Before You Even Think of Starting a New Recipe, Read This
Mistake #2 Not Giving Yourself Enough Time
I cannot stress this enough: just because recipes say that they can be made from start to finish in thirty or forty-five minutes does not mean that a person who is unfamiliar with the recipe or the techniques can recreate the recipe in that amount of time.
Many a time we have sat down to what was supposed to be a 7:00 pm dinner at 8:30pm because yours truly did not realistically estimate how long it would take to prepare the meal.
As much as I would like to say I am, I am not a professional chef. Nor am I, or most of us, a television personality with a staff of behind-the-scenes people to help me out.
The Fix – Know Thyself
As you are looking over your recipe to get an idea of total work time, be very realistic about your strengths and weaknesses in the kitchen. While some amounts of time can be taken at face value (refrigerate for 2 hours, let rest for 45 minutes, etc), others are dependent, in part, on your skill level.
If a recipe says that total prep time takes fifteen minutes and involves mincing garlic, chopping onions and tomatoes, dicing carrots and celery and measuring spices and herbs, consider how developed your knife skills are.
If your knife skills are, pardon the pun, sharp, it may only take fifteen minutes. If you have not achieved samurai status yet, it might take you half an hour to do the prep.
If you have an entire menu planned for the week and you know that you’ll need chopped onions and tomatoes for tonight and tomorrow night’s meal, just go ahead and prep enough of them for both recipes.
That way, you’ll have some of the prep already done when you walk into the kitchen to start preparing the next evening’s meal. You’ll feel almost like you have a prep cook.
And you do: you were your own prep cook the day before! Now you’re the chef, so get cookin’.
The Infamous “Meanwhile”
How many times have I gotten halfway through a recipe and come across the dreaded meanwhile. It often refers a task that makes you hit yourself on the forehead and say, “NOW you tell me!”
Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350 degrees F
Meanwhile, grill the vegetables
Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente in a pot of boiling water
Meanwhile, sauté 2 cups of onions
Meanwhile, de-bone the entire chicken
Cookbook writers either assume we read their recipes carefully before we start or we are mind readers. Did they forget that it takes time to get the grill hot or the water boiling?
The infamous Meanwhile also has some cousins that you need to be aware of. They include The day before, The next day and Refrigerate overnight. As you read the recipe thoroughly, make sure you recognize Meanwhile and his cousins and plan your time accordingly.
Understand the Terminology
Make sure you understand all the terminology before starting to cook. It does you no good getting three quarters through a recipe to find out you don’t know what it means to julienne a carrot or flambé bananas.
It’s no fun to have to run to your computer to learn how to “scald” a cup of milk or “clarify” a stock.
These terms might make you “sweat” and want to “knock back” an adult beverage which really means to cook food slowly in a covered pan in a small amount of fat so the juices run into the pan and press out the air bubbles in dough that has risen before shaping and proofing. See how confusing it can be?
Read the recipe for all of the cooking verbs: chop, julienne, sauté, braise, and yes, sweat and knock back. If you are unsure of how to accomplish these tasks, find out before you begin to cook. Either look them up in the indices or glossaries of your cookbooks or find out by searching on the Internet.
Mistake #3 – Not Having All the Ingredients
If you have thoroughly read the recipe, you should have all of your ingredients on hand. This is not a perfect world, though, and even the most detail-oriented of us sometimes forgets something.
If, when making a recipe, you discover that you have forgotten an ingredient, you have to decide if you can live without it (oh, no—I forgot to get 1 tomatillo for the white chili) or if it is so crucial to the recipe that you have to stop and run out to the store in the middle of what you were doing (oh, no—I’m out of flour and I’m baking bread).
The Fix—Line Them Up
It all comes back to thoroughly reading the recipe and putting your hands on every ingredient. We’ve all done this before. We read over the ingredient list, mentally checking our cupboards.
Italian Seasoning—check. Bay leaves—I’m pretty sure I have some of those in the back of the cabinet. Kosher salt—check. Red wine vinegar—check. Tomato paste—there’s a can on the top shelf behind the beets. I think.
This is a mistake. Make sure you pull every ingredient and make sure that you have what you need. You think you have tomato paste? Find it and put it on the counter.
Gather all the ingredients that you will need and put them on the counter. Make a list of everything else you need, shop your list, and put all the ingredients together on the counter (or in one place in the refrigerator, depending upon the ingredient).
I have even counted the number of ingredients listed in the recipe and then counted my ingredients to make sure the numbers match up. The last thing you want to do when you’re cooking, especially if you are dealing with time and heat issues or a really involved recipe, is to run to the store.
Do yourself a favor and do a head count of your ingredients before you begin the recipe.