Let’s talk about interpreting recipes (and no, I don’t mean re interpreting recipes, that’s a subject for another day). Naturally you read a recipe before you begin to cook. Of course you do. I realize most recipes aren’t that technical and that you know what you’re doing. Still, I hope you actually take the time to read and understand a recipe before you begin. The instructions are there to help guide you and to inspire you. It only makes sense to use these words to your best advantage. So step away from YouTube, silence your phone and give the recipe in front of you your full attention.
Once you’ve carefully read the recipe a first time, I want you to go back and read the recipe again. Not because I think you’re stupid. Nope I want you to read the recipe again because you’re a good cook and good cooks are good at interpreting recipes.
When you read the recipe the second time go ahead and let yourself be distracted by your own thoughts. Imagine what the dish will taste and look like. Try to see how the directions as written will help you achieve the vision you have for that recipe in your head. This step is vital because this is when the recipe becomes real. This is the moment the recipe becomes your own. It’s also the time to address any questions you have about the recipe.
As an example I’ll use this excellent recipe for Sycamore Kitchen’s Oatmeal Cookies with Coconut Toffee as it appeared in the LA Times recently. To make these gargantuan beauties you start by making the coconut toffee that gets embedded onto the top of each cookie halfway through baking.
The directions say: “Melt the butter in a heavy pot over low heat. Whisk in the sugar, water and salt, scraping down the sides. Bring the mixture to a boil, and do not stir until the toffee begins to color.”
I read those instructions the first time and understood them well enough. I read them the second time and imagined the sugar melting into the butter creating a golden-hued toffee. Simple enough. Except, I know from experience that you’d need to let that sugar and butter sit over low-heat at least 40 minutes to get the “peanut butter” color described later in the recipe. Was that the intention of the author? Is that sort of low-slow heat really necessary? I’ve made toffee plenty of times so I decided it was not. In fact I decided that when the author says “bring the mixture to a boil” he or she is implying that we should raise the heat in order to bring the mixture to a boil. In that case why not start with higher heat in the first place? In my version I adapted the instructions to say: “Melt the butter in a heavy, 2‑quart or larger saucepan over medium-high heat. As soon as the butter begins to get foamy, whisk in the sugar, water and salt, scraping down the sides. Lower the heat to medium. Do not stir until the toffee begins to color, about 13 minutes.” In my instructions I worried that the higher heat could possibly lead to a (messy, dangerous) boil over, so I also indicated a 2‑quart or larger saucepan.
I’m not dissing this recipe. In fact I’d say it’s a highly successful recipe because perfect cookies were the result. Besides the recipe came from the newspaper. There are possibly (probably) space constraints and word counts to consider (I’ve written two books and understand these constraints). However by reading the recipe twice I was able to better envision its intention and meld that intention with my own experiences, preferences and cooking skills. Perhaps perfectly good (or possibly even better) toffee can be made using low heat and 40 minutes worth of patience. I intend to find out. Just not right now – I’m eating gargantuan Oatmeal Cookies with Coconut Toffee. GREG