beignets

Online Recipes: How do you know they’ll work?

Like most cooks, I’ve smudged a greasy finger across my iPad screen more than a few times, and I’ve probably exposed my computer keyboard to more moisture and kitchen spooge than it was designed to handle. Cooking without the internet to help me with tasks like conversions and substitutions, and to dispense general advice, seems impossible now, but of course, this wasn’t always so.

Because I’m a solidly middle-aged person, I spent the first 12 years of my culinary career without internet access. Cookbooks—still a huge part of my cooking arsenal, as my sagging bookshelves will attest—were my only source for information beyond my fellow cooks and servers. Since I was lucky enough to be surrounded by foodies for years before the term “foodie” became mainstream, this more than sufficed. Someone nearly always had the answer to my question, and we shared our kitchen successes by passing recipes around, normally after photocopying them out of a book and scrawling notes all over them to explain our improvements. It was our system, and we liked it fine, thanks very much.

I failed to see the potential of the internet to revolutionize the way we communicate, far less the way we cook. A skeptic by nature, with a long-held disinterest in the plastic keyboards that so fascinated my brothers, I viewed early websites with a smug combination of condescension and dismissiveness. Who, after all, could possibly come away from an encounter with a Geocities website and not feel like the internet was destined to be inhabited by druid fans, conspiracy theorists and ham radio enthusiasts? *

But all of this easy access to recipes and kitchen knowledge comes with the risk of getting bad advice and of encountering a completely untested or poorly-written recipe. Even the best cooks out there can fall for a good-looking recipe that hides a stinker in its unfamiliarity, but for the most part, a few minutes of review will reveal a bad recipe’s shortcomings.

Here are some tips for giving online recipes a good once-over:

  • Of course the easiest way to avoid the problem is to stick to recipes from sources that test them well, or a source you know and trust. Websites associated with a cookbook or cooking magazine are good bets, as are bloggers who’ve written cookbooks, or who have a devoted and active following. 
  • Look for positive comments and ratings, naturally. I like to read the negative comments, too, as they often have suggested improvements or remark upon any potential problems with the recipe.
  • Read the recipe carefully, and use your existing knowledge to look for problems. Think about the finished product. Given the cooking method required, does the ratio of wet ingredients to dry ingredients seem accurate? Does the sequence of steps make sense? 
  • Mentally walk your way through the prep involved. Are there any obvious missing steps? Does the recipe assume logical cooking times?
  • Look for signs of experience in the recipe author. Most good cooks have come up with faster, more efficient ways of getting the results they like. If the recipe seems to belabor measuring, focus too much on details or seems as if it’s written by a cook who’s not familiar with kitchen skills or well-known shortcuts, be skeptical.
  • Evaluate the ingredients. Sure, some recipes really do require odd ingredients, complicated procedures or the creation of a sizeable amount of dirty dishes, but most skilled cooks have worked hard to minimize these things. If you feel like you’re reading a brain surgery manual just to come up with dinner, move on.
  • Be willing to use the Google. Look for reviews, search the title of the recipe and the name of the blog and see what people have written. Did they like it? How did it turn out?
  • Always keep safety in mind. I happen to know that there’s a recipe for garlic-infused olive oil making the rounds on Pinterest at the moment that’s several hundred cases of botulism just waiting to happen. Just because someone posted or pinned it doesn’t mean it’s safe.

I use recipes I’ve found on the internet all the time, and I nearly always get terrific results. But just yesterday, a beignet recipe Jamie and I got from a normally reliable source went sideways on us—I was able to salvage it, but only by using my existing knowledge of bread baking and yeast to significantly alter the ingredients and the procedure. Had I taken a good look at the ingredients and procedure first, I would have ended up choosing a different recipe. Life lesson #4,589, 341: Check your recipes well, even when they come from a reliable source.

What are your strategies for avoiding online recipe disasters?

* Lovely though these people may be, I don’t necessarily look to them for recipes or cooking advice; additionally, I’ll admit to a certain bias against horrible-looking websites, no matter how informative they might be.

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