When it comes to our favorite recipes- whether it’s the dishes we make for family or the ones we sell at our businesses- whether or not to share recipes can cause a lot of emotion either way you lean. The same people that have no problem sharing the recipes they created might be a little twitchy about sharing their family’s “secret” meatloaf. That goes double if you are in the business of cooking for others. Why would you want to give away your perfect fried chicken recipe where a competitor could get it? Can we protect our recipes? Should we protect our recipes and keep them secret?
The short answers are “Sorta?” and “Only if you really want to.”
Some Real Talk
At the time of this writing, recipes do not count as intellectual property in America. This means that, except for some very tight exceptions, a recipe cannot be copyrighted, trademarked, or patented. Those exceptions are patents in which the recipe or it’s ingredients are “novel and nonobvious” (meaning you essentially have to have invented a new ingredient) or trade secrets where the recipe is unique, unknown to the general public, and keeping it secret provides you with a business advantage (for example, the recipe for Coca Cola.)
Apart from that, you can copyright the order of recipes or literary content and pictures of a cookbook you wrote, or you can trademark the name and appearance of a dish- but not the preparation itself. I can put a fried egg, bacon, and cheese on an English muffin and sell it all day long, but it’ll be a cold day in hell before the lawyers let me call it an “Egg McMuffin.”
Why aren’t recipes intellectual property (“IP” for short?) It’s because of their nature as recipes. IP refers to “creative expressions-” music, art, film, photography, design, etc. A recipe is a series of ingredients and instructions. The making of the recipe- or a video of making it- might be IP, but the recipe itself is not. The fact that people have been throwing substances together in various ways and eating them since we first realized we could means that it would be ridiculously hard to prove that you came up with a brand new way to cook.
All this is to say that if you have a “secret” recipe-
- It’s probably not as secret as you think. Everyone learned something from someone or somewhere.
- It’s up to you and you alone to keep it secret… if you really want to.
Why I (Mostly) Share My Recipes
To me, sharing recipes makes as much sense as keeping them secret. Mostly I share recipes out of honest goodwill and for the hell of it- no high-minded “contributing to the free market of ideas” philosophy involved. I might choose NOT to share recipes for personal reasons- the sentimental value of the recipe perhaps or personal animus (“Like hell am I gonna tell that son of a bitch how to make my ___. Let him figure it out.”) I might also refuse to share a recipe if the recipe isn’t mine to share (for example, the pie dough recipe at my pie shop.)
At its heart, though, sharing recipes just makes sense to me because:
- I probably got them from somewhere else myself. Yeah, I probably put my own twists and spins on the recipe, but I likely didn’t come up with it all on my own. Refusing to share a recipe that I only learned because someone else shared theirs feels like a dick move.
- “I can’t be the first/only person to work this out.” This is usually when it comes to combining flavors- claiming I’m the first one to put mint in blueberry pie feels REALLY stupid.
- Artistic DNA. It’s a little odd to describe because it feels more metaphysical than it is, but I believe that even if I gave someone one of my recipes, told them exactly how to make it, even if I gave them my ingredients and put them in my kitchen, our results wouldn’t be the same because it’s not ME making it. Maybe I just stir a little more out of habit, or I’m less sensitive to temperature and let a filling get a little hotter. Even if we discount differences in experiences and skill, without laboratory conditions and equipment the likelihood that someone would perfectly replicate my work is ridiculously small.
- I honestly enjoy teaching and sharing. You need a gluten free cookie recipe? I just tried this one out. Not confident you can knock out a chocolate cake for your partners birthday? Here’s the simplest, best one I know. If I have some special knowledge that can help others out of a jam, it makes me feel good to share it.
This is all my personal philosophy though, and you don’t have to share it. You might have your own reasons to keep a recipe a secret- in which case:
The Best Ways to Keep Secret Recipes Secret
- Don’t tell anyone and don’t write them down. Yeah, you might forget- or you’ll have to remember to transmit it to one of your family when you die- but at least it’ll be secret!
- Don’t be specific. My family has two particular recipes that we keep secret by simply not having the measurements of the ingredients written down anywhere. The only way to learn the recipe is to be in the presence of one of us making it and developing a sense memory for color, texture, and smell to tell you when you’ve mixed it right. You can’t leak a recipe if there ISN’T a recipe!
- Lie. Leave out small but crucial bits of the recipe that make it “right” and keep those to yourself. An ingredient or a preparation step maybe. Let them figure it out. They’ll have the recipe, but it won’t quite be your recipe.
- Don’t be loud and obnoxious about your secret recipes. That’s just begging someone to reverse engineer them. Spite is one hell of a motivator- how much more so when coupled with righteous curiosity?
Share your favorite “secrets” in the comments- or don’t and just tell us which secrets you’re taking to your grave!
One thought on “Not-So-Secret: Why I (Mostly) Don’t Mind Sharing Recipes”
Good one, Matt!
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