Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.


When I saw Sam Sifton announcing in the NYTimes weekly cooking letter that he was featuring a video by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs on How to Make a Grilled Cheese Sandwich Without a Recipe, I checked the calendar. Nope, not April 1st.

What could they possibly be thinking? I wondered. Who needs a recipe for grilled cheese? Or am I that out of touch? When all the cooks out there hanker for a grilled cheese sandwich, do they go in search of a recipe? Honestly, I thought it was a spoof.

And I love all parties involved and have great respect for all three mentioned. Sifton has done an amazing job overseeing the expansion of the Times’s food offerings, both in the paper and importantly online. (Did you see the great video on the Times food photographer? Notice how much natural light he uses, I love that; and download the new NYTimes cooking app, it’s lovely). I met Sam for the first time in NYC a few weeks ago and was halted by his energy and enthusiasm, and I’ve always loved his no-nonsense, straightforward writing. Amanda’s reputation precedes her. The work she and Merrill Stubbs do is always first rate.

Moreover, they’re all preaching precisely with this video what I’ve been preaching—we don’t need more recipes, we need technique and common sense. One of the ways I tried to describe the inexactitude of recipes was to write one for Buttered Toast in Ruhlman’s Twenty. But that was to make a point. I trust there are no Google searches for buttered toast recipes.

Or “grilled cheese sandwich recipe.” (Well, I hope not!) Thus my surprise that these esteemed writers and thinkers about food would make such an effort. It’s a lovely video and Amanda and Merrill are engaging as they think out loud, which is the point. To hear the thinking about cooking. And this really is the point and why the videos are valuable. Teaching how to think while cooking.

Their next “without a recipe video” is another example: rice pudding. I love rice pudding, never make it, and probably would, were I to attempt it, look for a few recipes for guidelines. And here were Amanda and Merrill making rice pudding with risotto-style rice, sans measuring. Pouring in sugar till it looked right, for instance. Merrill asking how about honey? Adding liquid by sight—four to one, Amanda guessed. And while the result looked a little soupy, it still looked tasty, and most important, it inspired one to give it a go. And I hope more people do.

Here’s my classic mushroom sauce without a recipe. I made it with a variety of mushrooms from my mom’s green market in West Palm Beach, where we’ve made our annual Spring Break Sojourn. I served them with tilefish, roasted for 15 minutes and basted with thyme butter.

Get a big pan smoking hot, add oil, add cleaned and cut mushrooms so that they cover the bottom of the pan in one layer, and press down on them hard to brown them. Be patient. Let them get as browned as possible. Throw in some diced onion, season aggressively with salt and pepper, then stir or jump them in the pan. Add a good amount of white wine to deglaze. Cook off the wine. Add more wine or water, enough to mount several good gobs of butter as you swirl. Done.

Or is that a recipe? I’m no longer sure, and that’s a good thing.

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© 2015 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2015 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.




13 Wonderful responses to “How to Make a Mushroom Sauce Without a Recipe”

  • joelfinkle

    I’d have added some herbs, especially thyme, at about the same time as the alliums (could be leeks, could be shallots…). Maybe a little cream instead of butter and wine sometimes? Sure. But yeah, measure? recipe?

  • P Adams

    Congratulations on your James Beard nomination for “Egg”. Thank you for all your work to educate.

  • Mark Bernstein

    Google seems to think that “buttered toast recipe” is a likely thing — and that “buttered toast points recipe” is almost as likely!

    Seriously: the counter-example is Wallace Stegner’s Crossing To Safety in which, on a camping trip, an inexperienced cook follows a half-remembered chicken recipe suggestion too closely with life-changing results. And yes, there are very occasional places in the kitchen where exactitude makes a difference.

    I wonder how much of this recipe obsession arises because one of the first things kids “help” cook in the US are, so often, cookies. Cookies *are* tricky: if you swap honey for sugar, or whole wheat flour for AP flour, or baking powder for baking soda, things may go awry. Where, with sauce aux champignons, what can go wrong? (Funny mushrooms, I suppose, but still…)

  • annette venditti

    this is a wonderful way to treat mushrooms, i love to roast them in the oven for my mushroom salad and i keep some aside to throw in asian broths, sandwiches, or as a side along with my poached or olive oil fired eggs.

    i always use garlic cloves, white wine, sea salt, pepper and then when cooked add a dash of heat or vinegar depending on the use.

    thanks for amazing food share!

  • Kelly M

    I once ordered a “grilled vegetable sandwich” at a restaurant in Portland, Oregon, only to be told by the waitress when I complained that just the bread had been grilled, “Well, you know, you can’t grill vegetable matter!” We still laugh about it.

  • hng23

    There is a perception in certain circles *cough cough Food Network cough cough* that there must be a recipe for every dish, whether it’s needed or not. Surely people haven’t forgotten Paula Deen’s notorious recipe for English peas? (“2 cans peas, drained, 1/4 cup butter; melt butter in small pot and add peas. Cook over medium heat until peas are warm.”)

  • Susan Gillie

    Recently, I trained as a “Master Food Volunteer.” We go to food pantry’s, churches, day care centers and demonstrate how to cook.

    Recipes don’t cut it. Demo’s that hit a nerve with people are “old school.” Technique and 3-4 ingredients. Leave ingenuity and creativity to the cook.

    For novice cooks, recipes are helpful. For professionals, following a consistent pattern and procedure is essential.

    Otherwise, recipes rob you of the joy of home cooking.

  • Mark Bradfordson

    We get so much detail stuffed into our head for so many techniques that we are trained to look for details (ex: Weighing exact amount of salt for a brine).

    There are times when precision in cooking in needed (Ratios!) and times when you just have to have fun.

    I think understanding that divide is where people need help.

  • Harry

    Cook’s Illustrated has a 2 page spread on Grilled Cheese Sandwiches: making mustard butter in which to pan-fry the sandwich, an exact mix of cheddar and brie and savories for filling that melts “just right,” you get the idea. IOW, exactly what one expects from CI.

  • Craigkite

    I prefer your Cocktail entries. We haven’t tried any of them. My wife lost our recipe for ice cubes.


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