Can you use a recipe?

A lot of people say that they can’t cook because they have to use a recipe to make anything. They seem to be under the impression that a real cook can just throw things in a pot, and have it taste good. In truth you should be able to do both. Very often you will see people who for whatever reason are unable to follow a recipe, but can cook very well. Learning to use a recipe can help you learn to just throw things in a pot and end up with something that tastes good.  Pay attention to what flavors work together and use that knowledge to help you with your own dishes.

Throwing things in a pot and making it taste great takes practice, and being willing to fail often. Eventually you will learn that some things just don’t work together. Using a recipe on the other hand is pretty easy, because everything you need to know is right there in front of you. All you have to do is follow directions. Of course, as we learned in grade school sometimes following the directions is the hard part.

With a recipe you can make anything. It really doesn’t make a lot of difference if you have ever eaten it before. The first thing to do is to read through the entire recipe. There may be ingredients or techniques that you are not familiar with. Now is the time to find out what you need to know, and not while you have things burning in a pot . While you read through the recipe you can determine that you have everything you need, or decide what to substitute for something that you are missing. Once you have made the recipe a few times you will probably feel pretty comfortable with it, and be able add or subtract things, or use it as a base for making up your own dishes.

Recipes can come in a lot of formats.  The format will depend on the source.  The recipes that you see most often on the internet, and in cook books generally list ingredients and quantities.  This is followed by a description of the methods used to prepare each component, and the how to assemble them.

In some older cookbooks you may find a very different format:

 Omelette a la Celestine

Prepare two small omelettes. Place one on a round plate, garnish with slices of poached chicken breast and cover with a thick cream sauce containing chopped parsley. Place the second omelette on top and sprinkle with melted butter. Larousse Gastronomique 2004 edition

If you pick up a copy of Escoffier you will find the same format.  These books assume a certain level of knowledge and understanding. (I won’t tell you that I am always up to the challenge of these recipes.  Some of them are very complex, and may require things that are not used frequently any more.) Although Escoffier and Larousse are old  they are very interesting reference books.  Some of the recipes you will be able to use, for instance coq au vin.  Of course you can find recipes that are in the format we all know for coq au vin in lots of cook books.

Interestingly,you can also see recipes in a similar format to those in Escoffier and Larousse on Twitter. Both Eric Ripert, and Rick Bayless have posted recipes on Twitter.  Rick Bayless even ran a contest using recipes in a single tweet. There is very little information given, but in many ways that is freeing.  When you have a recipe that is that stripped down, you are free to make it whatever you envision the dish as being.

In a restaurant kitchen you may see recipes that are in a similar format to what you are accustomed to seeing, but often they leave out the directions.  So you might get something that looks like my recipe for Shrimp and Basil soup.

Shrimp and Basil Soup

olive oil

4 large onions large dice

½ cup garlic minced

1 Tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes

3 Tablespoons dry thyme

3 cups fresh basil chiffonade

1 #10 can diced tomatoes

½ bottle white wine

1.5 Gallon vegetable stock

2# frozen peas

2.5# 21-25 shrimp

salt and pepper to taste

That is the extent of the recipe.  Since this is used in a restaurant a certain level of knowledge is assumed, just like Escoffier and Larousse.  Obviously, this is not really a complicated recipe, but makes a lot of soup! If you have the rest of the information you will have no problem making this soup.

In a large pot sweat the onions, garlic, and red pepper flakes in olive oil until the onions are clear. Add the thyme and basil. Sweat until fragrant, about one minute. Add the tomatoes, and wine, mix well, and bring to a boil. Add the vegetable stock, and return to a boil. Add the frozen peas, and shrimp. Bring back to a boil, and turn the heat down to a simmer. Allow to simmer for 10 to fifteen minutes until the shrimp are cooked through. Taste, and season with salt and pepper.

Assuming you had a pot large enough to make this recipe, lets look at it since we now have it in a format you are familiar with.  First, look at the ingredients, is there anything that you don’t have? Anything you don’t understand? Now is the time to find out this kind of thing. It is a lot easier to solve problems before you have food in a pot. Do you know what chiffonade means? Do you have white wine? Do you know what 21-25 shrimp are? Do you know what sweating is? Whatever issues you may need to resolve should be done now.

Only after you know exactly what you need and what you need to do should you even start to do anything that remotely resembles cooking. This hopefully will only add a few minutes to the time it takes you to prepare your dish. Although, if you need to run to the store for something it may have added a little time, but nowhere near as long as if you had started, and realized too late that you needed a crucial ingredient, and then need to start over.

Once you know what you need to do start gathering ingredients, and then prepping them.  If you have containers large enough to hold a single step’s ingredients put them together, and once you have everything ready to go into the pot, turn on the heat, and cook!

Some people have trouble with terms used in recipes such as “cook until tender,” “al dente,” “season to taste.” With phrases like this pretty much what you will have to do is fish something out, put it in your mouth, and see if it is tender, al dente, or if it is seasoned properly. These are things that may be hard to specify in a recipe, but are very important. They are pretty easy to check once you realize that all you need to do is taste your food.  You should be doing that anyway!

Cooking is very easy once you realize that tasting and adjusting things is part of the fun. If you follow a few very easy principals you’ll have no problem. When you are eating you can take your time, and evaluate things that didn’t turn out quite as well as you would have liked, and remember them for later. The next time you make the dish you can make the changes you noticed. It can be helpful to take notes, and leave them with the recipe to refer to next time you make it.

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One response

  1. Denise Kantola

    If anyone out there has doubts about their ability to understand how to use a recipie this article is full of useful stuff!!
    I’m happy that I fall in the category of cooks that uses a recipe for some dishes and doesn’t for others…and it’s been a wonderful challenge working through recipes that have been handed down to me by family. (exciting when I get them right the first time!)
    Great article! (thanks for posting it)

    July 9, 2011 at 8:36 pm

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