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What's in a Recipe?

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Professional Chef
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Have you ever tried a new recipe for a food you loved, and it came out completely different than you were expecting? Have you ever eaten something transcendent at a restaurant and wished you could have the recipe — if there even was one? Perhaps you looked at two recipes for the exact same dish, and were startled to find how much they varied. What’s going on? What role does the recipe play in cooking, and why are they sometimes so easy, and other times so mysterious?

When chefs and professional cooks read recipes, they look at them much differently than most home cooks do. And they use them differently too. Today, the insider secrets of how pros use recipes, and how understanding them can make you a radically better cook who feels more in control of your food in every way.

What Smart Cooks Do Before Ever Breaking Out a Pan

Before you make a new dish, it pays to get to know the recipe that will be teaching you. Not all recipes are written the same way, and they’re also not always perfect — even Kitchn recipes, although we do our best. So to start, assess how trustworthy a recipe is. If it (or others in the book or on the site where it lives) has a lot of unclear directions, missing ingredients, or unnecessary steps, that’s a sign that it might not turn out well, and it may be worth looking for a better source. But even trustworthy recipes can differ markedly in the information they focus on.

  • Highlight ingredients that need advanced work, such as sitting in a marinade or getting thawed, chilled, or softened.

  • Double check that every ingredient is used — and that the amounts match up (if a recipe calls for a pound of sliced mushrooms, does it use a pound of sliced mushrooms? Know before you slice them up.).

  • Note what prep needs to happen at the beginning, and what might be saved for later while something is cooking (those times that, yesterday, we called “meanwhiles”).

  • Look up unfamiliar or rare ingredients, and figure out where you can get them, or find a good substitute if they’re too difficult/expensive to easily get.

They Look for Doneness Indicators

A good recipe tells you not just how long to cook something, but also offers some doneness indicators — ways to assess by sight, smell, sound, texture, or temperature whether something is cooked correctly. (As an example, here are five classic doneness indicators for cake.) Cooking times are never more than estimates, so you should pay special attention to these, and use them. Times can vary depending on everything from the season to the humidity in the air, to the heat your particular stove puts out, to even things like elevation. Looking for the indicators, and trusting your own sense of smell, sight, and taste, will help give you much better results.

They Work Backwards

When cooks need to figure out if they have time to make a recipe, they start by deciding when it needs to be served, and then work backwards to calculate when they will need to start. If a recipe for a lasagna or other casserole calls for it to rest for 15 minutes, bake for a total of 40 minutes, and they estimate needing 30 to 40 minutes to boil the noodles, brown the meat, and prep the other ingredients, then they can plan to start cooking about an hour-and-a-half before the dish will be ready to serve. When cooking multiple dishes for an elaborate meal (like Thanksgiving), they may write out a full minute-by-minute agenda, including exactly when things need to be prepped, cooked, and even washed — to make sure there’s time.

What the Pros Do When Reading Recipes

Write Notes on the Recipe

Open up a professional cook’s dog-eared copy of their favorite cookbook, and you’re likely to find dozens, if not hundreds, of pencil markings — notes on cooking times, ingredient additions or subtractions, or even corrections. This is a habit worth adopting yourself for significant recipes. (If the recipe is digital, consider printing it off and putting it in a binder or writing it into a recipe journal.) These notes will help you remember any adjustments you made to this dish, and decide how (or whether) to make adjustments in the future. You can even make notes of the results, and the date, to track how often you make a dish, and how it turned out.

Then Make Adjustments — With Care

If a recipe isn’t seasoned well, then you can simply adjust to taste and perhaps make a note. But sometimes you may want to switch up ingredients in a recipe to make it easier, to change the flavor, or to use up what you have on hand. The best way to do this is to think about what purpose the ingredient serves and what it’s adding to the dish, so you have a better understanding of whether you can leave it out, or what you can replace it with. Most ingredients add flavor, but some also serve another function — mustard may be an emulsifier in a vinaigrette, for instance, or flour may be a thickener in a sauce., and so on...

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Cheers! Have yourself a happy hump day!

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