How to Read a Recipe
Dave loves to tell this story: Looking for cooking inspiration, he found a crowd-sourced tilapia recipe on the Internet. He invested the time and money to purchase the ingredients. He cooked, following instructions carefully and after tasting…promptly tossed the dish in the trash!
Dave came to me to find out why the dish was inedible. Perusing the offending recipe, I wisely told him, according to Dave, “Just looking at the ingredients, I could tell you this recipe wasn’t going to work.”
That’s Dave’s story; I don’t remember the incident, but I’m sure it happened.
Since Special Fork is a recipe site, providing solutions for what to cook now, I thought I’d share some pointers about how to select recipes for your own cooking explorations.
I’ve spent more than 30 years in the food business, ten of them as director of a national test kitchen for a top-ten global public relations agency, where my team developed hundreds of recipes for consumers and foodservice. I’ve also written about food and recipes for most of my career, and edited more recipes than I can count.
With that kind of experience, I’m almost never disappointed when I try a new recipe. I know how to read the recipe and to anticipate the results. And so do all of the Special Fork Food Editors who screen our recipes. No recipe is ever posted to the recipe database without first being evaluated by one of our Food Editors. And in fact, every recipe in our database details the name of the Food Editor who reviewed the recipe and a link to the editor’s profile, all of whom have had impressive careers in the food world.
While we believe all our Special Fork recipes are good, everyone has their own taste and I want you to be able to find recipes that suit your taste on Special Fork, in cookbooks, magazines or elsewhere. Remember that while all recipes look the same, with ingredients listed and the method of preparation in paragraphs below, not all recipes are equal.
A recipe is a roadmap that gets you from raw ingredients to finished dish. Sometimes the roadmap is flawed, with missing instructions, mismeasured ingredient amounts or poor organization. And just as there are good cooks and not-so-good cooks, some recipe writers don’t have a good palate or aren’t meticulous in recipe writing. So you need to do your homework by reviewing a recipe before you select it to cook.
How to Read a Recipe:
- Do a paper evaluation first. Read a recipe thoroughly. Do the ingredients sound like they would taste good together? Do the ingredient amounts make sense? This comes with cooking experience; if you have little to none, think about similar dishes you’ve had in restaurants. Do the anticipated flavors seem in line with other similar dishes you’ve tasted?
- Does the method make sense – can you follow the cooking through in your mind in a logical manner? The more you cook, the better you get at anticipating results to the point that you can be almost 100 percent sure of what will and won’t work.
- Be wary of chefs’ recipes. Since we think of chefs as superior cooks, we expect we will get superior results with their recipes. But the chef’s skill is in cooking; not in communicating on paper. Most chefs don’t measure, so they may give an amount for an ingredient in a recipe and add extra later when they taste, that isn’t accounted for in your recipe. Or they may gloss over a step, thinking it’s self-evident. Some chefs are good recipe writers and others have recipe editors to ensure the recipes work, so it’s not an issue with every chef – I’m just saying, be cautious.
- Mise en place (literally, “put in place”): Prep all your ingredients before you begin cooking. Have everything chopped, all your seasonings ready. If you don’t, you may have to abort the flow of what you’re doing partway, because you don’t have what you need ready for the next step. Experienced home cooks can shortcut this step, prepping as they cook, but if you’re still learning, take the time to get everything prepped first – just like on TV.
- Prep time; cook time: When a recipe gives you prep and cooking time, the general way prep is calculated is from the time you have your ingredients set up and ready to cook. So, for example, if the ingredient list calls for peeled and cored apples, the recipe author is probably considering this ingredient to have zero prep time. On the other hand, if the ingredient list calls for 3 apples and the peeling and coring is in the method (instructions) below, that is considered prep time and time will be allocated.
- Salt to taste: Every cooking encounter is different, even with the same recipe and with the same cook and the same ingredients. The vegetable may be sweeter or more tart this time; the chicken broth may be of a different brand. Some people like foods saltier than others. So recipe writers may call for salt to taste. Salt is the ingredient that pops the flavors of food. Most people tend to under-salt when they cook, which isn’t a bad thing, given most of us consume too much sodium. However, if the dish tastes flat, try adding a little more salt and it may taste miraculously different. Always add a little salt at a time and taste as you go. Once a dish is oversalted, it’s hard to remedy.
- Cook as often as you can – the more you cook, the more you will be able to anticipate a result. This comes with experience.
- When you’re cooking, taste as you go. I’m always nibbling on the veggies and tasting the seasoning ingredients as I cook (but not raw proteins). Then, when you put the dish together and all the ingredients are combined, you can better isolate what role each ingredient is contributing to the total flavor.
- Learn cooking techniques. For example, if you are browning pieces of meat and you crowd the pan by putting in too much meat at a time, or if the pan isn’t hot enough, the meat will steam; not brown, with consequent flavor loss. Check out our Tips & Tricks for some of our blog posts that offer cooking education.
- If you can afford the time and money, take cooking classes. There’s nothing like interacting with a good teacher in real time to gain valuable knowledge.
Finally, if what you cook isn’t great, don’t lose heart. Keep trying different recipes, learn from your mistakes and you will succeed. My Aunty Jean married a man who loved sweets but my aunt wasn’t a good baker. She kept on trying and her husband kept praising her baking, even if they both knew the results were less than stellar. And gradually, her baking improved until she became the best baker among her four sisters.
Special Fork is a recipe website for your smartphone and PC that solves the daily dinnertime dilemma: what to cook now! Our bloggers blog Monday through Friday to give you cooking inspiration. Check out our recipe database for quick ideas that take no more than 30 minutes of prep time. Follow us on Facebook , Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube.