A flat cake, a bland soup, a dry loaf of bread...When a recipe doesn't turn out as expected, we feel the disappointment to our very core. Our instinct is to blame either the recipe itself or our own inferior cooking skills, but here's the thing: very often, it's neither.
Certainly, recipes sometimes do have errors or maybe it calls for a technique we haven't quite mastered. But when we have a recipe fail or talk to other people about their recipe failures, most of the time it seems to come down to one of these reasons:
1. Oven Temperature is Off - Even if you only use your oven occasionally, picking up a cheap oven thermometer is a worthwhile investment. Ovens are often several degrees warmer or cooler than the numbers on the dial and having an oven thermometer means you know exactly how much to adjust the oven to compensate.
2. Ingredient Substitutions - Going off-recipe is a fun and creative part of the cooking process, for sure. But it also requires a little more due diligence on our part to understand how the additional or substitute ingredient will affect the recipe. For instance, cutting the sugar in a cupcake or substituting a tenderloin for a chuck roast in a braise will give you very different results than the recipe author intended.
3. Equipment Substitutions - Ditto on the equipment. If the recipe says to use an 8-inch pan or a cast-iron skillet, there's probably a good reason for it. That doesn't mean we can't substitute something else in its place, but we just need to understand that our dish might turn out differently.
4. Adjusting the Cooking Time - Recipes are often written with the expectation that you're following along. If you pause in the middle of making a cake and come back to it an hour later, some chemical reactions might have taken place that the recipe didn't intend because it thought the cake would go right in the oven. Same goes for shortening the cooking time - like the time for bread to rise or a roast to cook. The result might be different. As with the ingredient and equipment substitutions, it's not that you can't adjust the cooking time. You just need to think it through first.
5. And Finally, Trust Your Own Judgment! - Recipes (and the people who write them!) aren't fail-proof and they also can't take into consideration every variable in your kitchen, like how cold your eggs are or how strong your whisking arm is. We love this quote from Dorie Greenspan, "Just about every time you cook or bake, you've got to make a judgment call - it's the nature of the craft." She means that just because a recipe says to cook something for 15 minutes, you should use your judgment if it's not quite done yet or starts to burn at the 13-minute mark.
A failed dish is a disappointment, definitely. But every time a recipe doesn't come out quite the way we expected, it's also an opportunity to learn something. We'll think back and try to figure out what in the recipe or what we did made the dish turn out this way. Next time, we'll have a better idea what to do.
These five reasons are the biggies, in our opinion. What other reasons have you come across in your cooking for why a recipe doesn't come out quite right?
Related: Recipe Rescue! What To Do if You Oversalt
(Image: Flickr member Bill HR licensed under link to specific Creative Commons license">Creative Commons)