I was working in my first full-time cooking job, which was basically where I got my initial culinary education, primarily at the hands of the Executive Sous Chef. He was an encyclopedia of food knowledge, and was direct and (usually) reasonable with me, and to this day remains one of my good friends.
The operation was such that every day, we were serving 80-300 plated dinners to guests of a live-in conference center run by a prominent university. The nightly menu was to offer options of beef, fish, “other” (ie: pork, chicken, veal, lamb, etc.), and a vegetarian entree, each of which was accompanied by a starch and a vegetable. The menu changed daily, and we (the cooks) would rarely know what we would be making until we arrived at work and looked at the day’s menu, and dishes were rarely repeated. There were also rarely recipes given, reflecting the great deal of trust the kitchen management had in the cooks. However, sometimes there would be a menu themed after a somewhat exotic cuisine (I think this story was brought on by a Thai menu), or maybe a dish that was not something the chef assumed we would know how to make. In such cases, there tended to be a recipe attached to the day’s menu.
On such a day, I ambitiously pursued an unfamiliar dish with an assigned recipe for a sauce. I followed the recipe, and tasted the result. I don’t remember what the recipe was or what it tasted like, but I remember it was horrible (I think the result of too much fish sauce). I took a spoonful to my sous chef, and said I didn’t know what it was supposed to taste like, but I hoped this wasn’t it. He tasted it, and reacted appropriately: he made a terrible face, spit it out, and said “what the fuck did you do to this!?”. To which I innocently responded, “I followed the recipe.”.
A look of incredulity came to his face. “You followed the recipe? Why the fuck would you do that?” This was a little puzzling to me, because my answer was “You gave it to me!”
He rolled his eyes, “As a guideline! You never follow the recipe — the recipe is always wrong!”
This was baffling to me at the time. I thought that’s why recipes were written: so that if you didn’t know how to make something yourself, it would tell you how. But since that very educational moment, I’ve found that lesson to be nothing if not prophecy. With the exception of some baked goods recipes, almost no recipe I’ve come across has been flawless. My sous chef was correct though, that they are very helpful as guidelines, but following a recipe to the letter will rarely get you the desired result.
A number of things can contribute to this. A recipe might have ingredients that don’t belong, or it might be missing ingredients that need to be there. It might call for too much of something, or not enough of something else (usually salt!). Most frequently though, recipes come up short when it comes to proper instruction.
Just for the purpose of this post, I searched for an arbitrary recipe on a prominent food/recipe website, and landed on beef stew. I only needed the first sentence for an example: “In large pot or dutch oven, cook beef in oil over medium heat until brown.” Beef turns brown almost as soon as it touches a hot surface. There are several shades of brown, and the one you’re looking for is, “as dark as it can be before burning”. Also, I hate cook-top recipe instructions that call for “medium” or “medium-low” heat: what that means can vary greatly between stoves; my stove’s “medium” is probably going to be different from your stove’s “medium” (no, I don’t have an alternative solution, but it still bugs the shit out of me!). Not to mention, it’s very difficult to compare “medium-high” between gas, electric, and induction burners.
Sometimes though, the recipe instructions are just plain wrong: In the case of the example above, to make beef stew, you start with beef that should be cut into roughly 3/4″ cubes, but then, you don’t brown them over medium heat — you blast high heat and sear that shit! Nobody ever got great flavor from moderately browned beef, but they damn sure got it every time that beef was seared.
The only way you can actually cook something correctly, is if you have an understanding of the techniques and the ingredients being called for. This is why it’s perfectly acceptable to use a recipe for guidelines. Hell, I do it all the time. But the only way you’ll ever be able to cook something properly is by learning how to cook. And in the meantime, if you have any questions, my inbox is open!