How to (Sort of) Know if a Recipe Will Work
There are an overwhelming number of recipes available to the home cook these days, so we reached out to a pro—one of Julia Child’s former editors—to learn how to suss out a recipe at first blush.
Tina Ujlaki—who edited luminaries like Marcella Hazan, Julia Child, Lidia Bastianich, and Jacques Pépin over her three decades as executive food editor at Food & Wine until 2016—has a reputation as a recipe savant. No crucial garnish, headnote, or make-ahead tip escaped her attention as she line-edited recipes for 30-plus years. Here are Ujlaki’s tips for locating better, more reliable recipes online, in cookbooks, and magazines—and knowing when to walk away from a recipe that looks less than foolproof.
Do you use cookbooks or online recipes?
“It’s a little bit ridiculous, but I probably have a thousand cookbooks, maybe two thousand cookbooks,” says Ujlaki. “If I’m looking for anything specific in a cookbook I never find it ever, so I look at the web a lot when looking for specific recipes for guidelines, and ideas. And for baking I will use them exactly.”
Which publications and writers do you trust?
“I try to go to people who I believe in or have confidence in,” says Ujlaki. She tends to be partial to publications whose test kitchen employees’ “only job is to make the recipes work, not do anything else.” Name-checking Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Cooking Light, Fine Cooking, and The New York Times, she seeks out recipes that “are edited by a slew of editors and are a safety net … Those recipes should be pretty foolproof.”
Are readers’ recipe comments helpful?
Ujlaki notes that for a recipe she hasn’t tried, say in The New York Times, she’d look at the comments to see what the top 20 notes say. “You can easily glean, ‘Is this a recipe I want to make?’ or not,” she says. With such a range of cooks and a range of experience levels, if you discern “any synchronicity to what they’re saying, you can know, OK, this is a good recipe but you should cut the lemon juice.”
Notice when a recipe writer says they have tested a recipe multiple times.
Marcella Hazan, says Ujlaki, used to test her recipes eight times before putting them in her books (a surprise to no one who has made her tomato butter sauce or eggplant pasta). “I don’t know anybody who makes something eight times before she put it in a book” nowadays, says Ujlaki, who adds, “There are very reliable cookbook authors. I’m not saying ‘Don’t trust a blogger.’ But I can’t speak to them.”
Beware a sensationalistic recipe title.
“If [a headline] says, ‘This is the best and the easiest way to do it!’ sometimes that’s a little sensationalistic,” says Ujlaki. “We get a little overzealous with our superlatives sometimes. It diminishes the recipes for which we want to say ‘This really is the best.’”
The web can sometimes have more information on a recipe than print does.
The onetime print editor would remind home cooks to look online, of all places, for additional data about recipes. “On the web, you’re not confined by space as you are in print; in print you often have to be as concise as you possibly can be,” notes Ujlaki, who says that with a printed publication, “Given the choice, art wins, and copy does not. A million times we’ve had to cut information and … the reader never knows what’s on the cutting room floor.” Though good print editors will keep the crucial tidbits, sometimes that extra headnote about advance prep will make it into the online version of a recipe, but not the print one.
Look for multiple red flags.
“If you see a recipe where the headnote doesn’t make any sense or ingredients are out of order or written poorly, it’s possible it was tested poorly, too,” considers Ujlaki. “Anybody can eliminate an ingredient by accident, but if you see more than one red flag, move on to another recipe.”
Think about visual, taste and touch tests.
Any recipe can read, “Caramelize onions for ten to 20 minutes,” but a good recipe will also tell you what those onions should look like (golden and translucent), taste like (slightly sweet) or feel like (very soft). “Accept that cooking is a sensory-oriented experience on every level,” says Ujlaki. “The test is way more important than the time.”
Watch: How to Caramelize Onions
Watch out for recipes where numbers don’t match.
If Ujlaki sees a recipe that claims to make eight panna cotta servings, but only calls for six ramekins, she gets suspicious. “Maybe move on to another recipe.”
Read the whole recipe through.
Though she laughs that of course one should read a whole recipe start to finish, “I don’t know anybody who does.” Do, though, skim to make sure there’s nothing sneaky such as “3 cups of milk, divided” in an ingredients list—a surefire way to add too much milk at once—or an unusual piece of equipment called for that you don’t own.
Look at the measurements.
Does a recipe call for “one shallot?” Caveat emptor: “Shallots all used to be the same size, always. Now you can get shallots the size of a small apple; that’s still one shallot,” says Ujlaki. “Some tablespoon measure or cup measure would be very helpful.” Look for precision. If ingredient amounts are vague, consider what else might have been approximated.
More detail wins.
Maybe you’re staring down the barrel of extra-long recipe instructions, but as Ujlaki says, “More detail is always better. Always.” The goal, she points out, is “to learn something every time I cook. I want [a recipe] to teach me something, and it usually does.”
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.