What recipes don’t tell you (because they assume you know)

July 12, 2013

Diced tomatoes on JillHough.com

I write a lot of recipes. And with almost every one, I have to make decisions about how much I’m going to say and how much I’m going to assume you know.

An easy example. I can probably assume you know “dice” means something cut into cubes, so I can write “1 tomato, diced” instead of “1 tomato, cut into cubes.”

But can I tell you to deglaze a pan without explaining what I mean by that?

Probably not (unless you’ve read this post).

See, there’s a language to recipes, and most assume you’re fluent in at least the basics, lest each turn into a lesson in Cooking 101.

Perhaps, then, it’d be worthwhile to take a look at a few of those assumptions.

1. You know that “1 cup walnuts, chopped” and “1 cup chopped walnuts” aren’t the same thing.
That comma in the first example indicates that you do something with the walnuts after measuring them. So in the first example, you measure 1 cup of walnuts and then chop them. In the second, you chop first, then measure. With some ingredients, it wouldn’t make a big difference. With others, it absolutely would.

2. Speaking of measuring, you know that weight and volume are the same for only one ingredient—water.
In other words, an eight-ounce cup of water will weigh eight ounces. But for everything else, all bets are off. When a recipe refers to ounces, it’s typically talking about weight and you measure with a scale. For volume, recipes will refer to volume measurements—teaspoons, tablespoons, cups, quarts, etc.—and you use those measuring tools.

3. With very few exceptions, you know it’s best to heat your pan before adding your fat, and then heat your fat before adding your food.
A recipe might say something like “In a medium pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil.” But you understand to get the pan hot over medium heat first, and then add the oil. Heating the pan first will help prevent sticking.

An example of an exception would be something that burns very easily or quickly—if you’re toasting nuts, for example, you might start them in a cold pan and then let it and the nuts come up to temperature more slowly and gently.

4. You know that “stir occasionally” means to stir often enough to avoid uneven cooking, but not so much that you avoid browning.
I see misunderstandings about this a lot in cooking classes. It’s torture for students to stand at the stovetop and do nothing, so they stir. The result is stir-fry—crisp-tender food without browning’s appealing colors and savory flavors.

5. You know food should be room temperature before cooking it.
If you cook a chicken breast or pork chop right out of the refrigerator, it’s more likely to be overcooked on the outside before it’s done on the inside. So instead, you leave it on the kitchen counter for an hour or so before cooking.

And that doesn’t make you all nutty about food poisoning—you know that have two to four hours, depending on your kitchen’s temperature, before that’s a potential issue.

What else do you know to do even if a recipe doesn’t tell you? What more is written between the lines?

This post was inspired by two things—Cooking Light’s brilliant “The Most Common Cooking Mistakes” and a semi-regular column that Fine Cooking used to run, titled something like “How to Read a Recipe” (I’d provide a link, but can’t find one to save my life).


2 thoughts on “What recipes don’t tell you (because they assume you know)

  1. Rita

    Good, useful post, Jill. Earlier this year there was lots of discussion about recipe writing within a LinkedIn food group–excellent back-and-forth with opinions. Rosie and I have a useful piece in our blog’s Kitchen Essentials that covers the basics http://getcookingsimply.com/pdf/HowToBasics.pdf
    Also, Mark Bittman’s cookbook “How to Cook Everything– the basics” is an excellent resource for beginners. Lots of photos and less verbiage. It’s now in my wedding gift repertoire.

Leave a Reply

Your email will not be published. An asterisk indicates a required field.