The number of friends texting me that they are making my recipes seems to have increased significantly this year. It’s so exciting!! Most of the time, everyone has very positive feedback. But now, more than ever, I want critical notes. If things are not working I need to know so I can keep improving my craft! I did have some critical feedback recently, which leads me to this post about why recipes go wrong sometimes.
A short side tangent: When I first realized that my level of obsession with food and cooking was significantly different than your average Jane, and when people started telling me I should start a food blog, I shrugged it off. “There are so many food bloggers!” I thought, “That market is saturated, I wouldn’t be able to bring anything new to the table.”
Slowly but surely, I have been realizing that my way of cooking, or my approach to food, or my recipes, or my passion, or something else I’m doing (?!) resonates with people. It has taken me a while to acknowledge that maybe I DO bring something new to the table. That even though cooking is as old as mankind itself (in fact, some argue that cooking is what makes us human!!) - there are always opportunities to innovate. There is always room to see something new in something old, to bring new light to an ancient craft.
After “making my own culinary school” by getting my “10,000 hours” of cooking over the last 2+ years, I can finally say with confidence that the world of food and cooking is where I’m supposed to be. And in accepting this, I have entered a new creative mindset in which I realize that I see food and cooking with different eyes than most people. My new eyes tell me that this space IS, in fact, RIPE for innovation and creativity and a new perspective that I can bring.
One thing I've realized I'm good at is putting words to the instincts of a good cook. When you know how to cook, you don't have to think about what to do, you just DO it. I want to help uncover and explain - for the beginner cooks especially - the behaviors, tricks, and questions that good cooks employ instinctually while cooking. I hope this will help new cooks become confident more quickly. What follows will hopefully illustrate some chef-like instincts that anyone can put to work for better results in the kitchen.
So- let’s talk about recipes! Chefs (including me) kind of HATE recipes. That is a gross generalization but I’d bet money that if you ask, you’ll find it’s true. To a chef, cooking is art. The recipe is not the art - the recipe just happens to be the language that’s required to allow other people to attempt to make the art. Someone recently told me that compared to visual art, he prefers music, because when he plays a piece of music, it is never the same thing twice - it is always a little bit different depending on the location, the crowd, the setting, his own mood, etc. I realized that the same thing is true about cooking - and that’s one of the reasons it’s my favorite creative outlet. A dish is NEVER the same twice. And this is why recipes are really only a guideline. You can never truly create the exact same environment in which to EXACTLY replicate a dish. There are a million things that are different each and every time you cook - even if you’re cooking the same thing.
This has been tippy-top of mind for me lately, and I am planning to start writing all my recipes in a new and different way - so they can act as more of a roadmap - open for twists and turns - versus a strict list of instructions. Hidden in the language of a recipe, there exists a wealth of knowledge about the chef. This knowledge and reasoning is often unexplained, because short and succinct recipes sell better than long and detailed ones. It makes sense, but it’s kind of a tragedy.
So - here is my advice to help your recipes turn out well (and all of this will make you a better cook, too!).
PRACTICES OF A GOOD COOK:
- SALT - This is likely the number one thing you are doing wrong if your food doesn’t taste good. When to add it and how much salt to use is the first thing I would ask you about if your recipe doesn’t turn out well. I recommend reading SALT FAT ACID HEAT to learn more about this. Here is my number one trick for salting: You have to teach yourself and practice the ability to identify when a dish does not have enough salt. The way that you do this without ruining all your food is to use what I refer to as the “tasting bowl practice,” which coincides with my second point:
- TASTE - As you are cooking - you HAVE to be tasting your food along the way. This is the only way you learn how food changes as it cooks. Eventually you won’t have to taste as much, but when you are first learning to cook, it is SUPER important to understand changes of flavors over time. Now - when food is PIPING HOT, you cannot fully taste it because you are overwhelmed by the temperature. This is why I recommend the use of the tasting bowl. Get yourself a little ramekin or small bowl, and put a bite or two of whatever you are cooking in the tasting bowl. Allow it to cool for a minute or two if needed. As you are learning to cook and experimenting with how much salt is appropriate, you are going to TEST new additions by adding them to the tasting bowl first instead of the pot or dish. This will prevent you from over-salting or ruining your dish, because if you don’t like what you added, you’ve only ruined one bite!! So - what you’ll do is, after tasting it, add some salt, taste it again! Keep getting new bites in the tasting bowl and adding things until it tastes good (or until you mess up and over-salt it). When you figure out what you like - you can add it in a larger quantity to the pot - again, tasting as you go to determine if you need more. As you practice this, you will slowly learn what food tastes like when it is under-salted and you’ll be able to recognize it straight away.
- QUESTION - Right along with the salt, you are also training your palate to recognize flavor balance. I have found that most people don’t know what questions to ask themselves in this stage. The skill of knowing what a dish “needs” only comes with practice - this is a life-long thing that you will get better at the more you cook. Also - and this is very important - there is no “right” answer of how much is enough. YOU are in charge - so the answer is always: what tastes best to YOU? THAT is the correct answer. Whoever wrote the recipe wants it to TASTE GOOD! So do whatever you have to do to make it taste good to YOU! Below I've listed the questions you should ask yourself. Note that you will likely have to take more than one taste to be able to answer these questions:
- Does it need more salt?
- Does any one ingredient’s flavor stand out more than the others? If so - is it in a good way or a bad way? (Add more of something to the tasting bowl to find out!)
- Are any of the ingredients I added undetectable*? If so - is it in a good or bad way? (Add more of something to the tasting bowl to find out!)
- What flavor am I getting the most of: salty, sweet, bitter, acidic, umami? Do I want more or less of any these flavors? (To help answer this, try adding a little acid to your tasting bowl - or a little sweetness! See how that affects it and whether you like it.)
- TEXTURE - how is the texture? Is it too mushy? Is it not cooked through? Do I want more variety of textures? Texture will be harder to fix if you’re not happy with it - this is where practice and creativity and chef skills come in. I’ll have to address this more in a later post.
*The magical part of cooking is that ingredients combine to become MORE flavorful than the sum of their parts. I’m not saying that you should be able to detect the flavor of every single thing in the dish - usually you won't be able to - that's the magic! I’m simply pointing out that this is a question you should ask yourself to determine if maybe you want to add more of something that will help make the dish better.
In conclusion, there are countless reasons why a dish might not turn out - maybe some of your ingredients were old/bad/spoiled/just a dud without great flavor. Maybe you over- or undercooked it or made some other kind of mistake. Maybe there was residue in your pan that you didn’t even see and that threw it off. Or maybe it’s actually a bad recipe that wasn’t well-tested and it’s the chef’s fault. OR - maybe you just have completely different taste than the chef and you did absolutely everything right, and you just don’t like it! On these last two, you’ll have to determine the possibility based on your knowledge of the chef and what kind of recipes she’d be willing to publish. Personally, I would never publish anything I didn’t think was well-worth taking the time to make. There IS a chance that I didn’t test my recipes well enough - or that mine are written too loosely and my instructions aren’t quite clear. Those are both things I want to know, so if you make something of mine that didn’t turn out and you think it might be for one of these reasons, please PLEASE tell me!
To close, I will leave you with a Julia Child quote that I remembered recently: "The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude."
Don’t be afraid of failure in the kitchen! I always tell people that mistakes in the kitchen are the best opportunities to learn - because when you have an epic failure in an activity that employs all five of your senses, you will NOT forget it. Therefore, you will learn from it and likely not make that mistake again. The more you learn, the better you’ll get at knowing whether a “failure” was yours, or that of the chef/recipe author. And the better you get, when a recipe does “fail” you - you’ll know what to do to fix it - and by then, you are a chef yourself :). Happy cooking!