The Recipe is Always Wrong II — even on the box!

Okay, so maybe it’s not always wrong on the box, but it’s not always perfect.

You might be wondering, “Wait, Glenn, you’re a professional chef. What are you doing eating frozen pizza or Kraft Mac n’ Cheese?”. First of all, foodservice professionals love eating prepared foods (like frozen pizza), or any kind of food they don’t really have to make themselves (do you go home from your job and continue to do your job for free for yourself once you get there?). Second of all, Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese is amazing! But I digress…

Since landing at my recent job, I’ve actually had the time and the inclination (and the wife’s request) to cook. In fact, until recently, we never had any packaged prepared food in our freezer, and other than some emergency situation cans of soup and bags of popcorn, none in the pantry either. But recently, we underwent a move (what’s up Louisville!), and have yet to receive our belongings. As such, we’ve bought/eaten more pre-made packaged food in the last few weeks than we had in the previous three years combined.

And I’ve realized that even what should be the simplest and most basic of instruction, can be (and often is) flawed.

Take the pizza example. There isn’t even the issue I ranted about in the first anti-recipe post, regarding “medium” heat on stove-top. Ovens are (supposed to be) universally calibrated to temperature. Generally speaking, freezers are too! It should be really straight-forward how much time a pizza, straight out of the freezer, needs to be in an oven at 400 degrees with no fan/convection to be cooked and nicely browned on the edges. I won’t name names of brands because it’s not necessary, but the one I made last week called for 16-18 minutes, and it took 22.

On another occasion, I was putting together a frozen General Tsao’s Chicken product from a store. It’s a great dish in general (I know it’s a bastardization of Chinese food created in America, but it’s still good), but the instructions were — I can’t really say they were wrong, but they did not put the home cook in the best position to succeed. I read the instructions that told me to heat the chicken in a sauté pan, then later, adding the sauce, and stirring it over medium heat until caramelized. I knew this was going to be far messier than it needed to be, so instead, I baked the chicken in the oven until it was hot throughout. Meanwhile, I thawed the sauce in a bowl of warm/hot water. Once the chicken was done, I tossed it with the sauce (only needed one of the two packets they sent — using all would have been far too much sauce, but kept the extra to be able to use it later on another meal) in a bowl, returned it to the pan (lined with foil), and baked in the oven on high heat to get the caramelization.

My wife was floored at how easy the way I did it was, and frustrated at how long that recipe (and others) had lied to her about how to best assemble the product. Apparently, she’d spent what amounted to hours over the years, scrubbing her cookware after burning the sugary sauce to her pan. She was even more incensed when I told her that even if I were to follow the instructions, I’d use a non-stick pan (also, something the packaging did not say to do).

Then there’s the little things that I’ve been lied to about for years: that white rice requires a ratio of 2:1, water:rice, when it’s actually 3:2. And that you don’t actually need to soak dried legumes before cooking them (although it does significantly reduce their cook-time).

What all of this comes down to is that it’s become perfectly clear to me over my years of professional cooking, that the people who write the cooking instructions for the products their company develops and sells, aren’t actually strong cooks themselves. At that point, it’s the blind leading the blind — and no, that’s not fair to those being led (the customer).

What’s the solution then? Let me turn to one of my favorite pieces of advice: think about the process. Read the instructions. Think about what each instruction is meant to accomplish, when contributing to the final product, and really try to think about whether that’s the best way to do that. If it goes against your conventional wisdom, don’t doubt yourself. If you’re smart enough to understand what “think about the process” means, you’re probably smart enough to do what seems right to you, even if a cardboard box or plastic bag tells you different.

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