Okay, it’s self-help therapy time here.
I have a confession. I drive people crazy by never assuming anything, especially when it comes to following recipes.
Usually, I get the rolled eyed, “Duh, of course” look, which makes me feel like I should be a little less overbearing and get over this paranoia of mine.
Then, just when I start feeling like I can once again trust the world with its set of measuring cups, thermometers and common sense, the inevitable happens. The soup is too thick, the casserole is missing its key ingredient and the cake is a doorstop.
And my quest for culinary sanity renews.
I’ll be the first to admit I make mistakes. Then again, when it comes to recipes, I rarely make the same mistake twice, and I engineer a fix to ensure it’s unlikely to happen again.
The carpenters have a saying, “Measure twice, cut once.”
It’s good advice, and I have eight similar pearls of wisdom that might just help you avoid some of the most common, and expensive, recipe mistakes in your kitchen. Because contrary to what you may have heard, cooks can’t always eat their mistakes.
I’ve always said that a recipe is a roadmap that leads you from ingredients to a final product. Unfortunately, in these days of the GPS, no one seems to read maps anymore, and I fear the same is true with recipes. No one seems to have the patience to read; they’d rather watch TV. (Unfortunately, Rachel and Emeril aren’t making this recipe for you in your kitchen. You are.)
So, with that said, here are 8 common recipe mistakes and how to avoid them. (And sorry, a GPS won’t help you here either.)
#1 Read the Recipe.
Okay, this sounds really obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people never read the recipe to the end before they start, only to find out halfway through that they are missing an ingredient, don’t have a critical piece of cookware or needed to have the oven turned on.
Executing a recipe doesn’t mean killing it. Chefs use the term Mise en Place. What it amounts to is a pre-flight checklist as you sit on the recipe taxiway before takeoff. It works.
#2 Learn the language.
Continuing on with my roadmap analogy, sometimes recipe journeys take you to foreign places where you don’t know the language. There’s a difference between sauté (translation: to JUMP) and pan frying in which the product just lies in the pan and browns. And there’s something important going on when you cream fat and sugar together versus just mixing.
Unfortunately, recipes don’t come with Rosetta Stone® software, but sometimes peeking at a cookbook glossary can really help you learn the native language.
#3 When it comes to temperatures, don’t guess.
Thermometers are a life saver, especially the Insta-Read ones that can VERY quickly tell you how things are coming along on the inside of dishes where you can’t see. Like my Mastercard®, I never leave home without one.
#4 Cut the ingredients like the recipe says. There’s usually a good reason.
I have a lot to say about this but little space. Often, a recipe author wants things cut a certain way so that a particular ingredient doesn’t overpower another, or so the ingredients get evenly distributed throughout the dish, or so they all finish cooking at the same time. I can’t give every author credit for being so astute, but many are. Give em’ a little credit; they’ve likely made this recipe in their sleep, so they have a reason to give you the directions they’ve written.
#5 Use the right equipment.
A blender is not a food processor. Just sayin’…
#6 Shortcuts are dangerous.
Mixing ingredients together randomly to save steps, using higher temperatures than suggested, swapping out one ingredient for another and leaving out ingredients from a recipe altogether is a one-way ticket to disaster.
Sometimes recipes work the way they do because of what chefs call a balance, and that can be flavor or texture or smell (which affects flavor). If the score calls for violins, cue the violins. Sometimes, tubas just don’t cut it.
#7 When it comes to baking, not all fats are created equally.
Without getting all scientifically “bakey” on you, hydrogenated fats (yeah, those bad guys) work in hi-ratio cakes because they allow the recipe to use an equal, if not greater, amount of sugar. Butter is not a hi-ratio fat, and thus, the batter can’t hold all that sugar in suspension, and the cake is not light or delectable, and, well, you get the idea.
#8 Understand the The Land of Oz (or why all measures are not alike).
Okay, here’s where I have a beef with some recipe writers because they don’t always help us out.
Quite simply, weight does not always equal measure. It only does so when you’re using ingredients with a specific gravity of 1. And those ingredients are items like water, milk and eggs. They weigh the same as they measure. 8 ounces of weight is 8 ounces of measure, which happens to be a cup.
Unfortunately, when a recipe says 8 ounces of flour, even I’m not sure what to do. It probably means a cup, but it used a weight notation. It should have used the word cup (which is volume) or fluid ounce (fl. oz.), which is also a measurement of volume.
It’s even more schizophrenic for me because professional bakery recipes use weight measurements for everything.
There you have it! 8 recipe disaster avoidance tips (but it could just as well have been 18).
In review, pay attention, look both ways before crossing, wash behind your ears, don’t lend tools to your neighbors, and follow all the other good advice you’re given.
Including this advice!
Okay, I feel better now.