If you've ever spent hours in the kitchen, your cookbooks open or — more likely these days — your recipe printed out from an online source, only to find that your dishes do not turn out exactly how you'd expected, keep reading. That maxim not to believe everything you read also applies to recipes, which are often not tested by professionals. More and more these days, with test kitchens closing and publishers cutting budgets and bloggers posting untested recipes online (like the chef recipes you read on this blog), recipes are not guaranteed to work.
And sometimes they don't anyway: this writer once stubbornly baked a génoise cake from a celebrated baking book 9 times before figuring out that the math hadn't been properly translated in the cookbook recipe from grams to ounces. Or check out the appropriately named Chocolate Nemesis, which has a pretty lousy track record too.
Unexpected results, as this recent post by The Kitchn deftly pointed out — a great post, an excellent reminder, and the catalyst for this piece — can be due to many things. Ovens need to be calibrated, recipes need to be followed, and any change of variable in turn changes the recipe itself. Want to insure that your recipes work? For our top 7 ways to keep your génoise cake from crashing, turn the page.
7. Read the whole recipe first. Many recipe writers know how to write recipes, but many do not, and sometimes it's hard to know that ahead of time. Thus read the recipe first — all of it. If the recipe suddenly calls for you to sous-vide a leg of lamb, or if it calls for chiuovetielli (no idea) mushrooms, or for your 3 carrots to suddenly be transformed into 14 ounces of perfect brunoise, then it helps to be prepared. At which point you can decide if you want to deal with that, or if standing in line at Daikokuya sounds like considerably more fun than it did an hour ago.
6. Add the right ingredients: If the recipe calls for milk and you don't have any, don't pour in buttermilk or cream or water or your morning coffee and think that the recipe will magically turn out the way it's supposed to. Likewise on smaller variations. Something as seemingly mundane as choosing between full-fat and non-fat yoghurt, or kosher salt and sea salt, or unsalted butter and salted butter, can make a surprising difference in a recipe. And that's just the small stuff. You'd be astonished at some of the things that people do, then blame the recipe for not working. Oh, I don't like garlic and onions, so I didn't put them in. Flour? No, I can't eat it, so I replaced it. I didn't have a whole chicken, so I just used part of one.
5. Be accurate when baking: Like, you have to really measure the ingredients. Flour should be sifted, particularly if it's called for in the recipe. If there are weights given instead of measures, that's for a reason too. When scooping flour, don't pack it into the measuring cup like you would brown sugar: it can change the outcome of the recipe. There's also actually a difference between a liquid and a dry measuring cup, so use the applicable one.
4. Check the labels: Sour milk in the cod chowder will not help matters. Nor will outdated yeast (check if it's active before you add it to your dough), antediluvian spices (unless you're going for that hint of sawdust in your cookies or soups) or rancid flour (store it in the freezer).
3. Follow the directions: Preheat your oven. Consider if the lid is supposed to be off or on. If a recipe tells you do to certain things in a specific order, it's probably for a reason. Cooking is about timing, and that extends to the mixing of ingredients as well as to the rest of it. Anybody who has ever stirred baking soda into a batter will hopefully notice that there are chemical reactions that occur in mixing bowls and stock pots. Just because you like Breaking Bad does not mean that you want to recreate an episode of it in your kitchen.
2. Don't drink your ingredients: Sure, it's fun to have a cocktail while you cook, or to sip a glass of the wine you're using in your braise (this is useful, actually, as if a wine isn't worth drinking, it's not worth putting in your food), but wait to get properly smashed until after you've finished cooking. Your PSA of the day? Remember Arnold Schwarzenegger's admonition to his wife in Raw Deal: “Amy, you should not drink and bake.”
1. Remember that fixed ideas can be dangerous. All of the last 6 points notwithstanding, cooking is about adaptation. Even if you follow a recipe like you would a DMV manual (right), there are plenty of variables at play. Weather, temperature, etc. This is of course why it's important to follow the directions, and also why paying attention (see #2) is useful. Knowing your limitations is a good thing too, and will ultimately make you a better cook. If you're dead set on making a recipe you translated from a Grant Achatz tweet, well, knock yourself out — but maybe order some take-out as back-up. And if there's something that doesn't work out despite your repeated best attempts (a génoise recipe, say), chalk it up to experience and let it go. After all, it's only food.