I followed the instructions on the packet but the results were poor. Why?

The aim of this answer is to help you to spot red flags so you avoid disappointing results.

Here are some general areas where things can go wrong:

1) The instructions were written in an unhelpful way

2) Your interpretation of the instructions was less-than-ideal

3) Your environment/circumstances are different/unusual

4) There a few other reasons as well and I’ll cover these together

 

If you are an experienced cook, these areas will pose less of a problem for you. But if you’ve experienced problems with cooking instructions, hopefully you’ll find these pointers on how communication could go awry to be helpful.

In this post, we will look at the first area in greater detail. Parts 2, 3 and 4 will be expanded in separate posts.

 

Right, let’s look at Part 1:

The instructions were written in an unhelpful way

The obvious one is a language/cultural barrier so this time I’m going to assume this isn’t a problem and both parties can write and read the instructions to a sufficient level.

So what can go wrong?

I’ll use this packet of Amaranth as an example because it’s the one that I happened to experience this week.

(And also because Super Food Drive suggested giving Amaranth to food banks so there are likely to be people who will be cooking it for the first time and have to follow instructions like these).

 

Let’s break down the instructions.

1) There were too many assumptions made

Cook 200g of Amaranth in 500ml water for 35 minutes.

Do I cook it on a high heat, medium heat or low heat?

Am I boiling or simmering?

In a large pot or small pot? (Surface area to volume ratios make a difference after all).

All of those things and more are encompassed in the word “cook”, leaving lots of room for interpretation (while giving the dangerous illusion of simplicity and mutual understanding).

One solution:

If you see ambiguous words like “cook” and you find yourself asking yourself questions like the ones above, you could at least do a quick search for a second opinion (or be a Cooking for Life member and watch one of my videos!) so you’ll have a better chance of things turning out well.

Hang out with me and it will be increasingly obvious how to both identify and fix the ambiguity before the problems arise.

 

2. The measurements are given in only one format

Cook 200g of Amaranth in 500ml water for 35 minutes.

200g happens to be approximately 1 cup (this is a less exact measure but it’s helpful to give people more than one reference point, especially when many people don’t use scales regularly).

One Solution:

Use scales when you’re less experienced to train your eye. I encourage my clients to use scales but also to observe what the quantity looks like rather than blindly relying on a machine. Using a machine for calibration in combination with your senses is a speedy way to get good at cooking.

 

  • The suggested measurement is unhelpful

Cook 200g of Amaranth in 500ml water for 35 minutes.

The entire packet was 500g. If I were to follow the instructions, it would leave me with 300g the next time. If it’s the first time I’m cooking with amaranth and I have no idea how much a portion is, I might be tempted to just call it 250g. After all, it’s much easier to eyeball half a packet than two-fifths of a packet.

Does this mean I change the amount of water proportionately?

One solution:

If you’re unable to look up alternative instructions, then it’s probably better to follow the packet’s recommendations and adjust as necessary the second-time around. At least this way it’s easier to identify that the problem probably lies with the instructions rather than your actions.

 

3. An exact time is given

Cook 200g of Amaranth in 500ml water for 35 minutes.

Giving an exact time does not allow for any variables. What if my pot is a heavy-based and fairly large and I’m using a slightly higher heat? How do I adjust for this?

Giving a range is usually more helpful. There’s a big difference between saying “34 to 36 minutes” and ”30 to 40 minutes”. In the first instance, we get an indication that the cooking time is fairly precise and that we should to be careful as the food might overcook easily outside of that range (and usually giving such a narrow range requires more descriptive directions than “cook”). Whereas we have a much larger margin for error in the second instance.

One solution:

Run for the hills! But if you’re still keen to cook it and those are the only instructions you have, check-in regularly during the cooking process rather than setting your timer for the stated time. I managed to cook the amaranth just fine…but it only took about 20 minutes before I took it off the heat which was considerably less than the 35 minutes suggested.

 

4. No other sensory cues are given

This is my biggest gripe. Cooking involves using your senses! If you give this then the timing would matter a lot less and it would be much easier to account for differences in above interpretations. Something basic that could have been included here:

Cook till it looks like the water absorbed (visual) and like a loose porridge when you stir (texture).

When used in conjunction with the timing, this gives the cook another frame of reference.

We will look at the rest of the instructions in Part 2 where we will also discuss how the instructions on Biona’s website are slightly different! (And therefore my interpretation was not right!).

One solution:

Watch useful demonstrations – those that clearly show you helpful turning points in the stages of cooking rather than abilities of some celebrity cook. Psssst…I know someone who does cooking videos where these sensory cues are regularly mentioned and great effort is made to highlight these critical cues!

I hope you have found this explanation useful, and look out for the rest of the answer coming up in the next week.

If you have any questions or comments, please email questions@cookingforlife.club

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