Recipes are tricky things. They’ve come a long way from the days when they were called “receipts” and the assumption was that the reader was generally competent in the kitchen. These days recipes are supposed to be written so that even a novice cook can follow them and successfully create a dish, but that’s not always the case. Where are some of the pitfalls?
First off, read a recipe all the way through and understand the overall picture of how you’re going to make this dish before you begin. If you know that the spinach needs to thaw before proceeding, it will save you frustration when everything else is ready to go and the spinach is still rock-hard and cold. A good recipe will state, “1/2 lb. carrots, peeled & diced.” A less well-written one will tell you in the list of ingredients how many carrots are needed, but how they’re to be prepared will be buried in the instructions. Find out first what’s needed and what’s going to be done to it.
Is there a subsidiary recipe? Does the last line in the list of ingredients call for Burnt Sugar Frosting? Then you need to locate the frosting recipe to see what that needs to be made, If it needs to be ready as soon as the cake comes out of the oven, to be spread over the cake while it is still warm, you need to know that upfront.
Quantities can be confusing. Is “1 6 oz. can tomato paste” one can weighing six ounces? Or is it a typographical error that should read 16 oz. can tomato paste? A clear recipe will read something like “1 (6 oz.) can tomato paste” or “1 can tomato paste, 6 ounces.” Since tomato paste typically comes in smaller cans, common sense will tell you the recipe requires one six-ounce can.
Another common confusion is the case of, “1 cup carrots, diced.” What this really means is one cup of diced carrots, because how does one measure whole carrots? Here you would peel the carrots, then dice them and measure out one cup. This is sloppily worded, but you can intuit what the writer meant.
How about “1 cup blanched almonds, ground” vs. “1 cup ground blanched almonds”? Oops. Unlike carrots, whole almonds can be measured by the cup. What does this author mean? The difference between almonds measured before and after grinding can be as much as 1/4 to 1/2 cup, which could significantly affect your results if you’re baking a cake. Check the recipe for other clues as to which is called for; if there are none, you can only take your best guess. Or perhaps you have time to find another, clearer recipe.
Read carefully. If fresh bread crumbs are called for, don’t use dried. A friend gave me a recipe for steamed pudding, but said the recipe was off – that much more syrup or jam was required in the bottom of the mold. The recipe wasn’t wrong – she was. She was using dried bread crumbs, which absorbed more of the jam. When I made it using the proper kind of bread crumbs, the quantities called for were right.
Regional recipes offer challenges. In some parts of the country, butter is packaged in sticks, in some, cubes (which aren’t truly cubes – they’re actually shorter, stubbier sticks.) If the amount is called for in some additional way, like ¼ cup or 2 ounces, you’re home free – just measure it that way. If not, be aware that 1 cube weighs the same as 1 stick (four ounces), and determine the quantity called for using that information.
Recipes that call for can sizes or manufacturer’s sizes show their age. What used to be a 16 ounce can of beans may now be 14.5 ounces. Cream cheese isn’t seen in 3 ounce sizes anymore, at least not in this part of the country. In the case of the beans, don’t worry about it (just know that the producer is trying to keep its profit margin at a certain level.) With the cream cheese, you’ll have to buy a larger size and use just what you need. A recipe that calls for a “small” can of something isn’t helpful at all.
Different regional names for ingredients can be confusing. One of my students pointed out that his wife uses “shallots” to mean any kind of onion. To me, a shallot is one thing and one thing only – a small red or grey member of the onion family that is distinct. In France, it’s called an eschalot, but in Louisiana, eschalot means scallion or green onions. Also, in parts of the southern US, recipes can call for a “pod” of garlic. A “pod” of garlic is a clove, not a head!
If a recipe calls for a preheated oven, it may or may not be necessary. Foods that don’t need to be browned or are unleavened may be put in to bake when the oven is turned on. However, baking will take longer to allow for the time the oven is coming up to temperature. If you’re making a cake, though, or want to sear the outside of a roast, do preheat the oven.
In summary, read a new recipe over carefully before you begin. Find any potential areas of difficulty. Not all recipes are written well, so you may find ambiguous areas that need clarification. Now is the time to figure it out and proceed, or to abandon that particular recipe – you’ll save yourself a lot of frustration by knowing upfront rather than halfway through making something new.