Yesterday I made some cherry shortbread cookies. I had a recipe but didn’t follow it, rather just eye-balled this, approximated that. They tasted okay (it being about 50% sugar and 50% butter and all), but I didn’t measure the cherries, got a bit overzealous and voila! A gloopy, pink blob of a cookie. Not the crumbly, bejewelled biscuit I was going for. I blame the recipe. No, not really. Well it could have told me that it wanted little slivers of cherries rather than the generous chunks I smushed in. It did at least tell me to pit them. Which I did. Possibly the only part of the recipe I adhered to.
The purpose of a recipe is to communicate with others how to create a thing. In the case of specialty coffee, how to create a tasty coffee. When we talk about coffee recipes, we’re talking about how much ground coffee we’re putting into the basket, V60, aeropress etc, how much water we’re running through it, and the time it takes to do it.
I do believe recipes are to be used as helpful guides rather than militant rules, however, measuring, timing and recording is imperative if you want to make meaningful changes to the recipe and replicate it, and communicate it with fellow baristas or customers on how to achieve the same results. If you treat a coffee recipe the same way as my cookie recipe, you will get results just like my cookies. Maybe tasty, not at all what was intended and no way to replicate it.
It’s good to change a recipe if you think it will make the coffee better (unless you’d be undermining your boss, don’t do that), but if you do, it is now your responsibility how it plays out. Don’t be like the food blog critic who leaves the review “I’d give this recipe 0.25 stars if I could. Tasted awful. I didn’t have sugar so I used salt, I didn’t have choc chips so I used gravel. My oven was broken so I threw them in the fire and they came out like volcanic rocks. Would not recommend.” Don’t be that person. Ownership. Courage.
There will of course be variations in materials that you have to account for. The age of the beans, the water pressure, the minerals in the water etc may all have an effect on the outcome, but with time and familiarity and consistently measuring the results, it becomes easier to adjust the recipe to suit your environment.
At its heart, a recipe has an intention, a purpose, a reason. What is it trying to achieve? What deeper meaning is it hoping to explore from the coffee? Does it want to be soulful with chocolates, caramels and mixed spice? Or be playful with bright summer fruits and florals? Knowing what is intended by the recipe will help you know where to take the coffee next, or when to leave it just as is. Also nice to know that even if you’re having your own existential crisis, you are helping the coffee achieve its own existential potential. Hopefully that will make you feel better.