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. :)
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!
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.
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...
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.
One bonus of the Edmonds recipe is it also uses only ingredients you probably already have (except maybe the desiccated coconut).
3¾c. of brownie mix (again, Betty Crocker Original Supreme)
⅓c. vegetable oil
and the included packet of Hershey's syrup
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.
Is the quantity now the only difference?
So, if we do the 1.25 thing and follow the instructions, they'll be perfect?
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
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.
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.
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.
Thank you. There's an awkward pipe in my bathroom whose shut-off won't quite close enough. My wife will be so thrilled.
(It applies not just to recent learning, but institutional and cultural memories as well.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks for elaborating :)
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.
Just try measuring 1 cup of butter accurately without making a mess.
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.
I’ll have to try your other recommendations now. :)
So a selection of tropes can be copyrightable.
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.
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 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.
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.
start with simple recipes.
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
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
 He rewrote "The Hobbit" in Tengwar several times using a fountain pen.
For examples, https://www.minitab.com/en-us/News/Sugar,-Spice,-and-Everyth... , https://www.moresteam.com/toolbox/design-of-experiments.cfm , https://williamghunter.net/articles/101-ways-to-design-an-ex... and https://www.inc.com/magazine/20030901/rcringely.html .
Various programmes showing the results of his experiments around.
Also this wasn't done in english, but that's just a minor detail.
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.
This assumes convexity, no? ;-P
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.
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.
"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)."
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 highly recommend the ChefSteps Joule.
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.
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.
(My aunt is not known for her cooking.)
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.
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.
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.
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'll give you fresh-made mayonnaise — I can't think of a time I regretted that, except when it came time to do dishes.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 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.
Adding a bit of something, or the timings of certain steps might be undocumented and make the secret recipe better than the famous one.
Cut two pounds of chicken breast into thin strips and marinate in red pesto  (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.
 Recipes | http://www.indiaofthepast.org/contribute-memories/read-contr...
 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...
 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...
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.)
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)
"First, you go and find a nice fat goose..."
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.
Splendid Table is based out of Minnesota, I believe:
Epicurius picks an Indiana brand, with California brand Muir Glen at #2:
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.
Try putting that in your official recipe.
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
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)
Also opening the oven changes how it cooks, so I can see them being crabby :)
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 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.
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.
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).
Additional notes like "[cousin] likes this with more cinnamon, but [uncle] will always try to add more sugar" are helpful for holidays.
In a sense the recipe is just an idea, the cook still needs good execution.
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.
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.
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.
Granma X was awesome not because of the recipe but because she practiced her whole life making it.