How Chefs and Cooks Read Recipes
Turner Farm Chef/Culinary Manager
There are some circumstances in which a chef or cook will read a recipe intently, word-for-word, and cautiously follow every step to the “T”. This is far more common in the pastry world where in some cases, one falter or percentage off an ingredient can drastically modify the results of the final dish. However, chefs (both in the culinary and pastry world) display a lot of flexibility and creativity to many onlookers when it comes to dishes.
We tend to chalk this up to talent, some level of craftsmanship, or even artistry. I would have to agree that a certain level of skill and experience absolutely helps when it comes to making something delicious, beautiful, and inspiring. Probably the most important aspect that I have yet to acknowledge is the ability to be able to make a dish more than once.
Making something awe-inspiring once is beginner’s luck. While even I have boasted some haphazard culinary wins in my life due to fortune, it isn’t a mark of expertise or even competence.
So how does a normal individual go from tediously reading recipes, worrying about every step and every ingredient, to someone that simply works with what is available, coaxing the most flavor out of the ingredients to create something maybe not necessarily original, but really satisfying? First thing: relaxing? Honestly, cooking causes a lot of people more anxiety than dealing with their in-laws (and forget about cooking for the in-laws).
So, if that means drinking a glass of wine to calm down—do it. Second thing: while reading a recipe start to think like a chef.
Chef’s read recipes for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s to replicate a favorite dish or jog some new ideas and gain inspiration, other times to travel to another land or culture, and sometimes it’s even to bring back memories. What we try to extract from recipes are a few things: ingredients, seasoning, and methods.
When it comes to ingredients: we think about how the recipe is using certain items like vegetables, grains, proteins, or herbs—what are their roles? Can they be replaced with other items to create a similar, yet unique dish? For example, if I have a family recipe that calls for chicken, but I’m a vegan, then what do I substitute it with? Tofu, tempeh, seitan, lentils, or even cauliflower might be options, but I also must think about the dish as a whole: what seasonings/flavor profiles are present and what cooking methods are being used.
Seasonings and flavor profiles come in a myriad of styles. Regardless of the variety in seasoning, it is important to understand the relationships that these flavors are having with one another. While it is challenging to summarize all combinations of spices and herbs, and what they evoke, the ultimate goal is to have a balanced dish. So, if a dish calls for a lot of acidity, balance it with either a little sweetness, salt, bitterness, or even umami (think soy sauce). A perfect example is a simple salad with a vinaigrette. If you’re using spicy or bitter greens, like arugula or radicchio, you may want to consider making a slightly tangier vinaigrette than say a salad with butter lettuce.
The last factor you need to evaluate is what cooking methods are used in a recipe and what do they impart to the final dish. If an item is getting grilled, a little charred flavor will be brought out and the overall dish may be a little dried. If a dish is getting braised, the braising liquid(s) will be dispersed throughout the dish and the final product will be tender and moist, if done correctly.
By knowing what main ingredients, flavor profiles, and techniques within a recipe, the cook or chef no longer needs to stare at the piece of paper or fret if they grabbed red onions instead of shallots. Obviously, this is easier said than done. Knowing how to properly season a dish for your (or someone else’s) palate, the proper cooking techniques, or even how to switch out ingredients isn’t something we are born with. It’s experience and a sense of confidence (or at least an ability to “fake it until you make it”).
For some, opening a new cookbook and running through the recipes will empower them to make those exact dishes and after a few times of creating those dishes, they will begin to play with the flavors and ingredients. However, others will not naturally progress to this point. They may just have that “one dish” that they know how to make well-ish, and they make it for any occasion where they are forced to prepare something. Culinary confidence and feeling a sense of freedom while cooking, rather than dread or fear, is entirely achievable for any person, but it takes time and practice.