For any foodie who enjoys cooking, there is something special about the first time you try out a new recipe. You probably get excited about adding something different to your usual rotation, but it is sometimes lessened by nervous anticipation. If you’ve tried out enough new ideas in the kitchen, then you’ll know as well as anyone that, from time to time, they can go wrong. Even the most accomplished cooks find that, for one reason or another, there are recipes they struggle to pull off.
There can be any number of reasons why this happens. It doesn’t mean that you have suddenly become a bad cook, as you’ll note when you go back to one of your reliable specialties. Getting a new recipe right may take time and persistence, but it’s worth it to keep trying. You’ll be elated when you get it right. So if you’re struggling with a culinary “white whale”, check out the following tips to make sure you give yourself the best chance of success next time you try.
Keep The Recipe Where You Can See It
The first and most basic tip is that cooking from a recipe is easier when you can refer to the recipe itself easily. This may sound obvious, but the amount of time that can be lost looking for the next instruction, and the difference that it can make if you add ingredients in the wrong order or at the wrong time, are crucial. Cooking is very much a scientific process, and if you don’t follow the instructions as they are set out, it will be no surprise if you get poor results.
This means that you need to start with a well organized kitchen. If you keep having to move things out of the way to get to the recipe, it will cost you time and make mistakes more likely. The best advice is to have a hard copy of the recipe propped up in front of you; or, failing that, have a laptop open with all the information on one screen. Trying to navigate a touchscreen can be extremely tricky, particularly if this is a recipe that calls for getting your hands dirty.
Substitutions Are Not Your Friend
We’ve all looked at a recipe and thought “this sounds great, except…”, and mentally adjusted ingredients and quantities to make it perfect for us. The reasons we do this may vary – dietary intolerances and allergies are obvious examples, but it may be something as simple as swapping in milk chocolate because we don’t like dark, or using paprika because saffron is very expensive. However, making a substitution the first time we try a recipe is among the most common reasons for it going wrong.
As I mentioned, cooking is a highly scientific process. If you use different ingredients than those called for in the recipe, you will get different results. That’s inevitable, unfortunately. Substitutions are also generally unnecessary – if you’re looking for a grain-free pizza base, or a non-dairy chocolate mousse, then there are recipes out there. If you are making the adaptation for taste rather than safety, consider that although you may not like an ingredient, it may be essential to the recipe. Try cooking the meal with the ingredient in place, and if it goes well, you can always make your own adjustments on future attempts.
Timings Are Not Guidelines
When you’re cooking something you’ve cooked dozens of times before, it becomes almost automated in your mind: “Now add the salt! Now reduce the heat to a simmer! Now check on the potatoes!”. With experience, you’ll know where and how you can trim a bit of time off, if (for example) you need to make a chicken pot pie in under an hour. However, if you are reading a recipe and it says it will take 90 minutes, you have to allow 90 minutes cooking time at least.
It’s a fact that 350 degrees on your oven may be different from 350 degrees in someone else’s, so maybe your recipes end up cooking a little fast. However, the first time you cook from a specific recipe, stick religiously to the timings as specified in the recipe. They are listed that way for a reason, and the first time you attempt a recipe is not the time to change it.
If you are working from a recipe, there is one instruction that overrides all others – and that is to gather together all of the ingredients you’ll need. If the recipe calls for specific measurements, you’ll also need to gather all of the necessary measuring devices before you even start to heat the oven or boil any water. This is essential, because you don’t want to spend five minutes looking for the olive oil when the recipe says it needs to be added right now. It’s also important because you need to be sure you have all the ingredients. If you’re making a Spanish omelette and you’ve already fried tomatoes, ham and onions before realizing you don’t have enough eggs, then you’ve wasted a bunch of time and good ingredients.
This may mean that, before you cook something new for the first time, you’ll need to read the recipe twice over and make a shopping list for anything you don’t have. Consider it an investment, because the more you seek to widen your repertoire, the more different ingredients you’ll need to accumulate in your cupboards, fridge and freezer.
We all run into difficulties in the kitchen now and then. When it comes to cooking from a recipe, you have the instructions to work from, so you just need to work at getting it right. By keeping the above tips in mind you’ll ensure that you don’t need to be scared to try something new. Remember, you can always experiment with someone else’s recipe and make it your own; but before you make it perfect, make sure you can make it right.