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Recipes are not perfect—here is how to fix them

Nach Waxman in 2018 at his Manhattan bookstore, Kitchen Arts & Letters, which he called "a repository of books that are not only what you can't get elsewhere, but beyond what you knew existed." Cole Wilson for The New York Times
Nach Waxman in 2018 at his Manhattan bookstore, Kitchen Arts & Letters, which he called "a repository of books that are not only what you can't get elsewhere, but beyond what you knew existed." Cole Wilson for The New York Times

Nach Waxman (pronounce “Knock”), founder of the revered bookstore Kitchen Arts & Letters in NYC, sadly passed away in the beginning of August.

Known as a “‘kitchen anthropologist,’ he created a mecca in Manhattan for chefs, writers, scholars, everyday cooks, and anyone else who is, well, hungry for culinary knowledge.” The following quotes are from the New York Times obituary written on August 13, 2021, by Sam Roberts:

“Mr. Waxman witnessed the growth of the internet. And though digital food editors today might disagree, he maintained in 2008 that the web was no substitute for cookbooks.

“It will, indeed, provide you every imaginable variety and conception of ‘peanut butter,’ ‘jelly,’ and ‘sandwich,’” he said in 2008, “but in the end it will still only be offering you a list; it will not have a viewpoint. It will not assist you in evaluating this massive compilation of what happens when these three food ideas intersect.”

“Similarly, he argued that recipes should serve as directional cues that encourage creative detours rather than being mimicked precisely, like a road map. . . . coddled by the printed recipes that encourage obedience and conformity at the expense of knowledge and understanding, we have become a generation of cooks that does not know how to cook.”

These quotes are powerful in their accuracy and probably describe most people’s cooking experience. Without knowing basic techniques, you are forced to follow recipes. But recipes are not always exact or accurate. Even if you follow the recipe precisely it may not turn out as well as you imagined it would.

There are differences in kitchens, in the ingredients used, and the way the food is prepared. And it is also possible that the recipe just isn’t accurate or you won’t like the flavors you’re creating. That is normal. Recipes are not perfect nor are they meant to be. They are guides that need adjustments to make certain that the food you are making tastes as good as you can make it.

I am talking about cooking not baking. Baking is different; it is an exact science that in order to succeed needs to be done precisely. That being said, even in baking it may take a few tries to master the recipe you are following and it may be necessary to try a few different recipes to achieve the results you are looking for.

Here are some tips to make sure your recipes are the best they can be.

  1. Never assume your recipe is perfect.

  2. It is very tempting to cook with a timer and follow exactly the times that are indicated. But that won’t always work. If your recipe tells you to “cook vegetables for 10 minutes, until they are done,” the important part of that direction is “until they are done.” The timing of 10 minutes is approximate, a guide, not absolute. If after 10 minutes your vegetables aren’t tender you need to keep cooking them until they are. I have often found that it can take twice as long or more to get the required results.

  3. Taste what you are cooking often and again at the end, before serving. By tasting and adjusting along the way you won’t have any surprises. That is the best way to get the results you are looking for as well the perfect way to train your taste buds to how flavors interact with each other and with heat.

  4. Don’t be afraid to add ingredients that are not in the recipe such as seasonings or thickeners. You are the final judge and you are the only one who can tell what your recipe needs—don’t give that power away to a recipe writer who isn’t in your kitchen tasting what you have made.

Recipes are not perfect! If you expect them to be you’ll be both frustrated and disappointed and you’ll wrongly blame yourself for your lack of success. That’s why it’s important to learn how to cook and not just how to follow a recipe. That is the reason I wrote Le Kitchen Cookbook: a workbook. I wanted to explain the different cooking techniques, explain the different types of ingredients, how to add flavor, make sauces and thicken liquids so they are an integral part of the food. When you understand the components needed to create really good food, all it takes is practice. The benefit to all that practice—you’ll be eating really well.

This is Nach Waxman’s recipe for Brisket of Beef. It is considered to be one of the best brisket recipes by people in the know. I haven’t made it yet but I’m going to.


Serves: 10-12 Prep time: 1 hour 30 minutes Total time: 5 hours Preheat oven to 375°


  1. 1 (6-pound) first-cut beef brisket, trimmed so that a thin layer of fat remains

  2. All-purpose flour, for dusting

  3. Freshly ground black pepper

  4. 3 tablespoons corn oil

  5. 8 medium onions, peeled and thickly sliced

  6. 3 tablespoons tomato paste

  7. Kosher salt

  8. 2 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled and quartered

  9. 1 carrot, peeled and trimmed


  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.

  2. Lightly dust the brisket with flour, then sprinkle with pepper to taste. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large ovenproof enameled cast-iron pot or other heavy pot with a lid just large enough to hold the brisket snugly. Add the brisket to the pot and brown on both sides until crusty brown areas appear on the surface here and there, 5 to 7 minutes per side. Transfer the brisket to a platter, turn up the heat a bit, then add the onions to the pot and stir constantly with a wooden spoon, scraping up any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. Cook until the onions have softened and developed a rich brown color but aren't yet caramelized, 10 to 15 minutes.

  3. Turn off the heat and place the brisket and any accumulated juices on top of the onions.

  4. Spread the tomato paste over the brisket as if you were icing a cake. Sprinkle with salt and more pepper to taste, then add the garlic and carrot to the pot. Cover the pot, transfer to the oven, and cook the brisket for 1 1/2 hours.

  5. Transfer the brisket to a cutting board and, using a very sharp knife, slice the meat across the grain into approximately 1/8-inch-thick slices. Return the slices to the pot, overlapping them at an angle so that you can see a bit of the top edge of each slice. The end result should resemble the original unsliced brisket leaning slightly backward. Check the seasonings and, if absolutely necessary, add 2 to 3 teaspoons of water to the pot.

  6. Cover the pot and return to the oven. Lower the heat to 325°F and cook the brisket until it is fork-tender, about 2 hours. Check once or twice during cooking to make sure that the liquid is not bubbling away. If it is, add a few more teaspoons of water, but not more. Also, each time you check, spoon some of the liquid on top of the roast so that it drips down between the slices.

  7. It is ready to serve with its juices, but, in fact, it's even better the second day.

From The Brisket Book: A Love Story with Recipes by Stephanie Pierson. Copyright © 2011 by Stephanie Pierson. Published by Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC.

Thank you Nach for all you’ve done to inspire us to learn to cook, truly a worthwhile endeavor.


This post was created prior to our site upgrade. Comments at the time of our upgrade included:

Tracie Smith August 24, 2021

I was taught to cook by my family’s taste. In America, we have what I call Drive-Thru Generation. Meaning the clerks at Burger King know these kids by name. It’s sad. —Tracie Smith

Reply: I agree. But the good news, I think, is we can change that by making good food important again. I do realize that isn’t easy or quick but one by one we can make a difference. What do you think? Will the ‘Drive-Thru Generation’ as you so aptly called it change their ways; or are they too far into quick and easy food to start enjoying the pleasures of slow fresh food? Adeline



Bon Appétit
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