Recipes: Recipes are not assembly manuals. You can’t use them the way you use instructions to put together your grill or the rec room ping pong table. Recipes are guides and suggestions for a process that is infinitely nuanced. Recipes are sheet music. A Bach Cello suite can be performed at a beginner’s level or given extraordinary interpretation by Yo Yo Ma—same notes/ingredients, vastly different outcomes.
How to use a good recipe. First read it and think about it. Cook it in your mind. Envision what it will look like when you serve it. Try to know the outcome before you begin. Read a recipe all the way through not only to understand it generally, but to make your work more efficient and to avoid making errors or taking unnecessary steps. Perhaps a dough needs to chill for an hour in the middle of a preparation, perhaps meat needs to be salted for 24 hours, or a liquid must be simmered then cooled. The recipe suggests adding the flour, baking powder and salt one at a time, but perhaps you can combine all the dry ingredients ahead of time while you’re waiting for the butter to get to room temperature so you can cream it with the eggs. Taking a few minutes to read a recipe, acting out each step in your mind as you do, will save you time and prevent errors.
Measure out or prep all your ingredients before you begin. Don’t mince your onion just before you need to put it in the pan, have it minced and in a container ready to go, have that cup of milk and half cup of sugar set out before you. Good mise en place makes the process easier and more pleasurable and the result tastier than preparing a recipe with no mise en place.
If you’re unsure about an instruction, use your common sense. You’ve already imagined in your head what the goal is. Work toward that goal using all your senses.
How to perfect a good recipe. Do it over again. And again. Pay attention. Do it again. That’s what chefs do. Often great cooking is simply the result of having done it over and over and over while paying attention. Great cooking is as much about sheer repetition as it is about natural skill or culinary knowledge.
This entry (which Heidi also posted in her review) was a last minute inclusion Elements, a request from my editor as I recall. The fact is, I like to say that I don’t like recipes and I don’t like cookbooks. But that’s not strictly true. I don’t like a cook’s reliance on recipes. We can learn many things from a good recipe and the best recipes help us to see and understand cooking in a new way. But when we use them as construction manuals, I think they may do more harm than good.
The above images are of one of my favorite cookbooks, The Every-Day Cook-Book and Encyclopedia of Practical Recipes, written it seems by a Midwestern woman, Miss E. Neil, and published in the late 19th century. I love Miss E.’s recipe writing style and the recipe fromat, which is often how Elizabeth David wrote hers.
Chicken pot pie, by the way, remains a great way to use that left over chicken and stock that you made from the carcass of your roasted chicken—you could even thicken it with some of that beurre manié or of course a roux, which would make the most sense. I think pot pies bit the dust in American cooking when Swanson’s started selling frozen ones. Are pot pies sold like this anymore? I do know that frozen puff paste is sold and makes a perfect cover for a pot pie, which is an enormously satisfying dish when prepared with good stock.