“Science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature.”
- Paul Valéry, French Poet and Literary Critic (1871-1945)
- Paul Valéry, French Poet and Literary Critic (1871-1945)
Anyone who cooks, even on a semi-regular basis, has cooked with a recipe. For practiced cooks, they are great reference. For occasional cooks, they are a necessity. Even the simplest of dishes can benefit from a recipe. Imagine cooking a steak. Easy, right? WRONG. What kind of cut? At what temperature should your meat be? How much salt and pepper? How hot should the pan be? How long to cook it to desired doneness? How many times to flip? How long to rest? This may appear obvious and a bit pedantic to some, but for many cooks, these are important. It makes the difference between a perfectly cooked rib-eye, and a flabby, steamed, over-cooked grey mess.
After years of cooking and testing recipes, I realized that not all recipes are created equal. Take enriched uranium. You wouldn’t expect a physicists to make atomic bombs out of chewing gum? There is a series of precise techniques, equipment and goods needed. This is science, not MacGyver. The same goes for recipes. A well-executed out dish is completely dependent upon method, ingredients, and to a lesser extent, equipment. If any of those fail, your dish will be the victim.
So for today’s post, I will focus on what makes for a successful recipe. No matter how pretty that recipe looks (that’s another annoyance of late, food porn via Photoshop), a poorly written and edited recipe is only good for cursing. Before you say “bleeppity, bleep bleep,” here’s some signs of trouble.
1. If a recipe does not tell you precise measurements. Many dishes, especially those handed down orally, are not very keen on measurements. I should know. Most of the recipes that I have gotten from my mother involve a lot of “handfuls” of various ingredients. Lebron James’ hands or Miley Cyrus’ hands? Can’t tell? This is why recipes need measurements. This also goes for pan sizes. Math will tell you that a 10-inch cake pan will cook more quickly than a 9-inch cake pan will. If they don’t give you sizes, then you’ve got problems.
2. Recipes that are not specific about their ingredients. For example, peppers. There are chili peppers, bell peppers (yellow, red and green), ancho peppers, pastilla peppers, paprika peppers… Recipes that do not explicitly define their ingredients are just asking for it. Using Spam for your antipasti is akin to dressing a redneck in Valentino. It won’t work.
3. Ingredients should indicate how they are to be cut. Ground Boeuf à la Bourguignonne? Large chunk of garlic in your salad? How about vegetable juice for ratatouille? You get the idea. There should be an indication in your recipe as to what size and shape your ingredients should be prepared. Diced does not mean rounds does not mean minced. Chunks are not strips are not cubes. Size and shape matter in terms of time and method used in cooking. For example, caramelized onions are dependent upon exposing the maximum amount of surface area to heat, in order to cook the sugars in the onion. Chopping it into half and asking it to caramelize is asking for a miracle. There just isn’t enough surface area exposed to heat to develop the sugars properly.
4. No temperatures-don’t bother. Recipes should tell you at what temperature a pan should be heated or on what setting. Pre-heated is exactly what it sounds like – pre heating. High heat is not medium or low – it’s the highest setting on your stove. And the oven temperature is not a suggestion – it’s an imperative. Unless you know that your oven has a problem, 350 is three hundred and fifty degrees.
5. Time. Good recipes always give you an approximate time for how long things need to cook or bake. Until “fragrant” is not very precise. By nose is pretty sensitive, but I have a friend who is constantly stuffy. By the time it’s “fragrant” to her, it’s burnt. Times are not always 100% accurate, but they at least give you a guideline as to when to move onto the next step.
6. Technique, technique, technique. Recipes should be clear about certain techniques, especially those involved in pastry or break making. For example, when making pie dough, recipes often suggest when cutting the flour into the butter that the dough should look like “peas.” My dough never seems to look like that. A picture easily solves that problem. Making croissants at home seems like a recipe for disaster. But if you have a picture, making all the turns required is a piece of cake. A picture says a thousand words.
7. Just plain wrong. There are some recipes that are just flawed in concept. I just tested a red wine pasta dish for a nationally known food magazine and it was wrong on all levels. The ingredients were fine. The directions were good. But the results? Plain awful. Experimentation is a crucial part of cooking well, but sometimes experiments go bad. If you see the recipe and it doesn’t sound right to you, then don’t torture yourself for not trying it. If you can’t be enthused about making the dish, no matter how advanced, it will be a waste of your time.
There you have it. Some of my guidelines for sussing out that recipe before your hands get dirty. But the most valuable advice for any cook? Practice, practice, practice. Perfect homemade pasta is not because of some magic trick-it’s practice. Fingerspitzengefühl, as the Germans would have it. The more you cook, the better you will be. No recipe needed.
Perfect Tomato Sauce
OK, this sauce is foolproof. Really. Foolproof. But get the best quality ingredients you can and take your time. If want convenience, than buy a jar. If you want flavor, sit, wait and stir. And if you are one of those convenience people, than at least do this: double or triple the recipe, and freeze or can extra portions (I do it all the time). It also makes a great base for a cream of tomato soup or any minestrone. You will never go back to store-bought pasta sauce again.
Yield: Enough for 1 pd. of pasta
2 pds. ripe plum tomatoes (see note)
2 heads of garlic, cloves peeled, and sliced thinly
¼ c. of extra-virgin olive oil
½ tsp. hot red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
½ tsp salt (sea salt is best)
15 large basil leaves, julienned
1. Score each tomato with an X on the bottom, place into a large pot of boiling water for 15 seconds, and place immediately into an ice bath. When cook enough to handle, peel skins off, deseed and chop into ¼ inch chunks.
2. In a small to medium non-reactive heavy pot (a Le Creuset pot is fantastic for this), heat olive oil over medium heat. When the oil is hot, but not smoking (Place a garlic slice in there and see if it bubbles. If so, you’re at the right temperature.) place garlic slices into the pan and cook into golden, but NOT brown, about 3 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. When the garlic is golden, add red pepper flakes and sauté for 10 seconds. Add the tomatoes and salt and bring to a low simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 1 hour. Taste and adjust add more salt as needed. Add basil leaves and serve.
Note: Now is the time to be thinking about using those plum tomatoes at the farmers’ markets. If it’s December in NYC, forget using fresh. Get a 28-oz can of whole, peeled San Marzano (traditionally used for sauce in Italy) tomatoes, and add it with its juices into the pot. Also, this sauce does cook down. You won’t get a lot of sauce – if you are going to take the time and effort to make this, I can’t encourage you enough to make large quantities.
 For those jet-setting transcontinental types, you should have a chart that gives you the precise conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit, or vice-versa. The same goes for all other metric measurements. There are a few online sources for this kind of thing. Just remember, weight and volume are NOT the same. A cup of sugar is about 250 grams, but a cup of basmati rice is 195 grams.
 When baking or roasting, the times are usually approximate- and that is for a reason. Certain pans will conduct heat more readily than others (e.g. metal versus ceramic). Also, convection ovens will often cook more quickly than conventional ovens. And there is also a difference between electric and gas ovens. The reason why ovens are pre-heated is to insure that the temperature is consistent when the said item goes into the oven. The shortest time is when you should start checking for doneness.
 The best examples of technique illustrations come from Cooks Illustrated and Julia Child’s classic, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Both the written instructions as well as the picture guides make sure that your recipe will be foolproof.
 By the way, have you ever inspected the ingredient list for most commercial pasta sauces? If you do, you might go into diabetic shock. The amount of sugar (or corn syrup) is unconscionable. And the rest of the ingredients are unpronounceable (even the “tomato” based ingredients). Just saying…