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06 Apr 2012
How to get an accurate recipe from your grandmother

If your grandmother is anything like mine, she has an incredible repertoire of recipes from the old country which involve a set of ingredients and no measurements whatsoever. Everything is by feel, by sight, by years of experience rather than lists of precise numbers. It’s amazing, but hard to learn from.

I like numbers. They are clean in my head, and lead to reproducible results. I also like chicken paprikash and palacsinta and all sorts of delicious things that my grandmother cooks so well, and want to be able to make them myself.

This came up in conversation yesterday, when a fellow I was chatting with mentioned that he has the same problem getting accurate recipes from his mother. I told him my trick for getting accurate recipes from my grandmother, and it occurs to me this morning that I’ve never written it out before and probably ought to share.

It’s simple, really. I collect multiple data points for each recipe by asking my grandmother (and my mother, when she can remember) for the same recipe multiple times on different days and times of day. I push them each time to just give me their best guess at what the measurements are, based on their memory of what they do by feel and sight, and write down what they tell me. This can involve some hand-holding, and tends to go rather like this:

My grandmother: “You put in some paprika.”
Me: “How much paprika?”
Her: “Until it looks right.”
Me: “Is it more than a cup of paprika?”
Her: “Oh, no no no.”
Me: “Is it more than half a cup of paprika?”
Her: (longer pause, then) “Noooo.”
Me: “Is it just a teaspoon? That can’t be right. The taste is too strong.”
Her: “About three tablespoons, maybe. More if you need it.”
And so on.

After a few iterations of this (three per family member seems to both work and not try their patience too much), I average out my data as follows: For each ingredient where there is a mode (a measurement that appears more often than any other measurement), I take the mode, and for each other ingredient, I take the mean.

That’s it, really. Dead simple, if you have the sort of family where you’re encouraged to be a loving but pushy nudge as needed. But it works! I can cook amazing, authentic Hungarian food in the style of the old ladies of Tarpa and Kisar this way! So, go forth and gather awesome recipes. Then come back and teach me them! I can always use more awesome recipes.

Oh, and if that made you hungry, here’s my approximation of my Hungarian grandmother’s recipe for stuffed cabbage.

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