Recipe Time Or Real Time

One of the things that frustrates me when I try new recipes is the almost universal inability on the part of most cooking editors to gauge correctly the time it takes to complete certain steps in a recipe. I’m not talking about baking a cake, or roasting a chicken; they seem to be able to figure those times accurately. I am talking about the throw-away times like: sauté onions on medium-low until golden brown, 20 minutes. Or, Cook
until the pancetta is crisp and the fennel is caramelized, about 20 minutes
(That one is from an otherwise wonderful recipe for a caramelized fennel and pancetta salad). The problem is that vegetables have wildly different amounts of liquid in them depending on season, length and method of storage, variety, and probably dozens of other reasons. And for them to caramelize, they first have to lose most of that pesky water. So writing confidently about how it takes twenty minutes to caramelize onions is just silly. And irritating. And unnecessary. Why not just say something like: sauté onions until caramelized. It takes me 20 minutes, but your mileage may vary. And the same thing goes for cured meats. One batch of pancetta for the fennel salad crisped nicely in 30 minutes. The second batch didn’t crisp as nicely in spite of nearly 35 minutes in the oven.

I understand that recipes are written for everyone, and that people need some sense of what they are getting themselves into before they start a dish. But by stating a seemingly inviolate number, aren’t they suggesting, at least implicitly, that you are a failure if you can’t sauté those onions in 20 minutes? I know that these cook book authors are, in many cases, accomplished and talented chefs. And I don’t cook their dishes to compete with them. So why don’t they appreciate that and write recipes that are closer to reality?

PS I am guilty of this laziness too. I reread some of my own recipes and, yes, I am an idiot.

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