Bonappetit.com editor Matt Gross makes Bolognese sauce all the time. (His kids love it.) And each time, he makes it the same way: same amount of ground pork and beef, same copious amount of olive oil, same insanely long simmering time—heck, even the same darn Le Creuset Dutch oven.
“Every tenth time,” he says—nay, cries, “it comes out with no flavor.” He recounts his steps, he confirms their consistency, he sticks his finger in the stewy mess and gives it a lick: dull. “I just don’t know what’s missing.” But we do know that there have been hours of sleep lost over this conundrum.
Haven’t you experienced the same thing? You follow a recipe three times, it yields great results, and then you invite people over, make your go-to dish again, and it’s just…something…it’s off. How is this possible? Aren’t recipes formulas? Doesn’t the fact that there are measurements attached to their ingredient lists ensure that you get the same lemon Bundt cake every time you bake it?
No. And by thinking this way, you’re psyching yourself out. Here are five ways in which your kitchen psychology is wack—so check yourself.
1. Your expectations are too high
So many things can affect your ultimate dish. “Every onion is different, every chicken is different, the humidity can be different,” says senior food editor Dawn Perry. So: Expect inconsistency, especially if you’re using organic, locally-sourced ingredients. “The closer your get to your source, the more variations are possible,” says Perry.
2. You're following the formula too closely
“You react to the pot—don’t expect it to react to you,” says Perry. Your recipe might say to sear that beef for just 3 minutes a side, but sometimes it needs longer to get a char on it. Your recipe might call for half of a small onion, but the writer’s idea of small might be different from yours. The point is, you have to feel your own way through each recipe, each time you follow it. Knowing the basics of cooking is a major plus. So keep cooking. Keep playing.
3. You're drawing attention to insecurity
“It’s not very good, but I hope you like it,” you say to your guests as you plop what you think is underwhelming pasta with pesto on the table. Don’t do that. For one, you sound like you’re fishing for a compliment, which is generally uncool. But secondly, your guests don’t know the difference between this pesto and the fabulous one you made last week—you’re the only one who has a frame of reference. So shush. Let them enjoy it.
4. You're not asking for help
This is a good life lesson all around, but it especially applies to the kitchen. “Even if it’s just asking someone else to pour wine,” says Perry, that will buy you time to fix whatever you think isn’t perfect. (Even though—again—perfection should not be expected and your guests will be happy no matter what. If these points have not yet sunk in, please start at the top again.)
5. You're too inside your head
We are our own harshest critics. You know who isn’t? Our dinner party guests. Here’s what they’re thinking: “Someone else is taking time and energy to feed you, and that’s awesome.” Even a simple PB&J will taste fantastic if someone else makes it. So know going in that people are going to be pleased.
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