Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Don't tinker with the ingredients and then blame the recipe

Hello, domestic gods and goddesses of the world! The internet has been a boon to those of us who love to cook, what with all of the fabulous recipe sites, great food blogs, fantastic personal sites of chefs and cookbook authors, and other great ways to talk about food and cooking together online. The internet has also been a great thing for people just learning to cook; we have sites with lots of pictures that take you step by step through a recipe, great instructional videos, and encyclopedic information about how, when, and what you can use as a substitute. It's fantastic to share cooking ideas, triumphs, and sometimes, failures, with other food lovers, and I've gotten to the point where I look for the comments to see how other people liked it with every recipe, and get disappointed if there are none (sometimes I involuntarily do this even when looking through cookbooks). As great as all of those things are, it is about those comments that we need to have a little chat about today. The comments can be a source of great and useful advice, but unfortunately, they can also be both useless and ridiculous. In short, don't tinker with the ingredients and then blame your failure on the recipe.

Look, I understand -- sometimes you really want to make that quiche, but you have only onions, and not shallots. Or sometimes that scone recipe is calling to you, but you just have regular lemons, not Meyer lemons. Maybe you see a great looking recipe for pancakes, and you're all ready to make it on Sunday morning, and you realize that you don't have any eggs (use mayonnaise instead -- no really, I swear). Or there's that time you realize that your dinner guest is vegan, not just vegetarian, so you want to know if you can make that vegetarian shepherd's pie recipe work. I am absolutely not trying to tell you not to experiment, because playing with your food is the soul of cooking, and sometimes you discover something great! (Earth Balance for butter and Tofutti cream cheese for the cream in that shepherd's pie recipe, fyi, even the meat eaters loved it). A great way to learn about cooking is to make a recipe strictly as its written the first time, and then swap in and sub out different ingredients the next few times, it helps you to learn what does and doesn't work, and what you like the best.

However, sometimes you experiment, and it's a miserable failure. That's okay, it happens to all of us, and that's what your family pet is for (and hey, most failed desserts are fine piled in a bowl and topped with whipped cream or ice cream). If you used nonfat milk instead of cream to make caramels, and you had a sticky, sweet mess, chalk that one up to experience. If you used sushi rice instead of arborio to make risotto, make a note to yourself that that won't work so well, so you won't be tempted to do it again in the future. If you were trying to be a little healthy and used all whole wheat flour in that chocolate cake and it's dense and leaden, well, now you know. And in these instances, it can be helpful to share your experiments in the comments section for the next person who is in your situation, so that other people don't make the same mistake that you did.

But when this happens, please, don't rant and rave about the recipe online and then hit "post comment". It's not the recipe's fault that you used chicken thighs instead of pork (not to mention the "dusty" chiles). The recipe didn't tell you that you could use honey instead of corn syrup in that pecan pie, or replace the wine in your beef bourguignon with Welch's grape juice, or use margarine instead of butter in those chocolate croissants, or completely mess up that boiling water. There are two reasons why: it is completely unhelpful for anyone else looking to the recipe comments for help; and it makes you look like an idiot. If you didn't have the common sense to know that using American cheese instead of Gruyère in those cheese puffs was not going to work, you really should not let the rest of the world know about that. If you couldn't find a can of chipotle chiles to use in that enchilada sauce and instead used ketchup because you figured that the they were the same color, I want you to start following Rick Bayless on Twitter and do not tell anyone that you were using his recipe. There's nothing wrong with getting something wrong, but at least have the humility to recognize that you were the one who was wrong.

So, for all of our sakes, next time you use peanut butter instead of peanut oil to make those fish and chips, or ginger ale instead of grated ginger to make that stir fry, and your dish is a failure, do me a favor. Before angrily rating that recipe with one star and telling the world that you just made little change, and you don't know why your fish and chips were so sticky, just stop, think about how the fault lies with you and not the recipe, and don't do it.


  1. That dessert thing is so true. I once made Indian pudding that came out as Indian soup and it made a delicious ice cream topping.

  2. The other day a friend called me to ask if she could make chicken marsala without using marsala wine. Then she called back to ask if she had to add the mushrooms. Um. Without the mushrooms or the marsala, I'm pretty sure that's just plain chicken.