The lure of the 5-ingredient recipe seems irresistible. Short list means simple, right? With a possible three out of five already in your pantry. That single recipe subcategory accounts for a lot of scrolling through the websites of All Recipes, Eating Well, Good Housekeeping and Rachael Ray, Southern Living, Food Network — you name it.
I am scratching my head about this, though, because I see 5-ingredient recipes that should have asterisks. They are the culinary equivalent of fake news. With notable exceptions, the recipes don’t count water, basic seasonings, oil. Why?
I am looking at a “5-ingredient” recipe for Simple Roast Chicken with Garlic and Lemon at JustATaste.com: the bird, a lemon, butter, rosemary sprigs, garlic. Except any cook worth her salt and pepper knows what’s missing from that lineup. The S&P are in the directions, however. I have the “Quick-Shop-and-Prep 5 Ingredient Baking” book from a couple years back, and its Spiced Chess Pie calls for 13 ingredients. Milk, cornmeal and ground allspice are in boldface, signaling to those who read the foreword that those items need to be purchased; the premise of the book relies on your stock of flour, sugar, butter, ice water, eggs, vanilla extract, cinnamon, ground ginger, salt and nutmeg.
The 5-ingredient phenomenon makes me wonder what home cooks really want when they type the phrase into their search fields.
“It feels like a scam, a little,” says Suzanne Rafer, executive editor and director of cookbook publishing for Workman. “I’m not a believer in limiting . . . . If it’s going to take six or seven or eight ingredients, so be it. Our deal is, no matter how many you put in, you want it to taste good in the end.”
Not a scam for everyone, perhaps. There is cooking for sustenance, and there is cooking for satisfaction. Overlap is desirable, but often, someone who has to get weeknight meals on the table will look at the clock, do the math and try to reduce the effort one way or another.
The 5-ingredient mode is hardly a stretch for drinks, fruit-and-yogurt desserts, sides. Seasonal produce at its peak doesn’t need bells and whistles or magical transformation. Keeping main-dish recipes “ingredient-simple,” on the other hand, typically relies on using very good components, or it can mean a missed opportunity to enhance flavours.
“People are looking for quicker and easier shortcuts all the time,” says Lisa Ekus, the force behind her eponymous literary agency, which launched Ronni Lundy’s well-received “Victuals” last year. “But you can’t have cheap – meaning economical – and fast and good. Something’s got to give.”
What often gives is a pronouncement of “delicious.” Or the complexity that multiple and complementary spices can bring. Or the control over sodium or fat in the shortcut, store-bought products the recipe calls for, such as a pasta sauce, marinade or frozen pie dough. A short list doesn’t necessarily translate to quick or uncomplicated: Think slow cooker or sous vide or a range of required knife skills.
Ekus echoes Rafer’s bottom line: “The question in the end is, is it good? Rozanne Gold is one of the few who did it really well.”
Yes, she did. The New York chef’s “Recipes 1-2-3” won a James Beard award in 1996 and forecast a two-decade trend. (Fun fact: It gave rise to the Minimalist column in the New York Times food section, which Gold had to pass on writing because she was revamping the Windows on the World menu at the time.)
She followed up with another eight books in the “1-2-3” vein that were translated into several languages. Her Mahogany Short Ribs in WaPo Food’s Recipe Finder continue to be a revelation for readers every time we happen to mention it in a Free Range chat. But none of those recipes – including the ribs – listed water, salt and pepper as ingredients.
“The idea of ingredients you can count on the fingers of one hand has to do with cooks not being intimidated,” says Gold, now 63 and working on her master’s in poetry. “It’s code.” Her 3-ingredient recipes were, in part, a reaction to an era of “pile-up” on restaurant plates that masked true flavours, she says, as well as a personal challenge to exploit an ingredient to the max – an exploration of all the ways, say, asparagus can taste in raw and cooked forms.
What matters is how the ingredients interact, Gold says. “There needs to be some experience and knowledge” in that guiding hand, and she is heartened that “it’s the mettle of a chef to cook more simply these days.” She recently produced a collection of balanced, “incredibly complex” (in flavour) 5-ingredient recipes for Cooking Light that did not count the water, oil, salt and pepper used. Would “9-Ingredient Recipes!” sound as appealing?
Which brings me to the accompanying recipes. All of them contain 5 ingredients – plus a few more. None of them are complicated; some are downright quirky. Each offers flavours that are true to their ingredients. If you like even one or two of the dishes, the lesson might be: Look beyond the sheer numbers of ingredients, with an eye on the total sum.
SALTED CARDAMOM DRINKING CHOCOLATE
As the recipe’s author says, the challenge here is to find a salt that will land on the surface of your drink without sinking or dissolving. A flaked salt works best in this surprisingly dairy-free beverage.
What’s the difference between hot cocoa and a drinking chocolate? Hot cocoa is made with cocoa powder, and the latter is made with whole chocolate as well, which contains both cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Drinking chocolate typically tastes much richer as a result.
Adapted from “Bitterman’s Craft Salt Cooking: The Single Ingredient That Transforms All Your Favorite Foods and Recipes,” by Mark Bitterman (Andrews McMeel, 2016).
One 13.5-oz or 14-oz can coconut milk (not shaken, not low-fat)
3 cups (750 mL) water
1/4 cup (50 mL) sugar
1 tbsp (15 mL) cardamom pods, cracked
1/2 cup (125 mL) unsweetened cocoa powder (do not use Dutch-process)
8 oz bittersweet chocolate (at least 60 per cent cacao), broken into pieces
6 pinches flaked salt (see headnote)
1. Use a spoon to skim the cream from the top of the opened can of coconut milk and place it in a liquid measuring cup. Add enough of the liquid left in the can to yield 1 full cup. Reserve what’s left for another use, if desired.
2. Combine the water, sugar and cracked cardamom pods in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Once it comes to a boil, cook for 1 minute, then remove it from the heat and let it steep for 5 minutes.
3. Use a slotted spoon or small strainer to find and discard the cardamom pods, then stir the cocoa powder into the saucepan. Place over medium…