Cooking: Art or Science?

{Part 1} Mastering the Recipe

Courtesy of Rising Lotus Photography:

How many times have you followed a recipe to a ‘T’ only for it to end in disaster? Was the recipe flawed or was there something else going on? This brings me to my next question.

Cooking – is it an art or science?
Well, both.

Most people understand the “art” side of cooking (hence the classification as ‘culinary arts’). But, we typically neglect the science aspect which is equally as important. You need to consider both when developing and following recipes. This isn’t to say you need to understand every detail but some basic concepts will help you improve your cooking skills dramatically.

First let’s consider the art side of cooking. Give 5 chefs the same exact recipe with identical ingredients from the same kitchen and you will still end up with 5 unique outcomes. Why?

Technique … Creativity … Experience

Individual differences in these traits invariably lead to unique recipes for each person. But with good technique, a bit of creativity, and sufficient experience, a solid recipe will still turn out well, despite who makes it. And yet, a great recipe sometimes doesn’t turn out even with the best of cooks. What could possibly explain this? Science. The most common factors influencing the success or failure of a recipe include:

  • Temperature – of ingredients, the stove, the oven …
  • Humidity – is it really dry or humid that day?
  • Acidity – did you substitute an ingredient that is more or less acidic than called for?
  • Cooking vessel – is it stainless steel? cast iron? aluminum? non-stick? ceramic? silicone?
  • Food properties – full fat or fat free? high or low water content? this brand or that brand? etc…

Many people recognize the differences in cooking with altitude (say, Florida versus Colorado). But, many ingredients are also sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. An oven that reads 350 but is actually 330 will produce different results than someone else’s oven that reads 350 but is actually 360. Similarly, foods like whipped egg whites and starches require different treatment with humidity changes.
Substituting applesauce or yogurt for oil can influence how baked goods turn out and not just because of the obvious differences in fat. There is essentially no acidity in oil but there is in both yogurt and applesauce. These can influence how well a baked good rises, especially if it contains baking soda.

Probably the most overlooked element is the cooking vessel. Different surfaces and materials will produce different results. I’ve made the same exact cookie recipe using silicone baking sheets and parchment paper – both non-stick surfaces – and still ended up with a slightly different texture.

And finally, what I feel is the most important and most misunderstood factor is differences in food properties of individual ingredients. Most people realize there is the possibility of a recipe not turning out when completely substituting an ingredient (for example, almond flour for wheat flour) in a recipe designed for the ingredients it called for. What they fail to realize is…

Even with the same ingredients, a recipe may flop.

Why? Because every food product is different. The peanut butter I use may be a little different than the one you use. If I use one brand of stevia and you use another, 1 teaspoon of mine may be the same sweetness as ½ teaspoon of yours because of differences in potency. The apples I choose may have the perfect balance of sweet and tart and work well in my recipe but if you pick an apple that is lacking the tartness, the flavor balance of the final product will be different.


Courtesy of Rising Lotus Photography:

Despite these issues, even a novice cook can obtain good results with a solid recipe. Just keep these things in mind the next time you make something and it didn’t turn out the way you wanted. Perhaps it was the recipe. Perhaps it was the cook’s artistry, the science of the food and cooking process, or both. With any recipe, you ultimately have to remember that everyone has different preferences and dietary needs. With that comes recipe substitutions, additions and subtractions. While there are many substitutions that work the majority of the time, there are some that require more experience and experimentation – especially true when using “healthy” alternatives in place of traditional ingredients (in which most recipes are originally based).

Next week I’ll give you a comprehensive list of items that can be substituted fairly easily, those that may be a substitute but require some recipe tweaking, and whether the application works in cooking or baking. Stay tuned!

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