Monday Musings: Why Recipes Don’t Always Turn Out Like They Should

It’s tempting to think that a recipe is a recipe is a recipe. To think: if you put in A, B, and C,  you get X, Y, and Z ever time. But professional recipe writers (and food bloggers) know that isn’t always the case.

In the video above, Jacques Pepin explains it perfectly. (If the video isn’t working, you can watch it directly from PBS HERE). He says:

“For someone who writes recipes, there is a paradox between a written recipe and the creation of a taste. When writing a recipe one records a moment in time which can never be duplicated exactly again. The paradox is that the recipe tells the reader “this must be done this way,” when in fact, to get the result you are looking for, the recipe has to be modified every time.”

Take it from the master himself. No matter how carefully you follow a recipe, it has the potential to turn out differently (sometimes slightly, sometimes drastically) every time you make it.

Does that mean you shouldn’t follow recipes? Not at all. Recipes are a wonderful guide. And can they be successful if you follow them to a tee? Absolutely. But more often than not, they require a little more than just following the steps.

As someone who creates recipes, I’m always careful to take my time developing each one and writing it as clearly as possible. By testing it a few times and being clear with the wording, I can help eliminate some of the obvious pitfalls people might encounter when making it for themselves. But even with a ton of testing, there are things that just can’t be contained within a recipe’s guidelines.

Purple Sauerkraut, Cooked by Michael Pollan | Will Cook For Friends

The key to recipes turning out consistently every time — and the thing Pepin so perfectly demonstrates in his example with the caramelized pears — is not in following the steps and measuring everything precisely (though those things are important, especially in baking) but in being able to recognize the variables and adjust accordingly. If your oven runs hot, then setting it to the temperature called for won’t give you the desired result. If your strawberries aren’t very sweet, the recipe may need more sugar to make up for that. Even seemingly minor things like the size or thickness of the pan you use can effect the outcome of a dish significantly. For example, a sauce cooked in a wide, shallow skillet will reduce far faster than one cooked in a high sided saucepan.

When you’re just learning to cook, this can feel really discouraging. As Tamar Adler put it in her wonderful book An Everlasting Meal:

 “When we watch people cook naturally, in what looks like an agreement between cook and cooked, we think they were born with an ability to simply know that an egg is done, that the fish needs flipping, and that the soup needs salt.”

It’s disheartening to think that some people have an inherent talent for cooking and others don’t. But fortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sun Dried Tomato Ranch Dressing

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “oh, I can’t cook!” as if they were declaring that they aren’t a good dancer, or can’t draw. But cooking isn’t a gift some have and other’s don’t. It’s something learned, through practice and patience — and being able to see yourself improving is one of the reasons I love it so much. Learning to be a good cook means listening to the ingredients, watching them and smelling them and tasting them at every stage. It means being attentive to a dish to see what it needs and know when it’s done. By being curious, you can hone your instincts and steer almost any recipe towards success.

Of course, I’m not saying that all recipes fail because of variables like these. Some recipes are whack, some ingredients are finicky, and there’s no accounting for taste. There are a million reasons recipes don’t turn out as they ought to, but for me, this one is what keeps me getting back up and dusting myself off after every failure.

As Pepin says, “There is a gap between the step by step procedure and the finished dish,” and it is up to the cook to fill that gap. “A recipe is a guide. A teaching tool. A point of departure. You have to follow it exactly the first time you make the dish, but as you make it again and again, you will change it, you will massage it, to fit your own taste.”

And for me, that is part of the beauty of cooking.


Do you have any cooking questions? Do you consider yourself a skilled cook, or a newby? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!


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13 Responses to Monday Musings: Why Recipes Don’t Always Turn Out Like They Should

  1. Allyson March 28, 2017 at 9:09 am #

    Girl, I love this post! I think the hardest part of food blogging is writing the recipe. There are so many variables as you mentioned, and when I cook the best meals (and when I enjoy cooking the most) it’s adding a little of this, tasting, adjusting, smelling…it’s part of the process. I think a lot is missed actually if we don’t take that opportunity to use our senses and our own preferences to make a meal exactly the way we want it to be in that moment, on that particular day.

    • Willow Arlen March 29, 2017 at 4:11 pm #

      Thank you, Allyson! You are so right. My favorite meals come about from following my instincts, not a recipe. Recipes are a fantastic jumping off point, and a great way to gain confidence, but the real fun of cooking is when you can use those skills to create something on your own, with what you have.

  2. Meg | Meg is Well March 29, 2017 at 10:45 am #

    Love this! I still learn this all the time, especially when making pastry or bread. Every time I ignore instinct and say “but the recipe says to knead for this long” or “I should do this many turns,” something usually goes wrong or it doesn’t come out as tasty as it could. I have to continually practice actually listening to my instinct.

    • Willow Arlen March 29, 2017 at 4:15 pm #

      Oh yes, it can be a challenge at times. Breads and pastries are the hardest, I think, because if you haven’t done it before you don’t necessarily know the signs to look for, so you really are bound to the recipe. But at the same time, they can be some of the things that need the most tweaking based on the ingredients, temperature, humidity. Knowing what to look for in those cases really does take practice to learn, and then once you do you have to trust those instincts, which is easier said than done. Still, there’s nothing better than when you take a chance on a gut feeling and everything turns out perfectly!

  3. Kearin April 9, 2017 at 3:59 pm #

    I think there is also a gap in the way a lot of recipes are written these days. While “make the cake” is no longer sufficient the answer to the knowledge gap is not to give overly precise instructions (beat for exactly 2 minutes)as seems to be the trend, but to provide information about visual and sensory clues that tell you what to be looking for.

    Like you mentioned in the previous comment, practice is super important – both because it gives you better instinct but also because you learn that sometimes it will go wrong and that’s ok :)

    • Willow Arlen April 10, 2017 at 4:04 pm #

      Well said, Kearin! You’re absolutely right. And isn’t it interesting to look at older recipes that have such brief instructions, like “combine ingredients” and “bake cake until done.”? Recipes used to assume a lot more from the person making them.

  4. Christine | Vermilion Roots April 11, 2017 at 8:04 pm #

    Great post, Willow! I initially had a hard time following recipes or cookbooks because I was used to cooking the agak agak way (by instinct). That’s how my dad taught me to cook. But I’ve learned the value of cookbooks. I still tweak recipes to suit my dietary needs and preferences but I’ve learned so much. And the recipe development process has made me more disciplined and aware of things I used to take for granted!

    • Willow Arlen April 19, 2017 at 10:52 am #

      Oh yes, developing recipes makes you look at them in a whole new way! And I still thoroughly enjoy cooking by instinct — I think that often times, that’s the best way to cook — but recipes have their place, too. :)

  5. Paula April 26, 2017 at 1:06 pm #

    Is it nerdy of me to think the Jacques Pepin video is fascinating? Thank you so much for sharing it, by the way!

    Growing up with an Italian mother and grandmother who cook like natural-born chefs, I am always disappointed when my recipes don’t turn out great.

    But after a lot of trial and error, I’ve learned a couple of things that help a recipe be successful: 1) taste while you are cooking and adjust salt, spices etc 2) have an oven thermometer and know your oven’s idiosyncrasies well 3) don’t give up and try the recipe again with adjustments (my recipe books are filled with notes!).

    It’s like you said: with time, we trust our instincts more and recipes less.

    • Willow Arlen April 29, 2017 at 9:30 pm #

      You’re welcome, Paula! I agree completely, tasting and adjusting as you go is a MUST, as is an oven thermometer. I’m always surprised when I’m in other people’s kitchens and there’s no thermometer in their oven. The dial is often not right!

  6. Ruby & Cake May 2, 2017 at 10:36 pm #

    This was such a great post Willow. I have never been a recipe sort of cook, I use them as a basic guideline and always go off on my own tangent which is both good and bad and can on occasion lead to absolute disasters. It also means I am terrible at writing recipes, they are always too basic or brief which is something I am trying hard to work at. Thanks for sharing the video too it was interesting.

    • Willow Arlen May 3, 2017 at 12:06 pm #

      Thank you, Ruby! Writing recipes is something I never thought too much about before blogging, but you’re right, a lot goes into it! I look back at my early recipes and sometimes I don’t know what I was thinking. Always improving, though!

  7. Michelle October 3, 2020 at 6:52 am #

    Hi Willow. I just stumbled across this and have to say thank you. After a few recent mishaps I was ready to give up convinced cooking is in fact something you either get or you don’t and can’t really be taught. But after a few nights of takeout I’m ready to try again thank you!

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