How to Spot a Bad Recipe
As a home cook who makes nearly every meal for himself, I’ve seen a lot of recipes both online and in cookbooks. These recipes can range from transcendentally delicious to damn near inedible. If you’re a new cook, it can be hard to predict the distinction, especially if you’re trying to follow a recipe that has no user ratings. While there is no definitive way to tell good recipes from bad ones, there are some clear warning signs that your next meal may launch rancid warfare on your taste buds.
The problem with most bad recipes is that they sacrifice flavor for things like time or product placement. This usually means using processed products in place of home-prepared alternatives. It’s perfectly understandable for home cooks to want to save time, but cutting corners is rarely worth it. There are plenty of great recipes out there that are also fast. If you want a good lasagna, take the time to make it right on a night when you do have time.
1. No More Canned Soups or Sauces
Why does Mary Sue Huggins from Georgetown, Texas, want you to put a can of cream of mushroom soup in your green bean casserole? She’ll tell you it’s because that’s the way her mom and grandma did it, but the truth is that she doesn’t really know any better. Creamed soups add a creamy consistency to recipes and help thicken sauces, but they’re also filled with a bunch of ingredients you probably don’t want, not to mention the substandard taste. Instead of soup, a good recipe will tell you how to make a sauce from a roux, which is just a mixture of flour and fat. It may take a little more time, but the flavor will be much better.
When it comes to sauces, there are good options available on the shelves, but there are also many culinary atrocities. Good canned or jarred sauces, however, can be expensive because of their short shelf life. A recipe that calls for a canned sauce can almost always be replaced by something homemade, leading to results that will be far more palatable.
2. No More Pre-Cooked Proteins
Ever bitten into a canned or packaged piece of fish or chicken and thought, “Wow, this is tender and full of flavor?” No you haven’t, you liar. Pre-cooked proteins are dry, bland, and can make otherwise great dishes unappetizing. Sure, beef jerky is pretty good, but if you’ve seen a recipe that has beef jerky in it, you’ve ventured further down the spiral of culinary dystopia than I have. If a recipe tells you to buy your beef, chicken, or fish in a can or cooked package, look elsewhere. There’s no telling what other horrible ideas they have hidden in the cooking techniques.
3. Beware of the Microwave
Unless you’re reading this from a college dorm room, there’s little reason for you to ever use the microwave while cooking. Folk wisdom states that microwaves kill off the valuable nutrients in your food, but that’s not really the problem. The real problem with microwaves is that they don’t offer the same flavor benefits, such as the Maillard reaction, that are delivered by other cooking methods. If you insist on using a microwave to cook your meals, cook only for yourself so no one else has to suffer.
4. You Don’t Need to Use Acme Cheese
Placing products in recipes is one of the oldest marketing techniques for food companies. In fact, it’s probably how Mary Sue Huggin’s grandma learned how to make green bean casserole. While some of these recipes may yield decent results, there’s no reason to limit yourself to that name-brand product. Substituting real cheese for processed orange plastic is likely to improve the flavor of your dish in drastic ways. I won’t go as far as to recommend you make your own cheese because there are plenty of good products on the shelf. Just stay away from the pre-shredded bags, which contain anti-caking chemicals that can ruin the taste, texture, and meltability of otherwise good cheese.
5. Low-Fat Ingredients
There are legitimate reasons to reduce the amount of fat in your diet. A lack of a gall bladder and other digestive issues can make metabolizing large amounts of lipids unpleasant for many, but for most of us, using low-fat products results in reduced flavor and texture in pursuit of perceived health benefits that have been debunked since the 1990s or earlier. While you don’t see Snackwells cookies anymore, the grocery store is still full of low-fat mayo, low-fat yogurt, and other products that replace fat with sugar, salt, and other chemicals that aren’t necessarily better for you. Unless you have relevant health issues, I recommend staying away from recipes with these low-fat ingredients and going with one’s that use as many whole, natural ingredients as possible.