Good ol' recipes

Joined Aug 29, 2000
I read an article today which mentioned that cooks in the "old days" might jot down a list of ingredients, mention a particular cooking vessel or pan, and only roughly note proportions. This makes it difficult for those of us who want to reproduce recipes from ancestors or mentors, because we have a tough time duplicating those old dishes.

Do you have recipes like this? They could be family recipes or dishes you have prepared professionally. Maybe you found recipes like this in heirloom or antique cookbooks.

For example, my grandmother baked bread nearly every day of her life while her husband and children were at home. She never measured anything with a standard measure. My mom watched her bake many times, but when it came time to pass the recipe on to me, Mom had no idea how much of each ingredient was actually being used. Mom had my grandmother make three batches of bread while she measured each ingredient before my grandmother added it. (This caused quite a few flashes of annoyance, I can assure you!) Finally, the three versions were averaged, and I can now make my grandmother's challah with good results.

Do any of you have similar experience?
Joined Mar 13, 2002
I inherited my grandmother's recipe box - many of the recipes say "add enough butter (or flour)". I would phone my mother to ask her how much to add her response would be "until it is the right consistency"....I spend a lot of time in the library and on line trying to find similar recipes with amounts of ingredients and then do the trial and error routine. Frustrating but also rewarding when it finally comes out the way I remember it.
Joined Jul 23, 2002

My Grandmothers books are the same.
baking powder
baking powder

I have a blast making some of them!

I have been working on breaking my habit of doing the same thing. I'll make a soup, sauce, dessert, whatever and only write down ingredients. Then someone asks me how to do it and all I can give is ingredients.:p

Makes it hard to write a cook book that's for sure!



Staff member
Joined Oct 7, 2001
Just pulled out my copy of "The Home Cook Book" circa 1877. Most of the recipes either do not have: 1. amounts for the ingredients, 2. techniques, or 3. times and temps for cooking. It can be quite an undertaking trying to prepare a recipe from this and a few other books from the same time period.
Joined Aug 15, 2003
Lol maybe they were on to something....almost every time I make a recipe I end up having to change it in some way anyhow. Maybe it's just as simple as adding a bit more salt, or whatever, but still. Especially baking when you can do the same recipe on different days and they come out different.

Plus, they probably never had to write anything down as, like you guys pointed out, they did it pretty much all day, every day.

Joined Jul 24, 2001

You know Mezz, modern scholars have concluded that the book of Apicius just lists the ingredients because he addresses professional cooks that suppose to know the analogies :)

I think that the same stands for the recipe book of our grandmothers!

Interestingly, in Greece, grandmothers don't leave just their recipe-book but also, the vessels or other kitchen equipment they used to measure ingredients :)

I have my grandma's cup that she was using to measure ingredients. Without the specific cup her recipes wouldn't make much sense.

I keep telling myself that I must convert those recipes because if this cup ever breaks I will have a problem but then... :)
Joined Aug 29, 2000
Athenaeus, the article mentioned a similar issue. Long ago in small towns, the women would buy baking pans, cups, etc. from the same small store so they all knew the size of "a big cake pan" or "a teacup of flour". When people dispersed or the towns grew larger, the meanings of such descriptions were lost. Even "butter the size of an egg" is pretty subjective!

I, too, am one to cook by eye, nose and ear. (Yes, I do listen for the sound of a hot enough sizzle in a pan or a too-fast boil in a pot.) I have a great deal of trouble sharing recipes because I don't measure. Since I'm not much of a baker, I respect the chemistry of that art and stick closely to recipes. But for savory cooking, it's all sensory!
Joined Aug 11, 2003
i also learned to cook by watching my gamma and mother , and to a certain extent my father . up until i started cooking profesionally i seldom used measuring utinsils except when baking . its only been in the last few months when i bring in samples of some of my home cooking and my boss wants recipe's that i realized that its hard to convert small pile of this medium pile of that into actual measurements . now anytime i cook something that i havent already converted , i properly measure things after i hand measure them . many of the recipe's passed down from my gamma have never been put to paper . i had to just be there enough times when she cooked them to get it right myself .
Joined Dec 12, 2000
And then there's the Escoffier cook book, which for the most part is a list of ingredients.
Joined Jul 18, 2002
just an aside but if you do have a friend or relative that cooks by eye, one way to figure out what they use (and remember it may vary in baking cause of weather or time or year)

Do an accurate weight measurement of all the ingredients before they start. Then weigh again when finished.

You may have to do the recipe several times and average, but weight is generally more acurate than measurement and you don't have to interupt them each time they add an ingredient.

Also try to video tape them doing the recipe by setting up the video camera on a tripod. Don't worry about exact focus, but being able to watch their techniques and listen to the commentary will help you when you try to reproduce the results. and for a bonus, if this is a favorite and elderly relative you will have a unique and lasting memory on tape.

We did this with my great aunts stuffed cabbage recipe before she passed away (she knew she was dying and wanted to make sure the recipe was passed on) It is a hillarious tape and a family herloim just as much as the recipe....
Joined Aug 29, 2000
Tigerwoman, what I wouldn't give to have my grandmother on tape! However, she died in 1966, before home VCRs were available. But I can still see her hands in the dough to this day.

How lucky you are to have that! (Do consider having it burned on a DVD, as that will last much longer than VHS tape. And keep a copy in the bank box!)
Joined Jul 24, 2001
Yes, taping is a great idea...

Some times when I am stuck while preparing a recipe, I close my eyes and I bring to my mind my grandma's hands and gestures... and... there you go :)

I think that we should stop posting this kind of threads, they always bring tears to my eyes...
Joined May 18, 2001
I regularly cook recipes from old cookbooks. There are some examples that I published this year at Book Review: Gastronomie Pratique and Blanc-Manger: A Journey Through Time. I've found that I'm usually able to produce good results the first time I try an old recipe, or for sure on the second, using my experience combined with gut instinct. It is always necessary to try to think in terms of the time period in which the original recipe was written. What forms of heat were available? What types of untensils were used for cooking? What foodstuffs were available? And how are they different from those available today?
Joined Aug 29, 2000
I agree, Bouland. Even people's time sense is markedly changed. What we used to "feel" was a short time is now long. "Simmer for a short time" meant perhaps 20 minutes in 1850, but today "a short time" would mean 5 minutes to a lot of people, I'd bet.

We now chafe when our computers take 1 minute to execute a command, and think that an eon. I once read of a study which investigated people's time sense. It compared those who use computers with those who do not. They were asked to sound a buzzer when they thought one minute had elapsed. Those who hadn't been "cyberized" waited more than twice as long as those who were computer users. I wish I could find that study, but it was a real eye-opener.
Joined Feb 6, 2002
Guilty as charged.

My recipe book looks exactly like that. My recipe for Chicken Masala looks like this:

Chicken Breast
Masala Wine
Chicken Stock

That is really all I need to know. Everytime I use a printed recipe with measurements it always comes out wrong, so I've taken to just jotting down the ingredients and continuing to do what my mother started. "Here are the ingredients now go figure it out!". Works for me. :)
Joined Aug 13, 2006
I don;t know how all these old recipes came out, but i can tell you that here in italy, many cookbook recipes are approximate. Some are ok, especially the ones that are cooking not baking. But the baking stuff, well, it seems to me that most people here are glad to get a little sugar, in whatever form, and that's enough for them. Cakes are dry, usually overly sweet, not very interesting. The crumb is usually riddled with wormholes (like when you beat the batter too long) and many cakes are made by pouring a pile of flour on a board, making a "well" and putting in sugar, eggs, melted butter, etc, and believe me, you don';t want to learn to make them.
So... while there are some wonderful old family recipes, i think a lot of stuff is overrated. I used to dream about the things my mother said her mother used to bake back in the "old country". But when i got a taste of them visiting the relatives here, i can tell you, most of them were not very interesting. But in those days sugar was a real luxury, and it didn;t matter much what you put it in, people liked it. So my mother remembered the treat as special, because anything sweet was special.

I do have some good ones, but many of those are good because i've doctored the recipes myself, adding butter, etc, changing the method (creaming rather than mixing all together at once) etc.

That said, i think a lot of the precision of today's recipes is annoying, especially when you're talking about cooking, not baking. Like, who measures a cup of chopped onions? It doesn;t really matter, a little more or a little less. I prefer more realistic recipes that say, for example, a couple of medium onions, chopped. Salt, in particular, is strange to measure. You add salt till it tastes good. What i do is salt with a salt shaker, imagining the food being in my dish, and how much i would want on it.
Joined Aug 11, 2000
how topical....a 93 year old friend is getting ready to move to Fla and I keep saying I wanna watch her make chicken and dumplings. She talks me through it all the while saying how easy it is to make. But there's just something about watching and touching that make the difference between something good and something great.

She makes all her own egg noodles,slaw, etc...a wealth of cooking lore.
Joined Apr 24, 2007
I hope you never break that cup. I still have Grandmaws Carnival glass juicer which I handle carefully and put well out of the way when through with use. I just wanted to suggest weighing the flour from the recipies in case,God forbid,something happens to your treasure....good cookin...cookie
Top Bottom