There are millions and millions of recipes online these days. I tried Googling 'easy chicken soup recipe' and found 6,060,000 results. If you made one of these chicken soup recipes every day, it would take you over 16,000 YEARS to make them all. That's a lot of soup!
My point is, these days, anything you feel like cooking, you can find a ton of different recipes to choose from. Pretty amazing.
I love browsing my favorite websites looking for ideas or inspiration. Any time I come across something that looks like it'll be a winner at dinnertime, I just add it to my Recipes bookmark folder. Right now I have about 100 recipes bookmarked, waiting to make it to my kitchen table. I love trying new recipes and I try to make something new once a week.
But, I wonder, can recipes sometimes hurt your meal? Can following a recipe so closely actually do more harm than good?
My Recipe Fail
A few weeks ago, my Dad was over (not to see me, of course, to see his granddaughter), and we decided to try a recipe from a new cooking magazine, Milk Street (which is excellent by the way). Now, normally, we don't really 'follow' recipes too carefully. I'm not sure what inspired us, but this day we really stuck to it. We had to make a few tweaks along the way, and there were a few head-scratching moments, so we defaulted to follow the recipe instead of our intuition. And you know what happened? It didn't come out that good.
I have a few theories why, but what it really comes down to is: recipes are created and developed in a carefully controlled environment. Recipe developers measure every ingredient exactly. They test the recipe multiple times. They (I assume) use the best ingredients they can find, take their time preparing each component, and are very well organized.
For home cooks, this just isn't possible. Even with all the preparation and attention to detail in the world, you're unlikely to follow a recipe 100% as it is written. Ingredients are different. Pots and pans are different. Even your oven is different.
And that's ok. In my opinion, most of the fun of cooking comes from improvising, from turning a recipe into your own, something unique and fleeting and delicious.
I've put together some red flags to look for, that can cause your dish to go off the rails. By learning to trust your gut, rather than the recipe, you can help make your meal turn out excellent, and have some fun along the way.
#1 - When the recipe is vague
Sticking with the "easy chicken soup recipe" theme, I looked at the first 3 recipes on Google. I wanted to see how a simple recipe could be written in different ways. And depending on how specific, vague, or even confusing those directions are, your meal could be affected. Let's take a look at some of the ingredients:
1 medium onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, sliced into 1/4" thick slices
2 medium carrots, sliced into 1/4" thick rounds
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 cup sliced carrots
3 onions, thinly sliced
2 celery stalks, sliced crosswise 1/4" thick
6 medium carrots, sliced 1/2" thick
We can see pretty big differences in these recipes. Both the All Recipes and Food Network recipes call for "chopped" onion, but I wonder chopped how? Big pieces? Small pieces? What’s “chopped” to me might not mean the same thing for you. Martha's recipe is more detailed and specific, telling us to "thinly slice" the onions, and cut carrots and celery to a specific thickness.
Also, how big is a 'medium' onion? In the All Recipes version, you have a set amount, 1/2 cup chopped onion. But in the other two, they call for "1 medium onion" or "3 onions", and depending on where you live and where you shop, you could get really different amounts.
Trust your gut. Think about the recipe when it's finished. Picture your ingredients. How much onion is there? How big do you think the carrots should be in your soup? Do you like having huge 2-bite pieces of carrots? That's great, cut them chunky. Do you prefer small pieces of all the veggies so you can fit several on your spoon? That's fine too!
Can't picture what the recipe should look like? My trick, look up some pictures. You might have one picture on your recipe's web page, but doing a quick Google search will give you hundreds more. What looks the tastiest to you? Try to mimic that.
#2 - When your spices are old
I'm not sure if I'm supposed to admit this, but I've got some old-ass spices in my cabinet. I know... call the food police! How can someone who claims to be a decent cook, and dare to WRITE about food, have sub-par ingredients?!
Well, truth is, I'm human. I'm also a human that has a bit of a problem buying too many spices. There was a period of time where for work I travelled to an office down the street from Penzeys, one of the greatest spice stores I've ever seen. So, naturally, every time I was in town, I'd take a lunch-time stroll down to Penzeys and load up on whatever seemed interesting. While I definitely planned to put everything to use, ya know, life happened, and that's how you end up with a 4-year old jar of Turmeric in your cabinet!
Spices have a shelf life, just like pretty much every other food (except perhaps Twinkies and McDonalds). Ground spices start to lose their flavor and pungency the moment they are ground, and according to Cook's Illustrated, they have a shelf life of about 1 year. Whole spices last a little longer, about 2 years. And dried herbs are also said to have a shelf life of about 1 year.
My general rule of thumb, when I'm using old-as-dirt spices in a recipe, just add more. A pinch more, 50% more, double it, whatever you want, use your judgment. This is especially useful when making a dish that already relies heavily on spices, like a chili, stew, or curry. You may want to be a little more cautious when using old spicy spices like cayenne pepper. Don't be afraid to taste your spices, rub them between your fingers and take a good whiff, before you start cooking. And as a bonus, the more of these old spices you use, the faster you'll use them up.
#3 - When making substitutions
How many times have you ACTUALLY gotten all the ingredients for a recipe, precisely and exactly as the recipe called for? Me, honestly I think just a handful of times, one of them baking my wedding cake. Maybe.
When you're making substitutions to the ingredients in a recipe, naturally you can expect some changes to the instructions as well. Ingredients behave differently in a recipe, and so you may need to treat those ingredients differently as well.
Take our chicken soup example from earlier. Let's say your celery has seen better days, so you decide to substitute fennel, or celery root. Fennel has a similar texture and crunch to celery, but it's flavor is stronger, so you may want to use less. Celery root has a similar flavor to celery, but it's a hard root vegetable, so you'll want to chop it smaller like your carrots and cook for longer.
The same goes for substituting spices. If you absolutely hate cilantro, and want to substitute parsley in a recipe, go for it!, just taste as you go to make sure the flavors are coming along well. When substituting dried herbs and spices instead of fresh, you'll want to use less, as the dried versions often have a much stronger flavor.
#4 - When the recipe is written by a non-chef
There are thousands of wonderful websites with delicious and beautiful recipes. Take this one, for example! As a dietitian, I've actually taken classes, in college, that have taught me how to write a recipe (I know!). But I'm not as good at it as a chef, or a cookbook author. And there are plenty of blogs and websites where the author has no formal training in writing recipes, they're going off of their experience and what they think looks best. That doesn't mean their recipes are bad. It just means that you might find errors, inconsistencies, or confusing bits more often.
Use your gut. If a recipe for tomato sauce calls for 4 tablespoons of salt, dial it back a bit and add more if needed. If it states to "boil potatoes until soft, about 3 hours", definitely check on them a little sooner. Read the recipe fully before starting, and try to picture each step in your mind. When something seems off, it probably is.
Share with me your biggest, baddest recipe fail! Bonus points for pictures!