Note: Gentle Readers, please welcome a very special guest author to the blog this week. You know her as the Eldest of The Practical Cooks Junior, and this is her debut writing for this blog. I launched the blog when she was 5 years old, and she’s now 15. She has been around kitchens, farms, food, and creativity for a long time, and she is just starting to cook on her own. –The Practical Cook
Recipes are often mistakenly thought of as blueprints. If the recipe tells you to add the onions to the pan and cook for five minutes then that’s what you should do. The reasoning is the same as if you have a blueprint of a wall, you put the wall where it is marked. But recipes are not blueprints, they are guidelines. And onions burn, really easily. Maybe your stovetop runs hotter than the author’s does and your onions begin to blacken and burn after three minutes. What do you do? The recipe doesn’t know. I would reduce the heat and move on to the next step of the recipe.
I’ve been frying eggs, microwaving oatmeal, and toasting bread since I was little. But in the past year I began to truly cook for the first time. Cooking is, to me, the act of preparing and transforming food into whatever you want. It’s an act of creation and of science. And as with most skills: it’s the split second decision that reveal knowledge. When onions burn, you reduce the heat. When sautéing vegetables you put fat, oil, or butter in the pan first and only once it’s hot. When you add way too many beans you add more of all the other ingredients.
Recipes are here to help. The recipe isn’t cooking the food. You are. The recipe or recipes are there just as your grandmother, father, mother, or other relative might be. They are telling you what worked for them and what might work for you. If everyone, all your friends, are high jumpers and they all flop over the high bar chances are you should too. The same applies to recipes. If you want to make granola bars and every recipe includes oats, chances are you need oats.
I made granola bars for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I spent about an hour scrolling through the search results for “homemade granola bars,” “peanut butter granola bars,” and “granola bar recipes.” I discovered something: most of the recipes were the same. They all had a binding ingredient: eggs, honey, peanut butter. They also all had oats and a sweetener: molasses, honey. Most had the option to add different nuts or fruits.
There was one clear difference: some granola bar recipes required baking, some didn’t. Among the ones that didn’t, every recipe spoke of keeping them in the fridge and the fact that they fell apart at room temperature. I was making granola bars for my family to take to school and work. I knew I wanted to use a recipe that required baking.
From there it was simply a matter of ingredients. I was not leaving my house to get unnecessary ingredients. I found a recipe that used five ingredients that I had. The bars I chose called for oats, eggs, maple syrup, chocolate chips, and peanut butter. (The recipe called for mini chocolate chips, but I had the regular sized ones. Would it change the recipe in some crucial way to have bigger chips? No. I made the bars.)
They weren’t perfect. They fell apart a bit. Most dishes aren’t perfect the first time. I made the bars again a week later and this time put the chips on top and let them cool for longer, and this time they didn’t break.
If you are struggling to tell whether an ingredient is crucial, check out other recipes. Is the ingredient in other recipes? No, probably not. Yes, find a substitute. If you don’t feel comfortable cooking one recipe based on your gut, keep looking. Anything used for garnishes can be eliminated. Most things have a perfectly fine substitute.
Remember, most cooking is not precise. Just as much as it is a science, it is an art. The real skill is learning to distinguish between the two. Not baking the granola bars will result in raw eggs, which could give you salmonella. That’s science, don’t mess with that. Using regular size chocolate chips versus mini is not going to change anything except the concentration of chocolate. That’s taste and art. You have license to do whatever you feel like. You can even omit them and add almonds instead. It won’t affect the rest of the recipe.
Cooking is a skill. It takes time. The recipes are there for you to support your journey and inform you of people’s past successes and failures. So if one recipe tells you that you cannot put eggs in your granola bars but every other recipe tells you it’s okay, treat it the same as that one friend who’s throwing a party at their house even though the government recommends that no groups over ten meet. Don’t listen. Do what you feel is right because you are the cook.
Coming up next, The Practical Cooks try their hand at Cuban food.