I love Ina Garten; this is no secret. You’ll find a Barefoot Contessa cookbook on just about every shelf in my apartment. I’ve been known to watch reruns of her show on YouTube, and I’ve gone so far as to call her a style icon. I sometimes wish I could pick Jeffrey up and put him in my pocket, but I digress. As much as I adore Ina, I have a bone to pick with her.
More than once, the Contessa has it on record that when she cooks, she follows recipes To. The. Letter. “I follow the recipe every single time I make a recipe. I don’t just throw things in,” she told Buzzfeed News in 2016. A similar sentiment was echoed when she was a guest on the Bon Appétit Foodcast.
Ina, whattt? You never stray from the instructions? Never add parsley instead of cilantro or a pinch more salt? Granted, Garten’s recipes are known for being unfussy, foolproof and practically impossible to ruin—that’s part of her appeal. But as a cook, I feel like this is the total opposite of what cooking should be (baking recipes notwithstanding). I’m a big believer in changing recipes as you see fit, for a few reasons.
Number one: Unless you’re grocery shopping with a recipe in mind, you won’t always have the exact ingredients in your kitchen. I don’t know about anyone else, but there’s nothing less appealing than an emergency grocery run 15 minutes before dinner.
Number two: What if I don’t like an ingredient, but the dish sounds appealing otherwise? I’m not against modifying a nonessential flavor to my taste. I’m the one who has to eat it, after all. Sure, Garten’s recipes are tested and meant to be failproof, but everyone’s taste buds are different. It’s called “seasoning to taste” for a reason.
Number three: Most important, experimenting with recipes is what makes cooking satisfying and fun. How can we empower more people to get into the kitchen if it’s so regimented that you can’t swap a blueberry for a raspberry? How do you learn that tarragon and mint don’t really taste the same, or that under-salted food is way sadder than over-salted? Not to mention, following recipes all the time is just kind of boring.
Obviously, you can’t change a recipe so much that it’s something entirely different and still call it the same dish. It’s not roast chicken if you use steak. And not all modifications will be successful, but that’s part of the process. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Ina. I just want her to feel free to live her best life and add an extra pinch of cayenne for the hell of it.