How to Read a Recipe
In 1940,Mortimer Adler, a former journalist turned philosophy professor, wrote a book entitled How To Read a Book. In the book, Adler and his co-author, Charles van Doren, go through various “levels” of reading, from the very first “elementary level” that we are taught as a child to a level where you are able to master even the most difficult of books or subjects.
I’ve often wondered if someone should write a similar book on “How To Follow a Recipe.” When we first begin to cook, we take recipes “at their word” and try to follow as exactly as possible, using the exact ingredients and precise measurements. But as we flex our “cooking muscles,” we begin to branch out and add our own touches to our recipes. That’s a good thing.
Here are some thoughts and tips for utilizing recipes while at the same time putting your own flavor into what you cook:
1. Read all the way through the recipe before gathering ingredients or starting to cook.
There have been many times that I saw a title or a really good picture and thought, “This is a recipe for me.” But somewhere between the first ingredient in the list and the last serving instruction they lost me. Reading completely through the recipe gives you the big picture and prevents being caught by surprise by a step you didn’t anticipate.
2. Gather your ingredients and make any needed substitutions before you begin the cooking process.
One of the terms that you will hear if you spend any time in or around a professional kitchen is “mis en place” (French for “putting in place”). It’s the concept of gathering all of your ingredients, in their proper measurements, in one place before you begin cooking. Not only does it make the cooking process smoother, but it also lets you know if you don’t have the proper amount of any ingredient before you reach “the point of no return.”
If you don’t have a certain ingredient in the right amount, don’t panic. Do a quick search online for potential substitutions for that ingredient (at least in this instance, Google really is your friend).
3. Don’t be afraid to try variations on the recipe.
So often, our cooking resembles the old “paint by number” kits of our childhood. We use exactly the recommended ingredients in precisely measured proportions. We are afraid to paint outside the lines. If you are using an ingredient you really like, use more of it. If you think that the dish might be improved by using blackberries instead of blueberries, use the blackberries. Don’t be afraid to make the recipe your own.
4. Take good notes.
If you make a substitution or a change in the recipe, write it down so that you will remember it next time. Don’t just write down what you did, write down your impression of how it came out. Maybe you felt the end product was a little dry. Jot a note next time to cook the chicken breast to a certain temperature instead of cooking it a set amount of minutes. Keep a cooking journal/notebook handy and use it often.
My advice is … COOK! Try new things - adapt your recipes - take good notes - and have fun!!!