How To Know If a Recipe Is Any Good
I wonder how many recipes we have access to. The Internet, cookbooks, our grandmother's index cards stuffed in a plastic red box... the possibilities are literally endless. If you cooked three meals a day every day for the next thirty years and made something different every single time, you'd need around 33,000 recipes. I just Googled "chicken recipes" and got over four million hits.
We'll never make everything.
So when we do cook, when we want to try something new from a cookbook or Pinterest, we want it to be good. We don't want to feel like we're wasting our time. Recipes we try usually aren't disgusting, but they're not always great. Bland, nothing interesting happening, questionable textures... it's emotionally, financially, and culinarily disappointing.
Wouldn't it be great to have a superpower where you could know if a recipe is good without having to make it first? Well, my friends, we're going to get pretty close.
Food is delicious because of three main things: flavor, salt, and heat. If you know what to look for regarding these three components, you'll have a decent idea if a new recipe is worth a go. Let's get started.
We all know that flavor is how something tastes, but more specifically it's how distinct it tastes compared to other foods. Something might taste spicy, but the flavor is recognizable as pepper or curry or cinnamon. A cookie tastes sweet, but the flavor is distinctly chocolate, butterscotch, or lemon.
It's all about balance and contrast, about how different flavors make each other taste better. Sweet, salty, tangy, sour, earthy, creamy, tart, crunchy, smooth, meaty... balanced flavors and textures make recipes work. Just look at the show Chopped and notice how the ingredients are actually pretty balanced. "Go ahead, guys, make an entree out of prunes, steak, coconut milk, and truffles." Ew, right? But guess what? You have sweet and salty. You have meaty and creamy. You have textures that play. I mean, I wouldn't want to eat coconut milk prune steak, but it wouldn't be as terrible as you think.
When you understand distinct flavors, you better understand a recipe. Better yet, if you start paying attention to how flavors go together, you'll become a pro.
Your Flavor Checklist
How do you figure out if flavors go together?
- Use your intuition. If you look at a recipe that's flavored with chicken, raisins, and potatoes and wonder about the final product, consider the contrasts. We already know that chicken and potatoes are great flavor friends, and raisins are sweet and might contrast with the mild, earthy flavors of the chicken and potatoes? Maybe? But have you ever eaten chicken and potatoes and thought, "You know what this needs? Raisins." Probably not. The chicken-potato flavor combo wouldn't necessary benefit from sweetness. It wants salty bacon, earthy rosemary, or creamy sweetness in the form of coconut milk or butter. Raisins are a tart sweetness with a slightly assertive flavor. In this case, your intuition would probably tell you to find another recipe.
- Use Google. If you're unsure about a flavor combination, Google it. Search "chicken+potato+raisin+recipe" to find searches that only have those four words. If you don't get a lot of options or aren't intrigued by the selection, it's probably not a combination you want to use. Tried and tested is always a good idea when you're just trying to get dinner on the table. You could also Google "do potatoes go with raisins?" and see what pops up. The Internet can be incredibly handy when you know specifically what you're looking for.
- Use The Flavor Bible. This is my favorite option outside of intuition. If you're working on developing yours, this book will change your life. If you already have good flavor intuition and want to progress into creating great recipes with what's in your fridge, this book will change your life, too. I've had it for almost eight years, and it's easily the most treasured and used book in my kitchen. Each ingredient is listed with all compatible flavor combinations listed beneath. The better the combo, the more pronounced the word with bold, all caps, or both. So in this case, you'd look up raisins to see if potatoes and/or chicken are listed. They're not. Mystery solved.
Flavor combinations are important, but even if you pair the best foods in the world but don't include salt, you might as well be eating a cereal box. This counts in savory and sweet! Have you ever eaten unsalted peanut butter or unsalted chocolate?
There are no words. Only that GIF. Our lesson here? Salt. Is. Essential.
Your Salt Checklist
- Is an amount of salt listed, or does it just say "to taste"? You guys, hate me, but if it says "to taste," don't make the recipe. Yes, you can add more salt, but in general, I have a hard time trusting a recipe developer that doesn't see salt as more essential, and if we can't depend on the authority of someone's palette, we might not be able to depend on their flavor combinations or cooking techniques either. Do I sound super mean right now? I don't mean to be, but if we want to have dinner work out more times than not, it's worth going in with a little Internet vigilance.
- Are ingredients seasoned with salt as they're added to the recipe? If you're making soup, does the recipe have you add 1/4 teaspoon of salt at the end rather than throughout as you sauté onions and brown ground turkey? If it's at the end, add salt throughout the process and probably more than is called for. Salt does its job better the longer it's with food, allowing flavors to develop and make your eating experience that much better. If it's added just at the end, your final product won't blow you away. Which is a bummer.
- Is there more than 1/2 tsp of salt listed in the recipe? I've never made a recipe with less than 1/2 teaspoon of salt that didn't taste better with more salt. Ever. It doesn't taste more salty; it tastes more like the flavors in the recipe. I do understand folks who need to lower their salt intake for blood pressure and other health issues, and I'm all for happy hearts. However, if you don't have sodium restrictions, consider doubling the salt called for if it's anything less than 1/2 teaspoon for something with more than four portions. The one Internet personality who doesn't skimp on salt? The Pioneer Woman. Trust her measurements. Maybe even back off a hair. She's not shy with her sodium.
So you have good flavors that go together, and the recipe seems to have enough salt... you're all set, right?
Heat is massively important in a recipe turning out well, at least in recipes that aren't sushi and fruit salad.
When food comes in contact with heat, especially direct heat or indirect high heat, flavor gets its wings. Think about the difference in a piece of grilled chicken versus a piece that's boiled in water. Pretty different flavors, right? One makes you happy, and the other you feed to the cat.
This is why many slow-cooker recipes don't change your life. You could throw in flavors that are perfectly suited for each other and salt it enough, but the lack of direct (sautéing/grilling) or high indirect heat (a high oven for roasting) doesn't give you the best flavor.
Your Heat Checklist
- Does any ingredient come in contact with a pan? It's kind of a ridiculous question but also vital, y'all.
- Does any ingredient stay in an oven that's higher than 400 degrees? Again, basic but vital. If there's no pan, there'd better be an oven.
Without flavor, salt, and heat, you're going to have a mediocre dinner. That's not a bad thing; not every meal can be the best thing you ever eat. But if you know how to read a recipe to tell if it's any good, you'll save yourself a lot of heartache and whiny children. Here they are condensed, and then we'll put them into practice. These are recipes I found on Pinterest, chosen at random, so we'll quickly run through the checklist and give the recipe a grade.
- Do the flavors go together?
- Is salt listed, used beyond "to taste," and added throughout the cooking process if there is one?
- Does food come in contact with either a hot pan or a reasonably hot oven?
Case Study #1
"Is This Recipe Any Good?" Checklist
- Do the flavors go together? For sure. My intuition alone knows that chicken, bacon, and cheese are best friends. If I Googled that combination, along with the ranch dressing, I'd get lots of confirmation and maybe a slight heart attack. The Flavor Bible, while not having ranch as one of its ingredients, confirms.
- Is salt listed, used beyond "to taste," and added throughout the cooking process if there is one? There's no salt listed.
- Does food come in contact with either a hot pan or a reasonably hot oven? Yes, it's cooked in a 400 degree oven.
The flavors on top of the chicken are all naturally salty, especially the bacon and the cheese. While the chicken itself, if you were take a bite of it without the toppings, would be pretty bland, all together it would probably taste pretty good. It's baked on a higher heat and the cheese and bacon will caramelize a little to develop more flavor.
It might not be the best chicken you've ever had, but the robust flavors certainly won't taste bad. It also appears to be incredibly easy to make which bumps up the grade, and the health benefits bump it down again. HA! But I'd say this recipe will be pretty good.
I'd season the chicken with salt, spread it out a bit more in the pan to give more surface area for caramelization and flavor development, top with thinly sliced red onion, green pepper, and salsa instead of ranch and bacon, and then follow the instructions exactly, including the cheese at the end. The flavor is punchier, you're guaranteeing seasoning, cutting down on the fat, and getting in some vegetables.
Case Study #2
"Is This Recipe Any Good?" Checklist
- Do the flavors go together? Absolutely. Teriyaki chicken is already a familiar dish, and the recipe covers good flavor bases - salty from the soy sauce, sweet from the brown sugar, and an earthiness from the sesame seeds. No need to access Google or The Flavor Bible for this one.
- Is salt listed, used beyond "to taste," and added throughout the cooking process if there is one? It says "to taste" on the chicken, but there are no other real layers of cooking.
- Does food come in contact with either a hot pan or a reasonably hot oven? Yes, a sauté pan.
The chicken is seasoned to taste, but the soy sauce adds a lot of saltiness, too. In this case, to taste is not terrible because you're definitely getting flavor. I also love the detailed instructions on heat levels and reasons why the recipe is cooked the way it is. Thoughtful instructions always endear me to the recipe developer.
Again, it might not be the most magical recipe ever (there are only two main flavor ingredients in the marinade), but it'll have good flavor, it's simple enough, and it's familiar for picky eaters. Plus, chicken breasts are notoriously dry, and this recipe tries to combat that which I appreciate.
Not many. I like a more nuanced, complex marinade for East Asian dishes, so I might add a little sesame oil (way stronger than the seeds) and a shot of srirachi for some heat. I'd also had a teaspoon of cornstarch to the marinade before adding it to the pan to thicken the sauce a bit more. Otherwise, it's a sturdy winner.
Case Study #3
"Is This Recipe Any Good?" Checklist
- Do the flavors go together? 100%. Meat, potatoes, and carrots are magical friends. (Side note: when you're dealing in Pinterest recipes, you probably won't run into too many crazy flavor combos. Cookbooks, though, might require a little more exploration. And, yes, cookbook recipes can be bad.)
- Is salt listed, used beyond "to taste," and added throughout the cooking process if there is one? There's no salt listed or mentioned. Her homemade dry onion soup mixture has salt listed as an optional ingredient but only 1 teaspoon for the entire batch.
- Does food come in contact with either a hot pan or a reasonably hot oven? No.
This will probably be tender but bland. Flavors are good, but without salt or heat, you're missing out. The cut of meat is enormous, and the potatoes are kept whole. Without salt to penetrate those ingredients, they'll mostly taste like onion flake. Not bad, but not great.
Dump and cook recipes are nice when it comes to convenience, but I think it's worth developing a little more flavor to enhance the dinner experience.
Season the roast on all sides with salt and black pepper. Like, a good bit. Sear it in a large Dutch oven or skillet on high heat to develop some beautiful flavor in the meat. Either keep the meat in the Dutch oven if you'll be home and want to use the oven, or transfer the meat to a slow-cooker. Follow the instructions from there but add a tiny sprinkle of salt to the vegetables. You could leave out the soup and onion mix for a simple but comforting flavor and instead add 1/2 cup of chicken or beef stock to add a little flavor. Cook in the slow-cooker as described, or cover the Dutch oven and cook in a 300 degree oven for six hours. Want to use the oven but cut down on the time? Cut the roast into large chunks, sear the sides to get even more flavor (more surface area than the whole roast), and cook for 3-4 hours. Finish with a pat of butter and a sprinkle of fresh parsley to elevate the final flavor.
You have the power, y'all. You don't have to be held hostage by recipes and wonder if they'll be any good. Waste is one of the most frustrating aspects of cooking - wasted time, wasted ingredients and money, and wasted good vibes around the table while everybody is bummed by a bland dinner. Again, bland dinners are not the worst thing. At all. Sometimes what we cook is a bust, and it's not going to ruin your worth or your family's palette. You learn, laugh, and move on, but wouldn't it be great to be able to make an educated decision before you buy a potato or turn on a burner?
Now you can. Rock it out, friends.
P.S. I can't recommend The Flavor Bible enough. If you are marginally confident in your cooking ability, you will LOVE having it in your kitchen. Again, my most used book for the last eight years. And if you happen to click that affiliate link, thanks for supporting The Lazy Genius Collective. Your pennies genuinely pay my bills, and I'm grateful.