As a recipe developer, I field a lot of feedback from friends and readers about the issues they encounter while following recipes at home. One accusation I hear time and time again is that the cook times we put in recipes aren’t accurate. The complaint goes something like this: “This step said it would take 5-8 minutes for the onions to brown, but at 8 minutes they were still translucent.” See, the thing is that there’s one area of recipe writing where we can’t be as precise as we’d like, and that’s when it comes to calculating cook times. (I’ll explain why in a minute.) Now, please read carefully, because this is perhaps the most useful and best advice that I, a person who writes recipes for a living, could give to you, a person who uses recipes: When you’re following a recipe at home, cook to the indicator, not to the time.
But what does that mean? At Bon Appétit we write recipes in a specific language and format. For each step of the cooking process, we try to provide as much information as possible, giving a time range as well as one or more indicators of doneness. Indicators of doneness include sensory phrases like “cook until skin is golden brown and crispy,” or “until spices are aromatic and sticking to the bottom of the pot.” The problem with giving a time range for every step is that so many variables affect how long any single process takes, and those variables change from kitchen to kitchen. My oven at home is way slower than the oven I use in the BA test kitchen, even at the same internal temperature (due to differences in air circulation). A fridge-temp chicken will take longer to roast than a room-temp chicken. What’s medium heat on an electric range is way different than medium on a gas range. You get the idea.
While we test our recipes multiple times and make every reasonable effort to ensure your success, we don’t have the ability to control every variable. This is all a way of saying that, by and large, the time ranges in our recipes are suggestive rather than rigid, which is why the indicator is way more important. Cooking to the indicator effectively means that if, after the quoted time frame you haven’t achieved the doneness indicator, then just keep cooking it longer.
I get it. If you’re not super practiced in the kitchen, cooking can be an anxious process. But like many things worth doing, it requires patience and practice. Learning to pay attention to the cooking process, rather than blindly following the stated cook times, is how you become a better cook and hone your culinary instincts. The whole point of Basically recipes is to build enough confidence that eventually you won’t even need a recipe to cook something delicious and satisfying. And that begins when you start trusting your senses more than you trust my recipes.