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It started on a whim: Sam Sifton, the food editor of The New York Times (and my boss), added a paragraph to his cooking newslettersaying that, actually, you really didn’t need a recipe to make dinner, offering the outlines of a meal you could pull together that night.
This was back in 2014, when we were preparing to launch NYT Cooking, a new venture for The Times built on our vast archive of recipes, thousands upon thousands of them. At the office, we often refer to recipes as the atoms of NYT Cooking, the stuff from which everything else is made.
But here Sam had introduced something else — not quite a recipe, but something that carried culinary wisdom and know-how, a promise to our readers that if they went along for the ride, they would flourish in the kitchen.
These no-recipe recipes — which offer cooking ideas, but no ingredient lists or steps — invite you to wing it, to play around, to tailor a recipe to your tastes. It’s something confident cooks do all the time, and yet cooks of any skill level can learn it. (A grilled cheese sandwich can be a superb no-recipe recipe.)
Readers loved the no-recipe recipes, writing to say that they wanted to be able to collect and save them. The NYT Cooking site didn’t yet have that functionality, but eventually — also on a whim — we asked one of our editors, Mark Josephson, to grab the no-recipe recipes from each Wednesday newsletter and save them in one spot, just in case. Someday we might do something with them?
Years passed. Then one morning, Sam and I were at our desks spinning out story ideas, and somehow the no-recipe recipes came up. Mark was still saving them every week, in a giant running file. We had them! Should we — do something with them?
From that point, the idea found its form quickly: We would narrow the very long file down to the strongest ideas and partner with the art directors Fred Bierman and Wayne Kamidoi on a special section of the newspaper, a 44-page, full-color tabloid cookbook:
For print editors accustomed to black-and-white on a weekday, this was nirvana. The Food department’s photo editor, Kim Gougenheim, commissioned extraordinary photography from David Malosh and the food stylist Simon Andrews. We worked with the NYT Cooking team to publish the no-recipe recipes online so that they can be searched and saved, and the designer Umi Syam created a fun, browsable online presentation.
Sam writes a lot of newsletters — several thousand words a month of recipes and prose. And he still writes those weekly no-recipe recipes, of course. Sometimes he zooms off at the end of the workday with the words, spoken not uncheerfully, “I’m going home to cook.” Occasionally he seems to only have a vague idea of what that meal will be, and faith that it will be good to eat. On the following Wednesday, you’ll find it in your inbox.