First time cook? Following a recipe can lead to disaster.

First time cook? Following a recipe can lead to disaster.

Have you ever tried a recipe with three hundred plus review, only to be disappointed by the dish? You followed it completely to the tee, yet your result was not amazing like the other hundreds that have tried it. It has happened many times to me over the years as I learn to cook and experiment with food. And through it all, I learn to realise one thing: you cannot replicate taste from a recipe.

To me, recipes are like road maps.

I’ll pull it out, look at it a few time and then decides which would be the best course of action for me to get from A to D. And throughout this road trip, I’ll make a few detour here and there to improve the experience based on my knowledge and preference. So to me, a recipe is essentially a guideline. You have to evaluate the condition of your ingredients and adjust any problems with the ingredient before you start cooking. For instance, are your vegetable overripe? How is the flavour –bland, bitter or salty? How is the texture –hard, mushy? The truth is, the exact reproduction of a taste, even if you follow the recipe completely, only works when the processes, ingredients and timing are adjusted and changed to fit your particular situation. Because, you will not have the exact same vegetable, with the exact texture and taste as the person who created the recipe. You need to improvise to get the best result because you are essentially cooking live ingredients. For example, there are high variables between one orange to the next –its sweetness, its acidity, all based on how much rain it received. This could affect how much sugar or vinegar you need to use. You have to taste and think at every step, as you follow the recipe.

I like to experiment with food, and often enjoy looking at those really old cookbooks, even the ones prior to 1900. And I noticed, in many cases, the recipes aren’t a whole lot more than a listing of ingredients with the vaguest of directions. Because back then, it was somehow expected that the reader should already know how to cook. For experienced cooks, they were priceless, but for someone new, it is almost useless. Cooking can be difficult because people who need recipes the most are the ones who don’t know enough to improvise. They don’t have that experience. That is why, to me, fundamental cooking knowledge and techniques that are sharpened with experience are more important than any single recipe.

Jacques Pepin, the author of the widely cited French culinary textbook “La Technique,” might explain it best: 

There is a gap between the step-by-step procedure and the completed dish, just as an artist cannot equate the technical process of painting with the finished work of art.

Several years ago, I wrote a recipe for pears in caramel sauce. The idea was, you peel the pears, cut them in half, remove the seeds, sprinkle them with sugar, and place them in a very hot oven. Exposed to the heat, the juice of the pear seeps out, combines with the sugar and creates a caramel. By then, the pears are cooked.

Add cream to the caramel, and the resulting sauce is poured around the pear in a serving dish. As the sauce cools and thickens, it is finished with a bit of pear brandy or cognac.

When I first created this recipe, the pears were done in 30 minutes. That amount of time only reflects the unique set of circumstances I faced, ripeness of the pear, type of roasting pan I used. This is what happened on that particular day.

The next time, I used pears that were more ripe, and they were done in 10 minutes. But the liquid around hadn’t yet turned into a caramel. So I removed the pears, reduced the liquid to a caramel, and finished it with cream.

The third time, I used Bosc pears that were very hard. No juice came out of the pears. The sugar started burning. So I had to add water to the pan to create a caramel. The pears needed almost an hour of cooking, even though my recipe said 30 minutes. Yet, at the end, the three dishes looked and taste the same.

If the recipe had been followed to the letter, the finished dish would have been a disaster, but understanding the idea in the platonic sense behind the dish enables the cook to adjust and compensate for ingredients, temperature, humidity, et cetera.

So, what is the point of a recipe? Read more HERE.



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  1. Great post! My granda used to say “Don’t play with your food” but I’ve to discover that it is better to experiment that follow the same old recipes again and again. Practically, I never make the same dish lol However, 9/10 times I’m satisfied with the result. Trying to make something different is all that matters. Wishing inspiration for your next attempts!

  2. Hello Voeun,

    I was always wondering, if I was the only one noticing, that some recipes just don’t work for me and I am quite relieved now I found your blog. My partner always makes fun of me for not following recipes step by step and experimenting with different ingredients, he sometimes even hates my new creations. But I think cooking has to be creative and you have to try different things to get a better result.

    I started traveling a couple years ago and since then I like to experiment with different kind of cooking styles and ingredients I never touched before. One on my favourite dishes while being in Thailand was the Massaman curry. But even finding heaps of recipes online, I had problems getting it “right” for ages. It was like you said, the ingredients weren’t the same and the conditions had to be adjusted. It took me a while to figure it out, but I finally got the right recipe for myself.

    thank you for your post!

  3. Ahah I really understand it, in the beginning, I really tried hard to follow the recipes but they always went the wrong 😀 and I was not enjoying cooking so I decided just begin playing with the content and improving, because of it I love to cook and I do it every day to myself and often in travel to people that I meet on couchsurfing or in the hostels. i am not a chef ahah but i do some delicious food some times 😀

    1. You don`t need to be a chef to do some delicious food. Sometimes I find that the best foods are the ones I eat at a friend`s house. I don`t love Mexican foods in restaurants, but I can`t get enough of my friend`s home-cooked Mexican food (made by his mother). I guess in the end, it`s about experimenting and knowing your ingredients and how the taste interacts. And that takes experience and a lot of cooking!

  4. I try and I try, but no matter the recipe I always mess it up. I’m a lousy cook 🙂

    1. lol At least you keep trying.

  5. This is so true! I often follow a recipe and wonder why it came out bland when it was written by a well respected chef. The truth is a followed it to the letter when in fact my ingredients may not be as tasty or my teaspoons may not be as big…. I have a lot of friends who think they cannot cook and I would love to say to them, it just takes practice!

    1. It is. People do not give theme selves enough credit. We don’t become perfect cooks after 1 or 2 recipes, it takes practice. And recipes are just guidelines, not the end all be all. Since everyone’s taste, ingredients and utensils are different. I follow my mom’s Cambodian recipes for years, yet my sister says it tastes different from my mother’s. Never the same, but just as good. Your friend will appreciate it if you say it to her. I hope she never gets discourage with cooking.

  6. I loved this! It’s made me feel much better about my many disasters in the kitchen! I always blame the recipe lol

    1. A lot of people does. It’s really up to us to make the recipe our own, catered to our own taste.

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