There are no bad cooks, only bad recipes. As you start to cook more, you’ll search for inspiration. Trying new recipes can be a glorious and absorbing hobby. But if you haven’t learned to discern a good recipe from a reckless, untested recipe, you’ll likely end up with disappointing failure. Let’s learn how to recognize a great recipe and where to find them.
The red flags should have gone up when I saw the polarized reviews. When I researched French chocolate cake recipes, I landed on Marmiton, a crowd-sourced recipe website, similar to the notorious Allrecipes.com. A lot of the reviews applauded how easy the recipe was to make and how delicious the cake turned out to be. Good signs so far.
However, one in five reviews complained that the cake collapsed. Or that the cake was dry.
While these negative reviews should have set off alarm bells, it only took me 7 failed chocolate cakes until I wised up and began to suspect that the recipe may not be bulletproof, especially for baking at high-altitude.
But could 1095 comments, 64,000 favorites, and 5,664 shares be wrong?
This post is designed to help you avoid such heartache. Let’s tackle the issue of finding great recipes in 2 parts:
- Part 1: How to recognize a great recipe (this post). You’ll discover what clues to look for that indicate whether the author tested the recipe.
- Part 2: Where to find cooking inspiration. While this is subjective, I’ll share my favorite sources to give you a jump start.
How to recognize great recipes
While there are gems in crowd-sourced recipes and boutique food blogs, there is a myriad of untested recipes paving the road to failure.
To avoid this debacle, arm yourself with solid recipes that you are confident will work.
The most important step for success is to read the recipe from start to finish at least once before you make it.
It’s most important to check that you have the ingredients, equipment, and time required to complete the recipe. Does the recipe recommend 8 hours of incubation like this crème fraîche recipe? Do you need to track down Sichuan peppercorns? You’ll want to know this information before you commit to the recipe. Or else you’re inviting failure.
Here are the clues you can use to sniff out well-tested and trustworthy recipes on the Web and in cookbooks to ensure your cooking success.
Tips for substitution
Does the recipe offer substitutions for ingredients? Does it explain how to adjust the baking time depending on the size of the cake pan you’re using? What about recommendations for tripling the recipe if it claims to be a dish you can batch cook?
Recipe writers should show that they considered how your kitchen might differ. While it’s impossible to cover every scenario, an attempt to guide on adjusting for your stove or oven (regular vs. convention oven) and pantry ingredients on hand increases the likelihood that you will succeed with their recipe.
Check the reviews
There are often extra tips in the comments sections that benefit you. Skim past the vapid “Yay, I made this and I liked it,” comments. Look for modification suggestions or constructive criticism to understand whether the recipe has major flaws. If it’s a crummy recipe, you can see it in the recipe reviews (1-star ratings?).
💡TIP: If the recipe comments seem weirdly negative in a trolling way, make sure they’re not a bunch of bullies targeting the recipe writer before you assume the negative reviews are due to a badly written recipe.
Missing ingredients or steps
Do the instructions mention an ingredient that’s missing from the ingredient list (except for water)? Do the instructions miss an obvious step? If so, this incomplete recipe is destined to fail unless you have enough cooking knowledge to patch the gaps. Move on and find another recipe. After all, there are thousands of recipes to choose from.
Related to missing ingredients is the overuse of sophisticated chef-like language. Most people reading a home cooking blog like Garlic Delight aren’t expert chefs. They’re reading a recipe to learn skills and techniques. If you’re a beginner home cook, you may not know terms like caramelize, braise, fold, cream, and gratiner.
If a recipe uses too many “cheffy” terms, it doesn’t mean the recipe is bad. It means it makes a lot of assumptions about prerequisite skills. And you know what they say about when you assume. You might end up with a great dish at the end. But you also might feel overwhelmed because you lack the basic knowledge to complete the recipe.
If you find a reliable-looking recipe with “cheffy” terms you don’t know, don’t give up! Find tutorials on YouTube that show you how to implement the technique or equipment. Research how to achieve these techniques on cooking websites. It’s how you’ll learn and expand your skills.
Order of the ingredients and steps
Recipes should be written with sequential steps. If a recipe tells you to roast an eggplant in the oven and 2 steps later it tells you to slice the raw eggplant and season it with salt to prepare it for roasting, well oopsies. That’s the kind of mistake that makes you want to throw the cookbook across the kitchen into the dumpster.
A more subtle clue is to look at the ingredients list. Recipes should list the ingredients in the order that you use them. Keep an eye out for this clue as an indicator of the quality of a recipe.
Accuracy & consistency
This is an area I’ll admit I’m working on. Garlic Delight isn’t perfect, but I get better with every recipe and post I write.
Scan a recipe for precise and consistent measurements. Are you seeing aubergine mentioned then eggplant later? Zucchini first then courgette? Bell peppers then capsicum? It’s hard to keep track of what a recipe writer is talking about if she’s not even on the same page with herself (ahem, myself).
For example, I try hard to not mingle metric and US customary measurements (grams vs. cups or ounces). I try to write medium-sized eggs and salted butter. Sometimes I still write “1 head of broccoli”. Luckily, flexible cooking recipes are more forgiving when it comes to substitutions and a range of measurements.
However, if you land on a baking recipe that lacks precision, I recommend you move on. I rarely bake from recipes that call for cups and tablespoons these days after my chocolate cake fiasco. Better to stick with precise measurements in grams and ounces because baking is so sensitive.
Secret signs that a recipe might lead you to failure
So far we covered clues that tell you a recipe was carefully written. While a recipe may follow every recipe writing best practice, a recipe might still be wrong for you. For example, if a recipe requires lamb shanks and a cast-iron Dutch oven but you don’t have either, you’ll likely fail if you attempt the recipe and substitute your missing ingredients and equipment.
Let’s look at what factors you should consider when embarking on making a new recipe.
Exotic ingredients or equipment
We often get tired of the taste of our cooking. That’s an ideal time to explore different cuisines. But tread lightly when searching for recipes that call for very special or exotic ingredients that you’ve never acquired before.
First, it might be impossible to get the ingredients. If they’re central to the dish, then you’ll end up with a different version. This modified version might be just as good but it also might disappoint you. Even if you can source the exotic ingredients locally, they may not be of the quality that the recipe author originally used. The dish will be an uphill battle.
The same applies to special equipment like an ice cream maker or blender. In this case, look for a recipe where the author provides instructions on how to make do without the special ingredients or equipment (as I do in the raclette instructions).
Odd one out
In high school, my friend Paul made awful chocolate chip muffins. They were dense and chewy. When asked where he got the recipe, he said he picked the first Google search result. Typically, this would be a good bet because Google floats the best results to the top search results, right?
Not always. A lot of the first results on Google reflect the website’s SEO prowess and not its recipe quality, especially if the top results are crowd-sourced recipe sites like AllRecipes.com and Food.com. When I’m making a new recipe, I like to compare 2 to 3 versions written by different people and outlets — a combination of traditional food media outlets like Martha Stewart and Bon Appetit versus a handful of food bloggers — represents a diversity of viewpoints.
If the recipe you plan to follow looks ridiculously different — like 2:1 ratio of flour to butter when all other recipes call for a 1:1 ratio of flour to butter, or 5 teaspoons of baking soda instead of 0.5 teaspoons of baking soda — that recipe author better explain why. If there’s no acknowledgment of the extraordinary measurement, skip the recipe.
Out-of-place stock photos
I know some food and recipe websites use stock images. If you see the headline “shrimp and snow pea stir fry with brown rice” and the picture beneath has a photo of shrimp with green beans and rice noodles, it’s a bad sign. The recipe might not work because you can’t be sure the recipe author even cooked the recipe. Skip it.
Does it sound good?
Some recipes will sound terrible to your taste buds. Even if it’s the most trending dish on Instagram and everybody is sharing pictures of it on Facebook, listen to your gut. Don’t bother making it only to find you hate the dish and it’s a failure. Anything with parsley fits this category for me. Tabbouleh, I can’t even. (My friend Benjamin feels this way about savory fillings in this sweet crêpe batter recipe. It’s a hard pass for him.)
If there are no timings for each step, that’s asking for undercooked chicken, bloody at the bone, or overcooked, rubber chicken — so overdone that it could host a comedy show.
If there are no guides on what to prepare beforehand or how the food should look and smell at each step, how will you know when it’s done? Does it tell you what to do after cooking? How to store it and how long will it last? How to serve it after cooking? What if it tells you to sauté without any indication of how long? What happens if you’re still sautéing after 30 minutes?
What if you are the problem?
After looking at how a recipe could be poorly written and why a great recipe still might not be right for you, there’s one elephant in the room we have to address. That elephant is you.
I stand by my statement that there are no bad cooks, only bad recipes.
But there are bad choices.
If you don’t follow the instructions and begin making wild substitutions, you’ll fail. If you switch out chicken breasts for sardines, it’s probably not going to work (unless you’ve made the substitution before and can stand by it — or the sardines are topping a simple garden salad where chicken and sardines might be interchangeable).
If you switched out green beans for delicata squash, tender green beans will overcook into a wilted, dry mess after roasting for 30 minutes.
It can be more subtle. If you don’t have cake flour and you make the recipe using whole wheat flour, it seems innocent enough. But whole wheat flour has very different properties and you’re likely to fail. Better to find a recipe designed for whole wheat flour and set aside the cake recipe for another day.
Where to start
Now that you’re armed with understanding how recipes can go wrong, trust your brain (and gut) to pick up an instinct of whether a recipe will work for you. The more you cook and the more recipes you find, the more trustworthy sources you’ll discover. After a while, you’ll know how to follow your nose to lead you to a glorious meal.