How Do You Know a Recipe’s Gonna Succeed?

January 9th, 2014 · 38 Comments · Uncategorized

Is there anything more annoying than spending time and money on a recipe that falls short, or doesn’t brown right, or takes hours instead of minutes, or doesn’t look anywhere close to the freaking picture? Never again! Herewith eight questions to ask before you decide to make a new recipe for the family.

Is there a recipe buried within your recipe? If a recipe calls for an ingredient that in and of itself requires its own recipe on another page in the book — back away from the cookbook. This drives me crazy. It’s a technique commonly found in restaurant cookbooks — not to be confused with restaurant chef’s cook-at-home cookbooks — where they think nothing of calling for blood orange vinaigrette “(see page 220)” and homemade veal stock “(see page 130)” in the same ingredient list. The only time this is acceptable is if sufficient warning has been given in the recipe note or if there is a substitution option that doesn’t make you feel like some kind of failure for not having homemade parsley pesto on hand.

Did a robot write it or did a real person? Do you know what a recipe headnote is? It’s the industry term for the little introduction that precedes your recipe. You know, the kind that says “I love this dish. It’s a great thing to make ahead for entertaining, because it just tastes better on Day 2.” Now that? That’s a good headnote. It’s helpful, it’s specific. You get the feeling that the recipe writer has done it before and knows what she’s talking about. (That very instruction is in the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, preceding her Balsamic-and Beer-Braised Short Rib.) But how about this one: “So delicious that everyone in your family will be begging for seconds.” Barf. Is this a cookbook or is it fiction? The person who wrote that is either a) Siri or b) someone who has never cooked for a kid who, this week, has decided to eat mashed potatoes and nothing but mashed potatoes.

Does it have a cutesy name? Like “Last-Minute Lasagna” or “Quickie Quesadillas?” These kinds of recipes might be perfectly fine, but I find it just too embarrassing to answer “Curry in a Hurry” when a family member asks me what’s for dinner. I don’t have any more scientific explanation than that. (Exception: Lazy Bolognese on page 98 of my book. Why an exception? Because I am a complete hypocrite.)

Does the timing seem right? Somewhere along the line — I’m tawlkin’ to you Rachael Ray — 30 minutes became the barometer for the hallowed “quick and easy meal.” As a result, it seems that everyone wants to deliver recipes that come in under the half-hour wire. And if they don’t? Eh? Let’s just say it anyway! This seems to happen all the time. How to avoid: Read the recipe all the way through — if the writer tells you that a soup which involves chopping a half dozen chopped vegetables takes five minutes prep time, you should think twice about trusting that recipe writer. (And if it happens again, I give you full on permission to un-follow him or her on instagram.)

Is the ingredient list longer than the recipe? That’s not a good sign. Save for the weekend, or when your kids are older — or hand to your butler and private chef to arrange themselves.

Are there too few ingredients? This sounds like a strange question to ask. Is there such a thing as a recipe that’s too easy? Not that often — but when a recipe calls for only two or three ingredients, you should probably make sure each one of those ingredients is pulling its weight if it’s going to turn out well. The other night I found myself explaining how to make polenta to my friend Naria. It’s so easy, you just whisk cornmeal into chicken broth and add some fat at the end like cheese. It’s a three-ingredient side dish (one that is excellent with those short ribs I might add) and it’s perfectly serviceable if you make it with cornmeal, chicken broth, and cheese. But if you take care to use homemade stock, authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano, and cornmeal from your local Italian market, it’s going to be more than serviceable, it’s going to be memorable, which means that most likely it will make it onto your table again. And that’s the mark of a success here.

Is the recipe handwritten? It’s gonna work.

Is the recipe handwritten by a family member? Recipe Gold. No further screening required.

PS: Recipe cards shown in photo are from Andy’s grandmother’s collection, courtesy of our Uncle Doug & Uncle Earl.

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38 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Katie // Jan 9, 2014 at 11:41 am

    Love this cute quick list, also, I like to re-write recipes before I try them. It totally saved me when I was making stuffing for the first time on thanksgiving. First time recipe on a holiday may not be recommended, but it all worked out! (and I would’ve missed a crucial step if I hadn’t re-organized those darn instructions).

  • 2 Victoria (aka Zemfirka) // Jan 9, 2014 at 11:59 am

    And this post is the reason I love DALS! Thank you.

    I love to cook and if I’m planning to use a recipe (unless it’s measuring baking ingredients) I usually approach it as an idea or inspiration and it most often results in fabulous dishes. :)

  • 3 Barbara // Jan 9, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    This is helpful. Yesterday I made this soup in my slow cooker: http://crockpot365.blogspot.com/2013/03/slow-cooker-hearty-lima-bean-soup.html

    The flavors were great, but the lima beans never softened fully and I unfortunately didn’t realize it until after I used my immersion blender.

    I soaked the beans overnight in cold water so I’m not sure what the problem was. They were Goya beans from my supermarket and they were cheap. Maybe they were just old.

  • 4 Jesse // Jan 9, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    oh you forgot is it torn out from the newspaper and almost completely faded? also recipe gold:)

    http://semiweeklyeats.blogspot.com/2014/01/so-much-to-say.html

  • 5 Katharine // Jan 9, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    I love this article! Such a good read and I completely agree. Anything hand-written by grandma is gold.
    -Katharine
    Living’s as Easy as 312

  • 6 Libby // Jan 9, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    “Why an exception? Because I am a complete hypocrite.” I love this. This is real life. :D

    And yes about the embarrassing names for a dish. If the food is good, it doesn’t need a cutesy name. I feel like this is something else that Rachel Ray does. I love her meals but I rename them in my house.
    In the same way, no matter how much I want to eat a Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity from IHOP, I can’t bring myself to say it out loud to my server. So I’ve never tried it.

  • 7 Ruthy @ Omeletta // Jan 9, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    The world (ok, my world) simply does not have enough hand-written-by-a-family-member recipes. I hope to continue to remedy that! Loved this post so, so much.

  • 8 Awads // Jan 9, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    i almost always add 10-15 minutes to any recipe’s prep-time, including DALS. maybe i’m just slow, but i feel like all published recipes are way too optimistic on how long it takes to round up ingredients and chop/slice/measure. i’ll even re-write the actual time in the recipe book so that i won’t be surprised.

  • 9 Liz @ ListenToTheFood // Jan 9, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    Also, was it written by the nice ladies in the company’s recipe development department, i.e. the Hershey’s Perfect Chocolate Cake or the Bakers’ One Bowl Brownies. That’s a recipe that’s been tested a million times!

    Disregard in cases involving condensed soup or cake mix …

  • 10 heidikins cooks // Jan 9, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    I partially disagree on the ingredient list to recipe instructions ratio, I find that adding a pile of herbs and spices to just about anything I cook (not bake) will vastly improve the overall flavor. A half-teaspoon of this or that (or both) and a quarter-teaspoon of that other thing will eliminate the need for excess salt and give your end result a deeper, more delicious flavor. And each of those spices and herbs takes a line in the ingredient list. Ya know?

    xox

  • 11 Hollis // Jan 9, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    I agree, this post is the reason I love and follow DALS! So practical and makes you smile!

  • 12 Jill "jillybean" W. // Jan 9, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    “Lazy Bolognese” is clever if I do say so myself. Cheers!

  • 13 Leslie // Jan 9, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    I have been burned by the “5 minutes prep” so many times. I don’t know who can mince 4 bell peppers, 2 onions, and a leek, and peel 8 potatoes in 5 minutes – it takes me that long just to WASH the veggies.

  • 14 Jenny // Jan 9, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    Oh hey jillybean! Nice to see you again. Thought you’d like that one. :)

    {P.S. to everyone else: jillybean is the one who crowned my formerly-known-as-turkey-meat-sauce ‘lazy bolgonese’}

  • 15 Julie // Jan 9, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    But Jenny, you must give yourself a “bye” for Lazy Bolognese because it rhymes so beautifully!

  • 16 Nicole // Jan 9, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    @ 6 for cute/bad names: We have an AMAZING recipe for “stir-fried beef in spicy peanut sauce”. The sauce also has cocoa powder in it which gives it a nice rich colour.

    Unfortunately that makes it look like “poo stew” as the kids now call it. Adults LOVE it, kids hate it.

  • 17 JanetS // Jan 9, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    I’m not one to gush, but I love this post. And maybe now that you’ve made polenta sound more appealing (using quality ingredients), I’ll give it a try.

  • 18 joy // Jan 9, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    Despite the name, poo stew sounds delicious. Any chance you’d share the recipe here?

  • 19 Teffy // Jan 9, 2014 at 4:54 pm

    My grandmother has so many written up recipe! Those are so precious now a days, and I love the authenticity and the time it took to write up recipies you truly cared about.

    {Teffy’s Perks} X

  • 20 Laura W // Jan 9, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    Jenny, I hate to admit it, but I’ve been following your blog for two years at least and I’ve never made one of your recipes. I have a lot of excuses why, including multiple allergies, a toddler, and no access to Trader Joes… However I want to say that I keep reading because I’ve learned more about cooking from reading both the recipes and commentaries like this than from any other source (save perhaps Julia Child and Robert Farrar Capon). So thank you! :)

  • 21 ashley // Jan 9, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    i just found your site. i think i love you. you’re amazing.

  • 22 Uncle Doug // Jan 9, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    You have to watch out for some of those hand-written recipes. The ones in the photo above are from my mother, whose handwriting was described as “perfect for writing treaties: beautiful to look at, but impossible to read”. There are ingredients in some of her old recipes that I still wonder about.
    btw, if my memory from many decades ago serves me, that recipe in the front for Halibut was really good

  • 23 Alyssa // Jan 9, 2014 at 6:22 pm

    The only recipes I really trust these days are recipes from blogs I trust (like this one) and recipes on sites where users can post reviews (like food network.com). Aside from the fact that reviewers can give thumbs up or thumbs down, many of them offer other helpful tidbits, like “this made way too much,” or “the thyme made it taste weird so I’d leave it out next time.”

    I was recently burned by the Balaboosta cookbook when I made a recipe that was an epic FAIL. I think there must’ve been a typo because the salt level was off the charts and made it completely inedible. As I was putting in the salt, I thought it seemed like way too much, but I triple checked the recipe and followed it exactly. I should’ve trusted my instincts and used a lot less, but it was there! in print! in a cookbook! Big bummer because I spent a lot of time and money on that recipe.

    Anyway – mistakes happen, but it made me deepen my appreciation for recipes that other people have already tried, liked, and commented on.

  • 24 Carlinne @Cook with 2 Chicks // Jan 9, 2014 at 8:12 pm

    Great breakdown of how to read a recipe and determine if it will work. I love the picture, too!

  • 25 JackieD // Jan 10, 2014 at 8:28 am

    This thing about the cutesy name is (though I hate that I’m defending it) is that sometimes, as is the case with Lazy Bolognese, it’s actually a guide/tool for how to properly pronounce the food’s name.

    “Lazy” gives clues because you realize that they should (sort of) rhyme, and probably helps a new/inexperienced cook feel a little more comfortable jumping in and trying the recipe. (“Bowl-OG-neese? Too weird!”).

  • 26 Lauren // Jan 10, 2014 at 8:51 am

    One of the many things I love about your recipe for chicken with apricot jam and mustard (which frankly was worth the price of DALS by itself) is that it comes out looking like the picture – every single time.

  • 27 Catherine @ Chocolate & Vegetables // Jan 10, 2014 at 10:55 am

    I also hate the cutesy names like “quickie” or “in a hurry”, but for some reason “lazy” doesn’t bother me as much. We are always referring to our dishes as a “lazy” version of something else (i.e., “this apple crisp? It’s just lazy apple pie”). Somehow it sounds considerably less ridiculous than most of the other “easy” monikers!

  • 28 Natalie {Use Your Words, Little Girl} // Jan 10, 2014 at 11:13 am

    These are AWESOME tips! I have found so many of these things to be true, but forget about them until I’m knee deep in a recipe and hating the author already.

  • 29 Emily // Jan 10, 2014 at 11:52 am

    One aspect of DALS that I love and praise aloud to my family is that the estimated time is usually spot-on for me and doesn’t make me feel slow and inept in the kitchen! It’s a genuine sore spot for me, as I cook all the time, but most cookbooks’ time estimates are off by a long-shot.

  • 30 Donna // Jan 10, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    LOVE this post. Agree with every single point. Love your blog, love your book. Happy 2014!

  • 31 Julie M // Jan 10, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    Jenny, another interesting and useful post. I agree completely that long ingredient lists are a pain. I’ve learned so much from DALS over the last 2 years, I cant’t thank you enough. BTW, I’m making the pizza crust frm your book tonite, toppings to be determined based on what’s in my fridge. Best pizza crust ever!

  • 32 Zelda // Jan 11, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    Some cooks’ recipes, like Nigella’s, always work. You can tell by the way she writes, too, that she has cooked them many times. One of my favourite food blogs is Manger – http://mimithorisson.com/
    I’ll take cooking advice from any woman who feeds 6 (soon 7) kids!

  • 33 Brittney // Jan 11, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    My grandmother left me “the book”. A blue diary from 1980 filled with all her recipes and clippings. It’s a tome to hold sacred, for sure.

  • 34 Anna // Jan 12, 2014 at 8:47 am

    Yes, yes, yes! My favorite sentence in this post:
    “Barf.”
    Ha! This all so true. I tell people all the time that cooking just takes practice. The more you do it, the more comfortable you will be in the kitchen, and you will be better at spotting the bad recipes.

  • 35 M // Jan 13, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    @ Alyssa – I only recently discovered (the hard way) that different brands of kosher salt are WAY different in ‘salty’ taste. E.g, Diamond brand is much, much less salty when used in cooking than Morton’s kosher salt. I had no idea and it was a big eye opener. That may be the difference in the recipe you tried.

  • 36 Julia // Jan 13, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    I instantly hate anything including “a package of (ingredient)”. It’s amazing how many cookbooks use packaged amounts as standards, and living in a different market (I live in South America) it stops making any sense to me. A packet of yeast? Half a tub of yogurt? What are you talking about???

    I prefer recipes using as little as pre made ingredients as possible (yes, tomato sauce, I’m looking at you), but I also admit that Julia Child’s style sounds intimidating. Jamie Oliver always sounds like he’s hiding something from me, and there’s always the thing with ingredient equivalences.

    I think I’ll end up compiling my own cookbook of sorts, made from adapted recipes and taking into account my tastes and inclinations. Isn’t what everybody who’s to put dinner on the table night in and night out ends up doing?

  • 37 Erin Waite // Jan 13, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    That photo! Made my heart beat a little faster. There is nothing as appealing as a handwritten recipe, preferably barely legible through the ingredients splattered on it over the years.

  • 38 Goldie Gal // Feb 25, 2014 at 12:15 am

    My stash of recipe cards is so precious to me, I started them when I was still a kid! To anyone else who feels the same, keep them in a safe place by taking photos of each card, then put them in an app called RecipeTin which is I guess the new age version of the metal tin I actually have! (The Hershey one – anyone else remember that?)

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