Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Reading A Recipe

As this blog grew to encompass recipes and techniques, I realized I had neglected to offer some very basic yet fundamental advice.

One day in culinary school our chef Francis T. Lynch told the class of the importance of first reading a recipe thoroughly, from beginning to end, before collecting any ingredients or tools.

 "...take notes, mark in the book or magazine. Do whatever it is YOU need to do to be prepared. Know all of the ingredients, equipment, options, cautions and rescues (if any) before you get started".

This bit of insight registered in my eager and restless mind however did not meet the attention required for disciplined action. I do have an excuse though: With time of the essence and a menu element depleted, there is little chance to sit and read through a recipe taking notes as your chef yells about needing it 10 minutes ago. But this excuse is crap because if you don't 'measure twice, cut once' you could find you have botched that desperately needed recipe, pushing back it's completion another 10 or 20 minutes while having to explain to your chef how you screwed up as he looms over your shoulder. Kind of a catch 22.

Many times in my professional career as well as at home I have jumped the gun out of stress or arrogance, finding I missed something, or could have done something else quicker and better. I can remember a few times when I have been using a recipe, reading as I go only to near then end and looking back realize I forgot something because I jumped over the ingredient or step. If I had familiarized myself with the recipe, and therefore had all of my elements (both food items and tools) at hand, maybe I would have remembered that missing step or ingredient. Definitely I would have been better equipped to recover.

Almost every project we encounter in life has a set of instructions; Cooking, yoga, installing a bath tub, riding a bike, just to name a few. Recipes are instructions, so this discipline will serve you well with projects in or out of the kitchen that require reading up on ingredients/ materials and methods/ procedures.

  • Read through the recipe from beginning to end: Get to know the ingredients, tools & equipment, time frame, any of the author's tips, notes, cautions or "repairs" (should it come to that). Don't feel like you need to memorize the recipe or any specific list or technique. Just read though the recipe becoming familiar with the project while demystifying any fancy term for a technique listed (e.g., scant, froth, fold, chiffonade, etc).
  • While reading through the recipe take notes or make notes in the margins on anything in particular you need to acquire, find, google search, learn. This step we all do when making a shopping list while planning a meal or menu. Don't let your shopping stop at ingredients. Look for techniques you may need to look up or review and tools or equipment you may need to locate or buy to make the recipe successful. After all some recipes require exotic materials that may prove to be out of budget and if we try to shortcut most likely will result in an unpleasant result.
  • Get to know the ingredients: Make sure you actually have what you think you have and list to buy only what you need listing the correct item and approximate quantity. Don't waste your time or money with guessing substitutes or wastes excess. As you check your cupboard for the ingredients it is a good idea to set these items aside on your kitchen counter or on a pantry shelf and/ or fridge shelf for easy re-checking and an initial staging of your ultimate Mise en Place. 
Note: Don't get me wrong. Substitutes can work and are necessary at times but this takes knowledge and/ or research. Again this is where reading through and researching will pay off.
  • Get to know the tools: Same as above with your ingredients. Check on what the recipe calls for against what you have or might need. This is the time to search and dig for those tools which we use once in a great while or that one aunt Eunice gave you as a gift 2 years ago and you have been meaning to use. Do not wait until you reach the step in the recipe's instructions to go searching for the tool needed. Those moments could be the 'make or break' point of the recipe. Again as with the ingredients locate the equipment needed and set them aside, out on your counter or in a specific place so they are ready to grab as you begin to prepare the recipe. this is all part of your Mise en Place.
  • If you will be using an Instant Read Thermometer this is the time to check it's accuracy and calibrate if necessary.
It may appear to be a lot of information, and it might be, as I have the tendency to obsess. However, once you thoroughly read though this recipe you will have subconsciously made some notes and discovered some tips that will prove to be useful, even if you are a seasoned cook.


  1. Yeah our teacher told us the same to familiarize properly with the ingredients first. we were trained to write recipes too by writing the first ingredients on top that are used at the beginning of a recipe. Thank you for sharing your tips, they certainly remind me to take more attention again! Cheers! ;)

    1. Helene,

      Sounds like we had similar training. Yet it is difficult to follow through at times. Now and then we need to go back to the basics to get focused.

      Thank you for your comment.

  2. Good powerpoint post, Graham! So important yet so often forgotten! It's quite funny but this is exactly what I teach my cookery students (adults & kids) but have never written them down for the adults. I think I will, it makes a huge difference in written form.
    And when I teach my kids creative writing and yoga (we homeschool), like you say, it's the same all over again!

    1. It is an important part any activity. Since remembering this lesson I notice that I have been focusing on the "now" as I approach projects. Well, paying more attention.

      Sounds like you have a busy schedule. I want to get my 2 year old into yoga and dance (movement). He loves to move when music is played.