What A Recipe Is
Before I talk about how not to start a recipe, I want to take some time to talk about what a recipe is. According to Miriam Webster, a recipe is “a set of instructions for making something from various ingredients.”
The second definition is “a formula or procedure for doing or attaining something.”
When it comes to recipes for food, both definitions apply. Not only is the recipe the blueprint for a particular dish, well-written recipes also teach the procedure for making something.
Many of the recipes here on The Reluctant Gourmet may seem long and drawn out, but I find it much easier to follow one if I know why I’m doing something rather than just being told to do it. I try my best not to take for granted you know the techniques necessary to complete the recipe.
Some Recipe History
The earliest known recipes were found on a tablet in Babylon and date back to around 1600 BC. From that time forward, there have been books about cookery in many cultures throughout the world. Many of these books focused on elaborate meals that European nobles of rival houses would have their personal chefs make, each house trying to outdo the other.
In American history, for the most part, recipes lived in cooks’ heads. If anything was written down—a cup of milk, say—it meant a particular cup in a particular cook’s kitchen. Procedures were passed down from mother to daughter and from cook to cook.
Even the books of the day gave rather limited directions on how to do something, and measurements were not universal. Consider Martha Washington’s recipe for her “Great Cake,” copied here from George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estates and Garden website:
“Take 40 eggs and divide the whites from the yolks and beat them to a froth. Then work 4 pounds of butter to a cream and put the whites of eggs to it a Spoon full at a time till it is well work’d. Then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powdered to it in the same manner then put in the Yolks of eggs and 5 pounds of flour and 5 pounds of fruit. 2 hours will bake it. Add to it half an ounce of mace and nutmeg half a pint of wine and some fresh brandy.”
It was not until Fannie Farmer wrote her The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook in 1896 that measurements began to be standardized.
The modern recipe written for professional chefs is often no more elaborate than a list of measured ingredients. These recipes rely on the chefs’ knowledge of culinary techniques and do not list procedures.
Let’s Look at How NOT to Start a Recipe
Recipes written for the home cook should have the following information:
- An introduction to the recipe, including the origin of the recipe
- Approximate time it will take to complete the recipe
- A listing of the ingredients in order of use
- Any equipment necessary to complete the recipe
- A detailed procedural section explaining the steps involved in preparing the recipe
- Temperature at which the recipe should be prepared
- For items prepared in an oven, oven temperature and time
- Number of servings
No matter how well-written a recipe is, however, it will not help you if you don’t read it.
Mistake #1 Not Reading the Recipe
So many home cooks, including me, pick up an interesting looking recipe, give it a quick scan checking out the ingredients needed, then glance at how to make it but don’t take the time to really understand what they need to do and how long it will take. Big mistake!
Many times I have found myself in the situation where I’m halfway through a recipe and then realize I need half a cup of chopped this or I was supposed to have blanched that before the next step. I have to stop everything I’m doing to complete the step I missed often throwing off the entire timing of the dish.
The Fix—Read, and Read Again
Read a recipe several times before you even think of lighting that stove. Make sure you understand exactly what the author wants you to do before you get started. Here are some things to ask yourself:
Do I have all the ingredients?
How much time will it take me to prepare this recipe?
- All the prep time
- All active cooking time
- Any time required for marinating, whether fifteen minutes or overnight
- Any time required to plate, make a sauce, rest, etc.
- What do I need to do to prep the ingredients?
- What cooking equipment do I need?
- Do I understand all the cooking terms?
- Is the recipe written in the right order of events?
- Are there any blatant mistakes?
- And most importantly, does the recipe make sense to me?
Once you have read the recipe and have asked yourself these questions, Read It Again!
Read the recipe carefully for mistakes. It happens. Many of the people writing cookbooks and cooking articles in food magazines are professional cooks, not professional writers. Unless they have very good editors with strong culinary backgrounds, there are bound to be mistakes that aren’t caught. We all find them.
- Ingredients not listed in the recipe up front appear in the procedure
- Ingredients that are listed can’t be found in the procedure
- Ingredients aren’t listed in order of use
- Preparation instructions aren’t given early enough
- Typographical errors
- Cooking times are off
- Cooking sequence is out of order
Just because it’s written in a recipe doesn’t mean it’s correct. Trust yourself, and don’t just assume that the recipe is correct. If you are new to cooking and something doesn’t seem right, consult with someone with more experience in the kitchen.
Once you have established that there is an error in the recipe, you need to decide if you can infer the correct information or if the recipe is just so off that you need to find another one. This, too, will depend on the amount of experience you have and your confidence in your abilities.