How To Read A Recipe- Advice from a Chef
I have a very large collection of recipes. When I say large, I mean 10 thousand and growing. As I sort through the recipes, I start to think about how much recipes have changed in my lifetime. Today we expect so many pictures and expect so much detail it can become exhausting and time consuming. A recipe or what was once a simple formula has turned into a little chapter. Sometimes I think it is just too much information. I do believe that kind of recipe is geared towards those that are a bit nervous about cooking. I had students that were frightened if one little part of a recipe was altered. I have also had other students who said “I decided to go right ahead and improvise on a recipe” sometimes the results were good and sometimes they were disasters. Here are some hints that will increase your confidence and success.
As a young girl around the age of six or seven I was taught the
basics of baking by my dear godmother Clara Hickey. Clara was stern but fair in the kitchen. Her recipes live on in me. She was my mother’s nanny to a large gang of 11 children. Clara’s background was British and she was trained to keep a notebook in the kitchen. Recipes helped her decide how much to order just as they determine what I order for my professional kitchen. I am lucky enough to have inherited her recipe book. I still keep a kitchen journal and use it every day. It becomes a great reference and a great keepsake.
What is a Recipe? Here is the definition” a set of instructions for preparing a particular dish, including a list of the ingredients required.” Do we really need recipes? Yes we do at least at the start. If we take a look at how recipes were written and compiled in the last century much has changed. It was incumbent on the cooks in the last century to understand the basic methods of cooking. Recipes were basically formulas and ratios. There were very few illustrations or pictures in early cookbooks.There wasn’t very much hand holding back then. I think of Dora’s disaster in David Copperfield. Believe it or not women were judged on
their cooking, the old adage “Cooking is a way to a man’s heart” was seen as truth. Women became known for their specialties and guarded their secret recipes. Some people still have trouble sharing their secret recipes. I know!
As far as I am concerned a Recipe is a list of Ingredients and Directions and applied Technique. Technique is often overlooked and it is the single most important part of a recipe as far as I am concerned. Technique changes the outcome of a recipe. Much like being given a blank canvas and paints to create a painting – the art is in the technique. A recipe may ask for chopped onions that may sound simple. However how you chop the onions, i.e. the knife skills and the size or the evenness of the chopped onion can drastically alter your dish. Equipment and how you use it is also an integral part of recipes and cooking. For instance if you chop your onions in a food processor the result will be totally different than if you chop them yourself. You need to know what the right tool for the right job is. Then you need to have it in your batterie de cuisine and use it.
I started collecting recipes around the age of six from the weekend magazine in the Toronto Star. Believe it or not I still have those recipes. I also have my mother’s cookbook that she put together as a mother of eight. Back in her day it was common to clip recipes from magazines and newspapers. You would then paste them into three ringed cookbooks that became your own collection of favorites. My mother did
this until she was in her 70’s. I have a collection of the recipes she collected while spending her winters in Florida. I cherish this insight into what my mother was thinking … it is a peek into what appealed to her as a cook. Based on those recipes, I doubt that she was really thinking about what her eight children wanted to eat. Put it this way we were not crazy about Campbell cream of mushroom soup in and over everything nor did we like tomato aspics. Don’t dare mention salmon loaf.
Over the decades as a chef I’ve always kept a collection of
recipes and ideas that I picked up in my journeys from kitchen to kitchen. These recipes are my currency. I realized there’s always something to learn in every kitchen that I work in. It may come from a fellow cook, it may come from the dishwasher but there are wonderful recipes in each of us. Recipes are family jewels that are worth preserving and handing down.
A large part of my job as an executive chef is to come up with recipes and then menus and that takes a lot of work. As a teacher, it was incumbent upon me to try and teach my students how to read a recipe. It sounds simple enough doesn’t it? Reading a recipe properly is like trying to understand forms. I was an executive secretary for both stockbrokers and lawyers and reading forms was a large part of my job. Filling out forms does not come easily for many people. It is a task. It is an art and or a science to learn what to determine what the form asking you. It is kind of like doing your own income taxes by hand, without the help of the Internet. Reading recipes is quite a bit like understanding how to fill out a form. What am I supposed to do with these ingredients?
It’s important that you read the recipe in its entirety. How many times do we start to prepare the recipe and then realize we do not have that cream of tartar or perhaps it’s 10 years old and it is lost its stabilizing ability. (Hint-Check to see if your yeast, baking soda or powder are still active.)
We no longer live in the day where we could go across the street or to the next door neighbor and ask for a cup of sugar or an egg. Hence my emphasis on organization. I used to run very busy restaurants and I had to be organized. I certainly could not leave in the middle of service or send somebody (I was always chronically understaffed) to fetch one missing ingredient. I plan, plan, plan … it is the first thing I do when I open my eyes in the morning and it’s the last thing I do when I close my eyes at night.
Here are some of my hints about how to read a recipe. This in turn will make you a better cook because you’re going to be more organized and you will better enjoy preparing food.
I encourage everyone who cooks to come up with a basic repertoire of recipes that you have had the chance to master. I recall being a student at George Brown and we would make a recipe just once. I knew at that point that making a recipe one time does not increase your confidence about the recipe. I suggest you master a recipe, for instance quiche or pancakes or pasta with tomato sauce or perhaps the perfect grilled steak anything that really appeals to you and your family. Once you have mastered the recipe feel free to improvise and to change things to make it your own. But I do highly suggest becoming familiar with the basic recipe first.
There is a part of me that is a little distressed by the new approach to recipes. I think that this new style has perhaps grown up hand-in-hand with the information crazy Internet. I get frustrated because I do not want to scroll down 212 pictures before I actually get to the body of the recipe. Perhaps that’s because I am an experienced chef.
As a Chef I can spot errors and omissions in recipes. I can also spot bad cooking techniques, incorrect cooking times and I know when things just don’t make sense. Recently, I criticized a online recipe that required 12 cups of olive oil for one cake. Would you actually believe that people tried that recipe out blindly? I did comment on the website and they removed my comments. I read another recipe and it suggested making a Hollandaise with 24 egg yolks over a bain marie (water bath). As a professional chef even asking a qualified cook to handle 24 egg yolks over boiling water was what we did to punish someone. (Well it was either that or peeling 100 pounds of potatoes and cutting them into mushroom shapes!).
I am in the process of collecting and curating my recipes, which number in thousands and thousands in order to compile and create a cookbook. I am finding more and more people are self-publishing and are eager to create their own cookbook. This is wonderful and I encourage everyone to do this so they can share the recipes with their family and it’s a really special family heirloom. More and more recipe books are e-books that contain videos of how to make things with many pictures. I am going to publish an e book with recipes but also a printed one that will be more old-fashioned, more like me.
What I want most of all is for everyone to gain confidence and enjoy cooking and creating food and sharing meals and creating memories. Sharing meals celebrates the connection between food and love.
How To Read A Recipe by Chef Elizabeth
- READ THE ENTIRE RECIPE AT LEAST ONCE
Just like you were advised to read over your entire exam so that you could strategize and time manage.
This may seem quite basic however you would be surprised at how many people don’t read the entire recipe and half way through preparation they realize they are missing an ingredient and have to rush to the store. Out here on the farm the stores are not that close so I have to plan and be prepared.
- Determine if you have the ingredients. Check out your kitchen for the ingredients. It is not like the old days when I actually did go and borrow a cup of sugar or an egg. No one is at home anymore.
- Make sure ALL the Ingredients are fresh- that goes for everything from shortening to spices to olive oil.
- Gather all the Ingredients and Equipment in one place before you begin.
- Check to see if any Ingredient needs to be at room temperature. For example: butter or eggs. This makes a difference in the final results.
- Check to see if you need to start part of the recipe first before proceeding. For example: do you need to have a pie crust that is chilled before you add the filling?
- Determine if you have the equipment to make the dish- watch for this especially when baking. Baking is not so forgiving … baking a cake in the wrong sized pan can really alter the final results.
- Determine if you have the time. That means time to prepare and then cook and to be there when your dish is ready. For example: do not start bread if you wont be there to punch it down or to bake it when it is time.
- Determine if the skill level matches your skill set. Do not attempt difficult recipes if you do not have the skill or confidence.
- Measure correctly when baking. I use a scale.
- Make sure that the ingredient list matches the directions.
- Remember some Recipes just don’t make sense. The more experience you gather the better able you will be to spot errors and omissions and inconsistencies.
- One part of a recipe that varies most often is cooking time. Always set your timer for the earliest suggested cooking time. This is especially true when baking cookies. One minute can make all the difference. Use A Timer and carry it around with you.
- Use an Instant Read thermometer to take guess work out of the equation. It is too easy to loose track of time. Especially with meats and poultry. I write down the weight and time I start to cook the protein.
- Make notes on your recipes as you prepare them, especially if you deviate from the recipe. This will be helpful if you make the recipe again and if you expect the same result.
- Recipes are guides – once you master a recipe you can tweak it to suit your own needs. As I said baking is about formulas and you can change up flavors and substitute nuts or chocolates or fruits but do not be tempted to change fat, sugar, flour and leavening agents- as this could impact your desired result. As you get to know the recipe- you may start cutting down on the sugar and fat content- More easily done with oil than with butter.
- Now that you Know How To Read the Recipe…start cooking!!