Why Don’t Recipes Work?
This post is part of our Cooking With Recipes Series
Cooking With Recipes Series
The Internet is an amazing resource for recipes of all kinds. It exposes us to many cultures and cooking techniques that we would never think of if we were to just browse our local library.
This is all well and good, but it can also be extremely frustrating if a recipe you’re making falls apart. You read the comments, to see if other people are having this problem, but it appears that no one else is.
Is a failed dish the fault of an incorrect recipe or the cook making a mistake? Well, often, it is neither. A perfect recipe in the hands of a perfect chef may still fail for a number of reasons.
Factors that Affect Recipe Success
“High Altitude Cooking” has a huge impact on the outcome of recipes. Typically, altitudes higher than 3500 ft above sea level is considered “high altitude cooking”. The affects on cooking include:
- Since air pressure is lower at higher altitudes, foods take longer to bake.
- Liquids evaporate faster at higher altitudes, so the amount of dry and wet ingredients may need to be altered.
- Gases expand more at higher altitudes. Because of this, doughs need shorter rising times and may need two “punch down” steps. Leavening agents (baking soda and baking powder) may also need to be decreased.
- Water boils at a lower temperature at higher altitudes, so foods cooked with water (such as pastas and soups) may take longer to cook. Temperatures and cook times may need to be increased.
The local climate, even just within the kitchen, can also affect recipes. Extremely high or low humidity levels can reek havoc on bakers trying to create the perfect bread or domed muffins. If you find yourself in a new climate and are having trouble with recipes that previously worked fine:
- Use a scale to more accurately measure ingredients (humidity levels can cause problems when measuring using volume instead of weight)
- Visit a local bakery and ask how they accommodate the climate when they bake
Are you using the same general utensils used in the recipe you are following? This can make a huge difference.
- Metal vs ceramic vs glass vs silicone baking dishes (all conduct heat very differently)
- Depth of pots and pans (will affect cooking time and how air circulates around the food)
- Colour of baking pans (darker pans absorb and radiate more heat than lighter coloured pans)
- Types of metal pans – stainless steel vs aluminium vs cast iron
Are you using the same heating source as the recipe author?
- Gas vs electric vs induction stove tops
- Gas vs electric vs convection oven
- Size of stove elements (more surface area can cook items much quicker)
The ingredients a recipe calls for can actually be a big problem.
- Using a different size, shape, or quality will affect the success of a recipe
- Another ingredient problem comes from language or cultural barriers. A good example is the case of corn flour, corn starch and corm meal. These all mean very different things in different countries. They are absolutely not interchangeable
This can be a big issue, even though the majority of the world uses the metric system.
But, many people use other measurement standards such as: US Standard or Imperial.
Unfortunately, many recipe authors do not let their readers know which measurement standard they use for their “cups”, etc. If you do come across a recipe that uses terms like: cups, pints, gallons, instead of measurements, ask the author for clarification. This article discusses this and provides simple strategies to overcome confusing conversions.
Every recipe author will have a different climate, altitude, local ingredients and cooking supplies than the cook using their recipes. A recipe written by someone in the mountains of Western Canada will likely not work as written for someone on the LA Coast.
Whenever you make a recipe for the first time, treat it like an experiment, and expect it to fail. All you need to do is carefully observe what is happening to the meal, and change your recipe accordingly. If the recipe does not work for you due to being under or over cooked, overly dry or wet, etc., consider the factors above and consider making adjustments.
It would be nice if recipe authors explained the conditions present for them, but often they don’t. Don’t hesitate to ask questions of the author, especially if you are having problems with a recipe. If you do make a change to a recipe, be sure to write it down for future reference.
We provide our conditions in our faq section under Our Recipe Rules.