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When good recipes go bad

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Many years ago, I made a dinner from a recipe book that, to be blunt, tasted just awful. My then-husband (now ex) rather churlishly suggested that I should have followed the recipe. Ah, but I had, in spite of my misgivings about it. The problem wasn’t me. It was the recipe.

How can that be? Recipes in cookbooks are rigorously tested. They should be foolproof. I’ve got news for you. They’re not necessarily tested, and even when they are, that doesn’t mean it will automatically come out the way it should. Mastering the Art of French Cooking is arguably one of the best cookbooks ever written. You can still follow a recipe in that book and have it flop.

What most people don’t get is that cooking is a variable process. Recipes can help you learn techniques and how flavors go together (or not). They can give ideas for meals. But there are a million ways even a well-written recipe, rigorously tested, can go bad and not all of them are user-error.

Ingredients vary in levels of freshness and in water content. Different brands of, say, canned corn can vary in terms of the sweetness of the corn, how much salt or ascorbic acid was added, things like that. Your oven may run hotter or cooler than what the dial says. None of this is the sort of stuff a recipe writer can know or, really, account for.

So what’s to be done? Can you automatically account for these variables and still get a reasonably tasty dish? Most of the time.

The first thing you need to do is read the recipe thoroughly – one of my favorite mistakes, by the way. You don’t want to find out at ten minutes to six that the chicken needed to be marinated overnight before cooking. Or that you don’t have a key ingredient, such as the chili powder for the chili. These things will happen, and one learns to adapt. Still, reading a recipe thoroughly before you need it will help prevent some of these problems.

The other thing that will help is to remember that if something doesn’t smell, look, or taste right, it probably isn’t. If you smell something burning, but the timer says that whatever is in the oven needs another 10 minutes, check it anyway. There are all sorts of reasons why something can cook faster than it’s supposed to. It’s better to check and find that the timer was right than trust the timer and end up with charcoal.

If a recipe calls for a lot of a really strong ingredient and does not include a note on why you’d want so much of it, it’s probably a poorly written recipe. Lemon juice, for example, is insanely strong stuff and you usually don’t want to use more than a tablespoon or so to flavor an entire pan. If a recipe calls for a full cup of lemon juice without giving me a good reason why then I’m probably going to skip that one. You can try it for grins and giggles. Just don’t expect much.

A recipe is, at best, a blueprint, not the final word. You can leave out ingredients, swap out others, whatever. In fact, learning to play with recipes is one of the best ways to learn how to cook, as opposed to follow a recipe. You probably don’t want to mess around too much with recipes for baked goods since a lot of those depend on chemical reactions in precise proportions. But you can still use butterscotch chips instead of chocolate, try whole wheat flour instead of white. It is possible that you might change a few things and get a flop. So what? That’s how you learn, and it’s always possible that the original recipe would have flopped worse.

Please talk to me. I'd love to hear from you.

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