Jacques Pepin: How following a recipe can lead to disaster
I recently came across this spot-on video by chef Jacques Pépin, which hit the nail squarely on the head regarding cooking and following recipes. I was particularly impressed by how he was able to explain what can go wrong when you do so. Most people who write recipes for a living spend a lot of time writing them as clearly and accurately as possible. Still, even the best recipe isn’t foolproof, and most are open to interpretation. (Except for my recipe for roasted peppers, which someone asked if they could make using something other than peppers. That one stumped me.)
Questions on recipes range from, “Can I substitute something for the flour?” and “Can I reduce the amount of sugar?” to the more nebulous “The recipe didn’t come out. What did I do wrong?”
As Jacques Pépin notes, a recipe as basic as caramelized pears, in which pears are sautéed, then caramelized with sugar and finished with a reduction of cream, the cooking time for pears will depend on a variety of factors – ripeness, variety, etc. – and can take anywhere from 10 minutes to a half and hour. (Although those must be some pretty firm pears to take 30 minutes to cook.) Even if you specify a variety of pear, fruit is a product of nature and most aren’t standardized (which I think is a good thing), so to follow the recipe, you’ll need to use a little intuition and make the call on doneness.
Before a recipe gets published in a book, I test it at least three times, but usually more. Once I get a recipe to where I like it, I send it to a tester and get feedback on baking times and what ingredients they use, and how they worked. (I have people in the U.S. test my recipes because the ingredients can vary.)
As precise as we think they need to be, that can’t always be the case. My tin cake pan is different from yours, which might be made of aluminum or silicone. I have an electric convection oven and find the baking times identical to my standard electric oven, no matter what I read about adjusting recipes for convection ovens. With so many variables, it’s best just to know your oven, and bakeware, and use visual clues an author might provide, as I do, such as “Bake until golden brown across the top,” or “When a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.”
Like many people, I tend to make the same recipes over and over again. Many of them are my own recipes because I know the recipe inside-out because I’ve made it so many times. Similarly, I have recipes from others that become favorites and I make those over and over again, too, keeping track of changes or modifications that I make.
Substitutions have become a big part of the online recipe world. Asking about those is okay, but the best person to answer those questions is sometimes yourself*. Try it out. Sure, it may not come out perfect the first time (and as a recipe developer and tester, I can tell you for a fact that it probably won’t), but you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t. As your knowledge and intuition improves, you’ll get more confident and become a better baker and cook, and hopefully mitigate any disasters, whether you’re following a recipe or not.
*Gluten-free bakers and people who use alternative sweeteners are good examples of that. Most have “work arounds” they use to modify a recipe to meet their needs.