How to Follow a One Dish Recipe
It’s harder than it sounds, right? If you ever find yourself stressed while following a “simple” recipe, I guarantee you’re not alone. Even now, after 20 years (yeesh!) of following recipes, I’ll get completely flustered midway through cooking because, oh my gosh, I forgot to chop that garlic I’m supposed to add now. Raise your hand if you can relate.
When you boil it down (pardon the pun), one-pot dishes made from a recipe fail either because they’re poorly written, or the cook was unprepared.
Unfortunately, we can’t control how the recipe is written. The ingredients might not be in logical order, the author may not use universal terms (just how large is a “medium” onion?), or instructions may not be detailed enough for your experience. Even a well written recipe, though, doesn’t guarantee stress-free cooking.
Surprisingly, the key to smoothly cooking from a recipe is almost entirely in the preparation. The steps below all happen before you light the burner or grill or turn on the oven or mixer. And they aren’t rocket science. The process simply guides you to organize your thoughts and kitchen before you cook. Completing them may even be faster than reading them. Apply the process to anything from stir fry to sauces to casseroles to “one bowl” baking, and really savor the food that you made without a hitch.
If you’re curious, the photos below are from my preparation of this beef stew that I found at foodnetwork.com. It turned out great–just make sure to stir while you bring the liquid to its first boil, or your thickener might all cook to the bottom of the pot (not that I would know).
1. Screen the recipe. Read the full ingredient list and recipe.
- Are you comfortable trying all the techniques?
- Can you get any special equipment or ingredients?
If not, don’t avoid the recipe completely. Either start with an easier version of the same dish, or try the recipe when there is no pressure for results. Prepare by researching unfamiliar techniques (YouTube is your friend), tracking down unique equipment, or finding substitutions for special tools and ingredients.
- Make a list of all ingredients, even those you might have at home, and the quantity needed. Then check it twice (seriously).
- Go to your kitchen and cross out anything you have, making sure you also have enough. If you’re unsure, measure, don’t guess.
- When you shop, use your resources! If you can’t find a particular ingredient, look up substitutes on your phone or ask a store employee. If they don’t know, ask them if there’s anyone else who can help.
3. Read the recipe (again).
- Do a full read before you start.
- Visualize the process as you read. Does everything make sense?
- If any ingredients require advance preparation (soaking, bringing eggs or meat to room temperature, marinating), time and complete those processes so you’re not scrambling, for example, to soften cream cheese at the last minute. When bringing food (especially animal products) to room temperature, never exceed the time recommended by the recipe, or you risk food poisoning.
When you’re ready to cook…
4. Take out all ingredients (even garnishes). Don’t do any chopping, melting, mincing, or measuring. Just take everything out in it’s original state.
5. Do all preparation.
- Go through every ingredient, and prepare each one so when the time comes, you just have to physically transfer it to the cookware. Chop, peel, open cans or cartons, measure, mince, etc. This may take a little time, and it’s best if you aren’t rushed, so plan more prep time than you think you’ll need.
- Put prepared ingredients in dishes, if they’re not packaged. Think about Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives—every ingredient is laid out in it’s own little (or big) bowl for the cooking demonstrations.
- Bonus points: Combine ingredients to add at the same time in a single prep bowl. For example, if onions, garlic, and celery are added together, put them in one dish to save dishes and streamline cooking. Adding canned tomatoes at the same time as spices? Open the can, then measure the spices and sprinkle them right on top of the tomatoes to go into the pan together.
- Exception: For simple baking, measuring in advance isn’t usually necessary. It takes the same amount of time to measure as you mix, and cookie dough or brownie batter can sit while you measure or do other easy prep.
6. Take out all equipment. Remember, you shouldn’t need measuring cups or spoons if you’ve already prepped and measured your ingredients.
7. Take out serving dishes. If you need to remove food from a hot pan when it’s time to serve, such as meat or eggs before they overcook, have serving dishes ready to go.
8. Reference the recipe. Don’t try to memorize it. Print the recipe or pull it up on your device, and keep it reasonably close to the area in which you’ll be cooking (but not dangerously close to a hot burner).
9. Optional: Pour yourself a glass of wine, or other beverage of your choice.
10. Let ‘er rip! Equipment’s ready, prep is done, you’re prepared to compensate for any holes in the recipe. Now dive in and get cooking!
After walking through the ten steps a few times, they’ll become intuitive, not only averting disaster but instilling confidence to experiment with more complex recipes. I try to explain this when people comment that I’m “such a good cook”. I appreciate the compliment for sure, but I feel so strongly that anyone can cook. It’s not just a cute cliché! If you take the time to understand a recipe and go into it prepared, you can really teach yourself to be a great cook. Before you know it, instead of going out for your favorite foods, you might just be scouring cookbooks or the internet to learn to make them at home.