How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions

Nobody wants to take a whole bunch of time out of their busy day to cook something that ends up tasting crappy. And it's pretty frustrating even to make a dish that comes out great--if it takes twice as long to make it as you expected and you're sitting down to dinner with your family at 10:00PM.

So how can you tell, in advance, if a recipe will be any good? Will it be interesting and original? Will it ever make it into your heavy rotation?

Or, will it take too long or be too much of a pain in the ass to make? Or worse, will it end up tasting weird?

You can get surprisingly accurate answers to these questions just by learning to read a recipe with a critically trained eye. So today, as a teaching tool, I want to show you a new recipe that we tried for the first time the other night. I'm going to share with you why I chose the recipe, how I decided that it was likely to taste good, and other assumptions I made about the dish, including the prep work involved and how scalable the dish might be.

Basically, I’m going to walk you through how I went about thinking through the recipe in advance and why I decided it was worth making. Hopefully when you finish this post, you’ll also be able to judge a recipe BEFORE you make it. But first, here is the new recipe itself, borrowed without permission from The New Moosewood Cookbook. I submit it to you here with some modifications. Please read it through and keep it handy as you read the rest of this post:
White Bean and Black Olive Soup

2 Tablespoons olive oil
2-3 onions, chopped
2 stalks celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1 zucchini, diced
1 green bell pepper, chopped
3-4 garlic cloves, crushed
black pepper to taste
4 cups water
3 oz tomato paste
1/4 cup dry red wine (don't forget: never use "cooking wine")
2 8 ounce cans white beans
1 cup black olives (canned okay)
1 Tablespoon lemon juice

Chopped parsley for toppings.

Heat olive oil in a large stock pot. Add onion, celery, carrot and seasonings. Saute 8-10 minutes over medium heat. Add zucchini, green pepper and garlic, saute 5 minutes more.

Add rest of ingredients to pot, bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat for 15-20 minutes. Serve topped with parsley.
Essentially I want to know if the grief involved in making this dish will outweigh the pleasures involved in eating it. So, what I’m going to do is consider this recipe with the following five key questions in mind. By walking through this exercise with me, you’ll see a practical example of how I think about a recipe before I make it:

1) Does it sound good?
Not if you hate olives. And I mean that in a serious way. You need to scan down the list of ingredients and first make sure there aren’t any ingredients that you hate in there. I know this sounds like a “duh”-type comment, because most dishes, quite expectedly, taste like the ingredients in them.

But my point here is that you can use this rule to instantly eliminate a dish from consideration and move on to another recipe. Hate olives? Okay, nix this one and turn the page. Next!

Yes, you will find some recipes that combine ingredients in such an original way that they don’t taste like their component parts. Believe me, however, a vegetable soup just won’t fall into that category. (Forgive a quick tangent: at some point I’ll share a great Pasta Puttanesca recipe with you that even anchovy-haters will love. My wife can’t sit in the same room with an anchovy but she still loves it.)

Now, here’s the next step in deciding if a dish sounds good: see if there are ingredients in the recipe that are combined in an original way. What grabbed me about this recipe was that it was a soup that contained olives. I love olives, but I have NEVER added them into a soup before. It seemed pretty neat and original. And thus, the recipe “sounded good” to me. Why pick a new recipe if there’s nothing interesting about it?

2) Does it contain any bizarre or impossible-to-find ingredients?
This is usually the second question I ask myself as I run down the list of ingredients. Again, it’s a quick litmus test to help you make an even quicker decision. If the recipe calls for saffron or something (I barely even know what saffron is, much less do I know where the heck I’d find it in my grocery store), it’s a quick deal-killer. Next!

With this recipe, this is an easy question to answer: No. All of the ingredients will be easy to find at any grocery store.

3) How much prep work am I gonna have to do? Will this be a pain in the ass and take forever?
Ah-hah. I thought we were sailing along with flying colors, but we’ve stumbled a bit here. There is a fair amount of chopping and slicing of veggies required here, a common and predictable liability of vegetarian recipes. What I’ll do next, then, is try and estimate the time it will take to make the recipe. My thought was that the prep work in this dish above would take me about 20-25 minutes, which isn’t too bad for a vegetarian soup dish. Adding in the other steps, this dish could be made in under an hour from top to bottom, and you can do something else while it’s simmering for the last 15-20 minutes (but please, stay near the kitchen!).

Many recipes do this thinking for you by listing (hopefully accurate) prep times and/or cook times along with the recipe itself. For me, if I think the prep time alone will be much more than half an hour, I know I’ll get antsy. (Next!) Figure out what your prep time tolerance is and use that as a decision factor.

Aside from a bit of extra slicing and dicing, this recipe is fairly low on the pain in the ass scale. There aren’t a lot of discrete steps in the recipe and frankly it’s not all that complicated. Yes, you’ll be washing and cutting up veggies, but then you just spend a few minutes sauteing them, and after that it’s all about chucking everything into a pot and forgetting about it until the timer goes off. So once the prep work is done, 90% of the total work is done too.

4) Can the dish be doubled easily?
At first glance you could make a case that this recipe partially fails this test because of the amount of prep work. But I disagree. There are ways to process vegetables to save time here. Does it really take twice as long to cut four stalks of celery vs. two? You have to buy a huge multi-stalk celery thing at the grocery store anyway, what’s so hard about stacking up four stalks into a pile and cutting them all at once? Line up the two zucchinis next to each other and cut ‘em up simultaneously. These are simple workflow suggestions so that you’ll be more likely to capture the great benefit of doubling a recipe: 2x the food for only 1.2x the work.

5) Will this dish be cheap to make?
How important this answer is depends obviously on how important frugality is for you. But I typically draw the line if a recipe contains any rip-off expensive ingredients (once again, saffron might be one obvious example. Next!). I have a feeling I’ll always think a little bit about this issue--even if I were a lottery winner or something--because at some crossover price it becomes cheaper to order take-out instead of cooking. Luckily, this dish is cheap enough to qualify for laughably cheap, so there’s no issue whatsoever here.

So there you have it, five easy questions to ask to help you decide if a recipe is worth cooking. The White Bean and Black Olive Soup recipe was a pretty clear winner here, as it passed three of the five questions with flying colors (#1, #2 and #5), and it got qualified but passing answers on the other two (#3 and #4). That’s good enough for me. There’s no hard and fast rule to apply here as far as how many no answers you’ll tolerate before saying “Next!” or which specific answers are recipe deal-breakers. You will decide for yourself which are most important and which, if any, are triggers for YOU to say “Next!”

If you read each recipe from now on with a critical eye and do your best to answer these five questions, I guarantee you’ll save yourself from a lot of bad recipes, and you’ll have a much better idea of what you’re in for when you choose a new recipe to cook.


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Anonymous said...

This is a very entertaining bit of writing--I laughed out loud. You are a clever writer, for sure.

Daniel said...

Wow. You don't get THAT kind of positive feedback every day... Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Great tips. Keep them coming! I will definitely add this site to my favorites.

Mirandolina said...

Thanks for the recipe. Just to add that the traditional greek white bean soup (fasolada) - our official national dish - is served traditionally with some black olives in the plate (not cooked, added afterwards) and smoked herring salad as a side dish.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you're hard on saffron! (It lives in the spice aisle and it's not that expensive - a little goes a very long way.)

Great post. These are the same questions that go through my mind when I read a recipe. I would have ditched this one at the title - I hate olives.

My #6 would be "how does it stand up to substitutions?" For a soup, it doesn't make much sense to substitute lots of ingredients since at that point you could just make up your own soup. For other recipes, I might take the basic idea and swap out a few ingredients.

Daniel said...

Hi Beth, thanks for your comment!

Yep, saffron was kind of the sacrificial ingredient for this post... I needed something to pick on and shout "next!" at and saffron was front of mind for some reason.

I like your suggestion for a #6, thanks for the idea!


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this but thought it took a bit long. You're a wordsy 'guy'? Thought for sure you were a woman until you spoke of your wife. Anyway, the recipe you used looks good as I like both main ingredients.

Daniel said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks for reading and thank you for the feedback.

I'm not exactly sure how to take your confusion about my gender, but I'll assume you meant it as a compliment. :)


Laura said...

I've been looking through a lot of your tips, and just want to say how much I enjoy them! Thanks for stopping by my blog - I'm adding yours to my list of daily reads :)

Daniel said...

Hi Laura, thank you for the feedback and the positive vibes! I hope you enjoy reading.


Joy Manning said...

How to read and assess a recipe is so important to learning to cook. I think you get better with practice, too. You start to learn what the cardinal rules and conventions of cooking are and you start to discard recipes that break them. Another thing to look out for is recipes that were obviously designed for convenience. Recently, I was making some kind of coconut soup that called for a a whole can of coconut milk and a 4-cup carton of chicken stock. No leftover ingredients, but I know from experience that that's not a good ratio--the final soup would be overwhelmingly sweet. It was also a Thai-style soup that did not call for fish sauce--I bet because not everyone has it. Over time, you develop an eye for what recipes "look wrong" and avoid them. I always strongly recommend that beginning cooks stick with trustworthy cookbooks until they are confident about sorting the good recipes from the bad.

Daniel said...

Hi Joy, these are great, great insights. Thanks for sharing them.

I agree in particular regarding convenience recipes. In fact, if I see an ethnic recipe that's been "convenienced" (i.e., important but unusual ingredients have been cut out, or key steps have been removed), I won't make it.

The unfortunate risk to a novice cook is making the dish and not knowing it's been simplified, and ultimately making a bad fascimile of the real thing. That can turn someone off from a new cuisine.


Anonymous said...

I change one of the rules: can it be halved (or cut down even further depending on how many people it's created to serve) easily. I routinely cook for no more than 3 people. There are many dishes that I don't want leftovers for a variety of reasons.

chacha1 said...

Hi Dan, first-time commenter (linked from Cheap Healthy Good and have spent the last hour browsing your blog). Very entertaining piece and the recipe actually sounded good & easy EXCEPT I hate olives. Would you recommend substituting anything, or would it be better to just leave them out?

Daniel said...

chacha1: Leave 'em out. If you hate olives, no point in including them in my view. Thanks for reading!


Unknown said...

I've been reading your blog for a couple months now and I enjoy it a lot. I was thinking about this post two days ago when I made a very complicated chicken pot pie recipe(a goes in dutch oven, a comes out, b, c and d go in, b, c and d go out, d goes in with e and f, and so on without any regard for how heavy a damned dutch oven is and i had to get assistance each time grumble grumble). After almost two hours of working on stupid dish it came out bland. So one point I would add on #3 is that if it's a new recipe and it takes forever because it's overly complicated and THEN turns out to be not so great, your disappointment in the dish is going to be at least doubled. (It pretty much ruined my day, I would say for me it was tripled.)
But I can't say you didn't warn me ;)

Anonymous said...

I'm coming in rather late w2ith my comment about "How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions"

Even experienced cooks/bakers don't always know in advance the ins and outs of a recipe. We may scratch our heads and say "hmmm" a few times before deciding.

I think your 5 questions cover a lot of ground and can help ANYONE who is toying with the idea of trying a recipe for the first time; nice job on the article:)

BettyAnn @Mango_Queen said...

Thanks for these great tips. They're extremely important to remember, and yet sometimes I forget. I think the key is to always remember what we're giving back to the reader! And the recipe of Greek white bean soup sounds really good. Must try it soon. Thanks again for sharing!