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On only making recipes that you *know* are good

Last week I made a soup from a recipe that turned out quite good, and an improvised salad that was terrific. Friday, I spent a long time making a curry from scratch from a recipe that sounded good - and followed it to a T. The result was underwhelming - but then, in our area we have access to some really amazing curries and have grown somewhat picky.

Which made me think...

Just as there are so many underwhelming restaurants, there are many underwhelming recipes out there, and tastes vary. I'm going to be way more selective in the future and make sure that what I embark on cooking has been vetted by opinions I trust! (Unless I'm plain old improvising.)

It's a little bit like movie reviews. When I go to Yahoo's movies section or wherever, inevitably there are critics' opinions that differ from users' opinions - and I don't always end up siding with either after seeing a film.

So now, I figure the best plan is some combination of:

1) Find people here whose tastes run similar to mine and see what they like making

2) Plot on how to pry recipes from those restaurants that make a certain dish fantastically

Has anyone else honed their cooking/Chowhounding strategies in some other workable way?

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  1. Many dishes or baked goods, I can read through a recipe and gauge by the ingredients, proportions, and techniques used whether it's a workable recipe. I also adapt recipes by changing techniques and ingredients. That said, I have also been lazy and made some real losers at times. I feel bad feeding my family those underwhelming dishes. I tend to apologize at the table and drive them a little crazy.

    I try new recipes every week, and I'm ashamedly a recipe junkie. I wish I cooked more like my brother, who rarely measures or uses recipes. (Baking is another matter. One must be a very experienced baker to go without recipes, at least without certain proportions committed to memory, and measuring of some sort is necessary.) I also tend to rely on certain authors and chefs or restaurants for ideas and recipes. There are generally reliable magazines, websites, and friends, too.

    6 Replies
    1. re: amyzan

      I'd be curious as to whose recipes you tend to like. (Chefs/recipe book authors)

      1. re: Cinnamon

        Some are in my profile, I often use recipes from Cook's Illustrated for weeknights. I like Rose Levy Beranbaum and Nancy Silverton for baking. I have my mom's Julia Child's and Moosewoods, and had collected almost all of Deborah Madison's before I had a home computer. I use Alton Brown's and Mario Batali's recipes off the Food network, and have cooked from Cooking Light, though not recently. I also like Mai Pham's cookbook Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table for summertime. I cook Japanese from Hiroko Shimbo's book and seem to have a permanent check out of Harumi's Japanese Cooking from the library. I also use the Joy of Cooking. I'd love to hear more suggestions, as I'm always looking...

          1. re: Cinnamon

            You know, I was thinking about your curry, and thought I should recommend Lord Krishnas Cuisine by Yamuna Devi, which is vegetarian. I have never had one of her recipes disappoint but they are generally VERY time consuming. I save them for weekends or days I have a light workload, so I can do prep in the morning, etc. I think one of the keys is that you must use fresh spices. Many curries start with fresh green chiles and ginger plus any whole spices in oil, then add individual freshly ground spices and proceed from there. A cook at a local Indian restaurant told me NEVER to use any spice mix, unless I mix it myself, and I think that's good advice. If a recipe doesn't follow that format, it may not be authentic. (Of course, there are other ways Indians cook veggies, but this is a good basic formula for many curries.)

            1. re: amyzan

              Thank you - I'll check the book out.

              Part of why I'm a little ornery is that I spent tons of time using fresh individual spices - and toasting some - etc. etc. At least a dozen. And grating ginger, etc. etc. I think one of the recipe's shortcomings is that it didn't ask for enough oil, for the right consistency and depth of flavor.

              1. re: Cinnamon

                Yeah, that's obnoxious. If you don't use ghee (clarified butter), you might try coconut oil for curry. I think ghee is more traditional in the north, but the an unrefined coconut oil has wonderful flavor and is easier than clarifying butter. I've used canola oil, and with some things like aloo gobhi, it's allright, but butter is always tastier.

    2. I know how you are feeling. Sometimes it is hard to find the time to cook, so when you do it, you don't want to waste time and money on something that's not-so-great.

      When I look at a recipe, I try to think about the types of ingredients that it calls for and whether I agree they should be in the recipe.

      Like tonight, I was thinking about making picadillo for Chilean Empanadas. There were quite a few variations I saw in the recipes I was looking at. I decided to only think about recipes that had certain ingredients in them. Then, I looked at the recipes that had those. I found one I want to make, but of course, I'll have to go to the grocery store to get something.

      I like using Epicurious.com, cookinglight.com, and foodtv.com because people rate the recipes and leave comments. Reading their comments helps to avoid the problems.

      1. If you cook all the time, and want to expand beyond your usual tried-and-true repertoire, I think it's inevitable that you end up making some clunkers. One thing I've been working on is coming to peace with that. One of my favorite moments in Julia Child's autobiography is when she has a disastrous dinner party, and the guests just sit there choking down the food. Even if a recipe is fantastic and thoroughly tested, there are so many variables that can affect how the dish turns out. I've tried recipes that are great the first time, and just so-so the second time. Only professional cooks who make the same thing several hundred times can become truly consistent at a single recipe.

        But to get back to your question, I tend to stick to cookbooks by authors I trust, who have food values similar to mine. For me, that's Paula Wolfert, Deborah Madison, Judy Rodgers, Marcella Hazan, Mollie Katzen, Rose Levy Berenbaum. I like Mark Bittman because his recipes are so simple they're inspiring, but you do have to be prepared to adjust since he's not as exact. I don't generally use online recipes unless I can tell by reading through the recipe that the person has exacting standards. I actually find the comments on Epicurious, Food Network, etc., pretty worthless since I have no way of knowing who to trust. That said, I love this board because over the years, I feel like I've almost come to know some of the regular posters. I know that when they rave about a recipe, they're not some random person who's afraid of fat or fish or other food phobias that are pretty common in the general population. Actually, now that I think about it, I can't think of a recipe I've decided to try after reading Chowhound that has failed!

        1 Reply
        1. re: AppleSister

          I second Deborah Madison, Marcella Hazan, and Paula Wolfert. Joyce Goldstein is also on my list. I have made a lot of reciped from various cookbooks by these authors, and rarely if ever come across a clunker.

        2. It's really impossible to follow a recipe to a T. At every stage there's some improvisation.
          Jacque Pepin says that if you give 10 cooks the same recipe, you will get 10 different dishes. They will go to the market and make slightly different choices. The chickens will vary slightly in size, as will all the other ingredients and the quality may vary as well. Brown the chicken? Everyone's definition is slightly different. How long to sauté the mirepoix? Chicken stock from bouillon cubes, homemade, canned. Fresh or dried herbs and spices. How many kinds of dry white wine are there? If you are using unusual ingredients for Indian or Chinese food, there may be a wide variety in quality and age depending on the importer. How long should it all be simmered?
          I think sometimes you have to really come to know the cuisine itself, perhaps the particular author of the recipes and consistently use the same ingredients over a period of time before you can expect consistency in the outcome.
          In the end fine cooking is art. Not just following directions. There are too many variables.
          An English professor of mine always said, there are those who type, those who can write, and those who can create great literature.
          I think cooking is like that. It doesn't necessarily come from recipes.

          5 Replies
          1. re: MakingSense

            Indeed there's a lot of variation, which is why it is important to use good quality ingredients, ideally sourced from the place where the cuisine originated. That said, some recipes are just meh.

            1. re: Cinnamon

              I agree that many recipes are beyond ordinary. Each of us settles in to favored sources that we come to trust and figures out how we can trust new ones.
              A good cook however can coax amazing results from what's at hand if he has to when he's in his own vernacular. Immigrants have always had to make do with what they could get when they were cut off with supplies from their homelands. They have the technique and the "soul" of the food in a way that a person following a perfect recipe with all the authentic ingredients might never achieve.

              1. re: MakingSense

                ... if that cook does not learn, appreciate, or have insights into the vernacular, I'd say.

                1. re: Cinnamon

                  Pretty hard to do if you've never really had the opportunity to immerse yourself in a culture. If someone decides to start cooking Chinese food, for example, which region will they select? The history will have a lot to do with the food as will the climate and agriculture. If they've never visited or shopped in a market, it's hard to know the smells and the tastes they're looking for, how the food is served, etc. It's going to vary among classes. Work with a native cook in a local kitchen. Absorbing texture.
                  Even in the US, it's hard to cook food from regions other than the one we're most familiar with from growing up or spending a lot of time in.
                  There's so much intuition involved in cooking. More than you can get from even the most well-written recipe or Food Network show.
                  I know lots of really smart people who can't cook worth a damn.

                  1. re: MakingSense

                    Of course. If there's a region's cuisine that you are having trouble replicating well, however, I'd just recommend continuing to try or immersing yourself in the learning process. There is always some opportunity to do that though I agree with you that the amount of opportunity varies. What I mean, distilled, is that I've seen plenty of people cook a cuisine well that wasn't their native one, and seen plenty of poor cooking done by natives of a certain cuisine when they're working in their own genre. I wholeheartedly agree that intuition is important in cooking, as is seeking understanding about native techniques.

          2. Cinnamon, after experiencing what you stated so eloquently one too many times, I've adapted the following strategy and have had more success.

            When I'm hankering for a dish or drooling over a recipe, I head to google. Then I compare what other ingredients, techniques, and proportions the others have. Doing that gives me a sense of the directions that it can go in, and from there I pick and choose based on the flavors I know I like.

            The other thing that I also do is automatically double or triple the amount of garlic, onion, and some of the spices that are given in the recipe. I like very pronounced flavors, and know by my own cooking when a recipe's garlic-to-other-ingredients ratio seems too small.

            Most of the time I end up with an amalgam of not only several of the recipes I've looked at, but my added touches. And 99 times out of 100, it's more suited to me than what the original recipe would have given me.

            Happy Cooking!

            2 Replies
            1. re: venera

              I like your strategy! Thank you. :)

              1. re: venera

                I have done the Google thing too ... and before Google, sometimes I would compare all the recipes I had for, say, gingerbread cookies, and make my own combination recipe based on several. This has worked well.

                The Google (or recipe.com) thing works well when you can't put your finger on the herb, spice, whatever you need to make something work.

              2. My husband and I have an ongoing disagreement regarding new recipes. He likes to make a new recipe precisely as it is written on the first attempt--I like to improvise, especially if a recipe appears to have a gaping hole in it.

                I tried two new recipes for dinner last night, both of which contained glaring omissions (in my opinion). As it turned out, the flank steak marinade needed garlic, and the tuscan bean salad needed acid. It was easy enough to douse the salad with some lemon juice; not so for the flank steak-garlic debacle.

                Incidentally, both of the recipes came from foodtv.com, a resource whose recipes often have ingredients or technical information missing.

                My most reliable recipe resources are Nick Stellino's cookbooks (Mediterranean Flavors is my favorite), epicurious.com, and Cooking Light.

                1. I never follow a recipe exactly, and am usually happy with the results. I think of recipes as guidelines, not rules. And I don't bake much, so have never had to worry about exact measurements. When a friend asks for a recipe, I give the basic ingredients and say to adjust for taste.

                  In that spirit, I am always willing to try a new recipe that sounds good. If I see it in a cookbook, on TV, on the internet, I just adjust it for my tastes.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: mojoeater

                    I think once you've got the basics down, improv is wonderful. I've had some luck with this with Thai curries, once I started the beginning of the cooking process according to traditional approaches and got the hang of it. (I think I should've done two things w/regard to this last, by-the-recipe curry: taste-tested more... I could've realized there was a sweet thing happening that didn't need to be there; and I should've remembered what I know from Thai curries about the importance of the fats/oils, and diverted from the recipe to work with that.)

                    However, I'd like to do more following-the-recipes cooking for a little while with several different kinds of dishes to get a wider repertoire of things from which I can then improvise. I think I'm heading back to some classics for a bit, maybe.

                    You mentioned something about baking I've heard over and over about how exact amounts matter. Bet you'd do fine improvising there... I've thrown some things together in baking that I was really happy with, when I was really just experimenting and not so sure the results would work. I think, short of souffles, baking may be more resilient than it's put out to be.

                    1. re: Cinnamon

                      I also look at recipes more as ideas than follow exactly. (Probably why my baking sucks!) I never name the dish till it hits the table, and NEVER ever apologize, just smile and make a mental note to yourself...

                      1. re: Cinnamon

                        It is resilient in that American baking works ... Europeans measure by weight, where we measure by volume; their method is far more exact. But for baking you really do need a recipe as a starting point ... and if you make a mistake, it can be disastrous (I did this for the first time just recently--I was baking while upset, wasn't focused when I was measuring, and left out a cup of flour. It was not OK ... the recipe did not make cookies.) It's hard to go that wrong when cooking ...

                    2. There is another side to it - I kind of enjoy being surprised by the outcome of a recipe. I hope I never get so expert at cooking that I can always predict how a new combination of steps/ingredients will turn out.

                      1. I think the MOST important thing is to learn how to do the basics from a trusted cookbook. Once you've done that, you have the know-how to improvise with almost any recipe -- if it's not turning out good, you will know the little things to do to (hopefully!) make it taste better. Even still, once in a while you will have failures (my most recent was a corned beef hash recipe from this site, but I think the problem was the corned beef and not the recipe), but if you learn how to improvise, for the most part, you will be able to cook well.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: DanaB

                          I agree. I probably should've confessed a bit earlier that the recipe in question was a 'light' version of a curry (not from a traditional Indian source). I think it could still remain 'not heavy' with some improv, but I'd probably - if ever trying that recipe again - which I won't - work with the small amount of fats used quite differently to better bring out flavor. There was also sugar in the recipe that was in too large a quantity for my tastes. Back to the traditional cookbooks.

                        2. For me, it's a matter of what kind of mood I'm in. If I am not in the mood for surprises, I do something I've done before. If not, I experiment & am prepared to be less than thrilled. After all, there aren't very many perfect, "Is this an earthquake or is this reeeeally fabulous" recipes.

                          For cooking, I hardly ever use a recipe, and if I do, view it more as a suggestion or shopping list--i.e., I customize everything. For baking, the best thing to do is consult Maida Heatter, but even so, my taste doesn't run exactly parallel to hers. For example, a recipe with 3 ounces of candied ginger is likely to make me howl--and not in a good way. I think a fantastic cookbook author is your best friend if you want to minimize disappointment.

                          When I bake, I usually try new recipes each time, just because it's more interesting. If I want something guaranteed fabulous, I do one of my top 5.