What do you consider to be a “good” recipe? What criteria do you use to say that a recipe worked and the end result was a success?
Is it about the complexity of flavors? The smoothness of the final soup or the light and airy texture of a homemade bread? Did the soufflé rise properly or is the skin perfectly crisp on the fried chicken? Was the dish well seasoned or did it need some tweaking?
When do you put the asterisk by the recipe, pinch the page or bookmark it on the computer to make it again? Just how many of the recipes you make will you ever make again? If you were to look at the photograph above, you might want to make that recipe. Think again. It lacked flavor and the directions did not work at all.
Today I was going to write a recipe post complete with lovely colorful photographs. A pasta dish. Beautifully plated and seasonally perfect. Delicate egg pasta with a luscious sauce and summer’s freshest vegetables. Just a bit of lightly sautéed prosciutto added at the end to enhance the flavors and give contrast to the dish. Finished with a sprinkle of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. A delightful dish to serve to guests on a warm summer evening with a crisp dry white wine and a loaf of warm and crusty French bread.
Would you like to join us for dinner? Doesn’t this meal and pasta dish sound incredible? I thought so, too. Hours of standing on my sore ankle in a hot kitchen and piles of dirty pots, pans and kitchen gadgets later, I had very different thoughts. The recipe didn’t work. At all. So, we drank the wine.
I realize cooking is not a science. Baking yes, but cooking no. Recipes are generally an outline. You need to taste and improvise to suite your own preferences. However, when I come across a recipe that appeals to me in a reputable food magazine, especially when it was created by a well-known chef, I expect it to work and have at least some flavor.
I purchase and use high quality ingredients when I cook and bake and I spend countless hours trying out what I would expect to be “good” recipes. I can usually tell by looking at the list of ingredients and the techniques for combing these ingredients what will work and what won’t. However, I cannot tell you how many times we have been completely disappointed by the final dish. The recipes that make it to Bunkycooks are one in three or maybe even one in four that I have tried. Most fail to impress and it is difficult to find one that I can recommend preparing at home.
One kitchen nightmare story that I have shared several times with friends is from a baking recipe two years ago at Christmas. I just had ankle surgery and was restless from lying around and decided to bake this gorgeous cake from one of the food magazines I had been perusing while recovering. Mr. B took me to the grocery store and I spent almost $50.00 purchasing fine white chocolate, hazelnuts, organic heavy cream, espresso powder and other ingredients for this cake.
I hobbled around the kitchen while my foot and ankle swelled in the boot, but I was determined to make this cake. The cake didn’t rise and I assumed I had made a mistake so, I made the cake again. It turned out the same way both times. While I knew there was no leavening agent in the cake recipe, I assumed the recipe was correct. Obviously it was not. It was hard as a rock and not at all like cake. It could have been used as a discus in the upcoming Olympics.
The white chocolate mousse curdled. The hazelnut brittle seized up and would not cook properly. I was frustrated, angry and sore. I went online to see if there were any comments about the recipe. Yes. Several. The exact same things had happened to other people attempting to make this recipe at home. I left my comments and sent a message to the editor of this well-established magazine. I never heard a word from them.
The white chocolate curls and hazelnuts for finishing the cake sit in my basement refrigerator to this day. I never needed them since the cake never was completed. I still get angry thinking about the waste. Who tested that recipe? Anyone? Can you imagine the number of people that spent the same amount of money on ingredients and took precious time making the components of that cake to end up with no dessert for guests at a holiday gathering?
There are countless recipes floating around on the internet, cookbooks galore, cooking shows, millions of food blogs and numerous food magazines. Everyone has a cookbook these days. How do you decide which of these resources to trust for recipes? Have the recipes been made and tested by a panel of taste testers for feedback? Have they been prepared by several different people in different kitchens and settings to see if the results are the same?
Many chefs don’t have recipes, per se, so when they actually write down a recipe, they will tell you that it needs to be worked through and adjusted for home use. Their cookbooks require quite a bit of testing and recipe alteration for a home cook to have success with them.
How are the food magazines handling all of the recipes that they publish each month? Are they all tested by their staff or do they trust that the people submitting them are doing the due diligence? What happens when one falls through the cracks and isn’t tested? My cake from Christmas 2010.
What about some of the food blogs that crank out new recipes almost daily? Did these recipes work for them just once? Did they have anyone else test the recipe? Who is to say that they will work again that way or be successful for someone else?
Ingredients are expensive and time is precious. Neither should be wasted. I think that any of us writing about food and giving recipes to our readers need to be mindful of that. Whether you are “adapting” a recipe from another source or are creating your own recipe, it needs to be reliable. A recipe is about the food and not about the pretty pictures that accompany it, although those are important too. It needs to be good and it needs to work. Every single time.
I have heard some recipe developers, under time constraints, make a dish and after the dish is done they adjust the proportions of ingredients but do not make it again. They are guessing at what would improve the taste or flavor without testing it to be certain.
Some recipes are quite simple and require only a few ingredients. These recipes probably do not require as much testing. As long as you use great ingredients and the instructions are accurate, the flavors should be good with minimal adjustment. What tends to happen with many recipes that are more complex and require more ingredients, numerous steps and are designed to build layers of flavors, is that they seem to have more of a tendency to break down and the flavors get lost. This could be because the proportions are off, ingredients are missing from the recipe or the process of building the flavors is flawed. Whatever the reason, the photograph may be beautiful but the flavor is missing.
There are several cookbook authors and chefs whose recipes are spot on. Every time. I go to them when I know I want something dependable and am not in the mood to experiment or take chances. It is too costly to take too many chances, especially as our food becomes more expensive.
I spent a great deal of time, money and effort last evening to be completely disappointed with the results. Yes, I adjusted the ingredients and seasonings and added a bit more prosciutto, grated Parmesan cheese and fresh basil. I tweaked the sauce and kept tasting for salt and pepper, but the robust level of flavor I had anticipated was missing. It was flat. The flavors did not work together. At all. This was not a basic dish. This was complex and involved and I expected far more from it.
I often wonder if people visit websites and cookbooks to look at the pictures or if they visit to find recipes they will actually make at home. One of the great joys of writing a food blog is receiving emails and chatting with friends that make recipes from Bunkycooks and having them say how much they enjoyed it. I hope that the recipes you find here will live up to your expectations.
As more and more people enter into this cooking and blogging arena and more recipes flood the internet and bookshelves, what criteria will you use to determine your sources for recipes? What do you consider to be a “good” recipe?