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Monthly Feature:
What Recipes May Not Tell You

Two of the great myths of working with food are that all recipes are good, and that flops are usually the fault of the cook. So for many, it's a relief to learn that recipes often fail for reasons that have little to do with cooking skills. Let's look at several factors that help guarantee success in the kitchen.

A good recipe is balanced.
In cakes, cookies, muffins, and pastry, the best recipes are cleverly designed so ingredients that tenderize don't overpower those that create structure. When a cake flops, for instance, it's sometimes because the recipe calls for too much sugar. While appealing to one's sweet tooth is important, too much sugar creates a batter so tender that it's too fragile to

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support the volume of the rising cake—so it falls before it sets. And that has far less to do with your cooking expertise than that of the recipe writer. Be aware that not all recipes are good recipes.   

Additional information is often helpful.
Those low-fat muffins look great in the photo and the instructions simply say to "stir the ingredients together." And so you do. In fact, you give the batter a little extra stir so those muffins will be even better. What the recipe doesn't tell you is that stirring develops gluten, which gives strength and elasticity to batters and doughs. While these qualities are important in doughs made with yeast, strength and elasticity are not desirable in quick breads.

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We hope those of you newly intrigued by this approach to food will enjoy this opportunity to learn "how cooking works." And we extend a special welcome to those who were part of our remarkable and loyal audience over five years at inquisitivecook.com. We invite you to once again become actively involved with your comments, suggestions, and interesting questions. Please help us create a new, cohesive, and lively community of cooks online.  

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Muffins and biscuits need a tender framework that rises quickly as baking soda and baking powder give off carbon dioxide. Stirring is even less optimal in low-fat, low-sugar baked goods, because both sugar and fat are tenderizers. When you reduce tenderizers, keep structure-builders to a minimum too. In this case, stir as little as possible after the flour is added.

Your surroundings may affect the final product.
Recipes for meringues, for instance, made by beating egg whites with sugar, look simple. And in fact, they go together very easily (for an example, see our recipe for Pavlova). But it also helps to know that they're best made on dry days. Sugar dissolves into the egg whites as you beat them. Then as sugar attracts moisture from the air, you'll notice little beads of syrup form on the surface of the baked meringue. If meringues sit on the counter on a humid afternoon, or if they're stored in the damp atmosphere of your refrigerator, they can become as sticky as the weather.

Assessing doneness? The final decision is yours.
Many factors affect baking times: The temperature of the ingredients. Whether the pan is shiny or dull. The accuracy of your oven. Since it's impossible to give exact baking times, a good recipe gives a range of time. Check early. A few minutes of extra cooking can make the difference between brownies that are moist and those that are dry and crumbly. Or a roast that's moist and tender, and meat that's tough and chewy, simply because it has been overcooked (see the "Finger Test for Doneness"). Keep in mind that you, the cook, are the final judge of doneness.

So cookbooks are wonderful, but there's much that recipes don't tell you about cooking. Understanding how ingredients interact and the logic behind techniques helps you cook successfully. Once you know what makes a recipe work, you can fill in the gaps yourself. If you are already accomplished in the kitchen, understanding the science behind cooking is the ideal foundation for making changes and creating new recipes. Become a better cook with science!

 

Anne Gardiner & Sue Wilson are the authors, with the Exploratorium, of the book The Inquisitive Cook.

 

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