When someone is first learning to cook, a common approach is to find a recipe that seems achievable and follow it. While this sounds simple enough, I know a lot of beginner cooks–and sometimes experienced ones–can get tripped up a few times along the way, resulting in less than stellar results. Here are my tips for how to follow a recipe for the best chance of success.
When you settle on a recipe, make sure you read the whole thing before you start. You don’t want to begin cooking dinner and realize you were supposed to marinate the meat overnight.
There are a few things to pay particular attention to when reading. For example, look at the way these ingredients are written:
- 1 cup of rice, cooked
- 1 cup of cooked rice
These are different amounts of rice. The first is asking you to take one cup of raw rice and cook it before using. The second wants you to take a cup of already cooked rice, which will have you adding far less rice to your recipe.
- 1 cup pecans, chopped
- 1 cup chopped pecans
The first wants you to measure out a cup of pecans and then chop them. The second asks you to chop the pecans first and then measure them.
Reading first will also help make sure you understand every step of the recipe, and that you have everything required. This way you won’t have to pause midway through cooking to work out a step you don’t quite get. More importantly, you won’t start cooking and realize you don’t have an ingredient.
Once you have a good understanding of when and how each ingredient is incorporated into your recipe, you can prepare them in advance. This allows you to manage your time better, and brings me to my next point.
Mise En Place
Mise en place is a French phrase meaning ‘put in place’. It is used to describe the preparations you can make before you even start cooking, such as chopping meat and vegetables and getting out the tools you need for your recipe.
You can cut up all your vegetables and put them in bowls depending on when they are added–if carrots and onions go into a skillet at the same time, they can go in the same bowl. This saves you from preparing ingredients while trying to keep an eye on something on the stove, and is crucial when you’re making a quick-cooking dish such as a stir fry. You won’t have time to prepare ingredients as you go, so do it in advance. I find it also makes it far less likely you’ll forget an ingredient, since it will be right in front of you.
Be Careful With Substitutions
Unless you are an experienced cook, or the recipe itself offers suitable substitutions for ingredients, it usually isn’t a good idea to make any. And if you do, you should be prepared for the recipe to fail.
There are some exceptions. For example, if you’re making a vegetable soup, you can usually substitute any vegetable with something else. Just ensure you are familiar with how long the new vegetable takes to cook, so you know when to add it.
This isn’t to say that all substitutions are bad. Many can improve a recipe! But when you are just starting out and your experience is limited, success is much less likely.
Timing Is Important
If you’ve read the recipe thoroughly, you will have some idea of how long you need to prepare it. Don’t rely too heavily on the times provided by the recipe–these are going to differ depending on your skill level. Some recipes don’t even include preparation of ingredients when they give their time estimations. If you know your knife skills aren’t the best then make sure you account for that. You can also work out what parts of the recipe can be done simultaneously–for example, in many recipes you can be cooking pasta while you prepare the sauce.
Cooking Times Are a Guide
When a recipe tells you to ‘sauté until brown’ or ‘boil until tender’, there will usually be a time given too. These numbers will often differ depending on many things, such as how well your oven heats, what kind of pans you have, the size of your potatoes, etc. That is why you’re usually told what you are looking for in the given time period.
When making a new recipe, I usually start checking for doneness at the lower end of the time given, or even under. This is a good idea, particularly if you know your oven runs hot. The next time you make the recipe, you’ll have a better idea of how long it will take.
If you think there’s a chance you’ll be making a recipe again, I encourage you to take note of any changes you’ve made that you think were for the best, or anything you could add or change to improve the recipe in future. You might find that a stir fry would really be better if you doubled the sauce, or that a cake’s texture could be improved by baking for a few minutes less.
As you grow more experienced, you will learn to taste your food and season as you go. When you are just getting started, I recommend following the recipe directions when it comes to seasoning. Only once the dish is just about done should you season to taste with salt. This is because as a dish cooks, the flavor can become more concentrated. If you salt to taste at the start, which you may be tempted to do when making a soup or stew, there’s a good chance your final dish will be too salty.
Don’t get too upset if a recipe does not turn out the way you’d hoped, or if you make a mistake along the way. If you cook often, you’ll likely experience this many times, especially at first. Learn from your mistakes, and try and improve next time.
Cooking and baking should be fun, so relax and enjoy the process!