When Recipes Go Wrong

closePlease note: This post was published over a year ago, so please be aware that its content may not be quite so accurate anymore. Also, the format of the site has changed since it was published, so please excuse any formatting issues.

Food on FireIt’s funny how some extremely complex recipes can turn out absolutely perfectly, and others that seem like they couldn’t be simpler flop like a dying fish.

I love food. I love eating it, I love making it, and I love learning everything I can about it. My recent foray into making a beurre blanc should be evidence of that. Being the kind of person who loves to cook, I have a lot of books about food. I have the classic Joy of Cooking (it lies a lot and makes extra work and dishes. Then again, it was aimed at housewives in the ’30s and ’40s), I have a lot of ethnic cookbooks, I have vegetarian cookbooks, and cookbooks for science geeks. I even have books about food and spices that don’t contain any recipes at all. Mostly, though, I have cookbooks.

I also have a problem with cookbooks. No, I don’t mean I have a problem where I’m addicted to buying them (actually…), I mean I have a problem with the way most of them are written. You see, for some crazy reason, the authors of cookbooks always seem to erroneously assume two things: that I can get my hands on any ingredient and that nothing will go wrong while preparing the recipe.

Spokane isn’t the most gastronomically diverse city in the United States (although we do have two different Indian restaurants). This is difficult for an Epicurean such as myself, but I make do through a lot of experimentation in the kitchen. It’s tricky, though, because my local supermarket is less than super when it comes to diversity. If it isn’t American, Asian, or Mexican cuisine, they pretty much don’t carry it. This is tough for me, because I like a lot of Indian, Middle Eastern, and Moroccan food. Finding some of the ingredients I need can be difficult (seriously, Albertson’s, you don’t carry any lentils?) if not impossible (what is Turkish Delight, anyway?). Places like the Rocket Market and Huckleberry’s fill in some of the gaps, but I don’t like shopping there because of the haughty attitudes of the staff.

Even if I can find all of the ingredients I need, the books are often ill-prepared to adequately walk me through making the dish. For example, last night I was trying to make falafels. Falafels! Easy, right? There are like, 4 ingredients in the whole dish. The instructions had me throw everything into the mixer and make a paste. The picture in the book showed a sticky, dry paste. Mine was awfully wet. Hmm. Does the book say how to handle this situation? No, of course not. In the author’s mind, this recipe is too simple to screw up. And yet, although my paste did form clumps, the frying step was… Well, I ended up very frustrated and sans falafels.

This has happened to me several times in the past, and is the reason I prefer to be taught by someone else who can show me exactly what to do and how to handle unexpected problems.

If you find this sort of thing happening to you, I strongly suggest investing in Cook’s Illustrated. Morah and I don’t get the magazine (which is beautiful, by the way), but we do have a subscription to the website and I assure you that it’s the best $25 I spend every year. Cook’s tests each recipe dozens (if not hundreds) of times in search of culinary perfection. Esquire Magazine said of Cook’s, “There’s no more authoritative food magazine. When Cook’s Illustrated endorses a cheesecake, it’s because its editors made 45 of them.” They also test equipment and recipes to find the best in taste, performance, and price.

I will say that, although the recipes in Cook’s are designed to be (more or less) idiot-proof, it’s still possible for things to go awry. For example, while making dinner tonight, I accidentally added half a tablespoon of curry powder when the recipe called for half a teaspoon. Oops. But you know what? It was still some of the best couscous I’ve ever had.

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  1. My biggest gripe is trying to learn about good substitutions. Like you said about Joy of Cooking – it was designed for housewives in the 30s and 40s. They didn’t care about fake trans fat back then or what to substitute them with. Therefore all my Grandma’s recipes call for shortening, lard, etc. Then, when you go on the internet, you find all different ideas on what to substitute certain items with! So, thanks for the tip about Cook’s. I may have found the answer to my baking dreams!

    I’m currently trying to create an oatmeal cookie with beautiful spices like cardamom, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon and moistening items like applesauce and plain yogurt. I’ll let you know how they turn out!

  2. Definitely let me know! I sure do love oatmeal cookies. -)

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