Reading between the lines of a recipe
February 9, 2015 7:28 AM   Subscribe

What are things you know to do while cooking that is essential to success yet is not always explicit in a recipe?

I recently failed at making english muffins. They did not rise while baking. Later, I read a recipe/blog about something else entirely that happened to mention the twisting thing, and I went "ah ha, that's what I did wrong." I was frustrated that it wasn't mentioned in the recipe, but it must be really obvious to people who know what they're doing.

I come from generations of folks who don't know much about cooking, and although I have picked up a thing or two through the years, I wonder what things are obvious to other people that I'm missing?
posted by slipthought to Food & Drink (70 answers total) 111 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't exactly what you asked but I too come from such a family and although for years I've been able to cook pretty well using recipes and practicing, it wasn't until I started reading Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything books that I started to get a handle on how you might be able to cook without a recipe or alter recipes to suit yourself.
posted by janey47 at 7:34 AM on February 9, 2015 [9 favorites]

Best answer: For some ungodly reason every recipe says "caramelize onions for 5 minutes." Caramelizing onions takes fucking forever. Like 30-45 minutes. SUCH LIES.

Someone who has never caramelized onions will look at a recipe that includes them and say, oh, I can make this in 20 mins. Someone with the experience knows they need at least an hour.
posted by phunniemee at 7:39 AM on February 9, 2015 [72 favorites]

Adding enough salt. It is a mystery to me why so many cookbooks don't at least give you a rough estimate of how much salt is needed, instead just writing "to taste." If you aren't an experienced cook, it's really hard to know what that means.
posted by something something at 7:40 AM on February 9, 2015 [9 favorites]

Best answer: More fat, more salt, more heat. The absence of adequate amounts of these is a big part of why inexpertly cooked food comes out kind of blah. The heat part of the equation is something I only realized a couple of years ago, but that whole maillard reaction thing cooks obsess over really is a big deal.

Room temperature is the default temperature for your ingredients. Using refrigerated ingredients can make them harder to work with or harder to cook evenly. Of course, with some ingredients the opposite is true, but keeping in mind the starting temperature of your ingredients can help.

Patting dry cuts of meat before they go on the stove or in the oven. Helps reduce the amount of energy and time it takes to start browning the meat. Makes it a lot easier to get a nice looking crust on meats.
posted by skewed at 7:41 AM on February 9, 2015 [24 favorites]

Oven rack position is important. I wondered why the oven in my new apartment kept burning stuff when I'd never had that problem before; turns out the rack was too high.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:41 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

That may just be a function that recipe being poorly written. I don't know what "twisting thing" you're talking about, actually, and I kind of suspect that a better-written recipe would have explained that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:43 AM on February 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Aren't you going to tell us what the "twisting thing" is?

- Room temperature meat is less likely to stick to a pan than cold meat.
- If you use aluminum foil, shiny side towards the food to reflect the heat back.
- Speaking of foil, it cools instantly, so if you put foil in the oven, it's safe to touch as soon as you want to. It won't be hot.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:43 AM on February 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

My baked goods turned out way better when I realized that extensively mixing the dry ingredients eliminated pockets of baking soda in an otherwise tasty muffin or cake.

I also underestimate how long it takes to prep ingredients, so reading through the recipe at least twice and then doing any prep before turning on the oven/burner prevented things from getting overcooked.
posted by Twicketface at 7:44 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

When it comes to making cookies, the temperature of the dough is important. Dough that's too warm will cause your cookies to spread. This can be really frustrating if you're working in a kitchen that's already warm from the preheated oven! This page provides more helpful info about this.
posted by neushoorn at 7:50 AM on February 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you are baking, it's worth reading the introduction to the Magnolia Bakery cookbook. They give a long list of pointers that I was unaware of but really changed the quality of my cakes. I can't remember them all right now but one was to mix the wet ingredients way way longer than you think is necessary and only then add the dry ingredients. It makes for a silky smooth cake.
posted by janey47 at 7:50 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

For years I thought fluffy mashed potatoes must entail vigorous whisking, yet mine were always gluey instead. Finally somebody gave me a ricer, along with the instructions to stir gently and only as much as is needed to blend the butter, milk, etc. That was a revelation to me.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 7:53 AM on February 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry, I over-edited my question before posting.

When cutting biscuit dough, you're supposed to push and lift. If you twist, it seals the edges and prevents rising while baking.
posted by slipthought at 7:54 AM on February 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If you measure flour by scooping it from the bag with your measuring cup, you're doing it wrong - scooping packs down the flour and results in overmeasuring.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:56 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is pretty basic but the oven should be at full temperature before the food (especially cakes/cookies/delicate floury things that rise) go into it. Sometimes it won't be at that temperature even if you turned it on before mixing the ingredients together. Also, a lot of ovens aren't calibrated correctly. Oven thermometers are useful.
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:57 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think by far the most basic things that are inadequately communicated in recipes (and that trip up beginning cooks) are how much heat to use and how much browning to aim for. I think watching some good cooking shows (rather than just using books) can help with this because you can actually see what they're doing. Of the ones I've seen I'd say ATK is the best in terms of explaining things.
posted by madmethods at 7:57 AM on February 9, 2015

Ah, that's what I just thought you maybe meant by "twisting thing". And yes, a better-written recipe WOULD have clarified that; so this may not be a matter of Non-Obvious Arcane Knowledge, it may be a matter of the recipe you followed was poorly written.

For the record, that also applies to puff pastry. Which it is totally fine to buy frozen, because it's a hell of a thing to make from scratch.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:57 AM on February 9, 2015

Possibly too basic, but it took me forever to learn: a lot of recipes list the "time required" assuming you already have all your ingredients prepped as indicated in the ingredient list (veggies chopped, flour sifted, etc). I kept starting with whole/unprepped ingredients and wondering why it kept taking me 30 minutes to get through a 15 minute recipe.
posted by dorque at 8:01 AM on February 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

Splendid Table has a checklist for how to spot a good recipe that might be helpful for the future.
posted by statsgirl at 8:03 AM on February 9, 2015 [7 favorites]

The onion issue phunniemee mentions is a big tip-off that one is dealing with a poorly written recipe. Same with most recipes that want you to just fling in uncooked onions whenever; there aren't a lot of cooked dishes where the onions aren't improved by a good saute first.

I know "adjust seasonings to taste" is a puzzle for a lot (noting here something something's complaint about salt). Press on. Taste your thing as it is going through its various stages. If you make a recipe with X, Y and Z added for flavour, taste it after adding these, and taste it again as it's nearing completion and consider adding more of X/Y/Z. Last night I made a thing with tomatoes, onions, and legumes. I tasted. Blah. I added pretty simple things -- sugar, salt, a few kinds of vinegar, sriracha. Then I ate gobs right out of the pot. It was a reminder about how important a tsp of this and a tbsp of that is, and why some boring slops of basic ingredients are boring slops and some boring slops of basic ingredients are 'I must go to this restaurant again all the time for the rest of my life.'

Not all recipes are created equal. A lot of the internet is "I made this once and it came out better than Hamburger Helper so I figured it was worth sharing." Steer clear of that except for inspiration. Actual printed cookbooks have an advantage over blogs. Same with magazines like Good Housekeeping and Canadian Living that enthuse about how tested their recipes are; amateur recipes don't always work out in different kitchens.

I really like Cook's Illustrated for one's first trip out with making a particular dish because they explain their rationale for each ingredient and each step in such tedious detail. As with Lego sets, art, and fashion, it is best to know the rules for the expected result before you abandon the directions and start going your own way with it.
posted by kmennie at 8:07 AM on February 9, 2015 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Oven temperatures are tricky and many home recipes suffer for it.

Ovens can be off from the setpoint by a large margin. At 325F, the acutal oven temperature might be 275F or 375F. This makes a difference to everything from cookies to roasts.

Ovens frequently have hot and cold spots. The most consistent spot in an oven is dead centre of the middle rack position.

Air flow is also really important in oven. Fill an oven too much and the hot and cold spots get worse. Convention ovens can help even things out, but aren't perfect.

How to fix? Buy a cheap ($5) oven thermometer and hang it off your centre rack to check how far out of whack your oven is. Secondly, cook all meats with an internal thermometer rather than judging by time only.
posted by bonehead at 8:08 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Mise en place.
Nothing makes a greater difference than gathering all your ingredients beforehand. Well, that and adjusting seasoning as you go.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:08 AM on February 9, 2015 [20 favorites]

One thing that people don't tell you is that the color and material of your bakeware will have an effect on what you're cooking. Dark bakeware requrires less baking time than shiny bakeware. (weird, right?)

When cooking meat, let it rest off the heat for 5 to 10 minutes before slicing it.

Use a good vanilla extract, certainly not imitation.

If you're making biscuits or pie crust, don't over work your dough, just manipulate it until it hangs together.

The kind of flour matters, cake flour, all purpose flour. Two different things. Measure AFTER sifting.

If you've burned the garlic, toss it and start over. It gets bitter.

There are lots of substitutions, learn them and love them. Cocoa Powder and butter for baker's chocolate. Lemon juice or vinegar in regular milk for buttermilk. My favorite, you can make a cake with mayonnaise if you don't have eggs. This is a thing worth knowing.

You would love the America's Test Kitchen Cookbook because it explains everything.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:12 AM on February 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

Recipes always assume you can prep much faster than most home cooks can, and that your pans and ovens heat up much faster. As a result, time estimates tend to be very wrong.
posted by smackfu at 8:13 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Making food even sizes during prep, before cooking.

Food chopped to the same size will cook at an even rate, giving a consistent level of doneness to a dish. Big chunks and little means that part of the food will be uncooked while other parts may be over done. Chopping to equal sizes is important to get the same taste and texture through a dish. It's particularly important to veg, but also to cut meats in stir fries and sauces.

You can use this to your adavantage if you prefer somethings a bit less cooked than others too.
posted by bonehead at 8:14 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I like Alton Brown's Good Eats (the TV show) for this. His recipes don't always work for me and I usually ignore them, but seeing him cook the food and warn you about the things the recipe doesn't say is invaluable.

For baking, a scale for measuring will significantly improve both ease and accuracy of measuring. They are cheap and well worth it.

Fully sifting flour for anything not bread -- this is frequently skipped but it makes a huge difference. Sure, we no longer have to sift out weevils, but the texture and fully mixing the leavening both will make a difference.

When pan-searing meat on a stove top, I always have issues leaving the meat alone long enough to get a sear. I finally improved when I read someone (Alton Brown, in fact, I think) who pointed out that meat should be almost burning when you move it. If the meat is stuck to the pan, it generally isn't ready to be flipped yet.

Calibrate your oven, and use thermometers early and often in all kinds of cooking. Ideally everyone should have at least a probe thermometer or instant read, and I use an infrared as well (available for cheap on Amazon).

ALSO -- kitchen tongs are awesome -- the kind that look like 1980s salad bar tongs, not the bent metal tongs. They seem kind of pointless until you buy them, at which time you discover that they have zillions of uses.
posted by pie ninja at 8:15 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Adding enough salt. It is a mystery to me why so many cookbooks don't at least give you a rough estimate of how much salt is needed, instead just writing "to taste."

Yes, we recently made a vegetable soup recipe that had five cups of water and said "salt to taste." Since we already know soup should be salty, we added a lot of salt, but if you didn't know and just added a pinch, it would have been junk.
posted by smackfu at 8:17 AM on February 9, 2015

Best answer: When a recipe for baked goods has "Preheat oven to X degrees" as the first item, do it first! I had no idea the ordering was important, so I made a lot of flat cakes that were busy rising too early (and falling down again) while I was waiting for the oven to heat up. Time and raising agents wait for no man.

When the recipe says "knead the thing", knead it to within an inch of its life. When it is a pastry recipe, mix it minimally and delicately, and that includes any rolling and cutting.

Sift all the dry ingredients.

Oil the spoon before measuring the honey or treacle.

"Tablespoon" means 15ml exactly, not the contents of some random large spoon shaped item from the back of your drawer.

If the recipe is for a big stew thing, improvise to your heart's content, substitute ingredients, add more or less of things. If the recipe is for baked goods, follow it precisely and do not even veer from the imperial side to the metric side.

Learn some knife skills (see Youtube) and everything will go so much quicker and safer.

"To taste" means you actually taste it.
posted by emilyw at 8:18 AM on February 9, 2015 [9 favorites]

As a general rule, baking is different from other kinds of cooking. With most recipes for most things (like dinner dishes), you have some pretty wide tolerances for improvising/changing things. Substituting a spice, cooking at a slightly wrong temp, or changing an ingredient quantity might make the dish taste a little weird, but it's not going to totally ruin it.

But baking recipes are much less forgiving. With baking, you really want to measure things, sift things, handle the dough/batter firmly or gently depending, and don't substitute unless you know what you're doing (or at least, doublecheck your substitution online and see if it will work).
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:20 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: -Read the entire recipe before starting
-Ignore times stated
-Start going by smell -- "Add garlic and saute for about 1 minute" = add garlic and saute until it smells garlicky
-When in doubt, add more salt
-Room temperature ingredients are generally preferred; however, when making pastry (pie crust, scones, etc), you want cold butter
-Pay attention to the equipment the recipe uses and adjust accordingly -- times/temps will be different for a pie baked in a glass dish vs a metal dish
-One cup flour, sifted is not the same thing as one cup sifted flour (same for any instruction like chopped, strained, packed, etc.)
-Learn your equipment -- Test your oven temp!
-Spend time on prep/mise en place
-Buy high quality ingredients - if it's bad going in, it will be bad coming out.
-Sharpen/steel your knives
-Don't overcrowd the pan, especially when trying to get a good sear; same for deep frying (adding too much at once will drop the temp of the oil)
-Eggs have sizes; pay attention to the egg size, if specified. A jumbo egg will add more liquid to your recipe than a medium egg
-Parchment paper
posted by melissasaurus at 8:24 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yes, salt. And not just enough-- constantly. Salt when you sautee the onions. Salt when you add other aromatics. And for pete's sake, salt the meat before searing it. And then at the end, of course.

If the recipe gives weights, use them. If it doesn't, use another recipe. (Ok, this is mostly for anything containing flour. ChefSteps takes it to the extreme.)

Also, ignore any recipe that says to transfer contents to the blender. Get one of these instead. (Or get a Vitamix. Then -- and only then -- it's worth the trouble of transferring it.)
posted by supercres at 8:27 AM on February 9, 2015

Add more oil and salt. Wait, then taste. OK, now add a little more. Taste again. Taste constantly. Don't burn your tongue!

1 Tbsp vital wheat gluten + rest of the measuring cup filled with all-purpose flour = 1 cup bread flour.

If you're making a recipe that includes any kind of dry spices, mix them all together in a little bowl until they're thoroughly blended, wait until your aromatics (onion, garlic, carrots, celery, etc.) have been cooking for ~5 minutes, then add the spices and bloom/temper them in the hot oil over medium heat for about 30-60 seconds.

Start all of your regional cooking adventures with a holy trinity/mirepoix and build up from there.

When you're baking, always follow the recipe exactly as written. When you're cooking, never follow the recipe exactly as written.
posted by divined by radio at 8:38 AM on February 9, 2015 [6 favorites]

"To taste" means you actually taste it.

Taste everything, if it's safe, and adjust as needed. I used to make food like the kitchen was a chemistry lab, and things were always coming out weird even though I followed the recipes exactly. Too bland, too spicy, too watery -- who knew! Certainly not me, as I sat down with what I could only hope was a tasty food. Honestly I'm kind of embarrassed about this because I suspect that everyone else ever knows better but in case not, let me tell you: periodic sampling improves the final dish much more than precisely weighing out X mg of each ingredient just because that's what the recipe calls for.
posted by teremala at 8:39 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Some more:
-Recipes with meat temperatures specified often tell you too high of an internal temp (especially for big/commercial outlets like Food Network). These temps comply with regulatory recommendations, but are often higher than the temp that results in the best taste/texture.
-In a recipe that calls for stock: if you're going to use store-bought stock, you can usually just use salt water with a dash of soy sauce and get the same or a better result. Homemade stock really is worthwhile, if you're making anything with a large proportion of stock (like soup).
-If a baking recipe contains flour: unless the recipe calls for kneading the dough at some point, mix it as little as possible.
-For rolling dough: often recipes will say "dust the work surface with a little flour" -- it's way more flour than you think will be necessary, and you will need to keep redusting as you roll it out
-Pie shells often need to be blind baked for best results

Some resources you may like:
Cooks Illustrated
On Food and Cooking
Keys to Good Cooking
posted by melissasaurus at 8:47 AM on February 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

Know the difference between using flour and cornstarch as thickeners.

I recently ran across a pastry cream recipe that called for heating milk and adding cornstarch to the hot milk right away, which was totally the wrong method. And indeed, my pastry cream did not set properly. You heat the milk, add the cornstarch to a combo of eggs and egg yolks, then temper the eggs with the hot milk, and stir that back into the rest of the hot milk left in the pan. NO boiling the cornstarch.

In general, add cornstarch to cold liquids and then incorporate those into your sauce and heat on simmer, and stir gently until thickened (a couple of minutes).

Flour won't mix well with cold liquids, so stir it into something hot (melted butter, pan drippings) and you have to cook off the raw flour flavor or your sauce or gravy will taste like raw flour.

So even tho' I knew there was something funny about just dumping cornstarch into hot milk on the stove and cooking it before adding the (cold) eggs, I followed the recipe and it failed (tho' still tasted good). Pastry cream just isn't something I make every day!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:59 AM on February 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

For mixing any fine powder into a liquid to make a sauce, e.g., flour, cocoa, cornstarch, I find it best to start with the full amount of powder and work in a small amout of the liquid/fat to wet the powder. After that, you can add the remaining liquid. That's the secret to lump-free gravy, for example.
posted by bonehead at 9:08 AM on February 9, 2015

Seconding mise en place. Also, I get out all the hardware I will need ahead of time (pans, bowls, measuring spoons, etc.). I can't tell you how many times I used to get part way into preparing a meal, and then thought "Oh no! I already used that pan for the other thing, so now I need to wash it" when I could have used a different pan for the other thing in the first place (I have a very carefully curated small kitchen).

Also, if I have a recipe for something that turns out well, like a chicken casserole, and I find a recipe for a new type of that thing, like a spicy chicken casserole, I tend to use the recipe that I know works, but add whatever is different from the new one (in this example the "spicy" seasoning, but maybe swapping out the cheese or the sauce or whatever).
posted by OrangeDisk at 9:11 AM on February 9, 2015

When a recipe calls for "whole eggs", they usually mean just the whites and yolks. No shells.
posted by yohko at 9:19 AM on February 9, 2015 [39 favorites]

1. Mise en place.

2. Taste as you go.

3. I like to consult several recipes for the same dish, more or less. That helps me understand what ingredients, times and temperatures I absolutely have to nail, and what other recipe details I can freestyle. It makes sense to me, anyway. YMMV.
posted by emelenjr at 9:20 AM on February 9, 2015 [8 favorites]

Best answer: When separating eggs, separate them one at a time into a small bowl, then transfer the egg white or yolk into the dish. Don't separate them directly into the dish, as sometimes some yolk ends up in your white and then is impossible to get out, and don't separate them all at once into the small bowl, as your first break might be clean but your next might not.

Meats should start out room temp so they don't stick to the pan. Unless you're trying to get them to stick to the pan (for example, if you want more fond in your pan sauce).

Regarding the mixing of batters - if you want a tender crumb, such as for biscuits, don't mix aggressively- it'll create too much gluten and they'll be tough. It's okay if they're not 100% homogenous- just combined, even with a few lumps.

For creaming sugar and fats together, think about your final product. Do you want it to be light and fluffy? Then cream your butter and sugar for a few minutes, not just until they combine. One of my favorite recipes from Momofuku Milk Bar has you cream your sugar and fats together for like 9 minutes or something, and the resulting concoction is very fluffy and almost white in color, since it's been quite aerated.

Always always always read the recipe through twice and make sure you have everything on hand. You don't want to be in the middle of making a finicky chocolate sauce that requires you to stand over the pan and discover your walnuts should have been chopped before adding them.

More salt. A little less sugar.
posted by rachaelfaith at 9:22 AM on February 9, 2015

smackfu has a really important point above regarding prep time. I am slow and sometimes a little klutzy and I therefore take my time when chopping, mincing, dicing, measuring, and doing similar prep work. It always takes much longer (for me, anyway) than recipe authors seem to assume that it will. Paying attention to the combination of (1) mise en place for ingredient assembly and (2) devoting adequate time to prep work will ultimately result in far more realistic estimates of the time you'll need to devote for your cooking.
posted by cheapskatebay at 9:28 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Test your baking powder, especially if it's been in the larder for a while. Test it by putting a teaspoon in a glass of hot water. If it fizzes, you're golden. If not, dump it and get some more at the store.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 9:28 AM on February 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you only bake every once in a while, you're likely to take months to go through an entire bag of flour. This is not good, as old flour will not cook well. Fresh flour is what you want. (Now, I keep all-purpose flour and cake flour in the freezer so it doesn't spoil).

Also - whole wheat flour will actually turn sour-smelling. Definitely use it very quickly, or keep it in the freezer.
posted by amtho at 9:33 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also - NEVER put chopped/diced garlic and onions into a sautée pan at the same time. Garlic browns VERY quickly, and onions, as previously mentioned, take a loooong time. I always brown onions first, then add garlic at the end.
posted by amtho at 9:35 AM on February 9, 2015 [7 favorites]

Don't put in more baking powder, or more baking soda, in order to make baked goods rise higher. The result will be the opposite of what you want. Too many bubbles means they coalesce, go up to the top too quickly, and pop, resulting in less rising.

Many respectable cookbooks tell you to use too much baking soda or baking powder. The amount needed is one teaspoon of baking powder OR one-quarter teaspoon of baking soda, per cup of flour. (One teaspoon of baking powder contains one-quarter teaspoon of baking soda.)

So, for example, if your biscuit recipe calls for two cups of flour, you can use a combination of one teaspoon of baking powder and one-quarter teaspoon of baking soda, since that adds up to enough for two cups of flour. You can use a little more, but not more than one and a quarter teaspoons of baking powder per cup of flour.

I learned this from reading Shirley Corriher. I was skeptical at first, but every recipe I've altered according to her instructions has been much improved.
posted by artistic verisimilitude at 9:38 AM on February 9, 2015 [7 favorites]

If you haven't before, it will take three hours, use every pan in the house and require two trips to the supermarket.
posted by michaelh at 9:51 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

A dissent for "add more salt than it calls for" here - I actually don't like things to be way salty. I would actually disagree with smackfu's assertion that "soup should be salty" above. But that's just it - that's what "salt to taste" means, is that you put in as much salt as you personally want it to have. And the only way to tell that is to keep tasting it yourself and figuring out as you go.

Nthing the "mise en place", but also adding the suggestion that you clean as you go. A friend of mine got me in the habit of washing dishes as I went - every time I have a down moment, whether it was "I have ten minutes before I add the next thing to the soup" or "I have a half hour before I need to take the cookies out of the oven", I'm turning to the sink and starting to wash dishes from what I've just made. This not only saves you time after you're done cooking, it also keeps you handy in the kitchen in case something weird starts happening so you know sooner, and it also makes room on the kitchen counter so you have somewhere to put the [x] when you take it out of the oven.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:52 AM on February 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for all of the answers so far.

I generally cook with both Cook's Illustrated The Science of Good Cooking and How to Cook Everything on the counter.

Actually, a good example of what I'm talking about comes from How to Cook Everything. I've made the biscuit recipe from there probably a dozen times before. But then I read about "push and lift" versus "push and twist." I made the recipe just yesterday for the first time doing push and lift, and it was AMAZING (versus just really good before). Bittman's instructions say "cut into 2 inch rounds." No mention of not twisting. :(

So, more along the line of "always sift dry ingredients," "make sure meat is dry before searing," "don't scoop flour" is what I'm looking for.

(Of course, I love any and all advice. The more you know!)
posted by slipthought at 9:52 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Any recipe is only a starting off point. Collect two or three recipes and compare ingredients and techniques before applying them to your current knowledge. If you are baking on a humid or rainy day, you will need more flour to what you are making. If you are cooking with overripe fruit, you will also need more flour and less sugar. Ovens vary so trust your nose. Use the best quality ingredients that you can find. If you are cooking with brown sugar, vanilla is redundant. Cast iron makes everything better. If your kitchen is cool, your bread will take longer to rise. If your kitchen is hot, pop candy and cookies into the fridge for a few minutes to set. Butter cream frosting is 1 stick of best quality butter with a box of powdered sugar and a couple of tablespoons of milk. Mix the butter and sugar together first, adding the milk just to bring it together. If you are using food coloring or fruit, add that before the milk to keep it from getting runny. Chicken broth makes most foods taste better, even green beans. The most useful tool in my kitchen is my offset spatula. I use it to frost cakes, lift cookies off the cookie sheet, butter bread without it tearing, and make the best peanut butter and jelly sandwiches ever. There are not failures in cooking because every mistake is a lesson learned.
posted by myselfasme at 10:09 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I just use really detailed recipes, like Rose Levy Beranbaum's, that explain everything. After a few years, her techniques (and the science behind them) has become ingrained, but it took a while.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:21 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Flour won't mix well with cold liquids, so stir it into something hot (melted butter, pan drippings) and you have to cook off the raw flour flavor or your sauce or gravy will taste like raw flour.

Wondra is amazing...

Probably some of these have been mentioned, but:

- if you make pretzels (and you should) get real pretzel salt from amazon
- use a potato ricer to squeeze the water out of hash browns before cooking
- cook bacon on a rack and half sheet pan in the oven
- the sautéed onion thing, omg
- shallots instead of or in addition to garlic and onions
- weigh instead of measure when baking for sure
- instant-read thermometer for meats
- keep knives sharp
- Worcestershire or fish sauce go in everything!

Truly, the biggest revelations in the kitchen for me have been the pressure cooker and especially the immersion cooker... boneless, skinless chicken breasts straight from the freezer to a water bath, cooked at 148 degrees for 2+ hours and just take it out when you're ready, it's just insanely tender and juicy and so easy.
posted by Huck500 at 11:22 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This drives me nuts when I'm doing it but it really makes a difference when I pan fry:
Testing for Proper Pan Heat
posted by spec80 at 11:36 AM on February 9, 2015 [9 favorites]

Sorry, I need context. When I first started cooking and I read heat a pan on medium heat and then add x, y, z, I would put a pan on the stove, turn on the heat and then just start adding stuff. And when I got better, I would wait a little longer until the oil heated up. And then I saw this video and I started doing it and it really has made a difference not only in taste but easier cleanup.
posted by spec80 at 11:42 AM on February 9, 2015

Best answer: Pasta water -- You need a lot of salt. I agree with Mario Batali: it should be "salty like the sea." Or if you've never tasted ocean water, salty like soup.
posted by wryly at 11:55 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

This drives me nuts when I'm doing it but it really makes a difference when I pan fry:

Oh, and an IR thermometer is great for this, no nuts-driving.

But you don't need to heat the pan first, that's a myth, according to Cook's Illustrated and other sources. Just heat the oil in the pan, use the thermo to temp.
posted by Huck500 at 12:06 PM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Know where your recipes come from. For example if you are using a recipe from an Australian website a tablespoon is probably 20ml unless otherwise stated. Here is the Wikipedia article on cooking measurements around the world.
posted by poxandplague at 1:19 PM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A few things from restaurant kitchens:

- The correct order of operations for cooking something in a pan is: 1) Heat on, 2) pan on heat until it's hot, 3) fat (oil, butter, freshly squeezed child, whatever) in pan until it's hotsee next point, then you add your products. The only exception to this rule is when cooking something fatty that you want to render the fat out of--bacon, sausage; start with product in a cold pan, which helps the fat melt out. This doesn't work properly with duck breasts, because you also want to sear the skin--but use a medium heat for pan-roasting duck. You don't have to heat the pan separately, but in case of distraction it's simpler to cool down a naked pan than to have to clean out scorched fat from a hot one.

- Any recipe that says to heat oil until smoking is lying to you and should be terminated with extreme prejudice. Smoking oil is oil that's breaking down and this close to flashing. Pan fires in pro kitchens are worrisome enough, and we have hoods and fire suppression equipment. Avoid this at home. Vegetable fat in a pan is ready to cook with when it's shimmering--chefs say dancing--when you swirl it around the pan. Butter is good to go when it's sizzling. Animal fats shimmer--and have lower smoke points, so watch your heat.

- In case of a grease fire, never use water to put it out. Correctly-sized lid will deprive the fire of oxygen, or a whack of salt.

- Frying in only butter can very quickly go from sizzling to burning. Using olive or veg oil with your butter helps prevent this.

- Many, many recipes lie. Caramelized onions have already been covered. Getting some egg yolk into whites that are destined for meringue is categorically not a problem unless you are whipping by hand.

- Start with fat, finish with acid.

- Potatoes that have been cut need to be submerged in water to prevent oxidizing. However if what you are doing is something that requires them to bind together (e.g. scalloped potatoes/pommes Dauphinoise), that washes away a lot of necessary starch, so you have to work fast. And bonus tip for those dishes: bake, leave in dish, cover with clingfilm. Place a same-size dish on top, and weigh down with something very heavy. Reheat the next day. Tastes better and holds together better if presentation is important.

- Never, ever, ever use salt shakers or grinders. They're impossible to measure. Just keep a dish of kosher salt in your kitchen and grab pinches as needed. Iodized salt tastes like crap, and if you are actually in need of more dietary iodine, eat nori. In restaurants we usually start shifts by toasting whole peppercorns in a pan and then grinding, for use that day. Fresh-from-a-grinder is used for finishing, again because grinders are impossible to measure while actually cooking.

- Never, ever, ever rinse pasta after it's cooked (unless it's to be served cold in the loathesome abomination that is pasta salad). Drain it and toss it with your sauce. Classically, one cooks pasta to a couple minutes before it's actually al dente, and then finishes the cooking in the sauce. And on that note, pasta in North America is almost always over-sauced. There should be virtually nothing left on the plate/bowl once the noodles have been eaten.

- When making pureed soups, work in batches. Fill your blender half full, don't put the lid on--cover with a towel you are holding down. Pulse the blades very quickly once, then you can go to speed. Hot liquids expand when agitated far more than cold ones do.

- Taste everything.

Book recommendations:

On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee, and anything by Herve This. Not cookbooks, principles-of-cooking-books.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:26 PM on February 9, 2015 [22 favorites]

Yes, warmth helps yeast bread rise, but humidity doesn't, so I've had better luck with dough rising in a room with a/c than in warm, muggy places (obviously only relevant when you have the choice, but maybe worth knowing?).

I never much enjoyed eggplant dishes until I learned to always, always, always sweat the eggplant before cooking. The extra time makes it worthwhile. Lay slices of eggplant up along the inside "walls" of a colander with a dish underneath (I use a pasta dish or other deep plate). Salt each slice--it's fine for slices to overlap if they need to, just be sure you salt them all. After 20 or 30 minutes, there should be quite a bit of liquid in the dish below, and that liquid contains the bitterness, so dump it. Now you can use your eggplant (cube it now or keep in slices or whatever) and it'll taste so much better.

I try to make double batches of things that take a long time (e.g., bolonese/ragu) and freeze one, but that's not the kind of tip you asked for, so here it is: when I reheat a ragu or lentil soup or whatever, I add water from the start. It's already cooked; I'm not trying to brown it; and the water cooks off. This way it gets hot without getting scorched.

Speaking of ragu, most slow-cooked sauces with tomato are are done when you can actually see the tomato separating from the fat (butter/oil/meat/whatever), regardless of the number of minutes the recipe said.
posted by whoiam at 2:47 PM on February 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh yeah, and your nose is an important tool. When you start smelling the bread baking/chicken roasting/garlic sizzling, you're almost ready for the next step.

Your nose is a terrible tool, however, for ascertaining if something's safe to eat. It'll definitively tell you if something is bad; it won't necessarily tell you if something is good. That said, if you find that something previously aromatic has lost most of its smell, it's gone bad or is about to.

Also, temperature affects seasoning: the same thing is going to taste muted when cold and more intense when hot. This affects salt levels; cold foods need to be seasoned more aggressively than hot foods.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:06 PM on February 9, 2015

Best answer: "2 cups berries, crushed" is a different amount than "2 cups crushed berries". In the first, the berries are measured out, then crushed; the second, the berries are crushed and then measured.
posted by mgar at 4:53 PM on February 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

This is so painfully obvious, and I feel pretty stupid for making this mistake now that I am a good cook... Not sure how to express it other than don't do ingredient substitutions with ingredients of the same "type" but not "sub-type". At least not until you are a more experienced cook.

For example, the various kinds of cheeses (feta versus mozzarella versus parmesan) are absolutely not interchangeable in many recipes. Don't be tempted to use your favorite blue cheese instead of parmesan! Besides the fact different cheeses have different flavor profiles, they all melt differently/not at all/burn. Also, some are super salty/ super bland, which can throw off your seasoning. Speaking of saltiness, I learned the hard way that regular salt is not a proper substitution for "kosher" or "pickling" salt. If you substitute plain table salt (or ground up sea / rock salt) the dish will be painfully salty. Even between types of kosher salts there is a difference so until you are familiar with the brands, use whatever brand the recipe mentions (kosher / pickling salts are the only example I can think of where brand really matters). Less obviously, this principle also tends to hold true for the different members of the sweetener, vinegar, and cooking oil families.

Until I realized the above, I really hated cooking. I felt like I spent so much time and money to make something that no one could eat. And the reason I did the substitutions in the first place was because I couldn't afford the exotic ingredients and tried to cook with what I had on hand. Once I made the sacrifice to buy the right items for various recipes, my results improved.

A second thing I learned was not to trust any recipe that doesn't specify particular "side ingredients" to use. I learned this in the process of cooking beans from "scratch" (dry, rather than in a can). I followed a recipe that suggested I add vegetables and seasonings of my own liking when cooking the beans. Three hours later, they were chalky and nasty. Apparently this was because I added acidic tomatoes and salt too early in the cooking. The lesson I learned from this was to disregard recipes for soups, stocks etc. that leave some of the ingredients up to your "taste" until you are more knowledgeable about how ingredients might interact with each other.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 5:12 PM on February 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm a pretty good cook, but a baker? Not so much. I recently wanted to make a chocolate cake, and I consulted over a dozen recipes. They were so inconsistent that it drove me bonkers. Finally, I looked at Cook's Illustrated's Best Recipes, and it said (paraphrase) "If you are looking at chocolate cake recipes, you may have looked at a dozen that were different, and that made you crazy." YES, yes, it did! So I made the Cook's Illustrated recipe, because it told me WHY, and not just WHAT. That helps, seriously.
posted by tizzie at 6:37 PM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Great advice given here. All I can add is this...Never substitute Miracle Whip for Cream of Mushroom soup when making a casserole.
posted by sundrop at 6:45 PM on February 9, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: So much great advice here. I have two things to add.

1 - I always add dry ingredients to wet when baking. There are a myriad of recipes that will tell you to do it the other way around but I find this makes it much easier to combine thus avoiding overworking the mix, and getting the gluten too excited. Better yet, you can add a small amount of dry mix at a time and gently combine and you should avoid too many lumps. As mentioned up thread you really need to make sure your dry ingredients are well combined before incorporating them into the wet stuff. At culinary school they taught us to sift together 3 times, excessive for home baking but gets good results. Also, I always give my eggs a wee whisk before adding them to baking batters. Less work to combine everything.

2 - In a recipe when they tell you to use a particular sized pan (cooking or baking), they ain't foolin'. In baking it is crucial to the bake time and structural integrity of your product, in cooking it's to ensure there is enough room for the ingredients to cook as intended e.g. veggies or meat crisping rather than steaming.
posted by BeeJiddy at 9:39 PM on February 9, 2015

...huh. I was taught wet to dry, make a well in the centre like for pasta. But if baking is your thing you probably do it in a much more precise way than I do.

Listen to the baker!
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:44 PM on February 9, 2015

There is no substitute for fresh lemon juice. Or zest, for that matter. If a recipe calls for fresh lemon zest, get out your grater. The flavor boost is worth the 5 minutes of grating.

Learn how your spices work by tasting, tasting, tasting. Example: taste your chili before you add spices. Add half the amount of chili powder the recipe calls for and taste. Then add the rest and taste. You'll learn how it gives that smoky taste. Do the same with cumin, and you'll learn that cumin gives chili that bright taste characteristic of chili. When you are making a roux, what does the raw flour taste like, and how does it taste as you cook it? Add salt to a casserole and taste, add more salt and taste again. What happened? Once I made a beef stew and forgot the bay leaves, and it taught me what bay leaves do. What a revelation! Bay leaves are magic! Taste enough, and eventually you'll get a feel for what your ingredients do, and you'll be able to fix dishes that don't taste quite right.

A good beginner cookbook is How to Cook Without a Book by Pam Anderson (an ATK alum, I think). It's for practical, everyday, after work cooking.
posted by islandeady at 7:22 AM on February 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I really wanted to best answer everyone, but I tried to pick ones that were more specifically about missing instructions, rather than general cooking advice (slim difference, I know). You all are the best ever for sharing your wisdom. I will probably reread your answers about eleventy dozen times. Thank you.
posted by slipthought at 2:00 PM on February 10, 2015

Lots of recipes (especially family ones) have time consuming "legacy" steps that don't make sense anymore. I made a delicious bourbon bread pudding recipe where the biggest pain was bringing cream to a near boil without scalding. Turns out upon further reading this was reinventing pasteurization to prevent spoilage (from before the time of fridges) and had nothing to do with the texture or taste of the end product.
posted by benzenedream at 12:11 AM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Making bread in a food processor isn't ideal, but it's perfectly acceptable, and many recipes will include adjustments for making it by hand, in a stand mixer, or in a food processor. What they forget to mention is that the food processor generates a lot of heat, so your yeast will be happier if you start with colder water than you normally would. (I'm sure there's actual science behind what temperature you should use being discussed elsewhere, but you wouldn't know if from the recipe.)
posted by Room 641-A at 11:55 AM on February 13, 2015

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