Cooking Tips

Recipe Cautions

Image by Homegrounds from Pixabay

I would suspect that most of you use recipes when you cook. People tend to feel more comfortable that their dish is going to turn out if they follow the instructions of the “expert” who wrote the recipe. This may or may not be true depending on how the recipe is written, who wrote it and other variables. Knowing when to take caution in following a recipe is the subject of this Cooking Tip.


Understanding how to accurately measure is a skill that will lead to improvements in your cooking results. This is even more important with baking and especially if you live at a high altitude. As a back ground, see these links about using the proper measuring tools and how weighing ingredients is superior to cup measurements.

The problem with recipes and measurements is that I think some recipe writers do not understand the basics of proper measuring techniques. For example, say your recipe says “1 cup shallots, minced”. The way that is written implies you should measure a cup of shallots and then mince them. Obviously, you cannot really measure a cup of shallots. The correct way to write this would be “1 cup minced shallots”. Note the placement of the comma in the first example. That little comma is generally important in recipe writing.

With an ingredient like shallots, it may be self-evident what the recipe writer meant. What if a recipe reads “1 cup pecans, chopped finely”. Do you measure a cup of pecan halves and the chop them or do you chop them first and then measure? The way it is written you should do the former – measure and then chop. I see so many recipes written in what I consider a sloppy manner and do not take into account this basic recipe writing principle. Because of that, I do not always trust that the recipe was written accurately. As there is no way for you to know this, you are going to have to use caution when looking at measurements and use your best judgement.

It is also helpful to have some measurement conversions committed to memory or have a chart readily available. Here is one from Home Baking.

Another aspect of measurements is that some recipes are written unnecessarily vague as to the amount of the particular ingredients. Some examples are:

  • 1 onion, chopped
    • What type of onion – yellow, white, red or sweet? That makes a difference to the flavor of the dish.
    • What size – small, medium, large? Too much onion can hurt a dish. It would be better to say 3 oz onion or 1 cup chopped onion.
  • The juice of one lemon
    • How much juice is that? It depends on the size and ripeness of the lemon. It would be better to say 1 Tbsp of lemon juice.
  • 3 potatoes, sliced
    • What type of potatoes? Russets have different uses than red potatoes. You will achieve better results using the type that was used when the recipe was created.
    • What size of potatoes? Once again, it would be better to specify a weight.

If the recipe you want to try is vague in these ways, you need a bit of help. If it concerns a type of ingredient (such as what type of onion), do a bit of research on onions either on my site or elsewhere. If it is the amount that is unclear, consider consulting a book called Food FAQs by Linda Resnick & Dee Brock. They spent an enormous amount of time measuring food items to help you know how much, for example, the juice of one lemon is. Also, it is best to start with less than you think you will need, tasting and then adding more if it needs it.

Cooking/Baking Directions

Once you have figured out the proper measurements, the next caution is the cooking or baking instructions. This caution especially applies to “doneness” guidance or timing recommendations.

Please note that timing recommendations should only ever be understood as a guideline, not an absolute. How long things will need to cook or bake has many variables such as the pan you are using, the heat you are applying, your oven temperature, the size you cut the items, etc.

One very common instruction you will see in a recipe has to do with sautéing items. For example, the recipe might read, “Sauté onions for 2-3 minutes, until soft and translucent.” That 2-3 minute time-frame is only an estimate of how long it is going to take to get your onions to the proper stage. It is not what really matters. What matters is what comes after that word “until”. You want to end up with onions that are soft and translucent and it doesn’t matter if that takes 1 minute or 5 minutes. Use the time listed as a guide but then do your own assessment. After 2 minutes, look at the onions to see if they look translucent. Take a taste of them. Are they as soft as you would like them? If those answers are yes, you are done cooking them. If not, continue until you get the desired result.

With meat and baked items, it often lists a time frame followed by “or until done”. Your food item may or may not be done at the end of that time frame. For example, I was making some Mexican Hot Chocolate Brownies and the recipe instructed me to “bake for 20 minutes, until the top is cracked and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean”. At the end of the 20 minutes, I had some cracking but the inside was still somewhat liquid. So, I baked it longer until I had the proper result. If I had just taken those brownies out of the oven at 20 minutes, I would have had a gooey mess.

With both meat and baked items, it is good to get into the habit of using a digital thermometer. Here is a Tip I wrote on thermometers. The problem is that so many recipes, especially American recipes, do not give you doneness temperatures. Therefore, you should have a “cheat sheet” readily available that tells you proper doneness temperatures. I keep a chart right on my refrigerator so I do not have to rely on my memory. Here is one that shows not only meat temperatures, but also temps for baked items.

Other variables

Even if the recipe is well-written, there are other variables that can make a difference in the outcome. Here is a short and very interesting video from Jacques Pepin explaining why “following a recipe can lead to disaster”. He created and wrote a recipe for Pears in Caramel Sauce. Watch as he shows and explains how following the recipe exactly as written without taking into account all of these variables can lead to disaster.

If your recipe was found online, there will often be a “Comments” section. I find many of the comments very unhelpful as they might be written by someone who hasn’t even made the recipe or by someone who made so many substitutions that it is bound to be very different than the expected result. However, it can be useful to skim those looking for comments from people that might have something helpful to say.

How many times have you found a recipe that sounded wonderful but you ended up being disappointed in the results? Could it be the fault of the recipe? With this information, I hope you will better be able to analyze a recipe and then achieve better results.