6 Tips for the Home Cook on Developing Recipes

If you love cooking, you probably love to experiment with recipes as well. Whether you’ve been a home cook for decades or you’re just beginning, here are some things to keep in mind when you set out to develop recipes from scratch.

  1. Be creative...but sensible.
    Playing around with a variety of tastes and textures can be fun, but it may also get expensive (and wasteful) if your attempts at wild culinary concoctions end up more often in the trash than on the plate. It’s great to be imaginative in the kitchen, but guide your creativity with a bit of common sense as well. If you plan to wow your guests with chocolate-and-pomegranate lamb chops, you may want to have the pizza shop number on standby. The key is to think about foods (meats, sauces, herbs, fruits, vegetables, oils, condiments, everything) in terms of what sounds appetizing and compatible. Weird for the sake of weird is usually just that: weird.
  2. Keep it simple.
    Even if you’re developing recipes with common sense foods in a compatible way, remember to keep the ingredients and preparation simple as well. Some of the most wonderful dishes created by world-renowned chefs are also the simplest—a few fresh ingredients highlighting individual flavors and textures without complex and unnecessary additions. For instance, if you’re developing a salad dressing recipe, think about what you want its dominant taste to be: tangy, sweet, savory, a little spicy? Then choose two or three ingredients to work with to create the taste you’re looking for. Loading up recipes with too many ingredients may result in that question all cooks dread: “What’s in this?”
  3. Keep it fresh.
    Just as important as keeping it simple is keeping it fresh. Developing recipes with a lot of processed ingredients prevents you from controlling exactly what goes into your new vegetarian stew, chicken salad, braised artichokes, grilled salmon, anything. And it’s not just the main ingredients that should be fresh. The “seasoning” food you choose is best when it’s fresh as well. Lemon juice, a little garlic, some minced onions, tomatoes or tomato sauce—fresh ingredients are not only more healthful than packaged or canned foods, but they’re also tastier...and prettier on the plate!
  4. Use familiar ingredients...or learn about new ones first.
    If you’ve never cooked, tasted, or touched yucca root, don’t try developing a recipe with it. Foods that seem “different” do indeed make tempting ingredients for creating unusual and imaginative dishes. But if you aren’t familiar with the taste, you won’t know what pairs well with a food. If you don’t know the texture, you won’t know the best way to prepare it to bring out the depth of its natural flavor. And you won’t know how long to cook it for the best results. It’s fun to work with foods that are uncommon in your household, but sample other recipes for them first. Once you’ve followed someone else’s guidelines and become familiar with how a food looks, tastes, and feels, you’ll be ready to develop your own recipe based on knowledge, not whim.
  5. Keep accurate measurements and time.
    If you’ve already developed your own recipes, you know the importance of keeping accurate measurements and cooking times. It may be fine to tell Aunt Bess to throw in a handful of this and a pinch of that and cook it till it starts to brown, but nonchalance won’t fly if someone really wants to repeat the recipe at home, or if you want to repeat it for friends and family. Few ingredients, of course, can be nailed down to the exact second of cooking time simply because size and thickness vary. If you’re pan-searing a pork chop that’s 1-inch thick, you want to note that in your recipe. It’s okay to say, “Cook for 4 minutes on each side or 2-3 minutes for thinner chops” because the directions are accurate: you’re cooking your 1-inch chop 4 minutes on each side and have let readers know to cook it less time for less meat.

    One exception to this rule: I don’t include specific amounts of salt (or pepper) in my recipes. Salt is a matter of personal taste, as well as personal health choices, so there’s nothing wrong with simply saying, “Season with salt and pepper.”

  6. Don’t get discouraged.
    First and foremost, developing your own recipes should be fun. Sure, mishaps will occur and dishes will turn out overcooked, undercooked, too tart, too tough, or just plain yucky. That’s okay. It was exciting to try it and now you’re armed with info and experience you didn’t have before. Don’t be discouraged from giving the recipe a second try or simply moving on to something else. (I’ve never gone back to a salad dressing I made with fresh pineapple juice after I got the aforementioned question from my husband: “What’s in this?”). Keep a light attitude and have fun in the kitchen.

    If your curried corn and kale ends up in the compost, laugh it off. At least some good has come of it.

Here’s a recipe I created not long ago to warm up a chilly autumn evening. The ingredients are simple and fresh with a mix of healthful vegetables and mild Andouille sausage. I chose to grill the peppers and sausages in order to enhance the soup with rich, smoky flavor. If you like foods a bit spicier, just add another jalapeno to the recipe, or spice it up even more with cayenne. Don’t like spice at all? Substitute green bell pepper for the jalapenos.

Grilled Andouille and Chile Soup with White Beans and Spinach

For the Beans
  • 1 cup dry cannellini or great northern beans
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seed, slightly crushed
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

For the Soup

  • 1 tbsp olive oil, plus more for brushing
  • 12 oz. andouille sausages (about 3 links)
  • 2 jalapeno peppers, stemmed, seeded, and sliced in half lengthwise
  • 2 large cubanelle peppers, stemmed, seeded, and sliced in half lengthwise
  • 1 large or 2 medium carrots, chopped
  • 2 celery ribs, chopped
  • 3 scallions, white and green parts chopped separately
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cups packed fresh spinach leaves (large leaves torn in half)
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

For the beans, parboil the beans for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover, and let sit at least 2 hours. Drain and rinse the beans. Return to the pot and add water, fennel seed, oregano, and bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour.

For the soup, heat a grill pan over medium-high heat and brush with olive oil. Place all the pepper halves cut-side-down in the pan and press down lightly. Grill for 3 minutes, then turn and grill 2 minutes longer, until the peppers have begun to char. Remove to a cutting board and let cool.

Brush the grill pan with a little more oil and add the sausages. Grill for 10 minutes, turning often so that all sides are charred. Remove to a cutting board and let cool.

Heat a large pot over medium heat and add 1 tbsp olive oil. Add carrots, celery, and white parts of the scallions. Cook 5 minutes, stirring often until vegetables begin to soften. Chop the grilled peppers and thinly slice the sausages. Stir into the pot and cook 1 minute. Stir in the garlic and spinach and cook 1 minute. Drain the cooked beans and remove the bay leaf. Pour the chicken broth and cooked beans into the pot. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Divide among 4-5 bowls and sprinkle green parts of scallions on top.

    Editor's Note: Pamela Steed Hill has been a home cook for 25 years. She enjoys developing recipes to share and is a firm believer in keeping cooking fresh and simple. She is a full-time editor for a university Marketing Communications department and a freelance writer and proofreader.