We shocked the academic experts by writing excellent encyclopedia entries on Wikipedia, so why can't amateurs, if we all work together, create perfect recipes? If enough of us discuss and debate our hamburger knowledge our meat choices, cooking methods, spices, condiments, bread then won't our collective experience create the Platonic burger? That's one of the goals of two websites Foodista.com and the recipe section of Wikia.com that allow users to post new recipes and revise existing ones any way they want, forming a great burger consensus.
But as is not the case with an encyclopedia entry, which is made up of facts, there's a lot of opinion in a recipe. The history of wikied novels isn't pretty (Penguin Books never published the gobbledygook that was "A Million Penguins"), and no one has dared wiki a jazz song. So will wiki work in the kitchen?
"A lot of people say Wikipedia is facts, but a lot of it is analysis and interpretation. If you're talking about why the U.S. got into World War II, that's all analysis and opinion," says Foodista CEO Barnaby Dorfman, who launched the site nine months ago. Likewise, he says, "if you asked 100 people what's in apple pie, you're going to get tight agreement about the fact that it has apples, cinnamon, sugar, a crust and probably some lemon. I really feel like we're on the path to focusing the agreement and highlighting the disagreement and the creativity."
But Christopher Kimball, who searches for perfect recipes for a living as the editor of Cook's Illustrated and host of PBS's America's Test Kitchen, says letting random people tweak recipes will lead to tears on the stove top. "Variables affect other variables," he says, and without one person testing each and every change, "there's no continuity of experience. So how do you get the answer?"
So far, as with the beginning of Wikipedia, there's very little rewriting going on, as people are just land-grabbing, throwing up a ton of recipes and nitpicking very few. So we really can't tell yet if this idea works.
But in a blunt mathematical approximation of crowdsourcing, Meg Hourihan, a cookie enthusiast and co-founder of Blogger.com put a dozen chocolate-chip-cookie recipes into a spreadsheet and averaged out each ingredient and instruction. On her blog Megnut.com she posted the result: "A Mean Chocolate Chip Cookie." I decided to make it and compare it to one of the best chocolate-chip cookies I've ever had: the ones that chef Kerry Simon, of the restaurants Simon in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, includes with a glass of milk on his platter of Rice Krispies treats, cotton candy, sno balls and other childhood favorites.
Making the Mean Cookie was a pain in the ass. Some of the butter was cold, some room temperature, some melted. You try to measure out 0.17 tbsp. of water or bake at 354.17ºF for 13.04 min. Simon thought the idea was so hilarious that his Las Vegas kitchen basically stopped when I told him about it and immediately made them too.
But to both of our amazement, the cookies were pretty good. Hourihan had also assumed they would come out an inedible mess. "Everybody who bakes tells you it's about exact measurements. But there's still room for play," she says. "It was better than a lot of the chocolate-chip recipes I've tried."
I turned to Simon's recipe next. It was even more unorthodox. It called for baking the cookies at a pretty low temperature for a pretty short time. While the cookies weren't as good as the ones at his restaurants, they were a lot more compelling than the Mean Cookie. Better, but a bit less classic.
So perhaps this wiki thing could work. Maybe, as Michael Ruhlman argued this year in his new cookbook, Ratio, every recipe has a basic structure (cookie dough is 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, 3 parts flour), and a wikied recipe can't stray far from it.
But, as Hourihan asks, "would all the people on the site have the same goal? The same standards? If my mother, my grandmother and I collaborated on a broccoli recipe, my mom would say cook it for 2 min., I'd say cook it for 6 min., and my grandmother would say cook it all night. There's a potential for some really bad recipes."
Simon has the same concerns. If someone tweaked the amount of baking powder or temperature in his recipe, the amount of butter would have to be changed too. Which would take a lot of testing for someone not running a professional kitchen. "Some people," he says, "must have a lot of free time, huh?" Simon must not look at YouTube much.