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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.


    • Fernando @ Eating With Your Hands

    You are right that ingredients differ, especially in our internet age where people from all over the world can access the same recipe, but not the ingredients.

    Also, I think people who follow a recipe should – like you, when you develop one – try and test it a couple of times before talking about where a recipe fell short. I have personally re-tested a recipe several times, only noticing what important parts I’d missed.

    Kinda like watching a good movie :)

    • Silvia

    As an aside, if you haven’t listened to Jacques Pepin on Wait Wait Don’t Tell me you must. He is hilarious!

      • Amy

      When was he in wait wait don’t tell me?

        • Claudia

        Amy: Chef Pepin was on Wait, Wait on 12 Dec 2015. He was wonderfully warm and has a lovely, dry wit.

    • lainie

    I volunteer to be a tester!!!

    • Andrew

    I find the difference between most European and US recipes to be telling. The European ones are short on specifics and assume a degree of cooking acumen and common sense. US ones seem to cater to people who think a recipe should be a detailed, foolproof blueprint to absolutely perfect, reliable results. Well, given all the variables in cooking….that just will never be possible.

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      It is interesting how vague many European recipes are, especially because many insist on weighing ingredients for accuracy. However, the instructions are often startling brief. (And there are French recipes that call for things like “1 wine glass of water” or “A coffee spoon of baking powder,” which shows that many recipes aren’t all that dependent on specifics or exactitude.)

        • Annette

        I love these measurements. My mother (also European) has taught me many recipes using such as ‘a whole cream’, ‘half an egg shell of oil’, ‘add vinegar till it smells right’ (for salad dressing), ‘half a coffee cup’… and I am teaching my daughters in the same way!


    This is great advice. I usually check the comments/reviews of an online recipe I’m going to try. I’m constantly amazed by ones that complain the recipe didn’t turn out as expected and then go on to list all of the deviations they made from the given recipe!

    • Stuart Borken

    This issue was brought to my attention this week when group of 3 volunteers were putting together 3-large batches of cookie dough, 30 pounds each, for hamentashen. Each recipe required 36 cups of flour. We had a weight measure as well, but, the scale was broken, so, we had to use the cup measurement. Well, the first batch needed 1 extra cup of flour to get the correct texture to the dough. The subsequent 2 batches needed 9 extra cups of flour. What differed? The last 2 batches came from a flour bag which dropped on the floor and became compacted and the person who measured that flour airated the flour as they were measuring it so we were down numerous cups. We needed to visualize the texture of the dough to get it correct. This is an example of not following a recipe but knowing what you are doing.

      • GiGi

      Wow. Interesting story, Stuart. Nine cups!!! Thanks for sharing.

    • Anne

    It’s so true ! When someone told me that a recipe doesn’t work, I try to guess what happened. But It’s so difficult. And some people don’t have what I call “bon sens culinaire” and it’s very difficult for them to adapt a recipe with what they have. As Mr Pépin said, it’s so different from one pear to another one ;)

    • Edna Aguirre

    Brilliant video. This is why he is a superb chef. The creation of a dish is so much more than the recipe.

    • Susan

    I’m a recipe follower and have been cooking and baking for over 40 years.
    THE only way to learn how to cook is to COOK. Follow the recipe is always my motto, see if you like it, THEN make modification. I also am very cautious of WHO publishes the recipe. It must come from a reliable source, like you David, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Food Network. Also be present when you are cooking, don’t watch TV and cook, don’t go on your phone and cook. Be there. Watch the process.
    Baking is a whole other thing. It’s precise and not as forgiving as cooking. You must follow the recipe. If it’s not any good you will know. Move on and get a new recipe. And being a Chef and a home cook are not the same. There is no way I can compare myself to Jacques Pepin. Sorry but I will still be following recipes to the T.

      • Stuart Borken

      If you followed the 36 cup flour recipe for cookie batter you would have ended up with pancake batter not cookie dough batter. Experience is a wonderful teacher. Extra flour made perfect batter. I don’t know how to pass along this “recipe”. Everyone who worked with me knows what the dough should look like, so, they will in the future use the recipe as a guide and add whatever is needed to make the dough perfect.

    • Dafna

    I always wonder when a recipe becomes a different recipe and not just the same recipe with changes. When you posted pretzel bites with spicy mustard sauce I had a bad cold. I made the sauce with softened butter instead of mayo and spread it on pumpernickel. I do that whenever I have a head cold and it clears everything up! Thanks –

    • Gerley

    I like to follow recipes when I trust the source- the ratios are usually balanced through testing multiple times e.g. How much sauce for x amount of vegetables to get a good coating but not drown the flavor. Sometimes if I get TOO confident with a recipe and “creatively” adjust I just can’t get good results and I usually have to go back to the recipe.
    I think the point is though that not everyone will have the time/resources/money/energy to fiddle with ingredients and times. That’s assuming you are cooking for “pleasure” rather than necessity and not the other way around. I am a pretty confident cook i.e. I cook a lot but I understand that people who don’t cook a lot will want specifics to provide some confidence for starters- if they will spend money and time to cook something from scratch (a big endeavor for some people) they want security.
    I agree with the gist of this video of course- I mean who wouldn’t- but the conclusion seems to say “well if you take your car apart and look at the instructions briefly you SHOULD be able to piece it back together. Oh you can’t? Well I guess you will have to buy a new one and try again”
    I realize that groceries are not as expensive but that’s the example that came to mind.
    I think more than “don’t follow the recipe so closely” the conclusion should be “and this is why we need more notes in recipes for people who are less experienced ” . I think more than babying people you’re hopefully teaching them- I know some added notes in recipes have taught me more than anything how some of the processes work (browning/low and slow vs high heat/cutting veggies etc)

    • Jen

    I was reading an online review of a favorite cookbook recently and the person was talking about what a mess one of the recipes in the book was. I was surprised since I made the same recipe and my family loved it — so did I. It was sliced roasted beets and I realize now that she maybe didn’t use a mandolin to slice the beets as thin as the recipe recommended. Or who knows what happened — maybe it was her oven. I love Dorie Greenspan’s apple cake recipe but when I made it I had to bake it much longer than her recipe recommended. I emailed her about it and she thought it was my oven, which I agree with her now. Even though it’s a new oven, I’ve noticed I have to bake most things longer than the recipe says.

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      Most ovens are off and I always suggest that people keep an oven thermometer in theirs (I have two!) When I bought my oven, I had to have them come over to calibrate it, because it was off=temperature right out-of-the box.

        • Jane H.

        What type of oven thermometer do you use? A particular brand of dial thermometer was recommended to me, but it takes quite a while for it to reach desired temperature.

          • David
          David Lebovitz

          I have a Taylor one, but keep another one in my oven, to make sure the thermometer is accurate, too : )

            • Vivien

            I don’t have an oven thermometer any more as I now us my thermapen and touch one of the racks in the oven to see what the temp is as opposed to what it is set for and adjust accordingly. I don’t think that opening the door of the oven will alter the temp of the oven rack that quickly or by that much to make much of a difference.

        • Susan S

        The trouble for me comes when making something that is very involved, takes a lot of time, demands expensive or hard to find ingredients. If it doesn’t come out well for me the first time, I’m not likely to try to make it again anytime soon to see where I went wrong, or what needs to be adjusted. Ran into this very same problem recently with a cassoulet recipe.

          • Jennifer

          For what it’s worth, I couldn’t find my way toward making a good cassoulet until I’d eaten one (in a restaurant) that really knocked my socks off. After that, I found a recipe online that was from as close, geographically speaking, to that restaurant as possible, and then modified that in ways that brought it closer to what I’d eaten: e.g., slab bacon rather than uncured pork, crisped duck confit as a garnish rather than cooked in the cassoulet, a little smoked paprika (I know, totally inauthentic) to replicate an elusive, barely-there smoky flavour. I also discovered the “secret ingredient” (pork skin!) that gave it the taste and texture that had wowed me. I’d made cassoulet from various recipes before, and eaten other people’s, and was always kind of “meh” about it. But recreating the one from Hotel Le Commerce in Mirepoix did the trick.

            • Martinn Key2paris

            Have been to Mirepoix in October and attended the weekly market. Loved it !

    • Wendy

    That was a wonderful video clip, David. I have tried to explain this to a friend of mine but the video did it so well and Jacques Pepin added legitimacy to the information. Your blog post, and good cup of coffee or hot chocolate, is part of my Saturday morning ritual.

    • brooke fine

    This has happened to me a few times where I was served something that was claimed to be made from my recipe. Well you guessed it. It didn’t taste anything like my recipe…generally awful!

    • Debbie C

    This is a great video, so true! There are so many variables that are beyond a recipe creator’s control that you do need to adjust a little sometimes. Even something as basic as kosher salt…different brands have different levels of saltiness! Which makes me think that the online ratings (stars) we give to recipes is a bit unfair.

    • Burndett Andres

    Thank you, David. You’re a treasure. XOXOXOOX

    • Natasja

    Working together with a friend who never uses American cups can cause some surpises too. We were making cakes and cookies for a birthday party. My friend was to make cookies from an American recipe. This recipe called for cups of butter, so I told her a cup of butter is the equivalent of approx 115 grams of butter. After a while I noticed she had a very odd looking dough…turns out she weighed all the ingredients according to the 1 cup=115 grams. We could quite easily remedy her mistake by recalculating all the ingredients, but we ended up with almost 150 cookies instead of about 2 dozen!

      • T

      A cup of butter is not 115 g!

        • Cookies


          • Martinn Key2paris

          If I am not mistaking 1 cup = 2 sticks = 227gr
          115gr is for 1 stick= 1/2 cup. Is it right David ?

            • David
            David Lebovitz

            Yes, I use 115g for 4 ounces (1/2 cup) of butter. I rarely use the word “sticks of butter” because not everyone knows what those are : )

            • Natasja

            oops, now I made the mistake! Mixed up my sticks and cups. Glad I wasn’t baking at the moment ;)

            • Martinn Key2paris


      • droelma

      I live in the metric world, but use a lot of US recipes. For fifty plus years I have used 225gr of butter when it called for a cup and never had a mishap. I think you are mistaken using 115 gr for a cup of butter.

        • Natasja

        I did indeed

    • Theresa

    Still one the books I give as a graduate gift so often is The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen. I give it to students no matter what field they have chosen. Very few books I have read show this level of hard work, humility, and creativity in developing your life’s work. It tells me everything about Pepin as person though we have never met. He would be one of my top 5 people to spend a day with…One can dream.

    • Susan

    Thank you David. This is a great video! As a lazy cook who sorta follows recipes, I’ve discovered that I taste, smell, and see my way as I cook. I seldom measure ingredients. Having cooked for going on 6 decades means having sufficient experience to adjust to the ingredients I’m using, but makes sharing recipes a crapshoot. A few years ago I shared my Chili recipe with my husband, who eventually called me to the kitchen because my recipe was inaccurate. I tasted it and knew he was right. But I couldn’t tell him how to fix it (he’s an engineer—they measure!) and in spite of his watching while I pulled spices to doctor the chili, he really couldn’t reproduce what I’d done. At that point he began telling people that I never make the same dish twice, so asking me for a recipe is a waste of time.

      • Kay

      I second all you say. I am not a naturally good cook but read cooking magazines and recipes assiduously for many years. When my daughter became a vegetarian I bought Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and learned from her how to layer and build flavors. I kept improving until finally I knew enough to dispense with recipes and cook with whatever ingredients I have on hand. I am now considered a very good cook. Pepin’s advice makes perfect sense to me and is what I would naturally do, but it sure took a long time to get here. Baking is much different of course, and I was always a good baker. Good at following directions. But I still remember making a cake from a Craig Claiborne recipe. He said to cool a sugar syrup before adding it to beaten eggs, and of course the syrup hardened and I had to start over. Should have listened to my gut! Not many writers are thoroughly reliable. David, you are one of the good ones. I’ve never gone wrong with one of your recipes.

    • Linda Hammargren

    I make baked pears like in the video. It’s so good. Everyone thinks it’s magic, and pear flavored caramel sauce is fantastic.

    • Carol

    Some kitchen creations DO turn out quite well from following a recipe; for others, well, wise council is beneficial, even necessary!

    I have a cookbook of recipes from the 1900s, Five Roses Flour Cookbook, the recipes list ingredients only! In the settling of Canada our (usually female) ancestors often taught each other the method and copied the ingredients only!

    Today, a recipe that surely benefits from experience is the common apple pie! The examples I have seen on the USA and Canada Masterchef shows glorify the Granny Smith apple, which is cooked on the stovetop before placing in the oven. I have only ever used the Granny Smith as an eating apple myself, and have NEVER cooked apples on the stovetop first for a pie. I use one of 2 varieties, the Cortland, and an Eastern Canadian variety, the Gravenstein. Both are sliced directly into the pie shell, topped with sugar and spices, and top crust, then cooked in the oven, they are not as firm as the Granny Smith so do not need precooking, they soften more quickly. I prefer the apples in a pie to be completely soft, no bite to them, but not mushy, still holding their shape. These 2 varieties have a nice aromatic country flavour to them. Wonderful!

    For blueberry pies, I have seen both methods of stovetop cooking, or just mixing berries, sugar and corn starch in a bowl and pouring this in the crust. I personally find the stovetop method more convenient as I go by taste and texture(thickness of the sauce), rather than having to search for a recipe. Too much corn starch or flour, makes a dry pasty filling, so stovetop gives best control of that, in my opinion.

    On the other hand strawberry rhubarb is more forgiving, I have never had trouble eyeballing how much flour/ corn starch to mix in. I generally coat the fruit well, in a bowl, and add an extra couple tablespoons of thickening agent. Experience also guides how much sugar is needed, probably 2/3-1 cup on top, depending how much sourness from the rhubarb is enjoyed. If I were doing this in a professional kitchen and wanted consistent results each time, I would probably experiment and narrow down the amounts.

    So, if asked, how is apple(or blueberry or strawberry-rhubarb) pie made, well, that is a loaded question!

    • Frank Ball

    Love this. And your story of the person who asked re your roasted peppers recipe if they could use something other than peppers, reminds me of a question someone asked of one of the chefs appearing at the De Gustibus cooking school. The questioner asked, “Can I freeze this indefinitely?” To which the chef answered, “I guess, but why would you even make it?”

      • Stuart Borken

      Reminds me of a sports reporters question during a news conference about Micky Mantle’s receiving a new donor heart, the reporter asked about the condition of the donor!!!!! Makes you just shake your head. Freeze something indefinitely? What?

        • David
        David Lebovitz

        I get asked about freezing things a lot and basically, anything can be frozen. The question is: How will it taste once defrosted? Some things freeze fine (tart dough, cookie batter, etc) but most of those things taste better when freshly baked, so I think it’s best to freeze them before baking. I try to note in recipes when things can be frozen without compromising flavor and quality, but I tend to agree with Ina Garten about making something simple and fresh, rather than freezing it ahead. (Although I do freeze things like stock, doughs, fruit purees, and meat scraps to make stock at a later date.)

    • Kelly Kynion

    Thanks so much – nothing to add to the comments already made, except to say it’s so enjoyable to listen and watch M. Pepin, and thank you for sharing his presentation.

    • Diane

    Very helpful video . . . and delightfully charming in presentation. Thank you!

    • Gina Bisaillon

    I just made a recipe that was in cups and not in weights. I hadn’t made it since the ’70s so I had to keep my fingers crossed!


    Great video, and so true. Very rarely can a recipe be made EXACTLY the same way twice. For instance, for my website I just made your Tarte au Citron again (for like the 20th time), and I had to cook the curd twice as long as I usually do, go figure! Excellent as always, nonetheless. Love your site and your books

    • Libby Stephens

    This is so true. There are times when I am reading a recipe and think how I could simplify the process.

    I am a big fan of Jacques Pepin and of you. I just loved your book “The Sweet Life in Paris”. Great writing and so very funny.

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks – glad you liked the book!

    • Laura

    Prefer ratios and learning method to recipes any day. When baking especially I rely on my knowledge of methods so if a recipe intrigues me but has a lazy method I look over the ratio of fat to liquid to dry and then change the method if I think it will be more to my liking. I keep careful notes on my favorite dishes so I have my master recipe for that dish or dessert.

    • Martinn Key2paris

    So true and so “reassuring” ! So often we are afraid of betraying a recipe because we don’t follow it to the coma, the point. I also enjoyed the very French accent of Mr Pepin after living in the US since 1959 ! Also reassuring for mine :-) Great post, to keep. Thanks.

    • mothers little hleper

    Hi David
    I am one of the gluten free bakers that has substituted flours when baking. it is all about trying it out. I love your blog and the recipes!

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      I often feel bad when people ask me, “How can I make this recipe gluten-free?” because I’m not a gluten-free baker and figure there are people out there (professionals as well as home cooks) that write and adapt recipes to be gluten-free, and they’re best prepared to know how to convert a recipe. I’m glad when people chime in the comment of blog posts with ways to convert recipes, or variations people had success with, to share with others. Glad you like the blog!

    • Taste of France

    Baking is special, because it’s chemistry, and the proportions are important for it to turn out. But recipes for most other dishes are guidelines rather than formulas.
    Thank you for sharing this video!

    • Janice

    Excellent post, David. Many years ago I worked with Jacques Auber, a French Pastry Chef. He taught me many things, including what he considered the 3 essential elements of fine baking in this order: “#1 Technique. #2 Temperature. #3 Recipe. To which I’ve added a fourth element, Love.

    • Luisa

    Hi David,
    Thanks for sharing this video, it is very useful! Proportions are everything, especially in desserts!

    • tim

    Such a great video.
    I tend to cook for my family friends and they always ask how long do you do cook X for.
    I get it often enough that i just say until it is done.

    • Elia

    No matter what results you get, one must always keep in mind a truth pronounced by the French: one can become a cook, but one is born a baker.

      • Kay

      I never heard that saying but have always known its truth. Some family members are brilliant cooks but can’t bake. I’m a baker who had to learn to cook.

    • Katherine Stephens

    Love you and love Pepin…common sense, but a eureka moment for me. Not a ‘natural’cook, even tho years ago I took classes from James Beard himself…what an introduction! A fellow student was there to find recipes to give her chef, and I was a beginner with a hungry husband. He told me I had ‘food memory’…it greatly influenced my life as an interior designer. My signature style if one looks closely is an intimate space to chat and ‘eat a little somethin’…many many thank you’s for your Blog. It’s a wonderful luxury.

    • Judi

    I’m late to this party but it’s important to read the cookbook not just the recipe – often authors will tell you how to measure in the first chapter of the book. I prefer weight over volume but when only volume is given you need to know is it “dip and sweep” or spoon into cup.

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      Yes, the information in the beginning of the book is often important to read, to understand what ingredients and materials that author is using. I assume not everyone reads it all through (because sometimes I don’t either) so I try to put what info I can in the recipe, or the headnote before it. But thanks for the reminder to all to check that info out as well, when you crack open a new cookbook.

    • E E Faris

    Your post is a treasure, as is Jacques Pepin. Thanks

    • Beeta @ Mon Petit Four

    This is 100% accurate. I can’t imagine cooking or baking without using my instincts and modifying as I go. Thanks for sharing this fabulous clip.

    • Mimi

    David, Thanks for the reminder. We should trust our instincts more. Food and taste preferences are varied.
    Love the site!

    • Yana

    I wish everyone saw this video!! It says it all really! Thank you for sharing

    • Palladium

    This is why he is a superb chef. The creation of a dish is so much more than the recipe

    • Kubda

    From a different perspective. I am a vegetarian whose taste buds often don’t “talk” to me. By that I mean, food can be bland and rather nondescript to my taste. Or alternately taste “off, sour or rotten when they are apparently perfectly fine to others. For myself, that is ok as I can adjust what I eat to suit my handicapped tastebuds. It also means some of the food I eat can have some very funny tastes to other people. However, when I cook or bake for others, I need, in fact, have to follow a recipe exactly as I do not have the keen tastebuds to tell me what the process is like and what the result will be. If I follow the recipe precisely I have a better chance of producing something that will be enjoyed by those for whom I cook. Something often missed by those who love cooking, is that many people do not have the physical ability to identify the “tastes” which allows the “good” cook ok the freedom and the license to go “off recipe” to produce a good dish. As one who does not have sensitive taste buds, I feel sure that I probably speak for those groups of people who say they don,t like to cook, or can,t cook or are not good cooks. No one would ask a one legged person to compete in a foot race against two legged runners. So poking fun or criticising people whose taste buds aren’t doing their job properly is a little unfair. We do the best we can, but we need to follow good recipes to ge good results.

      • David
      David Lebovitz

      When people ask me about changing a recipe, before trying it, I usually advise them to try it as written, then make adjustments the next time they make it. Most recipe developers (myself included) spend a lot of time developing a recipe so it tastes right and works. So if people follow the recipe, they’ll have good results. Still, it’s hard to say “cook the pears for 10 minutes” because as Jacques notes, not all pears are the same. (I usually give visual clues, as well as baking times, because times – and ovens, and fruit – can vary.) You’re right that a good recipe (to start with) is important.


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