Why your meal didn't turn out like the recipe

In the past I have thought of myself as a bad cook, I can't bake cakes - well actually that's not true, if I try I can. But my point is that I thought of myself as a bad cook, it didn't matter what I was doing it never seemed to turn out right. I have been a stay-at-home mum for more than 13 years now and in that time I've learned a lot about cooking. Not just that but I've learned a lot about good cooking and good recipes. The good recipes are the easy-to-follow recipes, the ones that almost go the way you expect. But there's always something that doesn't go the way the recipe says.

My experience

At 36 years old I've had a fair few years cooking experience. My cooking has almost always been for the Hubby and the boys but I have, on occasion, cooked for the rest of the family too. I have tried out various recipes, some have failed miserably, some have turned out well. The ones that turned out well are the ones where I used my own judgement, I decided when the meal was finished not the recipe.

You see cooking isn't just about following a recipe blindly, anyone can do that. Cooking well is about being able to follow a recipe but knowing when the recipe isn't right for what you are doing. Now I'm not saying that I can do this all the time but I've got pretty good at judging what my oven* (and me) is capable of.

  • Cooking and baking is both physical and mental therapy. 

Mary Berry

The recipe

I have recipe books* coming out of my ears, some have simple recipes in them - ones I can do in no time and are easy - some have complicated recipes that I would never dream of attempting. I love simple recipes, the ones where there are just a few ingredients and you just throw them in a pan and leave it. But even with those recipes you need good judgement (or common sense).

Okay, let's use a Chicken Biryani recipe as an example.

chicken thighs frying in a frying pan. Diced onion and curry powder are in the pan too turning the mixture an orangey colour.

In my recipe book the ingredients are as follows:

  • 2tbsp vegetable oil
  • 6 large chicken thighs, skin on - I use the skinless ones
  • 1 large onion, finely sliced - I dice my onion and sometimes use a red onion
  • 2 tbsp curry powder
  • 350g / 12oz easy-cook long-grain rice
  • 700ml chicken or vegetable stock -  I always use chicken stock
  • 250g frozen peas - I use 100g peas

The method is fairly simple.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C/Gas 6/ fan oven 180. Heat the oil in a large sauce pan and fry the chicken thighs, skin side down, for 8-10 minutes until the skin is golden and crispy. Tip in the onion and continue to cook for 5 minutes until the onion softens. Sprinkle in the curry powder and cook for 1 minute more, then stir in the rice and pour over the stock. Bring the stock to the boil.

Cover the pan and bake for 30 minutes until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is cooked. Stir in the peas and leave the rice to stand for a few minutes before serving.

This is exactly how it is written in the book (I can't remember which book because I have a photo of the recipe on my phone). But let me tell you the first time I tried out that recipe I had to keep checking every line because I was afraid I'd forget something.

When reading the recipe it sounds really simple, there shouldn't be anything that goes wrong - right? But the thing is, when there are timings I always wonder if they're exactly right - I mean how do they know which pan I'm going to use? How do they know my hob is the same as theirs?

What I change

Frying the chicken thighs is a prime example of when the recipe changes dependent on what kind of equipment you're using. When I cook the chicken thighs, using my heavy-base frying pan*, at home on my gas hob the 8-10 minutes is about right, but I don't tend to leave them skin-side down for the whole 10 minutes. I use my judgement and flip them over so they're crispy on both sides. When I cook this recipe at my mother-in-law's house I have to use her electric hob and the chicken takes a lot longer than 10 minutes to get crispy.

Another change I make to this recipe is the onion, it is meant to be sliced but if I did that I guarantee my boys would pick out all the onion they could find. This is more of a personal choice but I dice my onion so that the boys don't notice it, that way they're eating vegetables without being aware of it!

The baking in the oven is another judgement I've had to make. You see 30 minutes in my oven would burn the Biryani. Whenever I cook this recipe I have to take the pan out of the oven at 25 minutes, if left any longer the rice would burn to the bottom of the pan. 

If you decided to do this recipe I'd suggest keeping an eye on the rice, that way if it starts to look dry you can take it out and check if the liquid is all gone.

The peas are more of a preference, we've tried this recipe with 250g peas and that's quite a lot of peas for the amount of rice so I reduced it until I felt it was right for us. At 100g peas the boys will eat the peas and nothing gets left behind. Win.

  • Usually, one's cooking is better than one thinks it is. 

Julia Child

There you are - a simple recipe broken down into the bits I've changed to work for me.

Following a recipe is easy but knowing if, and when, to change a recipe is much harder. Having the confidence to change a recipe is something you learn, especially if you cook every day.

I no longer think of myself as a bad cook, I can cook and I'm pretty good sometimes too. The point is if you learn what your equipment is capable of you'll know how it all works together and what the timings will be.

Don't be afraid to alter a recipe if you need to - they are not set in stone, they're just there for guidance.

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