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Ask The Chef

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In a participation cooking class recently, a student asked, “Is a tablespoon a large spoon or a small spoon?” The chef answered, “a large spoon.” The student then used a large serving spoon (about the size of 4 tablespoons) to measure the ingredients. Oops; we had to start over.

At a cooking tutorial recently, the student said, “I don’t like to read recipes because I don’t know the difference between a tibs and a tisp.” I wasn’t sure what he meant so I asked, “are you trying to be funny?” No, no, he said, “I don’t understand the abbreviations in recipes.”

I used to start cake and cookie recipes with the direction “cream together the butter and sugar” but stopped because students asked me “how much cream do I add?” In baking terminology, “to cream” is to beat together the ingredients so well that they are smooth and airy and creamy in texture. “To mix” or “to stir” doesn’t convey the same result, but for the sake of clarity I’ve rewritten my recipes.

A customer said she tried to double a recipe, but her oven did not go to 700 degrees. (Ok, I made that one up.)

Writing a clear recipe is harder than it seems, because the writer never anticipates all of the questions. Most recipes assume a general knowledge of how to cook. Recipes that make no assumptions are very long. Novice cooks tend to choose short recipes because they assume that they are easier, but short recipes are usually short on clear instructions. Julia Child’s lengthy recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking are fully accessible to the novice cook because she tells you exactly how the food will look at every step of the recipe. People love cookbooks with pictures, but the glamor shots are always of the finished dish. What’s really interesting is how the food looks in progress, which answers the question of “is it supposed to look like that?” Everyone is always surprised that pie dough is rough and not neat and pretty when rolled out; I answer that how the perfect pie looks is only important after it is baked.

Recipes are a guideline; they are not inviolable rules. Taste, taste, and taste at every step to make sure that the dish is what you want. Students are often frustrated by the direction “salt and pepper to taste, ” but sometimes the dish will need more salt, sometimes less salt. Not all tomatoes have the same level of sweetness, so a cook should be flexible enough to adapt a recipe to suit the ingredients at hand.

A tisp or tsp is a teaspoon. Three teaspoons equal a tablespoon (tibs or tbs or tbsp). Sixteen tablespoons equal a cup, which is eight ounces (so two tablespoons equal one ounce).

Want a foolproof recipe? I’ve been making these brownies since I was ten and they are perfect every time. I always use a large saucepan to melt the butter and then mix all the ingredients together in the same saucepan, so I only dirty one dish!

Butterscotch Brownies

1 cup unsalted butter

2 eggs

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 pound (or 2 cups well-packed) brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 3/4 cups flour

Melt the butter on low heat, then remove. Stir (I like to use the Danish dough whisk) in the brown sugar, making sure there are no lumps. Stir in the eggs, vanilla, and then the flour. Spread the batter in a parchment-lined 9×13-inch baking pan (I like the one with the removable bottom). Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, do not overcook (the brownies are best when still gooey in the middle).

6 Comments for “How to Read a Recipe: Butterscotch Brownie Recipe”  

  1. Tina

    Your article reminded me of one written by a food editor and published in the Post-Dispatch years ago. She recalled some of the “complaints” from writers. The two I won’t forget are: “I’ve looked everywhere and no one sells a preheated oven.” and “My family ‘HATED’ your cake recipe and think you are a fraud; you said to use whole eggs and no one does that” Egg shells are unedible.

  2. Roger

    Thanks to the previous message, I’ll leave out the egg shells, but where do I find the low heat? All my burners are at the same level on top of the stove.

  3. Roger

    I really don’t understand “parchment-lined”. Am I supposed to put sheepskin on the pan? Why? Is this some sort of euphemism for greasing the pan?

  4. Anne

    Roger: Using nonstick liners for baking pans makes it easier to remove the food after cooking. Parchment paper is the traditional liner; silicone liners are durable and reusable. The liners are available here: http://www.kitchenconservatory.com/Nonstick-Baking-Liners-C61.aspx

  5. Veronica

    Great article!!

  6. Drew F.

    I have to thank you for the Butterscotch Brownie recipe! They are simple to make and turn out perfect every time. Everybody has raved about them and demanded the recipe.

    Thank you!!!