Sunday, August 1, 2010

How to Read my Recipes

You might notice some of my past recipes won't meet all of these criteria, I'll go back and change them where I can. And from here on out I'll do my best to stick to this message. Read on . . .

A recipe can be a tricky beast; one day your best friend; the next, a plate of inedible smudge. What is a recipe? Why do we have them, and what’s the best approach?

In an ideal world a recipe is a template that can be recreated over and over with perfect consistency, but nature doesn’t give us perfectly consistent ingredients to work with. So, in reality it’s just a guideline, a rough draft of a dish that one must edit with every publication.

In writing recipes, I try hard to find the best middle ground. Giving the cook enough info for inspiration, but with room for preferential variation. So keep in mind that I think of my recipes as foundations on which to build. Read them knowing that I hope you take license, and let me know if it works (or if it doesn’t). My goal with Grill-A-Chef is to encourage people to cook, and that takes a little experimentation and awareness. As the cook it’s your job to adjust for nature’s inconsistency, and whenever possible, enjoy the variations it provides. All too often someone becomes hell-bent on recreating some dish or meal that made an impression, and we forget to appreciate what we’re eating while we’re eating it.

The Problem: Quantities

They’re where every recipe starts, but how do you decipher an amount? One recipe might say “4 medium potatoes”. In this instance, the quantity used can vary greatly with the size of the potato. Not to mention the problem that the word “medium” poses. How big is medium potato? And is that relative to all potatoes in the world, or just in the pile of potatoes at your market? Another recipe might say “3 cups of potatoes, cut into ½ inch cubes.” This is a much more specific quantity, but how many potatoes will this require when shopping? And what do you do with the remaining potatoes, some of which are partially cut up already?

My Solution:

It may seem counter intuitive but the way I write recipes varies completely. It’s purely circumstantial. If I say “4 medium potatoes” the required amount is somewhat elastic and the recipe more about technique than anything else. If I say, “3 cups of potatoes, cut into ½ inch cubes,” then you need that amount to get closer to the recipe’s objective. In both cases I include a weight approximation for clarification.

The Problem: The elusive ingredient.

Unfortunately, some ingredients are simply unavailable in certain areas or at certain times. But often a simple substitution can be made for a hard to find component.

Can't find purple shiso?

My solution:

Whenever possible I try to spot these specialty ingredients and throw out a few ideas for options what might be more readily available. ………..

A Sub-Problem: Semi-superfluous Ingredients

I have to mention one of my recipe pet peeves: the ingredient that you have to buy a whole container of for just one teaspoon, especially if it’s perishable.

A teaspoon of quark? Really?

My sub-solution:

I’m a professional, so my pantry has a plethora of rare items that I use regularly. Still, I try to recognize these when they come up in my recipes and isolate them as optional.

In other words, I try to avoid putting the cook in a position where she has buy something she’ll never use again.

The Problem: Vague or incomplete cooking step descriptions.

You have all of your ingredients ready to go, the pan is hot – the oil is smoking. The cook in question is staring at the recipe transfixed on a step. Like a deer in headlights wondering what exactly, does the word “sauté” means?

Execution of a recipe can vary exponentially. People have different stovetops, different pots and pans, even different lighting under which they see the food. They cook perceiving all of these variables from different frames of reference. Oversimplified recipe steps like “Sauté the onions.” can undo the author’s original intentions and leave the cook with a less than savory result.

My Solution:

Over time my goal has become has become to include three factors in each cooking step of a recipe.

  • approximate heat range (medium, medium high, high, etc)
  • approximate range of time at said heat range (3-4 min)
  • a description of what senses this step might stimulate (listen for sizzling, sniff for this aroma etc.)
  • most importantly a description for what this step should yield before moving to the next step. (translucent vegetables as opposed to slightly crispy vegetables that are blistered in a hot pan, etc)

The problem: Seasoning

In many recipes advice on seasoning isn’t mentioned. Some recipes call for specific amounts of salts, but I find it seldom works out. In my opinion it’s never enough, but in reality salt level is such a matter of circumstance, preference and/or medical necessity.

My Solution:

I put this ball in the cook’s court. I always assume the cook is tasting as she goes and seasoning as she sees fits. This is a principal rule in cooking. I’m always surprised when people follow recipe steps to a “T” and are disappointed at the results. Cooking is NOT a passive endeavor. If you’re going to get in the kitchen and get dirty, you have to take the reigns and adjust as you go.

And never forget, no matter where you find the recipe, or how great your ingredients, if you don’t season well, flavors won’t reach their full potential.


  1. Great article. I'm a chef and people ask me for recipes, and since I don't measure when I cook, it's hard to say how much of something you need, especially the salt and pepper. I try to explain to people that you have to go with the flow and taste the food. I think this article sums up alot of recipe questions being answered.

  2. Thanks for writing that Josh. I love it when recipes say, "just before the water comes to a boil"! Listen, smell, watch, and taste the food!

  3. I grew some purple shiso in my backyard... quite easy to grow. they kind of took over my yard lol.

  4. One problem, especially when cooking international cuisines, is figuring out how to "fix" things when they don't turn out the way you expect it to, or worse yet, when you don't know what it should taste like.

    For example, Josh recently posted a recipe with kale. I've never had kale, so I don't know what it tastes like, but it would be a bit painful for Josh to describe its taste. I suppose you could try to find a restaurant that serves kale (where?) and see how it tastes in a restaurant setting or just cook it and take your chances.

    Ultimately, I think this is why shows like American Idol succeed. It is a show about singing and performance (i.e., sight and sound) where cooking shows are about sight and taste and smell, which you can't send over a TV.

    A cookbook probably needs two sections, one for basic technique, which you refer to when someone says "Saute" and the recipe itself, otherwise, you repeat the same information in every recipe.

  5. This is a great point clin, and something I considered when thinking through this whole thing.
    Many cookbooks (good ones anyways) have this section, but people skip over them and go straight for the recipe. Also the recipes are often removed from their context and so cease to make complete sense.
    I see it all of the time and was just looking for a way to get around it a little bit.

  6. When I read the title of your post on the HuffPost I said "Is this the post I've been waiting for?" This really hits a nerve for me. I recently started a food/recipe blog called My inspiration for starting the blog was 2 parts, 1) was to inspire people to cook much like you and 2)to address the mind blowingness of how ignorant some recipes in cookbooks are in how they were written and the extreme lack of pictures they provide (or most of them for that matter). I saw that the blogging medium offers a quality that print books cannot provide which is the inclusion of descriptive pictures and lots of them. Like many of your posts, my recipes include high quality, in-depth pictures of prep and cooking as I cook my dishes (love ur pictures BTW). And as mentioned before, since I don't measure salt and pepper and many other things...its very difficult for me to include measurements and then explain to people that you don't need to follow exactly and should always be tasting to see if your flavor is there.
    This article brought to mind many of the other difficulties that are present in recipe writing and reading and its something that I been desperately wanting to solve and the points you provided give us some very strong insights into some of the issues beyond the obvious that we (as people trying to get more people to cook) need to address in order to break down the wall of intimidation many people feel about making a recipe their own and not following it word for word like and instruction manual for a model airplane.
    As I continue my journey in the recipe writing world, I will keep referring to the points you brought up in this article and will continually strive to innovate recipe writing, as we all should be. I will be following your work....good luck and thank you!

  7. What a great and thoughtful post about recipes.
    One little the last solution you refer to the cook as "she", which I am sure is true in the vast majority of cases, but where does that leave us guys who like to cook ?
    Anyway, it is a good and level headed approach to recipes.
    And I love to read recipes.

  8. as someone who has written two cookbooks-baking specifically, i can't agree with you more!

    alisa huntsman

  9. I learned to cook without salt as my father had extremely high blood pressure. So I always used herbs mrs dash is what I use as a substitute in recipes make the dish twice one the way you make it try the second plate with dash or herbs. I learned to make everything this way as my husband liked salt.


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