Cooking Basics: Following a Recipe

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Over the weekend, I had dinner with my brother and his roommate. They are both single, in their mid-20s, and have more disposable income than time/motivation/knowledge to cook a meal at home. These are guys who are interested in a healthy lifestyle, but don't have the tools to provide it for themselves. While I don't think everyone needs to be a master chef, I think that everyone should be comfortable in the kitchen. Gender aside, you should be able to provide a decent meal for yourself, and a nice meal to impress a date.

The benefit of living in the same city as your brother for the first time in 15 years means you get to have dinner together on a somewhat regular basis. The agreement was that that the weeks dinner was at their place, I'd teach them to cook a simple recipe. I've affectionately dubbed it as "Cooking with Paul”. Hopefully in a few months, they'll have a little more confidence in the kitchen. This week we picked a simple chicken and pasta dish. Before we even started with the recipe, I asked them how comfortable they were following a recipe. "I've never done it" was Paul's reply. Good to know where we're starting from!

This reminded me that if there are holes in your skills and knowledge, it doesn’t matter how good your intentions are. Paul might want to cook for himself for health or budget reasons, but if he hasn't learned to follow a recipe, he's probably not going to get very far. Thus our first lesson :) Here are the keys to success for following a recipe.

1. Read the recipe. All the way through. Before you start.

This is so easy to skip over, and can really bite you in the butt if you don't. For beginner cooks, this is especially important. Are there terms or techniques that you don't understand? Equipment or gadgets that you don't have? You don't want to find yourself 30 minutes before your date arrives, realizing that the dessert you're in the middle of making requires you to let set in the fridge overnight. You also don't want to find out you don't have all the ingredients midway through. Chili without all the seasonings? No bueno!

2. Note the prep time. Then double it.

Some recipes state how long they take to make. This can be put in a few different ways. It might just give you the total time from start to finish, or it might be broken down into active time and inactive time. The distinction is important. A baked pasta dish might not take a lot of time to get into the pan, but sits in the oven for 30-60 minutes. On the other hand, a skillet pasta dish takes a lot less total time, but most of it is active. While you're still getting comfortable in the kitchen, assume that you will need twice as much active time as the recipe states. You'll thank me later.

3. Order matters.

Did you know the ingredients are listed in the order they are used in the recipe? It's on purpose and can help you stay on top of things. Unless you're using a slow-cooker, you're not going to just dump everything in a pot and call it a day. The order of your steps will make a difference to the end product.

4. Note the comma.

In your ingredient list, anything listed after a comma is your prep and should be done after measuring. There is a big difference between "1 cup walnuts, chopped" and "1 cup chopped walnuts". In the first situation, you measure out 1 cup of walnuts, then chop them. You put everything on your cutting board into the recipe. In the second situation, you chop up a bunch of walnuts (or buy them already chopped) and then measure out 1 cup. The first situation is going to involve a lot less walnuts.

5. Mise en place.

Another tip that is easy to skip over, but super helpful. Simply put, mise en place means "everything in place". Have all your ingredients accessible and prepped according to the recipe. There's a reason it looks so easy on cooking shows - you're not usually watching them get all the ingredients and do the prep. By practicing mise en place, when the recipe says to add the chopped onion, you don't have to go find the onion and then chop it. You'll be ready. This also helps ensure that you don't have to run to the store in the middle of a recipe. Everything is already there, ready to go.

6. Save the improv for round 2.

I’m not really a rule follower when it comes to recipes. I tend to go rogue and make my own edits. If you’re like me, and tend toward not following the rules, you might be tempted to make changes to a recipe mid-process. "That doesn't sound right" or "I'm sure it doesn't really have to cook for 30 minutes" are sure fire ways to make use of that takeout menu. The first time around, trust the process. Follow the recipe the way it was written. After you've made it once, and you see how it works, you can improvise to your heart's content. Again, this is about getting comfortable and confident in the kitchen. One skill that will grow is your ability to anticipate how changes will impact the recipe. You'll get there, just not on day 1.

7. Look for chefs you trust.

Going back to the “that doesn’t sound right” or “I’m sure it doesn’t really have to cook for 30 minutes”, I want to remind you that not everyone tests their recipes before hitting publish on the internet. If you’re new to the cooking at home game, get recommendations on recipes that have been successful for friends. Knowing the recipes have been tested and proofread can make a big difference in a novice’s experience. And it makes it easier to not go rogue the first time around.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m partial to recipes from dietitians, so I thought I’d share a few of my favorites with you. You can be sure the recipes on these sites have been well-tested, and that you won’t be given a lot of “diet-y” advice on the side.

Do you have any other tips for recipe-following success? Other favorite places to go for well-written recipes?

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**For those who know me or my family, you know I do not have a brother named Paul. But "Cooking with Tim" didn't have the same ring to it. So the process is being named after his roommate. Nothing but love to my brother, though :)

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Katie Goldberg

Katie Goldberg, MCN, RDN, LDN, has been a registered dietitian since 2013, but has always had a passion for good food and a healthy lifestyle. Katie earned her Master’s of Clinical Nutrition from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and has worked in private practice, higher education, in a clinical setting, and as an in-house dietitian for a food company. Whether it's at through large groups or one-on-one, Katie enjoys connecting people with easy and practical solutions for better health.