OK, I’m going to tell you a secret, and maybe it’s an obvious secret, one that you already know (especially since it’s the title of this post), but I also think it’s a secret most people don’t want to acknowledge: there is no such thing as the best recipe.
Now I say this as someone who, for years, titled my posts “The Best” this or “The Best” that. My most popular post of all time was called The Best Broccoli of Your Life. I still have people who come up to me on the street and say, “Your broccoli recipe really is the best.” First of all, it’s not my broccoli recipe, it’s Ina Garten’s. Second of all, it’s an excellent recipe, it yields wonderful results, but is it the best? Let me repeat my point: there’s no such thing as the best.
What am I getting at here? Well, let’s take the present moment: I’m making applesauce. I bought a dozen assorted apples at the farmer’s market on Sunday and now I’m turning them into applesauce to pair with the latkes I’m making for Hanukkah.
In searching for a recipe, I came across several that touted themselves as “the best” applesauce recipes. They seemed like very nice recipes. One featured a vanilla bean. The other involved roasting the apples in the oven first.
If I were a less experienced cook, I might read those recipe titles and figure, “Well that’s that, then. If this is the best recipe, then I guess this is the one that I’m supposed to make.”
That’s precisely what recipe writers want you to think. In fact, there’s an entire empire built on this very idea: Cook’s Illustrated. I watch their PBS show all the time and their attitude is basically, “We’ve performed dozens and dozens of tests and after careful, agonizing research, we’ve concluded that THIS is the best and only way to make (insert recipe name) here.”
What they’re preying on is the home cook’s insecurity. So many people are unsure of themselves in the kitchen, so when someone tells you that they’ve failed over and over again so that you don’t have to, that’s such welcome news. “If I follow these steps, I will get a good result.” That’s music to most people’s ears.
But, I’d argue, that also hobbles the home cook. It makes the process less creative, less individualistic. Let’s liken it to something simple, like movie theater candy. Everyone has a favorite movie theater candy. Mine’s Buncha Crunch. Imagine watching an episode of America’s Test Kitchen where they say, “We’ve tested thousands of movie theater candies and we’ve determined that the best movie theater candy is M&Ms.” Would you then give up your affection for Sour Patch Kids or Junior Mints because America’s Test Kitchen told you that M&Ms were the best? I hope not!
So why are we so willing to do that in the kitchen? Again, I think people are scared to go out on a limb. But that’s where you have to start to trust your own personal taste. Like my applesauce: the recipe I settled on (another Ina recipe, obviously) calls for the zest and juice from a lemon and an orange, cinnamon and allspice. I had Meyer lemons and tangerines, and I didn’t have allspice, but I did have fresh nutmeg, so I grated some of that in. (I love nutmeg.)
I can imagine a home cook reading those tweaks and crying out, “BUT THEN IT WON’T BE THE BEST.” Then I’d cry back, “THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS THE BEST.” There’s only what you want, what you like, what you think tastes good. The more you make it taste like what you, specifically YOU, want it to taste like, the better it will be. Speaking of which…
It smells so good in here right now. Did that tangerine juice make a difference? The nutmeg instead of the allspice? Not really sure, but I’d bet this tastes slightly different from the one Ina made and from the one you might make later today.
Next time, I might try the Judy Rodgers’ technique of roasting the apples first. Or maybe I’ll add some pomegranate seeds and persimmons, since I have those around too. Really, it’ll all depend on my mood, what I’m going for, what kind of sauce I’d like to make at that particular moment. Other people might hate it, but I know I’ll love it, and that, and only that, is what makes it the best.