Cooking, or even just following a recipe, is a skill that you have to learn and continue to hone over time. It can be very frustrating to new cooks when they follow a recipe “to a T,” but the end result is not what they were expecting. No matter how clearly a recipe is written, there will always be plenty of room for error and an infinite number of opportunities to deviate from the intended path. But don’t let that scare you! After spending years troubleshooting recipes and answering recipe questions from new cooks, I’ve compiled these 10 Tips for Recipe Success to help you navigate the unknown and hopefully prevent recipe disaster.
But if you do have a recipe disaster, learn from the experience! I like to think of recipe disasters a little like bad relationships. They may have felt like a total waste of your time and energy, but you’re bound to have learned something valuable along the way. ;)
10 Tips for Recipe Success
1. Read the recipe from beginning to end, including any notes, before you begin. Even if it’s a recipe you’ve cooked 10 times before, read through the entire recipe before beginning. This is probably the most overlooked step and one that even I admit that I forget from time to time (and it ALWAYS ends up in an “oh crap!” moment). Giving a recipe a quick read-through helps prevent surprises, forgotten ingredients, and can help you form a mental game plan of how you’ll execute the recipe. On my site, I also suggest browsing through the step by step photos before beginning to cook, for an extra bit of disaster insurance.
2. Google unfamiliar words. We’re so lucky to have the internet and all of its information at our fingertips! If you come across a word in a recipe that you’re unfamiliar with, take a second to look it up. If it’s a cooking technique, chances are you’ll probably even be able to find a short tutorial video showing you exactly how it’s done and that’s like having a free, on the spot cooking class!
3. Pay attention to how ingredients are listed. One thing that often trips people up is the term “divided,” as in “1/2 cup chopped nuts, divided.” When you see “divided” listed after an ingredient, this means the amount listed is the total amount used in the recipe, but you’ll use a portion of that amount in one step, and the rest later on. You can find out how much to use and when by reading the instructions (see tip #1!). For instance, with the chopped nuts example, the recipe may require you to stir 1/4 cup of the chopped nuts into a muffin batter and use the remaining 1/4 cup to sprinkle on top later. Another important designation is the placement of words like “chopped” or “diced.” If an ingredient is listed as “1 cup chopped walnuts” that means you measure one cup of nuts that are already chopped. If it is listed as “1 cup walnuts, chopped” this means that you measure 1 cup of whole walnuts, then chop them after measuring.
4. Read reviews first. Almost every recipe website and blog has reviews, which can be extremely helpful. Always take reviews with a grain of salt, but look for trends like “this turned out too dry” or “I had to bake for an extra 15 minutes” so you can know which parts of the recipe to approach with caution, or decide if a recipe is too risky all together. I especially encourage this with blog recipes, which may not get the same rigorous testing as recipes from major food magazines or cookbooks. You don’t need to read them all, but at least browse through a few to get a feel for how the recipe performs “in the real world.”
5. Prep before you cook. When you’re first learning to cook, it can help to use a technique called “mise en place.” This French phrase simply means to gather all your ingredients and have them prepared (peeled, diced, chopped, etc.) before you begin cooking. This method can take longer than prepping as you cook, but its a great way to make sure no details are missed and it can greatly reduce the stress of multi-tasking. With all your ingredients prepared ahead of time, all of your attention can stay on the hot food in the skillet/pot/oven as you cook so you can avoid burning, boiling over, or any other hiccup.
6. Start small. If you’re new to cooking, try something simple first and work your way up. Don’t shoot for the stars on your first go. As I mentioned before, the process of cooking is full of all sorts of nuances and uses a great deal of intuition that you have to learn and build over time. If all you know how to do is boil water, start with a simple pasta dish. Try not to choose a recipe that has multiple techniques and ingredients that you’ve never used before. Try one new technique or ingredient at a time.
7. Test recipes before special occasions. There are an infinite number of variables involved with cooking and you want to avoid surprises, so it’s always good to give recipes a test run before big occasions or cooking for guests. It’s not unusual for a recipe to need slight tweaking for your unique mix of equipment and ingredients. Plus, you may just find that you don’t like a recipe as much as you expected from it’s description! :)
8. Use all your senses. Most recipes suggest cooking times and temperatures for each step, but it’s always wise to use your senses to tell you whether you need to increase heat, decrease heat, or move on to the next step. If a recipe says to sauté for five minutes, but you see and smell it beginning to burn sooner, STOP. Remove it from the heat and reassess the situation. I try to include sensory cues in my instructions when possible, to help you build your cooking intuition. A good example of sensory cues is when you toast rice in a skillet with a little bit of oil or butter, you’ll begin to smell a nutty aroma, the individual grains will begin to look translucent, and you’ll even hear a popping or crackling noise. I could simply tell you to toast the rice in a skillet with oil for 5 minutes, but if your range top runs hotter than mine or your cookware is thinner, this can change the timing. I can tell you to boil potatoes for ten minutes, but the only way to truly know they’re done is to test the texture by piercing them with a fork. Using your senses helps you really understand what is happening as you cook, and will build your intuition.
9. Taste as you go. Speaking of using your senses, it’s very important to taste as you go. The one thing that varies the most in the cooking process is the taste buds of the individual, sensitivity to salt in particular. Try to taste the food as you go (avoiding raw meat and eggs) to make sure the food is seasoned to your palate. Tasting as you go will also help you learn how the flavor of herbs and spices change throughout the cooking process, allowing you to understand how and when to add them to customize recipes in the future.
10. Experiment with caution. Every time you swap out an ingredient, no matter how small, it will change the flavor, texture, or both of the final recipe. Make sure you’re familiar with a recipe or cooking technique before you attempt to substitute ingredients. Read through those reviews to see if anyone else has already attempted the same substitution. Be aware that changing ingredients may also change the time or temperature needed to cook the dish. Making a recipe your own is a wonderful thing and I fully support customizing recipes to fit your needs, but make sure you do it with caution and with the knowledge that the outcome will be different from the original.
What are your favorite cautionary tips that you’d share with a new cook? Or something you’d tell yourself if you could go back in time to your first recipe? Share your wisdom in the comments below!