Learning to cook usually starts with finding some recipes on the web and trying them out in the kitchen. That's great, but don't stop there. Internet recipes are a great starting point, but they have limitations. Here are some of them, and how you can move on from them and get really creative in the kitchen.
Illustration by Tina Mailhot-Roberge.
Cooking isn't easy, especially if you haven't made it a habit. For some, it's fun and comes naturally. For others, it takes work and requires time and energy. The rewards are huge, though: You get to be creative in a meaningful (not to mention delicious) way every day, and you take control of the most important aspect of your health and wellness.
But when you blindly follow recipes, you're limiting yourself. You may be learning the basics, but you're not getting the most important part of cooking: Experimenting with flavours to find the ultimate version of a dish that you and your family will enjoy.
Web Recipes Are Chronically Underseasoned
Most recipes, especially from big recipe sites, are made to appeal to the lowest common denominator. They want to be as inoffensive as possible. That doesn't mean they're always bad, but they're never truly good. You'll rarely think "wow I can really taste the X" or "the Y really comes through in this dish." They're designed for the most average, middle-of-the-road taste buds, and unless you mix it up, you're going to get an average, middle-of-the-road dish by following it to the letter.
Because of this, they're almost unilaterally underseasoned. That means that your food will be too, if you don't do something about it. Sure, a lot of recipes proudly proclaim their "big flavours," "herbaceousness," and "spiciness," but I've found few that really live up to the hype.
The fix is easy: Season your food. Seriously, it's that simple. There's an old chef's rule that if you're seasoning a dish, add as much salt as you think it needs. Then add a little more.
Whenever you see a recipe that's supposed to serve eight people and calls for "two cloves of garlic," it's full of crap, and you should probably add another two or three (unless you hate garlic). Maybe I just like flavour, but a "dash of chilli powder" in a stew that fills a stock pot isn't going to come across at all, and one teaspoon of ginger in it isn't going to add any meaningful flavour to a a stir fry recipe meant to serve a family of four. (Cooking TV shows are notorious for this kind of stuff, too.)
Before you actually start cooking, look at your ingredients and their amounts and ask yourself, "Will I actually be able to taste this? If not, why is it here?" Season as you cook, too, and taste to see how your flavours are developing. Taste again before you serve, and make adjustments before your meal hits the table. You see this all the time in those cooking shows I just talked smack about: Some chef makes something in a pinch, serves it, and it tastes horrible. The judge or whoever shouts, "Did you taste this before you served it?" and they stammer a response "Well I only had a few minutes and I didn't get a chance to and I meant to..." You get the gist. Don't be that guy.
Don't get me wrong, there are some places where just a little goes a long way. Tart acids like citrus juice are a great example. Delicate ingredients, like saffron or gentle herbs that need mild dishes to shine, are another. Super spicy ingredients like chiles in adobo or potent hot sauces are better handled with a light touch than a heavy hand. Again, this comes down to the difference between making a recipe and thinking about it before you start cooking.
Recipes Make You Ignore Your Tastes
When you're just getting started cooking -- and I mean just getting started -- you don't know the difference between a pinch and a dash, so there's nothing wrong with for following a recipe to the letter. Once you've learned the basics and understand what you like and dislike, though, you should read those recipes more skeptically.
When you read a recipe, think about the flavours you like and think about how to incorporate them. For example, if you want to try your hand at a homemade salsa for your next gameday party, but you hate cilantro, don't use it anyway because the recipe says you should. Ask yourself what role it plays (Spoiler: It's a peppery herb), and make a substitution for an herb you actually enjoy, maybe Thai basil or Italian parsley. Do you like spicy food? You can add red pepper flakes to just about anything. If that salsa calls for half of a seeded jalapeno and you like it spicy, toss the whole thing in. Just do it.
These are just a couple of examples, but if you think "the recipe says so, so it must be right," you're doing yourself a disservice. Read every recipe and ask yourself "why is this in there? what does it bring to the party?" Once you get used to doing that, you'll be able to sub out ingredients you dislike for tastier ones.
Then afterward, ask yourself how you can improve it to suit your tastes. Your changes may not always work out, but experimenting and finding what does work is better than eating something forgettable, or worse: something that makes you wish you'd just ordered takeout.
Recipe Sites Are a Total Crapshoot (But You Can Find Better Ones)
A lot of people get their recipes from search engines and social networks like Pinterest, Yummly, Allrecipes, or even Bing. They're all fine sources, especially if you're a new cook, or if you need a dose of kitchen inspiration. The trouble, however, is that while it's easy to find inspiration there, you don't always know if the recipes were tested and actually work, or if the flavour matches up to the delicious-looking photo that comes with them.
And yes, reading those recipes critically (like we discussed above) can help, but you can also find better sources to begin with. You don't single-source your news, right? So don't single-source your food, either. You want expert opinions and different perspectives. You want someone to try it for you so you don't waste your time. (In fact, this is one premise that America's Test Kitchen was based on!)
Dig deeper. Explore independent food blogs. Don't write off at-home bloggers who post their own stuff to Pinterest: They usually link back to their recipes so you can read how they did everything, how it turned out, where they originally got their recipes, and how they tweaked them. They're invaluable. Visit the web sites of cooking magazines that have their own test kitchens -- almost all of them have recipe sections (or "Test Kitchen" sections) where they try things out and tell you how you can get great results at home.
Here are a few of my favourite trustworthy cooking blogs to start your bookmarking engines:
- America's Test Kitchen and Cooks Illustrated (Don't forget their YouTube channel and The Feed, their blog!)
- Bon Appetit (Definitely check out their Test Kitchen and their YouTube channel!)
- Lucky Peach
- The Kitchn
- Serious Eats
- Food52 (Their community-powered Hotline is especially amazing.)
- The Splendid Table
- Chowhound (It's been through some changes since it was Chow, but their recipes are still great)
Of course, there's our own food tag as well, which doesn't share its own recipes, but shares a lot of tips and skills that you can put into practice refining the other recipes you find. If you want to use a search tool to sift through a bunch of these at once, Epicurious has awesome apps for your mobile devices and gets recipes from good sources. They also have their own blog and test kitchen where they actually make the stuff they write about.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, too. They're some of my personal favourite sites, but you can and should find others. You should also reject mine if they don't suit your tastes.
If you're more of a visual learner, try some cooking channels at YouTube. There are plenty to choose from, but I particularly love Tastemade, SORTED Food, Tasted, Brothers Green Eats, Cooking with Dog, and the always-hilarious (if not always serious) You Suck at Cooking. This is a partial list of the channels I'm subscribed to (trust me, there's more,) but YouTube is a great place to watch people test recipes before you try them.
When you start your own list of sites and sources, seek out individual food bloggers and chefs whose opinions and palates you trust. You probably already know names like Alton Brown, J. Kenji López-Alt, and Lynne Rossetto Kasper. Think about the cooking shows you love and the people behind them.
Don't be afraid to play around in the kitchen. And don't take anyone's one word for a recipe, or the way your food should taste. You're cooking for you and the people you feed -- their tastes and needs are more important than whatever the recipe says; get in there and make something you know you'll love instead of rolling the dice based on someone else's hunch.