the secrets to wonderful home-cooked food: choose good recipes

Have you ever had a meal that just didn’t look… well, like you expected? Have you watched other women turn out perfectly beautiful food from their kitchens and wonder how on earth they manage while you’re lucky you can get the boxed food to look like the picture on the box? This is the first post in a series on things I’ve learned over the years that have made my food turn out well.  (Links are only provided for more information on sources, not as a recommended means for buying products.  Oh, and I don’t get any compensation if you do decide to click on a link.)  Let’s start with the instructions you’ll follow.

Choose Good Recipes

I’m assuming you already have some recipes you’d like to try. However, there are well-written recipes and poorly-written recipes. Recipes that are poorly written usually end up that way because the author assumes you already understand many aspects of the process. Once I had a recipe for coconut oil from a book written by a highly respected natural foods author.

I couldn’t do it. Not the way the recipe described. I spent an entire morning trying to figure out what she meant, and then when I did find out, it turned out she assumed I’d have made a lot more of one particular ingredient than her previous recipe for that ingredient had turned out. I almost threw out the book. If it wasn’t full of good info and better recipes, I probably would have.

So, what do you look for in a recipe when you’re new to cooking or struggle with it?

Clearly written amounts

Anything that says “to taste” is wandering into dangerous territory, but fairly common when it comes to things like salt and pepper. If you’re struggling with cooking, stick with recipes that have clearly measured amounts for every ingredient listed.

Detailed instructions

The more you struggle in the kitchen, the more detail you should look for in the instructions. Some of this will come with experience, like when I realized a recipe I was trying only cooked the beans for 15 minutes and mentioned putting a tablespoon of oil with the beans, clear signs of using a pressure cooker. This wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the recipe. Just read through the recipe before you even think of it as a possibility and see if you understand exactly what the author is talking about. If you can’t understand it, it might be better to try it out after you have some more experience cooking.

Read up on ratios

If all this talk of exact amounts and strict instructions annoys you, you might be interested in viewing recipes through the ratio lens. There’s a fantastic book on the subject, called Ratio: the Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman. It’s not a cooking instruction book per se, but it does explain the principles behind the recipes we use and explains them rather well, I thought.  It definitely helped improve my confidence. You’ll still need a basic cookbook like an older one by Better Homes and Gardens (can be found online or at your local used bookstore) or something from Sue Gregg’s series* to understand the mechanics.

Simple ingredients

Unless you’re very adventurous, stick with ingredients you understand. After you’ve gotten some experience you can try the recipes that have you make several different components that you then put together to form one main dish. A good resource for simple recipes is the More-With-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre. Though the stress on soy is out of date, it contains simple recipes that are, for the most part, well written and fairly simple.  Sue Gregg’s series is also good about this.  You can find copies online that are in pretty good shape.  It’s how I got mine.

Clear prep and cooking time

When you’re new to cooking, or struggling with it, it’s difficult to tell how long something is going to take just by looking at a recipe. Some recipes only list how look it will take to actually cook a dish, some only list preparation time. The best list both. Now, prep time will vary depending on how skilled you are with your tools, but if you at least have an idea of the average time, it will help immensely in your planning (more on that later).

If, after looking at the recipe, you decide it isn’t worth your time right now, don’t throw it away if you still want to try it.  Just put it aside for later, when you’ve got more experience.  Some of my favorite recipes nowadays weren’t very well written.

Next time, I’ll cover planning for cooking.

*She’s Christian and has a few essays with Christian themes in each of her cookbooks. If you don’t like that, I would still recommend them, especially Main Dishes, because of their clear recipes and wealth of information regarding meal preparation, with everything cross-referenced. Main Dishes even has a suggested menu plan at the end of most of the recipes (the ones that don’t fit in the body of the book are put in a small section towards the back). Just skip the religious stuff and move on to the recipes.

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