Nothing says “I suck at baking” like serving a pie that has to be slurped. I once baked a lemon meringue pie for a dinner party where the lemon filling wouldn’t jell, despite the fact that I followed the recipe exactly. The meringue actually floated and bobbed. Looked disgusting, tasted great.
You assume that you’re in the wrong when a recipe goes south. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Recipes are wrong more often than you’d think.
Authors can forget ingredients and some writers are better at creating recipes rather than cooking them. Some recipe writers will assume that you know what they know and omit details that turn out to be crucial. Sometimes recipes are created and tested on professional equipment which means unless your kitchen resembles a four-star French restaurant, you’re out-of-luck
A recipe is part scientific formula, part art form. You can follow each step and still, cakes sink, pasta disintegrates and meat toughens. Therein lies the art and science of creating recipes that work.
Deciding what to include, what to exclude and how much to explain is a surprisingly subjective process. Repeatedly testing a recipe using a variety of equipment is the only way to make sure a recipe works every time.
Some cookbooks authors like Sarah Moulton, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo and Jacques Pepin test their recipe so fanatically that their food tastes fantastic no matter how sadly you butcher their recipes. One group of culinary professionals who share that fanaticism are the 42 people who run the Boston-based America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) test kitchen.
ATK’s test cooks, editors, food scientists, tasters, and cookware specialists cook, test, taste and re-cook recipes, stripping away assumptions and explicating techniques to create recipes that anyone can consistently make. Every recipe they publish, cook on their TV show and post on their fee-based website, works every time.
Their secret is in controlling as many variables as possible and explaining the “whats” and “whys” of the cooking process.
There are a whole lot of assumptions and variables that go into recipe writing says John Willoughby, Executive Editor of ATK’s, Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country magazines. “Like knowing what ‘medium heat’ should be, how to ‘sweat’ vegetable, what constitutes ‘over-mixing,’ and why it matters,” he says. Experienced cooks gloss over these distinctions, but for inexperienced cooks, not knowing can ruin a recipe.
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“Experienced cooks know things that they don’t know they know,” says Willoughby. If you cook a lot then you just know how to cook a pork chop. If you don’t, you need clues about heat, browning, internal temperature. They explain cooking techniques, give visual clues at different recipe stages, sometimes even telling you what something should smell like, providing guidepost throughout the process.
ATK polls their readers to determine what recipe to make, which they research in their in-house cookbook library, one of the country’s best. Then they test, re-test and re-test. They’ve brined forty turkeys to perfect a recipe (they donated them) and once took three straight weeks to eradicate tunnels in a blackberry jam cake.
These people have a lot of time on their hands and they are relentless. Nothing else explains their discovering that to create the perfect sear, you rub cornstarch and salt into a steak and then dehydrate in a freezer for an hour before cooking.
Some recipes are all about what you start with, like those of organic food pioneer Alice Waters—the best ingredients, regardless of cost—and the best techniques to bring out the best of those ingredients. Others are about what you what you want to end up with.
Take mashed potatoes. They come rich and creamy, light and fluffy, silky smooth, slightly lumpy, garlicky, cheesy, skin-on, skin-off, smashed. Or roast chicken with tender meat or with crispy skin. Think about what you really want in a dish, recommends Willoughby, and look for a recipe that takes you there.
What ATK adds to the process is how to choose ingredients—sea salt, kosher or industrial i.e. Morton’s, fresh produce or frozen, what to look for in cuts of meat, which pots and pans and thermometers to use and why.
From time to time the inevitable occurs, says Willoughby, a recipe fails. A person once wrote in about complaining about a chicken recipe, going through the directions and excoriating ATK step-by-step. At the end of the note, he laughs, the person added that she made the recipe with shrimp. Some variables you just can’t anticipate.