by Kemp Minifie, Epicurious
As more and more people get into cooking--whether inspired by hipster TV chefs, luscious food photos in magazines and blogs, or the need to save money by cutting out restaurant meals--recipes have become more important than ever. Although there are plenty of flawed recipes out there in cyberspace, the good, well-tested ones can be ruined by users' flawed assumptions. Here are the five most common mistakes I encountered during many years as a magazine food editor talking to countless readers.
Failure to Read the Recipe:
How many times has the following scenario happened to you? You're in a big hurry. You find a recipe that uses what's in your fridge and you're halfway into the prep, when you discover to your chagrin that the recipe requires hours of marinating, or some labor-intensive step. If only you'd stopped long enough to calmly read the instructions all the way through, you would have seen the booby trap! Even I'm guilty of this one sometimes.
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Incorrect Measuring: Dry ingredients and wet ingredients are not measured in the same type of cup. Dry ingredients go in metal or plastic nesting cups that allow you to mound them slightly, then level them off with a straight edge, such as a ruler or knife. For liquids, use a clear glass or plastic cup with gradations on the side that allow you to view it at eye level to make sure you are hitting the mark (peering down from above gives you a distorted and inaccurate reading).
If using a recipe from a magazine (print or online), check to see if there's information on how their staff measures flour. Some advocate dipping the cup in the bag and scooping, while others spoon it in.
If all this sounds too complicated, it is. We'd be much better off switching to the metric system and weighing all our ingredients. Let's unite and make that change happen!
Not Eggs-actly Right:
So the recipe calls for large eggs (most do) and all you've got are extra-large or jumbo. No big deal, you think. Perhaps. Depending on the recipe, you might not encounter a disaster with one egg. But when you're talking multiple eggs, it could mean the difference between a light and lovely cake and a leaden, eggy one. Consult the graph from the American Egg Board (www.incredibleegg.org/egg-facts/) in case you accidentally pick up the wrong size.
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I'm not knocking substitutions. There are loads that do work. There's even a bible on the topic (The Food Substitutions Bible: More Than 6,500 Substitutions for Ingredients, Equipment and Techniques, Robert Rose). But watch out for the fat-free dairy products; they often contain stabilizers or thickeners that can wreak havoc with your baking. Ditto for some of the butter substitutes. And for goodness sake, don't substitute Cool Whip for whipped cream in anything baked or cooked.
Chocolate poses other pitfalls. When a recipe calls for bittersweet chocolate, control your super-charged urge to use extra-bittersweet versions in the 70 and 80 percent cacao range. The higher the percentage, the less sugar in the bar, and that lack of sugar could seriously affect the texture of your baked good. Stick with the 60 percent range for bittersweet if the cacao percentage isn't listed in the recipe. And if bittersweet bars you see don't state the cacao content, chose one from from a well-respected chocolate company. Chances are, it will have slightly less than 60 percent, but way more than the legal minimum of 35 percent.
The worst story I ever heard? A cook used canned clams in place of puréed raw scallops in a terrine (what was she thinking?), and wondered why it was still liquid after baking!
No Oven Thermometer:
Let me guess: you believe your oven is on target when the little buzzer goes off. Don't. Please. I've worked with loads of brand-new ovens that were as much as 25 to 50 degrees off. Separate oven thermometers can be a pain in the neck sometimes, because they aren't particularly stable, and often fall off the rack, but it's a minor irritation compared to a ruined roast or burnt cookies.
More from Epicurious:
Essential Tools for Portion Control
Doable Challenges: Get Healthy, Get Fit, and Lose Weight
Super Bowl Party Tips From the Experts
Healthy Comfort Recipes for Any Day
by Kemp Minifie, Epicurious
SUPPER CLUB PICK
My after-school snack was a sacred ritual. I sat on the carpet in my parents' bedroom at a low table, the television turned to "I Dream of Jeannie," and ate a peanut butter and honey sandwich cut into neat squares. I wasn't fussy about crusts. I just loved the sticky pairing of creamy peanut butter with syrupy golden sweetness drizzled from a honey bear in diagonals across the soft white bread. Nothing else--save for maybe apples and peanut butter in a pinch--could have made for as sweet an