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Validation for careful cooks: joy of a perfect recipe

A lesson from buttery biscuits: Do not fear the recipe; the recipe shall set you free.

For nearly as long as the arts of cookery and the written word have coexisted – and that's a very long time, indeed – there have been two distinct schools of cooks.

At one extreme, you have the chemist, who won't make a move without having every aspect of the cooking experience charted out to the exact teaspoon and the precise degree.

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Several miles down the spectrum, you find the orchestra conductor, who waves in subtly (or vaguely) meaningful ways at different sections – the seasonings, the garnishes, the sauces, the proteins, etc. – sometimes eliciting rapturous outcries of appreciation from the culinary audience, and sometimes merely eliciting outcries.

For those of us who identify with the culinary scientific method, the recipe is the key to the kitchen. You tinker with it, you comment upon it, you criticize it or you live by its every precept, but the one thing you don't do is disregard it entirely.

It's there for a reason. Someone, somewhere – possibly someone very intelligent and experienced – made all the various decisions it contains, and saw them fit to record and disseminate. It must therefore be heeded.

The orchestra-conductor school of cooks would maintain that recipes make cooking boring, but they're missing the point entirely. Recipes make cooking exciting. When explored freely and with an open mind, they allow for a nearly complete shift in perspective.

Wham, you're cooking omelette basquasie like a French housewife. Bam, you're a Korean sushi chef finding the middle ground between o-nigiri and kimchi. Zap, you're a New Orleans restaurateur cranking out dirty rice and crawfish étouffée.

Unless you're a regular Michelangelo of the range-top, shifts of this nature must be assisted with a bit of written documentation.

And those who choose to cook with very little to no assistance from that stodgy old prescription known as a recipe miss out on one of the most remarkable "eureka!" moments a cook can enjoy: the discovery of a perfect recipe.

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I recently had precisely this pleasure while baking biscuits according to a recipe contributed by master baker Peter Reinhart to a recent edition of Fine Cooking magazine.

As a Northerner by birth and preference, biscuits have always been alien: lumpy, gritty, misshapen bread usually found at Hardee's and as related to a respectable loaf of sourdough as a Pop Tart is to homemade apple pie.

But there seemed to be much evidence that considerable swaths of Southern culture were based upon the biscuit, and, besides, I'd seen the invariably reliable Alton Brown of the Food Network talk them up. Clearly, there was a right way to make them out there somewhere.

The Reinhart recipe caught my eye because it was finicky about the way the baker should handle both the butter and the finished dough. And "finicky," to the collector of recipes, usually means "experienced," and "particular," although it can sometimes just mean "obnoxious."

In this case, it didn't mean "obnoxious." By using a trifold method (wherein the dough is rolled flat, folded up, and rolled flat once more) to work with dough larded with unblended pieces of butter, the recipe suggested that every biscuit would be baked up into light, flaky, buttery layers.

With relatively little actual work, the recipe was executed. The result was heavenly. The light went on. A tentative and awkward baker had been transformed through faithful devotion to a master's notation into a Hero of the Brunch, First Order. Having good Canadian bacon helped.

"There are people who hold that cookery books are unnecessary," wrote Elizabeth David in her 1960 book, "French Provincial Cooking." "These people are usually those who innocently believe cookery to be a matter of a little imagination, common sense, and a taste for food, qualities which are, of course, of enormous importance to a cook; but, as [Belgian food writer] Maurice des Ombiaux says, 'Let us not make any mistake, the taste which one has for good living, however lively it may be, cannot take the place of the technical knowledge, the long habit, the constant practice of the difficult and complicated profession of cookery.' "

There's no doubt that it's possible to be too scripted a cook; you miss out on many fine, inspired substitutions and spur-of-the-moment masterpieces by always bowing to the mandates of invisible chefs. But to those who think that only free-form cooking can be a revelation, consider this: Do not fear the recipe, for the recipe shall set you free.

James Norton writes about food media for chow.com.

See the recipe on the next page.