1. Recipes are not holy writ.
Not even baked goods – which can be fairly sensitive – have to be calibrated so precisely that you cannot change them a little. For every recipe for chowder, chili, or chimichangas that one cook swears is the only one on the planet worth using, there are a hundred more that someone else considers better. Those recipes all came into existence because someone did an experiment and considered it an improvement. There is no reason you cannot be the next person to do the same thing and get a result that is exactly what you want.
2. Food is made of ingredients.
I mean two things by this statement. One is that scratch is superior. “Cake mix” is not a true ingredient. True ingredients are things like “bran” or “olive oil” or “lentils”. In theory, prepackaged foods and mixes were originally made from ingredients, but many of the things that are listed as ingredients I would classify as “components” – minerals and additives that you don’t really want to eat. (You’re fooling yourself if you think you really want to eat carmine or any of its comrades in arms. You may be willing to eat these things, in small quantities, for the sake of convenience, but if the food in question was just as easy, tasty, and quick, and lacked these ingredients, that would be obviously preferable.)
The second thing meant by “food is made of ingredients” is that food does not become more complicated when it encounters other food. Broccoli is not complicated. Olive oil is not complicated. Salt is not complicated. Spices are not complicated. For some reason, when I combine these items, put them in the oven for twenty minutes, and serve the result to houseguests, I am treated as though I have done something complicated. But nothing happens to any of my ingredients to make them more intimidating. They’re the same things, just mixed up and heated. Part of my goal in creating this blog was to help people be less freaked out by cooking – to help people realize that food is made of ingredients, and ingredients are not scary.
3.Testing is better than timing.
Responsibly written cookbooks will usually remind you about the fact that ovens differ, altitude and humidity can affect cooking, and the art of making food is so variable anyway that the times suggested are no more than vague gestures at half-formed suspicions of patterns. Not only that, but if you want your pasta soft and mushy (like I do) then of course cooking it to the “al dente perfection” described on the package won’t leave you with an optimally pleasing dinner. If you are boiling potatoes and want to know if they’re soft enough to eat yet, fish out a chunk with a spoon, run it under cold water, and eat it. If you are cooking apples and want to know if they have been in long enough to mash easily, get a spoon, take the lid off your pot, and poke them. If you are making muffins and want to know if they are cooked through, open the oven, reach in with a toothpick, and stab one.
4. Proportion is subordinate to combination.
My mother’s recipe for pumpkin bread calls for a teaspoon of cinnamon, half a teaspoon of nutmeg, and half a teaspoon of cloves. Why? I don’t know. These amounts are small enough, in relation to the scale of the recipe, that it can’t affect how the bread comes together. It’s not a matter of baked goods being delicate. (Though it might be a matter of the batter containing eggs, so they can’t say “to taste” for fear someone will take it literally.) If I want twice as much ground cloves because they just sound really appetizing at the moment, or I’m all out of nutmeg but only find out when I’ve already made the batter, it won’t hurt anything! What matters is that those spices taste nice, with each other and with pumpkin. Tarragon is nice with potatoes; cheese is nice with basil; celery is nice with tuna salad; chocolate is nice with peanut butter. How much of each? That’s up to you! This is why spices come with shaker tops!
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