Crave the tuna-noodle casserole Mom used to make? Want to bake a pan of brownies to take to book club?
Easy! Just type “tuna-noodle casserole” or “brownies” in the search field of your Internet browser and wait a second or two for the recipe to appear. Right?
Well….yes and no.
Yes. A recipe will appear and it may be just what you’re looking for.
No. The recipe that floats to the top of your Internet queue may be poorly conceived, carelessly edited, and never kitchen tested. Uh oh!
What should you do? Learn how to read a recipe, of course!
When you find a recipe you want to try, read it. Yes. Sit down and read it through. Are the ingredients listed in the order they are used? (This avoids confusion during cooking and is a hallmark of all good recipes.) Are they all accounted for in the method portion of the recipe?
A carefully written recipe indicates that the recipe writer — and perhaps an editor, too — took time to make it coherent. While this is a positive indicator of the recipe’s strength, it’s never a guarantee. Keep going!
Do the ingredients make sense? Use your noggin. If a recipe calls for ¼ cup of salt, there’s probably a mistake (most likely the writer meant ¼ teaspoon, but who really knows?). If the recipe is for an omelet and there are no eggs...steer clear!
Does the recipe indicate pan sizes when appropriate? For instance, if you’re baking brownies, the recipe should specify the size of the baking pan so that the brownies bake evenly in the time suggested.
On the other hand, if a casserole recipe says to stir a chopped onion with a few tablespoons of sour cream, there’s no need to expect more direction than “in a mixing bowl.” If you use a 2-quart bowl or a smaller one, the ingredients will blend.
The recipe should give you an indication of how long to cook something as well as another test for doneness. No one can cook by time alone — heat intensities differ, pots and pans vary, and your cubes of meat may be half again as large as the recipe writer’s.
The recipe should have phrases such as “Cook, stirring, until the onions soften and turn translucent, about 10 minutes,” “Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, 55 to 60 minutes,” and “Stir until the liquid evaporates, 4 to 6 minutes.”
The Chosen Recipe
Once you are pretty confident you’ve selected the right recipe, read it again. Recipe writers recommend doing this time and again because making the effort before you begin cooking alleviates a lot of aggravation along the way.
First, you can insure you have the necessary pantry staples and spices on hand. Second, you can make a comprehensive shopping list. And third, you can unearth the right-sized pans and other kitchen equipment you might not use all the time (such as an instant-read thermometer, food processor, hand mixer, cheese grater…you get the idea!).
Also, the more familiar you are with a recipe, the more excited you’ll be about cooking it — and the better you’ll be able to organize your time and decide what to serve alongside the cooked dish.
If this is the first time you’ve made this particular dish, follow the recipe to the letter. Don’t improvise; that will come once you’re secure with the outcome and understand where you can customize the dish to suit your own taste.
Finding the Right One
It helps to streamline your recipe search in the first place. Anyone can write a blog or post on Pinterest and claim their recipes “work.” Not anyone can write a cookbook that’s published by a reputable publisher.
This just means: Know your source. If you like two or three cookbook authors, buy their books or look for their online presence. If you’ve had good luck with a website or blogger, check them out again.
Over time, you will develop a sense if a recipe is one you’d like to try. And this is good news! Nothing beats a great recipe and a home cooked meal.