Updated: Feb 24, 2022
First things first. Sounds simple, but before it’s time to cook (preferably at least a day or two before) read the recipe you plan to make, from start to finish, and take stock of what you have in your kitchen and what you still need to get. Some ingredients may need advance time combined in the fridge, as I always say, to "find themselves." Accordingly, you might need to marinate or season part of the recipe in advance. There might be a simple tool you realize you need to make things easier. Plan ahead and you won't have to throw a Hail Mary pass later.
Jayne Mansfield was no fool. You can bet she taught Jayne Marie to always read the recipe first. Speaking of Jayne, here's her Valentine's Meat-Sausage Loaf recipe in case you missed it in a recent newsletter!
There’s a reason the ingredients are in a certain order. They tell you what comes next in the cooking process. It’s like reading music when you play a song. When I’m preparing ingredients for use in a recipe (a process referred to as “mise en place,” or putting in place) I will often line them up on the counter in the order I’m going to use them. You don’t need to be quite that OCD but having everything measured out ahead of time is always the best way to cook.
There are important bits of info in the headnotes. Read the whole headnote, even if, as it sometimes is, exhaustively long. It may tell you how to cook it the very best way, why the recipe works the way it does, which variety of ingredient is preferable over another. There might be a "how to best serve it" recommendation of some type.
There are details in a recipe that you should pay attention to like volume versus weight. Take walnuts for example. The recipe calls for “3 cups of very finely chopped walnuts”. “Cups” is a volume measurement. How the heck do you know how many walnuts to buy at the grocery to get to “3 cups very finely chopped”? A good recipe will think of that and tell you. In this case, you need about 12 ounces of whole walnuts, which is the measurement by weight. 12 ounces of whole walnuts should be easy to shop for in the market, right? Right. Another interesting example is shredded cheese. Even though a 1 cup measurement (normally of anything) officially equals 8 ounces (both dry and liquid), 1 cup of shredded cheese by volume usually equals 4 ounces of weight. So you know if you’re buying 8 ounces of cheese at the store you will probably end up with around 2 cups shredded.
Also relevant in the ingredient line description is the placement of the action you take to prepare the ingredient for cooking. Is it before the ingredient name, or after a comma? For instance, “1/4 cup finely chopped pimento-stuffed olives” is different than “1/4 cup pimento-stuffed olives, finely chopped.” In the first case you finely chop the olives then measure a 1/4 cup of them, in the second case you measure a cup of whole olives first, then finely chop them. When you think about it, you realize you’re probably going to need more olives in the first example versus the second, because chopped olives fill up the measure more fully than whole olives do. This being said, if you get confused or go off the rails with any of your measurements, as long as it’s not a baking recipe in most cases your dish will probably be okay.
Certain ingredients might need to be used “softened,” like butter, or be closer to room temperature, like meat. Leaving those ingredients out for 45 minutes to an hour before you start cooking will be important.
There might be another recipe from the same cookbook that’s required in order to fully enjoy the recipe you’re making. A barbecue sauce for a brisket, an icing for a cake. You’ll need to figure in the shopping and prep for that part of your dish as well.
Look for ingredients you’re not familiar with or that might not be dietarily preferable. There are lots of substitutes to make recipes gluten-free or kosher-friendly for example. Use the google machine. In my cookbook there are few to no exotic ingredients but still, certain things might be tougher to find than others. Major groceries in New Orleans for example mystifyingly do not carry French pickled gherkins, or cornichons. If you are in search of them there, Central Grocery on Decatur Street usually stocks them.
Doneness indicators. “Till fully heated.” “Till is a dark caramel color.” “Till sandy in texture.” “When they have a hint of gold.” These directives are there for a reason. Ignore at your peril.
Think about timing. Some recipes have an active and total time estimate, many do not. You can get a pretty good sense of how much time to budget if you add the stovetop or oven time plus say 30 minutes for ingredient prep (chopping, peeling, etc). You also can determine which recipes to make in advance of a big dinner that will last in the fridge, like a cold sauce of some kind, a pie that can sit for a day covered on the counter, or even individual ingredients like a diced vegetable mirepoix or trinity, bagged and refrigerated.
Use the youtube machine to brush up (or learn from scratch) techniques that may seem unfamiliar. What the heck are “soft to firm peaks” and how do you make them?!
Last but not least, you might want to experiment with a different ingredient than the recipe calls for. Rosemary in lieu of thyme, parsley instead of cilantro, brown sugar instead of granulated. There are no guarantees but you might discover you’re a recipe developer in your own right!