A friend once told me she loved to try new recipes. But that was the only way she cooked. She would make something once, but never again. She said, “there are so many wonderful recipes out there. How can I try them all if I keep making the same things?” But my question is: how often do your really nail something on the first try?
I definitely believe in a sort of beginner’s luck with most recipes, especially the less complicated ones. The first time I make a new dish, it is usually so flavorful and delightful. But when I make it the second time, at least in my opinion, it is never as good. Are things just more impressive when they are new and shiny? I am sure that many psychologists out there would love to tell you that is what is going on here, but I really don’t think that is the case.
The first time you make a new recipe, particularly something with new cooking techniques, you are much more attentive to the recipe. Not just how long things are meant to cook for, but the order of adding ingredients and the exact amount of each item to add. When you are still not sure how something will turn out, you are much more likely to eagerly stir continuously when the recipe instructs you to do so instead of letting your coconut pudding thicken while you chat in the other room (like I did a few nights ago).
To practice cooking (from recipes) in a way where you are really able to take something away from the experience, you need repetition. One is less likely to really remember in a long term way what they learned in a single workshop than something repeated week after week or day after day in an ongoing course. That’s why rote learning was (and in many countries, continues to be) a very popular learning technique.
Does this mean that you should cook the same recipe every day for the next week? Absolutely not. But find an easy recipe within your reach (this is not the time to dive into souffles, complicated bread making, or turducken) and make it on a few separate occasions this month. Try to mix up the circumstances: make it for yourself but also for guests, your roommate, or significant other; try it when you have all the time in the world but also on nights when you are rushed; eat it right away and re-heated at work the next day.
Each time you eat this dish, think about how it is different than the last time you made it. Does it just have less gusto or spark but you are sure you added all the right spices? Maybe there just wasn’t enough salt. That small change is often enough to bring out the flavors in a dish. Perhaps you cooked it longer than instructed or let the marinade soak for less time and actually preferred the result. Pay attention to what is different about the taste and then try to connect it back to what was different about your cooking.
If you feel like it just doesn’t taste as good as the first time, pay closer attention to the recipe. You may be unintentionally improvising ingredient quantities or cooking something in your own style instead of how the dish is meant to be prepared. There might even be patterns in how you personally change recipes over time. I have a particular way that I like to cook garlic and onions that I usually let override whatever recipe I am using. But you might just be like my friend and prefer your food new and shiny. Either way, you will learn more about your cooking.