Recipes for Beginners.
The world of recipes can be a daunting place where it’s easy to feel utterly imprisoned by the author’s written instructions, sensing that any deviation or misunderstanding could easily have catastrophic consequences on your dinner. If you’re new to cooking, cautious about it or a nervous cook it could be tempting to seek out the most simple recipes for beginners, to keep your channels of exploration locked into a tightly controlled path. But there is one important fact about making recipes which I’m going to tell you, and the sooner you learn it, the quicker you will progress as a cook.
But it’s scary!
As a beginner cook, the world of combining foodstuffs together and adding heat can all seem a bit daunting. Seeing all those fast moving utensils, viciously sharp knives and dangerously hot surfaces which might burn things is intimidating and the constant overwhelming spectre that the only thing which might get fed is the bin or the dog. The reality is that almost everything is edible, especially if you’re like me and genuinely are an omnivore.
Recipes are like traffic in London, constantly changing, with all of the ingredients moving around one another, never quite the same each day. A published recipe is no more than a suggested list of constituent parts accompanied by a recommended order of construction, they are all merely guidelines. There aren’t any recipe police who are going to nick you for doing it differently, nor will the world end if you alter those parts slightly. When I started out cooking, I thought a recipe was gospel, an enshrined body of work which had to be adhered to religiously, however this kind of thinking just left me wanting more and more information which simply wasn’t available.
For instance, when a recipe says “simmer for 6-8 minutes until a knife passes through easily”, I’d be standing there thinking “WELL WHICH OF THOSE THREE IS IT? 6, 8, OR UNTIL A KNIFE PASSES THROUGH?”. If it said “saute until softened”, I’d be like, “HOW LONG DOES THAT TAKE???”. Or in the case of the classic “add a handful of…”, I’d be screaming “HOW MUCH IS A BLOODY HANDFUL?”.
Resistance is futile.
But I’m here to put your mind at rest. The reason instructions are often vague or non specific is because recipes are a dynamic proposition, they never come out the same each time, so embrace that change and realise that you were never in control anyway.
For the beginner, there are just too many variables within the execution of a recipe to give utterly precise results every time. It depends on lots of factors, such as how high we think a medium heat is or how carefully we measure our tablespoons out. There are inconsistencies in the rate our pans conduct heat or how that heat is spread around the base of the pan. We might think a simmer starts at a different time to the author and our idea of a tablespoon of finely chopped herbs could be massively different to other peoples’, despite the presence of a seemingly consistent indicator of quantity by using a measuring spoon. This means that recipes are dynamic in the sense that the person who writes it can never quite predict how the reader will interpret it, or how they might physically enact the various aspects of that recipe.
This dynamism of recipes goes both ways, because although the author can’t predict how we will interpret their words, we can also actively decide to interpret their words differently. There are very few recipes which have to be made verbatim, with utter precision at every step of the way. Most recipes are the equivalent of a paint by numbers drawing, where we are free to paint over the boundaries and use different colours if we so desire. When finished, if one followed the instructions ardently, painting very precisely within the borders, there’s a good chance of creating a very reliable and pleasing end result. However, if one goes a bit wild with the colours and borders, it’s possible to accidentally stumble upon a delicious abstract masterpiece, or it’s possible to end up with a slightly scrappy painting which is still bursting with colour. Regardless of the route taken, there’s a good chance of still being really pleased with it, because it’s something you’ve created. You see, recipes are a bit like small children, because even if other people don’t like them, you’ll always love your own creations.
It’s out of your control.
Besides, whatever path you take, a recipe is never the same twice. Even that spag bol that you’ve been making every single week since you left home will differ slightly every time you make it. There will always be a change, it could even be on a microscopic level, but something will be different. These changes can manifest in significant differences, like substituting vegetable stock for chicken stock, just because that’s what’s in the cupboard, or omitting garlic because there’s none left. Other things are utterly out of our control, like opening a new pack of spices and they simply happen to be a distinctly different flavour to the last batch. These factors all have an effect on the finished product which determine it’s flavours and outcome, making it slightly different to the last time it was made.
So once you understand that you are not actually in control of the outcome, merely a portal through which the ingredients pass, you can be a little bit more adventurous, because it really doesn’t matter. Like smoked paprika, my spice of 2015. Every time I had a recipe that used it, my hand had an involuntary twitch when measuring it, to ensure an extra healthy dose of that sweet red powder went into my meal. One day I was merrily doing this with a recipe which had a smoked paprika dressing and when I ate it, I noticed it tasted too strongly of smoked paprika, a sensation which I was unaware of and frankly didn’t believe existed. Next time I made that recipe I was delicate with it, and found a much more balanced flavour in that dressing. This is something I never would have discovered without my overly judicious application of it in the first place. It sounds trite, but experimenting and messing around really does help you learn.
Of course, as a beginner, you might not even know what flavours you do and don’t like, or how they might effect each other. But that’s precisely my point, we never discover that until we adjust them ourselves, combined with the fact that we’re barely in control of the outcome anyway, so it’s better to just chill out and simply enjoy carefree abandon of making your own food.
One last thing…
To this end I would offer just one guideline. If your recipe has flour, eggs or a certain quantity of liquid to use prior to simmering or boiling (such as add 1l stock, then simmer), then retain those quantities, although feel free to alter the type. Such as wholemeal flour instead of plain, or chicken stock in instead of vegetable. Pretty much everything else is open to negotiation. Especially flavourings like spices, herbs and sauces. Swap your vegetables, add more garlic, chuck a chilli in. Add an extra tablespoon of tahini, use less oil, add a pinch of cumin. Swap celeriac for sweet potato. In time you will learn when and where eggs, flour and liquids are adjustable as well.
By approaching recipes more as outlines, rather than strict definitions allows a much greater sense of freedom in the kitchen and also leads to heightened levels of discovery. So I dare you, add some cinnamon to that next cake you make, even if it’s not in the ingredients list, I double dare you. Revel in the rebellion of freedom from the shackled confines of strict recipe making, be free and take flight, soar, soar into the sky, magnificent and proud, free of all earthly bonds! Go, my beauty, go, be wild and free and cook, cook cook!