All recipes should be read as recommendations, not as rules (including the recipes you read of mine). This philosophy will take you far, but you have to learn how to be a critic in the right sort of way. I learned early that certain things, like baking soda and salt ratios, or how long to knead bread dough, were instructions that should be taken seriously until you know how to produce the same effect in a better or easier way. However, if a recipe calls for oregano and basil, but you hate oregano (I struggle with this one myself), then leave it out. If a cookie recipe calls for walnuts and chocolate chips, but you’re allergic to walnuts (as I am), it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make the recipes, it just means you should leave them out or replace them with something that won’t trigger an anaphylactic reaction and cause you to be rushed to the hospital, epi-pen inserted into your thigh, gasping for air—which would hardly make having a walnut-chocolate chip cookie worth it.
I read every recipe the way I read a philosophical argument, not because I think the cook is stupid or apt to be wrong, but because I know what I like and I trust myself to prepare my food the way I want to eat it. There are a few things that I’m especially wary of and that I try to minimize the best I can when I write my own recipes. I don’t like unnecessary steps and I hate having to wash dishes that didn’t need to be dirtied, but I also don’t like wasting things like parchment paper or aluminum foil that are only used to make clean up a little easier. A good meal is one that isn’t frustrating to prepare, preserves the flavors of the ingredients, and feels good to eat.
So be a philosopher in the kitchen but don’t be afraid to fail. I usually make food that I think tastes delicious, and I have been cooking long enough that I can usually tell how to avert a tragic outcome, but the occasional disappointment (or disaster) does happen. I made a batch of caramels at Christmas time that weren’t cooked long enough and had to be eaten with a spoon. Just this past week I tried to adapt a recipe for potlicker, a Southern dish, that I was trying to make vegetarian, and it was awful. The vinegar and sugar combination, that might have been good with the smoky ham hock, just wasn’t right with the mere omission of meat. The meal might still be salvageable, but it is going to be a while before I venture to make it again, as the smell from the reducing pot of collard green stems, onions, and vinegar mixture so permeated our apartment that I woke up in the middle of the night cursing my neighbor for what I thought was one of her concoctions. When I woke up in the morning I had to open all the windows in the apartment to rid our home of the odor, which must be what a pickled cabbage factory smells like. Kitchen fail.
Failure isn’t the enemy of progress, but rather, it’s perfection that will limit what you try in the kitchen. Cooking is an art and a science, but it’s not as delicate a balance between them as people sometimes think. Yeah, I don’t mess with the basics of baking breads and making candies, but there’s no one way to make a pot of beans or a tomato sauce. I don’t like certain flavor combinations so I avoid them, and I hate cooked carrots, to I don’t make them. I think everything needs more salt, but I don’t presume everyone else does, so I tend to under-salt the food I prepare and add more to my portion later. Most recipes call for too little sauce, so I usually increase the ingredients for the sauce, or even double them to suit my preferences.
Whether you cook frequently and love doing it, or are just learning how to cook and don’t have much time for it, the most important thing you can do is just pay attention to what you think tastes good and what puts you off, and learn to anticipate it when you look at a recipe. The best kind of cook is an opinionated one, so go ahead and tear it up. What do you think are the essential components of a good meal? How do you evaluate a new recipe? What are your pet peeves in the kitchen? I want to know what you think.