I get a lot of compliments on my recipes. I’ve also gotten constructive criticism. And some not so constructive, but that’s another story. I love the compliments for one reason: I’ve never just copied someone else’s recipe. I’ve always done research and made adjustments. I’ve always tested recipes multiple times.
Along the way (the way has been three years so far), I’ve learned a few things about how to develop a recipe. Or to improve one. The same principles apply to both.
So, if you’re looking to develop or improve a recipe, the following step-by-step is for you!
Find Your Inspiration
Inspiration can come from anywhere. Something you loved as a child. A restaurant or bakery (I just had some amazing Alfredo sauce at a restaurant in Ashboro, NC…I’m looking forward to trying to duplicate it.). Something you see in a magazine. Pinterest.
Inspiration for cooking isn’t hard to come by, so I won’t belabor the point.
Unless you’re a professional chef or develop recipes for a living- rare is the completely new, never seen before recipe. That’s okay. There are millions of fabulous ideas out there that you can develop or improve for your own kitchen and your own family.
Research the Fundamentals
***This post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase using this link. Full disclosure statement.***
This is the step that most home cooks skip. It sounds boring. And sometimes it can be. But the information learned is vital to making the perfect recipe. For example, while researching cookies, I found out how butter and shortening act differently in recipes. I used this knowledge to make the final adjustment on my “Perfect Traditional Homemade White Bread” and it’s now perfect.
There are a couple of ways to do this. One is to find good cook books that include the information. Of course, the problem is that there are thousands of cookbooks out there. And most aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. Sorry…but it’s true. I have a couple of suggestions:
• If you’re looking to make perfect cookies, or just learn the basics of how ingredients function in cookies (and other baked goods), read “400 Sensational Cookies”
• For knowledge on how ratios are fundamental behind cooking, read “Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking“. I was scared to death to try homemade noodles! Seriously…it seemed so complicated. Then I read this book and found the nerve. It made it sound so easy. And it was. Check out “Homemade Noodles” to see how easy.
• If you’re looking to jump into the world of bread, I suggest starting with “The Bread Bible: Beth Hensperger’s 300 Favorite Recipes“.
For other topics, such as whether to sear meat before putting it in stew, spice combinations, etc., the internet has a wealth of information. Look for a reputable site or a writer who sounds like they know what they’re talking about. Check more than one site. I probably went through five different sites before I started cobbling together my “perfect stir-fry” post [not published yet].
Explore Existing Recipes
Even if you’re improving a recipe you already have, this is a useful step. Existing recipes might have a new ratio you haven’t seen before (for example, I increased the amount of butter in my puppy chow recipes, and they taste better), a spice combination you find interesting, or a whole new way of doing something.
Best places to find various versions of a recipe you like:
• Google search. Note that most of your results will be from what I call “recipe mill” sites, such as AllRecipes, Betty Crocker, or promoted by a particular brand (such as Campbells, Pillsbury, or Kraft). Feel free to glance over them for a basic, but don’t expect anything fantastic.
• Pinterest. This is my favorite. It’s best to stick with pins that have decent photos- if someone has gone to the trouble of learning basic food photography, they’re probably pretty passionate about cooking.
• Yummly. Large collection of recipes and you can see how many people have “yummed” them.
• Favorite sites or blogs. Bon Appetit, Sally’s Baking Addiction, and The Pioneer Woman are some of my favorites.
Make sure to toss any recipes that are practically identical. You may want to adjust the salt later, but you don’t need three recipes that are identical except for the amount of salt.
Write Down Your First Version & Make It
Okay, you know the basics of what you’re cooking/baking.
You’ve gotten a variety of recipes that you found useful in front of you…and winnowed out those that are practically identical.
Next, you need to write down your first version. Some cooks just jump into cooking and toss things together. Maybe it works for them, but I like a written version to start with. It’s easier to make adjustments in the future if you have the basics written down. Plus, if it turns out fabulous the first time, you don’t want to struggle later trying to remember exactly what you did!
Make sure your ingredients are clear.
Feel free to write notes about possible future adjustments. In fact, I often have three different recipes to start with. I try all three, making notes along the way. And then come up with a final version to start editing.
Note that ingredients are usually in the order they are used in the recipe.
Make sure your directions are clear. A lot of recipes are a bit confusing.
The directions are where you’re going to make sure you’ve incorporated anything you’ve learned from the basics section (aka- do you sear the meat? Do you whip the butter and sugar first and then add the other ingredients?)
Include “visual references” if needed- oven times vary. Describe that the cookies will be slightly brown around the edges, but still look undone in the middle when you pull them out. Include that the onions will be slightly translucent after sautéing.
Finally, actually cook or bake your first version.
Make Substitutions One by One
That picture? That is the adjustments made to one recipe. Yes, one single recipe.
Unless your first version turned out perfect, here is where you’re going to start making adjustments. The general rule is to make adjustments one by one. You don’t want to change the type of flour, amount of sugar, and substitute cream for milk…and then have no idea why the second version turned out horrible.
One exception I make to this is spices. I often play around with different amounts of various spices simply because I want to ratio up the flavor all together.
The most important part of substitutions: KEEP NOTES! Sorry for shouting that, but it’s important. Sometimes my recipes go through lots of adjustments. And since I don’t want to make five various versions of enchiladas in the same week, it’s often a couple of weeks between versions.
Optional is a rating system. In developing my Butterscotch Blondie Cheesecake, my husband and I rated the crust, cheesecake, and butterscotch on a 1-10 scale for every version. Since I developed this recipe over an entire summer having the components rated made it easier to look back and see what we loved and what we didn’t.
Get Honest Feedback
This is important. You need honest feedback. While we all have different tastes (and someone who hates garlic isn’t going to be enamored of a dish soaked in it), generally multiple people should like a recipe. If you’re cooking for just your family, it’s their opinion that counts!
How do I get feedback?
• I’ve used potlucks. In fact, I’ve made three different versions of cornbread, brought them all to a chili potluck, and asked people to vote on their favorite. I thought it would be weird…but it actually added a bit of fun.
• If you’re brave…try Reddit. Note that their feedback will often be HARSH. But my “Old-fashioned, Cast Iron Skillet Cornbread” is the best I’ve ever tasted (after I included some of the criticism from the original version I posted). I’ve had others confirm how fabulous it is! In fact, I have yet to find a restaurant that matches it.
• Ask friends and family. Few people will complain if you drop off something at their house. Just make sure they’ll provide honest feedback. Too often people think criticism is rude. While it often is, without criticism, a recipe isn’t going to get better.
If you’re going to be sharing your final recipe with other people, it’s helpful to have someone look over the recipe. Ask them to read it and see if the “flow” makes sense. If they think they could re-make it from the directions.
Accept Mistakes & Celebrate Success
In your quest for perfect recipes, you have to do two things.
The first is to accept failures. I’ve had recipes turn out so horribly that we literally tossed them down the garbage disposal. (Hint: do NOT try to cook pasta in a slow-cooker. Or use velveeta cheese in a slow-cooker recipe…unless it’s for dip, of course).
I’ve had bread so bad even the ducks in the duck pond wouldn’t eat it. Seriously. I didn’t realize that was possible.
The second is to celebrate success. Sometimes in the hustle and bustle of cooking, and typing, and taking photos, I forget to slow down and enjoy the meal. Celebrate great recipes. Share them with family. Take a moment to pat yourself of the back.