You’ve been waiting for days, maybe even weeks. Every day you go and check: nothing. But not today! It’s finally here! You can hardly stand the excitement as you rush back to the house from the mailbox and tear into it….your new cookbook! Ah, how often I’ve danced this waltz of purchase, anticipation, and reward.
Now the cookbook is here, and you can’t wait to dive in. You try one recipe, and it’s a home run, but when you make it again, it strikes out. Somehow the magic dried up between cooks. The cookbook has failed you.
There is a problem inherent in cookbooks, and it is not really their fault. Many cookbooks assume you don’t know anything about thermometry, because many authors probably don’t know much about thermometry.
Though more and more authors are using quality thermometers like the Thermapen® Mk4, they might assume that you, the humble, home consumer, don’t have a professional-level tool like that at your disposal. But you do! You can take control of your cooking with the thermal knowledge obtained from your ThermoWorks thermometer.
When a book—or the instruction card in your Blue Apron/HelloFresh meal kit—gives a recipe for a roast and says something like “cook 15 minutes per pound,” the well-intentioned author is making a wide array of wild assumptions about your oven, your refrigerator, your roast, and your preferences. Time-based instructions for many cooking procedures are useful only as the most skeletal of frameworks upon which to build your dinner. For real instructions you need real measurements. You need actual temperatures.
Recording data to the rescue!
Science has the answer to this problem. And I’m not just talking about an explanation for the way muscle fibers react to heat. Science has a lot to teach us about the way we cook.
For instance, lab books. Every scientist performing an experiment has some form of lab book/notebook/data drive where they record their observations and work out their conclusions. And what is cooking a new recipe but an experiment of heat, chemistry, and taste in your own kitchen? We can certainly take a page from the scientists here.
Keeping a record of your data and observations in the kitchen can lead you to the Holy Grail of scientific experimentation: reproducibility. All scientists want to be able to create an experiment that can be recreated later or by other scientists, and cooks want to get a recipe to turn out right and then be able to reproduce that result later. So what can you do to get that kind of reproducibility?
Annotate the books
To ensure reproducible, quality results, add temperatures to your cookbooks. That’s right, grab a pen and just write them onto the recipe page. (You can start with our Chef Recommended Temperatures and a Thermapen Mk4 to get your recipe headed in the right direction.) Monitor the temperature of your food throughout the cooking process, and record in the cookbook the final temperature you stop your cooking. After you eat your meal, make an assessment of how successful you were. What might you try differently next time? Write suggestions to yourself right on the recipe page, like “2° less next time” if you found it to be more done than you like, or “try searing first next time.” Over time, you will perfect recipes to your exact standards, and you’ll have the data to keep making it perfect.
If you use a ChefAlarm® or a Smoke® two-channel leave-in probe thermometer, you can also track the carryover cooking in your roasts by noting the highest temperature recorded in the “Max” temp field. The highest temperature achieved should be noted in the recipe as well as the pull temp. Write them both down next to the recipe
But, my books!
Don’t be afraid of marking up your precious books! Cookbooks are, according to one scholar at Michigan State University, among the most heavily annotated of modern books! My own books at home are scratched up with annotations on amounts of ginger and chilies to add, ideas for alternate applications, and notes on method. Anything that makes the recipe better for you, even beyond temperature, should be written down.
(As an aside, if you are really interested in exact and reproducible results, you should probably also change all of your volume measurements for dry ingredients to weight. Buy a good scale for cooking and never look back. It’s the best thing you can do for your cooking after getting a good thermometer.)
Not only can you improve the reproducibility of your cookbook results, you can also tackle that file box of family recipe cards. Those old family recipes bring back such nostalgia, but so often it’s the case that you try and fail to get it just right. Or you do get it right, but just one time, and then never again.
By annotating the recipe cards and tracking the temperatures, you can move toward perfection in incremental steps. Was the roast a little dry this time? Lower the pull temp a few degrees next time. Were the caramels too soft? Write it down and raise the boil temp by a degree next time. Then when you get to perfection, make sure the temp is written down for future generations. Your grandchildren will never have to say “these are good, but not as good as when Grandpa would make them.”
ThermoWorks thermometers are the perfect tools for getting things right in the kitchen, and if you treat them like the scientifically designed instruments that they are—taking data and recording it—you can turn your cookbooks into laboratory notebooks. Cooking with a thermometer gives you great results; recording how you do it gives you reproducible results. So get out those pens, both ink- and Therma-, and get to annotating!