepast.org/contribute-memories/read-contr...

[2] Old Lahore | You could buy up to 25 seers of flour for one rupee, and gold was only Rs 17 a tola. | http://www.indiaofthepast.org/contribute-memories/read-contr...

[3] Pindi Memoirs by a Sikh Son of the Soil Part 3 | Asli ghee was Rs. 14 for a tin. Eggs were two annas a dozen, and bananas were eight annas per dozen. Gold was Rs. 22 per tola (about 10 grams). | http://www.indiaofthepast.org/contribute-memories/read-contr...


My wife and I have a the simplest, silly "secret" recipe.

Many of her girlfriends don't work and some are really amazing cooks, but my wife who works full time doesn't feel like she has time to bake cookies or make three-bean salad or whatever. She simply knows the best places to pick those things up around town, transfers the food to plastic containers for transport, and labels it with a piece of tape that simply says something like "Paige's chocolate chip cookies".

Even though our friends by now have figured out the "secret" it still makes everyone happy. (Including me. I find cooking for others interesting, but I don't do it much anymore.)


That sounds kinda shallow. Why bother with faking, as obviously no one cares ?


Especially chocolate chip cookies


My takeaway from this is whoever came up with the idea of including recipe ideas on/in the packaging of staples or kitchen products was a goddamn genius.

Because a common theme among many of these mistaken secret family recipe stories is that the concoctions are taken from those marketing materials, and I'd expect whatever they picked to feature would be tasty and hard to screw up to put that product in a good light.

If it's a hit with the family, they're making it frequently, and pretty soon the aunt or uncle or grandparent who makes it for the holiday gathering can do it from memory and so it's easy to assume they made it up themselves.

I bet if you were to ask that cook about their "secret" recipe to this day they'd make sure to emphasize that you have to use So-and-So brand chocolate chips for it to come out right; the very same from which they got the recipe in the first place, and without which it probably doesn't come out right (maybe intentionally)

Goddamned brilliant.


I once asked my grandmother (RIP) how she makes such amazing dumplings:

"First, you go and find a nice fat goose..."


I don't know if any of the things my grandmother has made were once from a recipe, but a few years back I spent some time with a digital camcorder recording her making them. Since she eyeballs most of it... it's really hard to imagine having properly captured this any other way.


I like the story --I don't recall where I heard it or perhaps read it. Someone recounting the story of finding out their grandma's delicious marinara sauce was not made with tomatoes from the garden but rather plain old store bought canned tomatoes --but prepared just right.


A note for people using tinned tomatoes: buy the whole ones, not the diced ones, and dice them in the can yourself. Makes a large difference in flavour, the quality of the tomatoes they use for whole is better than for diced :)


It's actually more complicated than that. Here's the Serious Eats analysis about different types of canned tomatoes: https://www.seriouseats.com/2015/10/canned-tomato-types-and-...

TL;DR: Pre-diced canned tomatoes are bad because calcium chloride (a firming agent), combined with a larger surface area, makes it not break down properly when cooking.


Different tomatoes taste quite different too. One brand which is great for pasta and pizza is Mutti. (I am unaffiliated, just a happy customer.)

https://www.mutti-parma.com/us/#!/our-tomato-fields-and-your...


Pretty much every blind taste test you'll find done in America of grocery store canned tomatoes has brands grown in California vastly outperforming imports.


Blind taste test of people near California?


Cooks Illustrated (subscription required) is based out of Boston, and they prefer the domestic brands:

https://www.cooksillustrated.com/taste_tests/231-canned-whol...

Splendid Table is based out of Minnesota, I believe:

https://www.splendidtable.org/story/the-6-best-brands-of-can...

Epicurius picks an Indiana brand, with California brand Muir Glen at #2:

https://www.epicurious.com/expert-advice/best-canned-tomatoe...

One of the issues is that supermarket imported Italian tomatoes tend to be packed in puree, not uncooked juices. If you're looking for fresh tomato flavor (and if you aren't, just buy crushed tomatoes), you want to buy an American brand that seals the cans at lower temps for longer times to keep the tomatoes fresh.


The best cooks I know all have an excellent sense of smell and rely heavily upon it to get the timing right.

Try putting that in your official recipe.


My mother in law has taught me a bunch of her recipes, and a lot of them have a step that she describes “...until it has a smell”, like “fry the spices until they have a smell”, which is actually a specific aroma, but I have no idea how to write down an aroma in my notes.


We need to develop a stink-line-based notation system for aromae.


this is why most of the recipes were desserts (which are typically baked goods). Baking is much more about getting the proportions right, and often uses refined ingredients and you usually don't make changes after it starts cooking.

When you cook something in a pan and are using fresh ingredients that don't come in standard sizes and strengths then a feedback loop becomes much more important


The smell reliant cooks I know apply it equally to baked goods. They crab at me for opening the oven to check by eye. They can smell that it isn't done yet.

This would include my mother and oldest son. I have many years more experience cooking than my son and I still help him with understanding recipes because I have a better skill base than he has. I cannot cook like him. He is a much better cook than I am.

I am happy to do vegetable prep, a thing he loathes and sucks at, and happy to play consulting chef to fill in his knowledge gaps. Meal quality went up when he took over the cooking and he enjoys it a lot more than I do. I think I don't enjoy it in part because I'm not really that good at it. He only had to run me out of the kitchen a couple of times and then I was very happily all "Fine. Be that way. I will stay out of your kitchen." (said with a winky, basically)


I will admit that "when is it done" is a big judgment call in baking, so that's a good point.

Also opening the oven changes how it cooks, so I can see them being crabby :)


I bake a few cakes regularly. Most of the recipes can be found online, but I usually have found some tweaks that make them taste better (subjective). So I make notes of them in my little book.

I think most recipes are derivative. You have to start somewhere when you make cornbread. So why not start with a standard recipe. Then you substitute some ingredients because you're missing something at home. You find it either tastes better or worse. Then you can improve the recipe.

In the end my cornbread recipe only has 2 different ingredients that give it better texture and better aroma. It's still almost the same recipe.


The little book is the real secret weapon of a baker. Where you put the details that make the recipe stand out or adapt to your preference.


Alternative hypothesis: most 'secret family recipes' are in fact original. However, the average SFR never get passed around, because it produces average-tasting stuff.

The recipe on food labels come from companies that know the product inside-out, have incentive to help you optimize the taste/effort tradeoff, and maybe have spent time and money on research. They tastes better, so they're the ones people remember.

tl;dr: people remember a disproportionately high number of plagiarized recipes because those are the good ones.


We've got a few family recipes. They're mostly not really secret, and at least in our recipe book their sources are referenced if known. But a big part of what makes the end result good is the practice we have in making them.

The real "secret" recipes tend to be for things that build on a public recipe, or are simple enough not to need one. If you asked us how to make it (and we'd be happy to share what we can), we'd only be able to give you the base recipe, or perhaps not even that, but what makes them good is the local tweaks, ingredient selection and experience in cooking that gives consistent (or at least consistently good) results.

If you want a Hollywood example, consider Po's Dad's "Secret Ingredient" soup in Kung Fu Panda.


Specially in America, with only recent History of course family recipes are adapted from books.

On the other hand my family(in Europe) holds recipes that are more than one hundred years old. Most books recipes came from taking the knowledge of grandmas on villages on places with culinary History.

Those books serve as text books over which modern cuisine has evolved.

But is a kind of food that most Americans will consider strange. They are sophisticated stews that take forever to make or have flavor that they are not used to.

When I went to China the hardest thing to get used to was all the flavors of their food, which is very rich, but most Westerners do not know it(note:Chinese restaurants have very little to do most of the time as real Chinese food is not commercial in the West).


I find that most of our family 'secret' recipes are the result of trying several recipes for a given dish, picking the best one but incorporating lessons learned from the others. Its not uncommon for a page in our family book to consists of a photocopied page from a published cookbook + notes like "fully mix in the spices 1 at a time in this order:" where the recipe just says "mix in the spices".

Additional notes like "[cousin] likes this with more cinnamon, but [uncle] will always try to add more sugar" are helpful for holidays.


My mother, and actually her mother before that, made modifications to the Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie recipe. Specifically, replacing butter with shortening and using just a bit of extra flour, while whipping the eggs a bit more in mixing. I watched an episode of Alton Brown's Good Eats where he made that exact set of modifications to get puffy/cakey chocolate chip cookies, some 20 years after Grandma started baking them that way. It's always amusing to see your old school process be supported by proper food science.


Both my wife and my family have these instances regarding Betty Crocker recipes / Southern Living cookbook recipes. Although, I will say, our attempts at following the recipes are still not the same as our grandmother's. What I've noticed is our grandmothers are just better cooks; allowing them to eyeball measure, adjust temps to conditions, time things out better, and generally solve problems as they arise.

In a sense the recipe is just an idea, the cook still needs good execution.


A century ago, my family swiped a recipe by spying on another family. I suppose it could have come from a molasses bottle or even from an 1800s cookbook, but good luck finding such an origin at this point. It makes lovely gingerbread men.

https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Cookbook:Molasses_Cookies


I remember this... from nearly half a century ago.

The February 7, 1976 episode of The Jeffersons ("Louise's Cookbook") had this plot. A publisher asks Louise to write a cookbook of her ghetto recipes. (spoiler alert) It turns out her family recipes were all from a previously-published book that her grandmother (mother?) had been using.


I've been fascinated with the story of the original olivier salad for years: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olivier_salad#History


My mother was famous for her Yams and Stuffing she made every Thanksgiving. Everyone always wanted to know. I finally asked her for the recipes and found out it was from a newspaper clipping. I laughed pretty good finding out.


If your mother's secret recipe calls for Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, Velveeta processed cheese, or Jello mix, here's a hint: It probabally isn't original.


What I want to know is where does the recipe on the side of the box come from? The robots who came up with that are the true heroes, imho.


My mom always would use recipes from the sides of containers. She said "they're going to try 100s of recipes to find one that will make their product look good, so no need for me to try a dozen recipes that they have probably already tried"

Often the recipes were customer submitted (though I believe the Toll House cookie recipe came from a restaurant chef), and companies would test and/or tweak recipes before putting them on the side of the box.


I have an opposite story.

Once upon a time in the French countryside, there was an old pastry chef who was well known for her unique creation (of which I forgot the name), that, even 40 years later, my father still praises.

The recipe was only known by the pastry chef, even though the famous local restaurant chef (Georges Blanc, now 3 Michelin stars, at least 2 stars at the time) begged her to sell him the secret, whatever the price. She said, "my recipe will follow me into the grave". And it did.

TL;DR: come in Bresse, best food ever.


I got a secret salmon recipe from my aunt only to see it on the salmon wrapper.


My grandmother's pīrāgi were made with Poppin "Fresh" dough.



The recipe is the easy part. The execution and getting the right ingredients is all important.

Granma X was awesome not because of the recipe but because she practiced her whole life making it.


In other news, water is wet.




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