If you’re counting ingredients, you’re doing it wrong

September 11, 2017

Cornmeal-Crusted Petrale with Tomato-Tarragon Relish / JillHough.com

Bon Appetit’s recent “simple” issue—where every recipe in the magazine used five ingredients or less—touched a nerve.

I get where they’re coming from. People think few ingredients = easy. And easy is good, right?

Bon Appetit isn’t alone wanting to capitalize on that thinking. I’ve had more than a handful of clients ask me to develop recipes that use no more than x-number of ingredients.

Plus, Bon Appetit has an ulterior motive. They’ve introduced a new corner of their web site called Basically, which repurposes some of their content under a “learn to cook” sort of banner. So they’re waving the simplicity flag as part of promoting their new thing. I get it.

And yet, counting ingredients? It’s wrong.

Why? Two reasons.

One, because few ingredients = easy infers that lots of ingredients = hard. And that’s not true.

It’s not hard to shop for, and then measure out, a few more ingredients. It takes more time, yes, but that’s not the same as it being difficult.

That’s an important distinction in our harried world where everyone is pressed for time. Yes, sometimes things take our time, which is sometimes precious. But that doesn’t mean they’re difficult. I mean, a monkey can fold laundry. Or stir risotto.

So, taking time ≠ being hard.

Plus, if you have a decently stocked pantry, extra ingredients don’t necessarily mean more shopping. And extra ingredients don’t always mean more measuring.

So in addition to more ingredients ≠ hard, more ingredients ≠ more time—at least not by definition.

Cornmeal-Crusted Petrale with Tomato-Tarragon Relish / JillHough.com

But the other, way more important reason counting ingredients is wrong is if you want to evaluate the ease and simplicity of a recipe, not to mention the pleasure it might bring you, counting ingredients puts the focus in the entirely wrong place.

For joy in the kitchen and delight at the table, look for recipes that are “easy” in that they emphasize a few quality ingredients and then prepare them simply, so as to enhance their already-wonderful qualities.

That’s worth repeating. No fastidious counting of ingredients is going to guarantee simply delicious food. Because that’s a product of good things—tomatoes at their peak, chicken that tastes like chicken, delicately sweet seafood, flavorful herbs, etc—in intriguing and complementary combinations that judiciously accentuate the positive.

Number of ingredient be darned.

How can you spot one of those recipes?

Look for produce in season. For flavorful, responsibly-sourced meats, poultry, and seafood. Look for secondary ingredients that intrigue but don’t distract. And appealing combination of flavors, colors, and textures.

Those kinds of recipes, inherently, don’t use a ton of ingredients. But if it took eight ingredients to make that happen, would that be so terrible? Or ten? Or thirteen, as in this Cornmeal-Crusted Petrale with Tomato-Tarragon Relish?

I think not.

Cornmeal-Crusted Petrale with Tomato-Tarragon Relish / JillHough.com

7 thoughts on “If you’re counting ingredients, you’re doing it wrong

  1. Rita

    Good points you make, Jill. I agree with you. I bought that Bon Appetite issue just because of the “simple” thing. — 5 ingredients. Yet, quite a few of the recipes had more than five (not counting salt, pepper+). One recipe called for such an odd measurement, that I emailed them about it.
    Question for you: Unless I grow the fresh herbs myself, I’m inclined to use dry herbs (some exceptions). Do everyday cooks really use fresh herbs?

  2. Rosemary Mark

    Well said! I so agree with you Jill. A few more than a few ingredients can still be simple with clear directions, like your petrale recipe with the gorgeous photos! Thanks for speaking up about this — I’m working a project right now where the request is 3-4 ingredient entrees…..will likely need several more to taste best!

  3. Kim

    A-men sister. I see blog posts and eBooks boasting 5 or 6 ingredient recipes all the time and have tried several “just-to-see” – they invariably fall flat on flavor. I’m sure there are some that taste good, but I would much rather have great on my plate. Thanks for talking about something that has bothered me for a while. You are my hero and this dish looks amazing!

  4. Jill Post author

    I have to admit that I dog-eared more recipes in that issue that I usually do–but I think that’s because the recipes relied on good ingredients arranged in interesting ways versus that there was a certain number of them (although the small number forced the good ingredients interestingly arranged thing).

    Funny you ask that about fresh herbs–to me, that’s one of the biggest changes in cooking over the past 20 or so years, that recipes rely so little on dried herbs whereas fresh herbs were practically nonexistent back then. I sometimes wonder why I even keep dried herbs on hand. I guess you’d say the opposite!

  5. Jill Post author

    Awwww, Kim! Thanks so much for stopping by, and especially for such high praise! I just subscribed to your blog–such beautiful photos! (You had me at “bacon-wrapped”!) Looking forward to seeing more, and hope you’re having a delicious day :)

  6. Rita

    Fresh herbs are, for sure, better than dried. No question. But other than foodies, do everyday cooks use them? I’ll have to ask my nieces and nephews. (growing your own herbs really helps)

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