With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Sunday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in June 2021.
I started baking bread a few years ago. The simplicity appealed to me. With just four ingredients — flour, salt, yeast, and water — I could make a hearty, delicious loaf of bread. I started, as one does with any new recipe, by hewing to the ingredients and directions as closely as possible. Over time, as I got more comfortable with it, I not only used the paper recipe less and less (it was an easy one to memorize), but started experimenting with varying amounts of the base ingredients and playing with add-ins like cheese, rosemary, and dried fruits/veggies. Ultimately, I landed on a loaf of bread that’s entirely my own creation and can be whipped up basically with my eyes closed and at scale if needed.
That bread has welcomed new neighbors, fed countless dinner parties and book clubs, and pleased my mother-in-law to no end.
There’s no doubt that this crusty loaf of bread is one of my signature dishes.
Do you have some signature dishes? Every man should have at least three, for reasons I’ll explain below.
Defining a Signature Dish
What makes a signature dish, a signature dish? It comes down to two characteristics:
A recipe you’ve made your own. A signature dish can emerge from your amateur attempt to master something at home that you really enjoy when dining out. Sometimes it’s a re-creation of a childhood favorite. Maybe it started as simply as you digging through a cookbook or website in search of a meal to make for an at-home date. However it begins, over time, you start to tweak it — whether by playing with the ingredients, trying original garnishes, or experimenting with the preparation method — from its original recipe. You hone it through a number of years and iterations, until you’ve created a signature dish that’s supremely delicious and uniquely yours.
You can make it without looking at a reference. A signature dish is something you’re so well-practiced in cooking that you can make it in your own kitchen at any time — you should always have its ingredients on hand — with no need to look back at the recipe. You’ve got the measurements memorized. You’ve got the preparation method down pat. Even when visiting other kitchens, you’re able to improvise as needed and whip something up not necessarily exactly matching your preference, but close enough to resemble the real thing and retain your signature.
Developing a Signature Dish
While it’s always fun to try new recipes, developing a signature dish which possesses the above qualities requires putting a certain recipe in regular rotation. When you come across a dish you really like, but feel could be even better and that you want to experiment with, try cooking it repeatedly for a while. This repetition can come in a shorter time span, e.g., making a dinner dish once a month for a year. Or, it could come over a much longer period, e.g., annually making a Thanksgiving pie for a decade.
Whatever the time frame, the process is the same: each time you make the dish, try different tweaks and improvements until you arrive at what feels like culinary perfection, you’ve got the preparation down pat, and you feel like you’ve birthed a true signature dish.
Why Have Signature Dishes?
To offer something impressive and memorable to others. It’s okay to be so-so with a lot of your cooking. But you also want to be able to wow friends and even members of your own family sometimes by serving them a dish that’s not just good, but excellent — a dish you’ve spent time refining for distinct deliciousness. It’s also just fun to be known for something; to have friends anticipate you bringing your famous ___ to a party, or have your kids request that you make your beloved ___ for their birthday.
For the enjoyment of mastery. Cooking is a wonderful arena in which to cultivate skills and creativity, and like any such arena, one of its real satisfactions is working towards mastery. It feels great and boosts one’s sense of confidence to know how to make things with unerring adeptness and polished panache.
To make decision-making easier. One practical benefit of having signature dishes is that it takes away the need to decide. How often do you agonize over what to bring to a get-together or what to serve for a dinner party? A signature dish conserves some of that precious willpower. Family hosting a potluck for Christmas? You can bet that my loaf of bread is going to be on that table. Relatives staying the weekend? You know you’ll be making your world famous spaghetti and meatballs (and your guests are hoping you do!).
For convenience and efficiency. While cooking can often be a time-consuming task, much of that time is taken up by looking over the recipe, figuring out where certain utensils are, looking back at the recipe, tentatively working through a new preparation technique, looking back at the recipe . . .
Once you’ve got a recipe memorized, and its prep steps well-ingrained, you can whip up a dish with much greater speed and efficiency. This is handy when at home: The kids want something special on Saturday morning? Easy peasy — Dad’s French toast takes just 15 minutes. It’s also handy when you’re away: Staying at a vacation house with friends and trading off being in charge of preparing certain meals? Rather than struggling through some random recipe when it’s your turn to cook, you know exactly what you’re making and how to make it.
The 3 Categories in Which Every Man Should Have at Least One Signature Dish
Given that signature dishes involve achieving mastery, and mastery by its nature requires focusing on few things, rather than many, one’s repertoire of signature dishes will be inherently limited in number. Among this repertoire, though, should be at least one dish in the following three categories:
Breakfast. Every man needs a signature breakfast dish for the simple fact that this meal feels more nostalgic and comforting than any other. Homemade French toast, pancakes, an omelette — these are dishes that were enjoyed with Dad at diners or represent happy Saturday mornings at home. On a more practical level, you should be able to serve houseguests a delicious morning meal with ease, efficiency, and the assurance of tasty results. Happily, it’s not too hard to add a signature dish to this area of one’s repertoire, as many breakfast dishes are relatively easy to master.
Dinner Entree. When hosting dinner parties (which you should really do more often), you don’t typically serve the same people the same thing back-to-back, or even within the next handful of times you have them over. But with friends and family that you have over multiple times a year, it’s nice to have a dish you bust out perhaps annually, and that your loved ones even look forward to you serving. This might be something unofficial, e.g., you always make your famous chili at least once a year, or it can be in conjunction with a set special occasion — like an annual prime rib at New Year’s.
Side Dish. The side — something that can be served alongside lunch or dinner, and maybe even as an appetizer — is perhaps the most practical and versatile of dishes to master. While you wouldn’t want to always serve people the same main course when acting as host, it’s more acceptable to bring the same side dish when someone else is hosting you — especially when it’s something delicious you’re well known for; in fact, loved ones may request that you do! My loaf of bread makes for a great accompaniment for any meal and doesn’t get old; people know me as a homemade bread guy and even can plan meals around my bringing a bread product.
Every man should have a few signature dishes in his back pocket. These meals and sides will remain faithfully and famously in your repertoire for years and years, providing enjoyment for you, your family, your friends, and perhaps a few strangers as well.