When Recipes Go Awry
FOOD FOR THOUGHT - October 6, 2004
Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Archive of other articles by Mark Vogel
Have you ever watched some celebrity chef effortlessly whip up some yummy looking dish on TV? You then try the recipe yourself but uh oh, it doesn’t come out like on TV. As you scratch your head and retrace your steps, you begin to realize those 30 minute TV concoctions are not as simple as they seem. What went wrong? The answer lurks in equipment, ingredients, methodology, and expertise.
Let’s start with hardware. I doubt you are using the exact same equipment as the TV chef. There are huge contrasts between cooking vessels. I’m often asked if the expensive professional cookware I use at home is really better than the average cookware set. Hands down, the answer is Yes. But the issue is not that it cooks food better per se. The point is that any two pieces of equipment, even two of the same quality, will cook food differently. Cooking is chemistry in action and even slight deviations in the material composition, size, or shape of two pans, can alter the final result.
Even identical hardware can vary from piece to piece. Last night I made two trays of crostini at the restaurant I work at. Each tray was identical in terms of the tray itself, the number and shape of the crostini, and the amount of olive oil I sprayed on them. I put each tray into one of two identical ovens, at the same time, at the same preheated temperature, each on a rack the same distance from the base of the oven. When I checked on them, one tray had burned and the other was perfect. Obviously a temperature contrariety exists between the two ovens. Similarly, the heat on the tops of stoves deviates in terms of the power source, as well as the temperature, size and shape of the flame.
A world of variations exist within the nature of the ingredients, of which quality is only the beginning. Putting aside the fact that the TV show procures top-notch products from the best purveyors, food items fluctuate on many other dimensions. Vegetables can vary in chemical composition and water content based on time of year, cultivation methods, and where and when they were planted. The biological properties of meat, fowl, and fish can diverge based on the animal’s environment, diet, age when harvested, and the addition of byproducts to name a few. Even sections of flesh from the same animal differ based on anatomical and biophysical elements.
There are countless nuances in the methodology realm. If you so much as place four chicken cutlets in a skillet to be pan-fried as opposed to three, you will change the rate at which they cook.
Every single step you take in preparing a recipe has alternative options that can affect the finished product. Consider pasta preparation. The amount of water, the amount of salt, when you add the pasta, how much pasta, when you remove it, how you drain it, and how soon it finds its way to the sauce are all variables. Not to mention the stove, pot, chemical properties of the water, and brand of pasta. Are you starting to feel overwhelmed? This is why cooking frightens some people.
This discussion should be bringing you to the inescapable realization of how much a cook’s expertise plays a role. An experienced chef is more knowledgeable about these factors, how to exploit the ones that are to his advantage, and how to compensate for those that are not.
You must also remember that the dish you are trying to replicate for the first time has probably been made by the TV chef a gazillion times. (You also don’t see the inevitable errant dishes that are edited out and redone). Cooking is a skill, complicated by a ponderous array of intermingling variables. Mastering such a fickle endeavor takes practice. Knowledge, although vital, will only take you so far. Cooking is a process that requires a “feel”, an intangible know-how that only comes with repeated exposure. We could beat to death the physics of hitting a baseball, including equipment factors, human biology, psychological influences, etc. etc. etc. But the bottom line is you would have to practice it repeatedly to become deft at it.
But I want you to remain undaunted in the face of adversity. My reason for elucidating the overbearing number of variables is not to intimidate you, but to educate you. Learning the facts is the starting point. Then, take your ever-growing knowledge and apply it, over and over again. Keep making that recipe till you master it on your cookware in your kitchen. Do not get discouraged. As cliché as it sounds, this is definitely an arena where we learn from our mistakes. No more burning crostini in that one oven for me.