For those just tuning in, From the Caterer’s Kitchen is an occasional series of kitchen tips, tricks and advice from my mother, a professional caterer for over 30 years. Interested? Start here.
How to read a recipe seems like a slightly unnecessary topic. If you’ve figured out how to read blogs, or get onto social media, of course you can read something as simple as a recipe, right? (Seriously: Instagram makes me feel ancient and not so bright. And Twitter? Sweet Lord, I have no clue.)
But take a moment to consider the job of the recipe. It has to get the idea of a particular combination of ingredients from the mind of the writer onto the plate of the reader — who may not be anywhere near that writer. It’s worth taking a moment to figure out how to set yourself up for success.
1) Read the recipe ALL THE WAY TO THE END. Several times.
I know what you’re thinking: Duh. Of course I’m reading the recipe. How else do I know I want to make it? Bear with me. Consider: it’s 4:30 in the afternoon, and you’ve got a hankering for jerk chicken. (This isn’t just me, yes? I thought not.)
You find a recipe that sounds good to you, and has a not-too-long list of ingredients. You check the spice drawer and the fridge, and you figure, “hey, I’ve got all of that — it’s go time.” So you put on your favorite cooking music, find an apron and get to work. But next thing you know, you are elbow-deep in a pile of chicken parts, allspice, nutmeg and scallions when you come across the phrase “marinate overnight.”
Screech goes the needle off of that record (oh, man, I am dating myself. Does anyone even know what a record player is anymore?). Next thing you know, you’re either cooking chicken without nearly as much flavor as you wanted or you’re sticking this batch in the fridge with one hand and ordering takeout with the other. Sigh.
So yes: Read the whole thing. Then read it again.
2) Figure out what all of the abbreviations and terms mean.
Because: chiffonade. What the heck *is* that? (I explain here.) Not to mention that there are just about as many ways to abbreviate as there are teenagers at the mall. I have chosen not to use abbreviations on this blog, but obviously, I am not the boss of the rest of the world. So make sure you know the definitions of any abbreviations or cooking terms in the recipe before you start to make it. Most good cookbooks, I find, have either an introductory section where all of terms are defined, or an appendix which gives abbreviations used, definitions and, if an international cookbook, conversions from US measurements to grams, kilos, etc.
3) Learn to taste recipes before you make them.
This probably sounds like some sort of weird Matrix-y mental gymnastic exercise, but it is my favorite tip on this list. Why? Because in order to do it, you need to eat. A lot. You’ve got to do it three times a day anyway, right? So why not learn something along the way?
There are two steps: first, pay attention when you eat. Don’t just gulp down every morsel on the plate and reach for seconds before you have time to digest. Chew your food slowly, which gives you enough time to notice what flavors pop out at you. Do you notice the flavor of individual spices, or do they all meld together in an intricate combination? Which one tastes best to you? What would you do differently if you were to cook it again?
Step two involves experimenting. Test out different flavoring combinations to see what appeals to your palate. Start with some familiar mixtures — cumin, coriander, garlic and oregano are distinctive markers of Mexican-American cuisine, while turmeric, coriander, ginger and cardamom are found in many Indian recipes — but don’t be afraid to branch out and try combinations that just sound good to you. You may end up with a few disasters — tarragon, for example, is so distinctive that it often does not play well with other flavors — but the lessons you will learn are invaluable.
If you want help getting started, On Cooking* has a fabulous chapter on herbs, spices, condiments and more. (The third edition is the one I own; the current edition* would be a worthwhile splurge.)
Well, these are our best tips on recipe reading. Anything we left out? Is there something you would add?
* = Affiliate links.