A Recipe for Failure

First Image
An alternate title for this blog entry/rant could be: “When Bad Things Happen to Good Recipes.” I’m going to talk about the all too frequent mistakes found in cookbooks and group them by types. Now before I get on a roll here let me get something straight. I may be critical of some mistakes I’ve found in recipes and call them out in this blog, but I am in no way trying to claim I am somehow superior to the folks who write the genuinely great recipes I’ve used to grill and smoke the food on this site. I have the utmost respect for these fine folks. On my best day they could run rings around me without their breaking a sweat. But they are human, as are their editors, proof-readers and all the other folks it takes to write and publish a cookbook. As well all know humans make misteaks (bad spelling intended).

When you are first starting out you are at the mercy of the recipes you choose. If you stick with it, hopefully you will learn enough to recognize some of these errors before they affect you. But as a newcomer, you are basically well screwed. One of the things I try to do is follow a recipe as written the first time out. I like to see what the author was going for in terms of flavor before I start messing around making changes. I still do that, but I sometimes am making exceptions to that rule when a recipe just doesn’t seem to make sense.

Bad Cooking Time:
The trigger for this rant which has been brewing inside me for a long time was the BIG BOB GIBSON’S BAR-B-QUE CHICKEN. This smoked chicken with white sauce is the signature recipe of this restaurant and I would assume should be the signature dish of the BIG BOB GIBSON’S BBQ COOKBOOK. The recipe cooks the chicken at 325 degrees (160C) and states it will take around 3 hours. That sounded long based on other chickens I’ve cooked at that temperature, so I took to the internet. Many similar spatchcocked whole chicken recipes listed a cooking time of around 2 hours. Strangely enough there were versions of this recipe attributed to the Big Bob Gibson Cookbook that said 3 to 4, yes 4 hours. The solution for me was to look in my photo library for some Beer Can Chickens that were a similar weight and also cooked at 325 and I found they took just under 2 hours. I based my cook time on 2 hours and it was right on. I have no idea how this could happen. You would think someone would have tested out these recipes or someone would have written in reporting an error.

Now if you are a newbie you aren’t going to have a history where you can tell when a time is off. But if you find a recipe for a similar sized piece of meat, cooked using the same cooking method & temperature and the two recipes are drastically different (2 hours vs 3 or 4 hours), you need to look for a tie breaker. Look up more recipes or go by your own personal experience.

Pseudo Science or Quasi Science:
I am going to single out the same cookbook twice for this section. Adam Perry Lang’s SERIOUS BARBECUE, which is an amazing cookbook is guilty on both counts. Several of the recipes use a technique where he has you put the ingredients in a foil pan which then gets sealed and covered with aluminum foil. So far no problem with this, the food gets steamed or braised. Where he runs off the road in my book is when the recipe says to place the covered foil pan on a smoker set to XXX degrees which is using Hickory chunks. I’m sorry but if the aluminum foil serves to hold in the steam, it is also gong to hold out the smoke. While I may use my gas grill or my oven to heat these items in a covered foil pan, I certainly don’t waste any charcoal or wood chunks to do it on my smoker.

So if you see something that doesn’t seem to make any practical sense, it may just be it really doesn’t make any practical sense. I posted a question about this to Adam Perry Lang’s website. I got a canned email response thanking me for my question and saying Adam would be back to me shortly. I wasn’t holding my breath and it is 18 months and counting.

What I am calling Quasi Science you may just call showing off. The example I will use from SERIOUS BARBECUE involves brushing on a sauce out at the grill using a bundle of herbs tied together. To me this screams: “Look at me I am a CHEF!” This is one of those area where I could see it might have an effect on the food, but then again only 1 person out of 100 may actually taste the difference. So for me unless I have some extra fresh herbs lying around anyway, I just use my silicone brush.

This is one of those areas where you could solve it by preparing the food both ways and see if you notice any difference. You also need to decide if the difference you do taste is worth the extra expense.

Unsafe Food Handling Practices
This one is kind of scary. After you have learned a little about cooking you will find some recipes will use a marinade on the food and then later repurpose that marinade to use as a mop sauce on the grill or as a BBQ sauce to serve with the meat. Any liquid which has been in contact with raw meat needs to be boiled for several minutes before it is reused. I saw a recipe in a well known cookbook that called for you to set the marinade aside after you removed the meat. The next time it was mentioned it was being brushed on the meat on the grill. Somehow any mention of boiling it to make it safe to use was left out of the recipe. It might have been overlooked or somehow lost in the data entry or or editing process.

So how do you deal with something like this? By taking some time and learning safe food handling practices and practicing them at all times regardless of what the recipe says or, in this case, doesn’t say.

Bad Use of Copy / Paste
Not to call out SERIOUS BARBECUE again, but quite a few recipes use the same identically worded directions in multiple recipes. In several cases the directions appear to make no sense for the recipe they appear in.

So what do you do when you see direction steps that belong in a different recipe and not this one? For me I spoke with some other people who owned the same cookbook. You can see if they made this recipe and ask how did they deal with that particular step?

Not Enough Information to Solve the Puzzle
There is one very famous classic smoking cookbook I own, Smoke & Spice, which has some great comfort food type smoking recipes, but they always seem to leave out some essential information. Example 1 of this is their recipe for SMOKED HOT DOGS. The recipe fails to mention you must use skinless hotdogs. Otherwise you are left with hotdogs that look like they were boiled in dirty water. Example 2 of this was a recipe for a smoked pot roast. One of the steps called for you to wrap the roast in foil midway through the cooking time. Only a couple major problems here. They didn’t tell you their estimate for the total cooking time, Plus they didn’t tell you the done temperature you were shooting for.

So what do you do when you don’t have all of the necessary information? One solution is to search the internet or your cookbooks for similar recipes which may be able to supply the missing information. For the pot roast I was able to find the maximum temperature to take beef for slicing (which is what I needed) vs. pulling. Another suggestion I would have is if you find a cookbook that does this once, chances are it may happen again. Read the recipe well before you plan to make it and make sure all of the information is there and makes sense.

Wrong Units
I’ve run into this in various cookbooks, more often than I’d care to. I suppose it is easy enough to do: you leave the “b” out out tbsp and you have tsp. Sometimes it is easy enough to catch, for example a recipe that calls for “1/8 tbsp. of cayenne pepper”. Two things wrong here. First if you’ve been cooking awhile you will find the smallest unit a tablespoon is broken down into is 1/2 tbsp., so 1/8 makes no sense for this unit. Secondly if you convert tbsp. to tsp. that works out to 1/3 tsp. and tsp. run 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 etc., there are no 1/3 tsp. measuring spoons. Where it is cayenne pepper you may also be able to infer they meant 1/8 tsp. to begin with. With something like cayenne pepper a measurement like 2 tbsp. is suspicious too. They most likely meant 2 tsp. Sometimes the written description will include the units. So if the ingredients list said 2 tbsp. of cayenne pepper and the description said: “..then add the 2 tsp. of cayenne pepper...”, I’d go with the 2 tsp. So how do you deal with messed up units? Well hopefully they will jump out at you as mentioned above. Another way to catch it is if you have been looking at similar recipes you might notice a discrepancy and in this case you might be able to find a few more recipes to double check. After you have been cooking a while, you may just instinctively know something is wrong.

Internet Recipes: Do I Consider the Advice in the Comments?
Internet recipes have comments from folks who have actually made the recipe. This is a tricky one because you need to separate the signal from the noise. you have to decide which comments are valid and which ones are silly. If a bunch of people say the recipe makes twice as much as you need, I tend to take those seriously. I tend to completely ignore comments where people change ingredients or quantities of the ingredients and then say the recipe sucks. There recipe sucks, but they certainly didn’t make the recipe on the website. I like to make the recipe as the recipe author intended. I can see what taste they were shooting for first. Then if I don’t like it, I can start making changes. But how do you know if you like a recipe if you didn’t make it. You will eventually develop your own set of filters for what you think are valid comments (signal) and what comments are silly or irrelevant (noise);

Something is Missing - Version 1:
Steven Raichlen has great recipes and you don’t usually go wrong making one of his recipes. But no one is perfect. He has a recipe for Veal burgers in BBQ USA which are quite good actually, assuming you can get it off the grill. I actually saw him make this recipe on BBQ USA and he was using a new grill and when he went to flip the burgers quite a bit of the first side of the burger stuck to the grill grate. Now he mentioned something about it being a new grill and not having oiled the grill grates enough. So with that in mind I resolved to make sure my grates were more than well oiled when I made the recipe. When my turn to do it came, I found there was more to it than that. When I made these burgers I found they had a consistency just beyond a thick stew. When I put them on the grill I was honestly worried that the patties would seep through the gaps in the grill grates. The mixture was so soupy it did partially cling to the sides of the grill grates and I had a heck of a time flipping them. Like Raichlen I left quite a bit of burger on the grill after that first flip. Fortunately the burgers had firmed up at this point and getting them off the grill when they were done was less of an adventure.

What was the solution here? I consulted with the helpful folks at the BBQ BIBLE message boards. The solution appeared to be adding breadcrumbs to help firm up the mix. My second attempt with breadcrumbs worked like a charm. I also made sure the grill grate was doubly well oiled. So if you have followed the recipe to the letter and it didn’t work, there may be something missing in the original recipe. These days many of the websites like Food Network that have lots of recipes, also allow users to post comments. Before I make a recipe from one of these sites, I read the comments too. If enough people are having the same problem chances are you will too. Often there will be suggested solutions you can evaluate.

Something is Wrong:
This recipe for a Middle Eastern Ground Beef and Lamb on a stick from Stepehen Raichlen’s Barbecue Bible marks the time I finally realized that cookbooks aren’t always perfect. I had a friend that made this type of food all off the time. I was warned in advance that these ground meat on a stick type kebabs could be a royal pain. you need to refrigerate them to help firm up the meat and help it cling to the skewer while it cooked. I was also warned that the step where they have you lightly brown the meat was probably not a smart idea. The browning process would dry out the meat and make it less likely to hold together when you tried to form it on the skewers. I was still in my wide-eyed innocent phase where if the recipe was on the printed page, it had to be right. Not always as I found out. Turned out my friend was 100 percent right and these kebabs were not going to stick to the skewer despite so additives I tossed in to try to give the mix more “sticktion”. At this point the only thing to do was oil the grate very well, lose the skewers and grill the meat like a giant sausage.

Bottom Line: this is when I realized sometimes recipes have problems. In the future if I have a friend who makes some item all the time and they tell me the recipe isn’t right, I will now be far more inclined to listen. I may still seek out a third opinion, but I no longer think cookbooks are infallible.

Something is Missing - Version 2:
This last one is from Planet BBQ also by Stepen Raichlen. Like the last example it is a Middle Eastern recipe for ground meat on a stick called BEEF & LAMB KOFTAS. Now before I go on, let me assure you I am not knocking Stephen Raichlen or his books. He is the man that got me to where I am today. I’ve made over 100 of his recipes and I’ve only had problems with these three. His recipes are almost always straightforward, relatively easy to make and taste excellent. I guess the point I am making here is no one is perfect. The long and the short of this story is when it came time to make these kebabs I was on alert. Even though I made these beef & lamb recipes as per the recipe, I just had a feeling they weren’t going to hold up on the grill. You see they get grilled up off the grill grate. You put foil wrapped bricks on the grill and set the ends of the skewers on them to help hold the meat up in the air off the grill. While these seemed firmer than the Lula Kebabs I had a grill grid at the ready when I put these skewers of ground beef on the grill. Sure enough part way through the cook the koftas began showing signs of sagging and tearing loose from the skewers. I removed the koftas and skewers from the bricks by using a spatula to pick them up. I was afraid trying to lift them by picking up the skewers would finish tearing the meat loose from the skewer. I placed them on the grill grid and placed the grill grid back on the bricks. This saved the day, but it was only previous experience with the Lula Kebabs and my then new found attitude that cookbooks aren’t infallible.

This is an example where there isn’t a whole lot you can do the first time you make this recipe. But a little experience with similar items and my new found attitude that even the best cookbooks aren’t perfect allowed me to have a Plan B at the ready so when the koftas started tearing loose from the skewers. After this cook I posted a question on the BBQ Bible message board and got several helpful answers from folks who had made this recipe before (and had experienced the same issue.)

Conclusions:
Here are the main points I was trying to make.
  • It is an imperfect world and recipes may have problems in them because they are written, edited & proofed by humans. They are also cooked by humans too. But if you have followed the directions and had less than great results there could be a problem with the recipe.
  • Nothing beats experience. The more you cook and the more things you cook, the easier it is to recognize when something may be off with a recipe.
  • One might assume if a recipe shows up in a cookbook, that someone involved with creating or publishing the book has actually made the recipe one or more times to test and perfect it. Well welcome to the real world.
  • Learn good food safety practices and let them trump anything you may see in a recipe.
  • The internet is a wonderful tool for checking recipes. If your recipe came from a printed cookbook check on line to see if there are similar recipes that might help you decide if your recipe is correct.
  • Often printed recipes make there way onto the internet in authorized and unauthorized versions. Beware of those, because they may have been reproduced with the same potential errors you are questioning. Try to find someone else's version of the same recipe to check ingredients, quantities and times.
  • If your recipe originated on the internet, there will often be a section with user comments. Be sure to read those to see if there are any potential minefields to avoid.
  • You need to learn how to interpret the comments for internet hosted recipes with user comments. You must learn to separate the signal from the noise.
  • If you have problems the first time out with a recipe seek out folks you know who might have made the same recipe or a very similar one. Also visit message boards related to the type of recipe it i and seek out answers from board members.
  • Keep good visual and written records of things you make. Take pictures, keep a cooking log. They can often help you when you are making something similar from a different recipe.

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