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The Fiction of the Secret Ingredient

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

In the world of fiction, mystery stories are extremely popular. So are stories in which the main character has secrets. In the world of cooking, secret recipes and mystery ingredients are also big money-makers. Think of Coca-Cola. It guards its formula for its soda pop, and legend has it that the mystery ingredient was at one time cocaine. Even now, minus the cocaine, Coca-Cola will not disclose the exact formula of its beverages. This creates a continual buzz of mystery around the brand, and spin-off businesses for those who claim to have discovered the exact formula.


Another example of a famous top-secret recipe is the sacher torte -- a delectable chocolate-apricot layer cake from the 1800s. The original recipe has been totally lost, or closely guarded, depending on which legend you believe. Scores of pastry chefs have made money by claiming to have re-created the “original” sacher torte. In my view, this is all marketing hype. How can anyone know what the original even tasted like? Ingredients themselves have changed drastically since then 1800s, so an "original" recipe might taste awful compared to a modern, "not authentic" version from a talented baker.


If you’re a food professional, and a secret recipe is the secret to your success, all the more power to you. I won’t talk you out of a profitable business model.


But marketing strategies aside, I’m here to tell you that from a cook's perspective “secret ingredients” and “secret recipes” are mostly myth. Give five cooks the exact same recipe for, say, shortbread (flour, sugar, butter) and you’ll end up with five distinctly different shortbreads. Why? Well, Scottish legend says that each baker’s fingers impart something special and distinctive as she works the dough by hand. But my reason is more straightforward: Technique is what makes or breaks a dish. In any cooking project, the secret to success is . . . technique.


What do I mean by technique? I am referring to the ability to manipulate ingredients to get a particular outcome. This ranges from the way the ingredients are handled, mixed, adjusted, and eventually cooked.


Technique cannot be mastered overnight, it cannot be successfully taught by simply reading through a recipe. You acquire good technique by practicing good technique – just as you do when learning to write. That means being hands-on, paying attention, keeping an open mind, listening to feedback, and revising old habits if you find a new technique that produces a better outcome.


My recipe for roasted chicken contains two essential ingredients: chicken and salt (herbs and lemon are optional). I could write those ingredients on a postage stamp. But the technique of how to get a succulent chicken with perfectly browned skin takes three paragraphs to explain. And it takes a fair amount of practice to get it right.

Here are other recipes where the ingredients could be written on a postage stamp, but which require good technique to get right: omelets and scrambled eggs (eggs, cream, salt), baguettes (flour, water, yeast, salt), ganache (chocolate and heavy cream), peanut brittle (peanuts, water, sugar), a perfectly-cooked steak (beef, salt, and pepper), and fettucini Alfredo (fettucini, butter, parmesan).


Of course, quality ingredients are key. A good fettucini Alfredo demands the best fettucini you can buy (or, better yet, make yourself), along with top-notch butter and authentic, top-of-the-line Parmesan. Give these exact same three ingredients to three cooks, and watch -- and taste -- how they turn out three different versions of fettucini Alfredo.


Along the same lines, a good cook can take mediocre ingredients and make the final dish taste better than the sum of its parts. Here is a real-life example, told by Jim Leff, a professional musician and food critic, and the founder of Chowhound.com:


In 1992, I had a week-long gig at the Olympics in Seville. Like lots of gigs, they kept the band so far out of town that there was nothing to eat . . . Me and the sax player [Ralph] strolled over to a convenience store to buy identical boxes of lousy pasta and jars of lousy sauce. We brought them back to our identical convenience apartments, with identical stoves and pots, and we both cooked up dinner. Mine tasted like convenience store pasta topped with convenience store sauce. His wasn't exactly great, but it had unmistakable pizzazz. It tasted ITALIAN (he was, in fact Italian). I searched his apartment for oregano or EVOO [extra virgin olive oil], but there was none. . . . What WAS it about Ralph's pasta? I do have an answer . . . I live for the "greater" part of "greater than the sum of its parts". That's all that matters to me. Everyone else pays attention to the parts, but I'm completely obsessed with the magic part of the equation. And it IS magic (not like making rabbits disappear, or stirring cauldrons; this is, I believe, what magic really is). And once you start paying attention to it, you can't settle for less.


So if you’re one of those people who have been reluctant to share recipes, don’t be. Chances are, your signature dish is something that nobody is going to be able to exactly reproduce, no matter how hard they try. Yes, their version might be good -- maybe almost as good as yours -- but it won’t be exactly the same. And if you think the difference between your oatmeal cookies and your co-worker’s has to do with some missing ingredients that she “forgot” to include in the recipe she gave you, you may be worrying for nothing. It might simply boil down to technique. Stay focused on practicing and refining your technique, ask questions, listen to the answers, practice some more, and your culinary creations are bound to reach new heights of deliciousness.   

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