Recipes hold such delicious promise. Just follow along, the instructions whisper seductively, and you will wow your family and dazzle your friends. Or not. The cruel reality is – and we all encounter this – some recipes just don’t deliver.
How can you tell, preferably before you buy the ingredients, invite people over and start cooking, whether a recipe is “good” or “bad”? Here are 10 steps that six cookbook pros say you should follow to get the most from a recipe.
1. Cook! The more you cook, the more you will learn and the easier it will be to spot a recipe that’s “worthwhile or intriguing,” says Dianne Jacob, an Oakland, Calif.-based author and cookbook coach. Experience in the kitchen has given her “a general idea of how long to cook things, which spices to use and … techniques such as ‘fold,’” she wrote in an email.
2. Be flexible! Cooking well depends on so many things: ingredients, equipment, a cook’s skill. It’s all very individual. Jenny Wapner, executive editor of Ten Speed Press in Emeryville, Calif., says “a good recipe succinctly, and not four pages later, gives you the variables and tells you what the dish should look like.” So, for Rick Bayless, the Chicago restaurateur, TV cooking show host and author of nine cookbooks, including the new “More Mexican Everyday” (Norton, $35), a “rough time estimate” for cooking is good, but what’s more important is “what does it smell like or taste like when it’s done?”
3. Listen! You want to hear the recipe’s “voice.” Judith Jones, the cookbook editor behind Julia Child and other cooking legends, says she wants the recipe to tell her “whoever wrote it had really done it and makes me feel the taste and texture just by reading it.”
4. Read carefully! “Cooks typically forget to read the entire recipe before they start,” says Wapner and thus can overlook the little things that might be missing from a recipe. Also, make the recipe as written at least once to get an idea of what it’s about before making modifications, she says.
5. Double-check! When in doubt about a recipe direction or ingredient amount, turn to other sources. “Recently I made a pound cake which said to bake for 39 minutes, and I knew it should be at least 1 hour,” Jacob says. “I checked a few similar recipes online to be sure.” Wapner also goes online or to other cookbooks to “see what else exists in the world” if she’s worried a recipe looks funny, contains strange ingredients or is missing needed detail.
6. Gauge! Is the recipe complete and balanced? Speaking from her Vermont home, Jones says the biggest mistake a recipe can make is not to give cooks the necessary tools to do the job. One possible sign? A recipe with a list of ingredients far longer than the instructions. Lorena Jones, publishing director, Food & Drink and Lifestyle, for Chronicle Books in San Francisco, takes this a step further. Check the quantity of each ingredient and its ratio to other ingredients. “If something is calling for 4 cups of butter instead of 1/4 cup of butter, there’s something off-base,” she says.
7. Trust! But verify the expertise of your recipe source. Beware the “flimsies,” to quote Jones, who merely borrow from one another. Jacob writes that she basically trusts recipes from websites with test kitchens and newspapers with test kitchens.
8. Careful! Use caution with old recipes. “Recipe writing has come a long way,” says Wapner, adding that she will never attempt an older recipe without looking at other versions and checking various cooking methods.
9. Be kind! Consider the audience – you – when choosing a recipe. Some recipes are written for quasi-professional or highly experienced recreational cooks while others are written for the weekend or beginner cook, says Lorena Jones. Think of what level, and recipe, is right for you. Nathalie Dupree, a Charleston, S.C.-based cookbook author and television cooking show host, looks for recipes that are doable for the home cook. “I’m totally uninterested in recipes for restaurants,” she says, defining those as recipes with multiple steps that are easy for a kitchen crew to do but more challenging for home cooks to accomplish.
10. Work it! There’s nothing wrong with a recipe that’s challenging or requires some effort to pull off, says Judith Jones. “What art form doesn’t require a little bit of work?” she asks.
Mexican Tomato-Colored Rice With Fresh Vegetables
From “Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking From the Heart of Mexico,” by Rick Bayless (William Morrow, 1987). Lorena Jones of Chronicle Books likes Bayless for the context he provides, not only in recipe headnotes but ingredient lists. This recipe is one of her favorites.
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup long- or medium-grain rice
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 large clove garlic, peeled, finely diced
1 ripe, medium-small tomato, roasted or boiled, cored and peeled, or half of a 15-ounce can tomatoes, drained
1 1/2 cups broth (preferably poultry) or water
Salt, about 1/2 teaspoon if using salted broth, 1 teaspoon if using unsalted broth or water
1 cup fresh or (defrosted) frozen peas, optional
1 large carrot, peeled, chopped into 1/4-inch dice, optional
Several sprigs fresh cilantro or flat-leaf parsley
Frying the rice: About 40 minutes before serving, measure the oil into a 1 1/2- to 2-quart saucepan set over medium heat. Add the rice and onion; cook, stirring regularly, until both are lightly browned, 7-10 minutes. Mix in the garlic; cook a minute longer.
The liquid ingredients: While the rice is frying, prepare the tomato: Seed it, if you like, by cutting it in half width-wise and squeezing out the seeds, then puree it in a blender or food processor. Pour the broth or water into a small saucepan, add the salt and bring just to a simmer.
Simmering and steaming the rice: Add the pureed tomato to the browned rice and cook for a minute, stirring several times. Add the simmering broth, stir the rice, scrape down the sides of the pot, cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, 15 minutes; turn off the heat, and let the rice stand, covered, until the grains are tender (but not splayed), 5-10 minutes.
The optional vegetables: While the rice is cooking, simmer the fresh peas until tender (4 to 20 minutes, depending on size and freshness), then drain and set aside; frozen peas only need to be defrosted. Separately, simmer the carrot 5 to 8 minutes, drain and add to the fresh or defrosted peas.
Finishing the rice: When the rice is tender, add the optional vegetables and fluff with a fork to separate the grains and stop the cooking. Scoop the rice into a warm serving dish, decorate it with fresh coriander or parsley, and it is ready to serve.
Yield: 4 servings (About 3 1/2 cups)
Per serving: 294 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 52 g carbohydrates, 7 g protein, 662 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
Angel No-Fool Cake
From Renee Enna. After years of looking and trying different recipes, food writer Renee Enna combined the best of a recipe from Betty Crocker and a recipe found online. That cake, with adjustments by Enna, still holds up as a foolproof recipe.
1 cup cake flour
7/8 cup sugar plus 3/4 cup sugar
12 egg whites
1 12 teaspoons cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Measure the cake flour and 7/8 cup sugar into a bowl (for 7/8 cup, measure a cup, then remove 2 tablespoons); sift together. Set aside.
Combine the egg whites, cream of tartar, salt, vanilla and almond extract into the bowl of an electric mixer; beat on medium speed with electric mixer until soft peaks form. (Do not beat until stiff, no matter what any recipe says!) Slowly add the 3/4 cup sugar, beating on medium-high speed until combined.
Reduce speed to low; slowly mix in the flour-sugar mixture just until incorporated.
Gently spoon batter into a 10-inch aluminum tube pan. Gently cut through batter with a butter knife. This breaks up any air bubbles in the batter. One time around is sufficient. (And don’t bang the pan on the counter!)
Bake until top of cake is golden brown and crusty, and top springs back when lightly touched, 30-40 minutes. Remove cake from oven; turn pan upside down. (Many tube pans come with little tabs that accommodate this necessary step. Otherwise, place pan upside down on a few ramekins – anything stable that puts air between the pan top and the counter.) Let stand until completely cool, about 1 1/2 hours.
To remove cake from pan, carefully loosen all pan edges including the tube’s with a butter knife. Invert onto your serving platter. Serve with whipped cream, if desired.
Fortified whipped cream frosting: Before starting, put the beaters and mixer bowl in the freezer to chill.
Put 1 1/2 tablespoons cold water in a ramekin; sprinkle on 3/4 teaspoon unflavored gelatin. Let stand 5 minutes. Place ramekin in skillet filled with 1/2 inch water; heat, stirring constantly, until gelatin is clear and dissolved. Let cool, about 5 minutes.
Place 1 1/2 cups chilled whipping cream in the chilled bowl of an electric mixer; beat on medium speed until cream begins to thicken. Add gelatin mixture, 3 tablespoons sifted confectioners’ sugar and 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla. Continue beating until soft mounds fall. Remove bowl from mixer; finish whipping by hand with a balloon whisk until cream thickens a bit more and holds its shape.
Makes: 10 servings
Per serving (with frosting): 324 calories, 13 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 49 mg cholesterol, 46 g carbohydrates, 6 g protein, 138 mg sodium, 0 g fiber