Have you ever skimmed a recipe and started cooking only to realize you don’t know what a specific cooking method means or you’re missing a key ingredient? These are common setbacks in the kitchen and they can be avoided with purposeful recipe reading and cooking preparation.
As beginner home cooks, navigating and interpreting cooking instructions, adjusting and making substitutions if necessary are important skills in the kitchen. Below I’ll outline everything to consider when reading a recipe and interpreting the directions, ingredients, etc.
Why Should You Always Read a Recipe in its Entirety First?
The first step to reading a recipe is to read it all the way through. Don’t skim it! Take your time and read every direction, ingredient, and look for a chef’s note at the bottom as well.
Reading chef’s notes in a recipe is crucial because they provide valuable tips, insights, and potential modifications that can enhance the cooking process and the final dish’s quality. If you print recipes, this is a great spot to add your own notes for the next time you cook that dish.
Read the Title
Start by reading the title. The title will often tell the reader what to expect and look forward to in their dish. For example, “spicy pork stuffed squash.” Right away, you know the dish is going to have some heat.
However, don’t judge a recipe by its title! In the example above you may pass over a recipe with the word spicy in it if you don’t like spicy food. Continue reading through the directions and notes to see if the author offers any suggestions to lower or eliminate the spicy ingredient.
Read the Ingredient List
Next, read through the ingredients list. Reading the ingredient list helps ensure you will have all of the necessary components for a recipe, make swaps where necessary, and understand the overall flavor profile and nutritional content of the dish.
Are you familiar with the units of measurement used in the recipe? For example, cups, tablespoons, grams, ounces, etc. If the recipe uses a unit you’re not familiar with, take a moment and look up the conversion. If it calls for a unit you don’t have, say a half tablespoon, look up how many teaspoons in one half tablespoon.
Volume vs. Weight
Some ingredients are measured by volume (example: cups of oatmeal) while others are measured by weight (example: four ounce steak). Make sure that you can utilize and have the correct measuring tools for each ingredient.
Hidden Steps Within the Ingredients List
Pay careful attention to the ingredients list for hidden instructions such as, “room temperature eggs” or “packed brown sugar.” Ignoring these instructions can affect the accuracy of the measurements and resulting dish.
Another common missed step is seeing the term, “divided” after an ingredient. This means you’re going to use one ingredient in two different parts of the recipe. For example, If the recipe calls for ¼ cup of olive oil, divided, you may be using some oil during the cooking process and perhaps some in a dressing.
Options Within the Ingredient List
Occasionally, a recipe creator will provide options for ingredients within the ingredient list. For example, you may see the recipe calls for olive oil but next to the words olive oil, you also see, “or avocado oil.” This may help you save money by seeing you can easily swap ingredients or use something different.
Reading critically also allows you to check your understanding of how the ingredient will be used in the dish. Let’s say the recipe calls for a can of diced tomatoes but in the directions, you see you’re going to puree them. You may skip this step and just purchase crushed tomatoes which is very similar to a pureed texture.
The Order of Ingredients Matters
In most recipes, not all, the ingredients are listed in a particular order that will impact the recipe. As a general example, in baking you may see eggs listed before flour. This means you are most likely going to beat or whisk the eggs before adding the flour.
Look for any *asterisks* or Chef Notes about Ingredients
Often recipe creators will add an asterisk next to an ingredient in their recipe card to prompt you to read the notes at the bottom. These will often add specific instructions, help clarify, or provide more substitution options if needed.
I see this a lot when it comes to common allergens. If a recipe calls for peanut butter, peanuts being a common food allergen, they may add a note at the bottom using an asterisk telling you, you can swap it for sunflower butter instead.
Read the Directions
What are some key things to find when reading a recipe’s directions? Below I’ll list all of the important details you don’t want to miss. If you’re looking for a sample recipe to read through, try my 4 Ingredient Guacamole.
Order of Operations
By reading the directions you’ll begin to understand the order of operations. That just means, what order should you take while cooking this meal. Well written recipes are designed to help your cooking flow, not fluster or confuse you.
For example, if step one say’s to mince the garlic and you glance over it. By step five when you need to add the minced garlic you may be left scrambling. This could result in food being overcooked or burned while you run, smash, peel and mince the garlic.
If that does happen, take a breath. Turn the heat down to low and take your time preparing the ingredient. Or in this example, you could consider swapping in garlic powder to see if it yields an okay result.
Identify Prep Work
This goes with the order of operations, but it’s important to identify what you can prepare at the beginning of the recipe to make the cooking easier. Prep work can also include interpreting cooking times and temperatures as stated in the recipe. Below is a list of common prep work terms you may miss.
- Preheating: which usually means to turn your oven to the temperature listed
- Baking/Roasting: another clue that you need to turn your oven on
- Broiling: do you have a broiler or know how to roast something instead?
- Room temperature: sometimes ingredients have to be added in when they are at room temperature, not straight from the fridge
It’s important to also note within your prep work that cooking times for variations in appliances and elevation can make a difference. All ovens and stovetops are a bit different, I recommend getting to know the one in your home as well as you can! Gas versus an electric stove can alter the cooking times quite a bit.
Elevation affects cooking primarily through changes in atmospheric pressure. This can lead to lower boiling points, longer cooking times, and other adjustments. To understand it better, when atmospheric pressure decreases (the higher the elevation) the boiling point of water decreases.
This means that water boils at a lower temperature at a higher elevation than it does at sea level. Thus, cooking times can vary or increase greatly especially for dishes that rely on boiling. If you’re at a higher elevation, taking this into account when you read the directions is important.
Understanding Cooking Techniques
Do you know what all of the cooking techniques are? If not, listen to this podcast episode that gives you a description of every basic cooking technique.
When you take the time to understand and practice the various techniques such as saute, roast, dice, and shred. Your cook and prep time will get more efficient and you’ll rely less on the recipe and more on your past experience.
Bonus Tips for Online/Digital Recipes
Let’s be honest, most of us are likely finding recipes online. If you’re reading a recipe on a blogger’s website like this one, I recommend taking your time on the page and finding hidden gems and suggestions for making the recipe even better. Bloggers will often add lengthier directions or ideas for substitutions, share storage suggestions, and more within the post and not in the recipe.
Preparing to Cook
Before you cook you need to shop for all of the ingredients the recipe calls for and make sure you’ve got your cooking tools. Make your grocery list using the ingredients list and then shop from your pantry beforehand. This will save you time, energy and money in the long run.
This is also an opportunity to practice swapping ingredients if you feel ready to do so! If the recipe calls for red kidney beans but you have chickpeas, make the swap! Save that money for other ingredients another day.
Mis en Place
Before you start cooking, gather all the ingredients and double check your ingredients list. Next, I recommend pre-chopping and measuring everything ahead of time if you’re able to. This all can help prevent mistakes and ensure a successful outcome.
Do you have to pre-cut and measure every single thing? No, but when you’re learning to cook this is an excellent way to focus on the prep and then get your brain ready to cook. Rushing and chopping an ingredient when five more are already sautéing is just stressful.
Overall, practices makes practice and cooking is a trial-by-trial operation. The more you cook and follow recipes, the better you’ll become at interpreting ingredient lists and measure accurately. Cooking is a skill that improves with practice.
What are you waiting for? Go cook something!