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For many people recipes are indispensable. Even professional chefs must rely on them once in a while. Who can remember every ingredient for every dish in one’s repertoire? But for novice cooks in particular, recipes are the road map to a successful meal.
Various professionals avow that a recipe should be more than a list of ingredients and preparation instructions. They argue that it should evoke feelings and anticipation, stimulate the imagination, provide encouragement, cheer you on, etc., etc. On the other hand, it’s just a recipe, not a self-help book. It should get to the point and do what a recipe should do: Instruct you on how to make the dish accurately. Then you can get your warm fuzzies from watching your loved ones eating your well made food. The recipe is just a vehicle for transporting you to where the real emotional goodies lie.
Whether recipes should “take you away” and inspire your senses is debatable and to some degree immaterial. While you may prefer a more enthralling recipe, the fanfare is not absolutely necessary but proper instructions are. I can take you to the moon with my creativity but if I can’t lucidly communicate how to fold the whipped egg whites into the soufflé base, your soufflé is not going to rise.
At first glance, following a recipe might seem like a fairly straightforward endeavor, and usually it is. But some recipes are better than others and you are at the mercy of the recipe writer’s dexterity. Here are some guidelines for navigating recipes. If it helps, picture yourself reading this article on a gondola in Venice.
The standard procedure for arranging the ingredients in a recipe is to list them in the order of which they’re used. A dreadful, but not uncommon error, (one I’ve certainly committed), is omitting an ingredient in the preparation instructions. For example, a recipe calls for a pinch of allspice but the instructions are devoid of where or when to add it. By knowing that the ingredients are listed in order of use, you can figure out where the temporal oversight occurred.
Before attempting a recipe, read through it carefully to familiarize yourself with it and plan ahead. Better you discover that you’re lacking a certain ingredient or piece of cookware before you start. Note whether there are ingredients that can be substituted or are optional.
This should be notated in the ingredient list. For example “1 portobello mushroom, chopped, or substitute three cremini mushrooms,” or “a pinch of red pepper flakes, (optional).” Foreknowledge of such alternatives will streamline your food shopping. Likewise for equipment. Do you have a 12-inch, non-stick, oven-proof skillet as the recipe calls for? Ensure that you have the proper tools, or reasonable substitutions before putting flame to food.
Recipes vary in the degree of culinary expertise they speak to. Some recipes assume the reader is a complete beginner and spell out every technique and cooking term. Other recipes take for granted that you know what it means to “sweat” vegetables, “score” a duck breast, or “blanch and shock” spinach. Similarly, the ingredient list may note “one medium carrot, julienned” or more precisely, “one medium carrot, cut into thin strips.” As you review a recipe prior to attempting it, take note of the terminology. You may need to educate yourself about certain terms or techniques beforehand.
Another reason for perusing the recipe first is that it may contain certain steps that must be performed prior to the initiation of cooking. The oven may need to be preheated, meats may require marinating or brining, gelatin needs to bloom, etc., etc., etc.
Actually, all of the preliminary procedures, including the chopping and/or slicing of vegetables, measuring the fluids or spices, and any other initial requirements, should be completed prior to the actual cooking. This is what the French call mise en place or what I more lightheartedly refer to as getting your poop in a group. Sophomoric epigrams aside, having all of the ingredients on hand, prepped and ready to go, is the cornerstone to efficient cooking. That’s how TV chefs can whip up complex recipes in a half hour. Some hard working prep cook behind the scenes spent two hours beforehand washing, measuring, chopping, and organizing all the ingredients.
How the ingredients in a recipe are quantified can create some quandaries. A thorough recipe employs unambiguous measurements, and sometimes more than one, e.g., “3 medium russet potatoes, (about 1 lb.)” In the event you are unsure what size potato qualifies as medium or only have small potatoes, you can weigh an equivalent amount. An example of a more cumbersome measurement would be “three cups of chopped apples.” How many chopped apples does it take to equal three cups? And does the recipe writer mean three cups in terms of volume, (as in a measuring cup), or in terms of weight, (three cups equals twenty-four oz.) Either way, you don’t know exactly how many apples to buy. There are books that list such calculations but without one your only recourse is to buy extra to play it safe.
Note whether it says “divided” after an ingredient. This signifies that it will be used at more than one point in the recipe. Thus, you’ll need to measure separate amounts of the ingredient or even perform different tasks on it. For example, a recipe may call for chopped onions to be added at one point and sliced onions at another. Also, while a thorough recipe spells out terms, be mindful of common abbreviations such as a capital “T” for tablespoon or a small “t” for teaspoon.
Finally, be very careful to note the wording of the recipe ingredients. One cup sifted flour is not the same thing as one cup flour, sifted. In the former you must sift the flour first and then measure a cup, in the latter you measure first and then sift. Similarly, one quarter cup chopped parsley, and one quarter cup parsley, chopped differs in whether you measure or chop first. In each case the resulting amount of flour or parsley will be different.
I hope this article has helped ward off some potential dilemmas when deciphering recipes. As stated, the ultimate joy of cooking is gratifying others with our food. Sometimes we venture from the tried and true and attempt a new recipe in the hopes of delighting our family and/or guests. There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing their eyes light up with that first bite. And that is what a good recipe should do.