How to Read a Recipe: 8 Tips

Maybe you’ve flipped through a magazine or cookbook and thought that the title of a recipe sounded appealing. Then you had a brief vision of yourself whipping up something yummy and healthy for yourself…until you let your eyes scan the recipe that suddenly looked way too complicated and time-consuming, and quickly ordered a pizza instead. You are certainly not alone with your problem. After all, 350 slices of pizza are eaten every minute in America, and less than 60% of dinners served at home were cooked at home in 2014. In general, cooking is much more forgiving than baking, but you can screw up either if you don’t pay attention to the recipe. There are many books written about how to read a recipe and cook/bake, but if you don’t have the time or desire to read a book, these tips will help you to get started:

  • The first tip about reading a recipe is this – read the recipe. This is going to save you so much time and frustration in the end. You won’t find yourself standing in your kitchen panicking as you realize that you were supposed to marinate the meat for 24 hours when your guests arrive in one. You won’t have the sickening realization that you just mixed all of the flour into the fruit filling when half of it was supposed to be saved and used for the crumb topping later. Sometimes, recipes are written in such a way that in the ingredient list, it will say something like “one recipe of bourbon barbecue sauce (recipe below).” The second recipe is written in tiny print in paragraph form without a separate ingredient list at the bottom of the page. This can kill a meal if you don’t read it in its entirety, including that hidden bourbon barbecue sauce recipe. Who likes running to the grocery store at 6:30 in the evening when everyone is grumpy and hungry?
  • Ingredients are listed in the order that they will be used in the recipe. This makes it easier to notice if you’ve missed a step or addition without reading the entire directions section over again.
  • Beware of the comma. If your recipe reads “one cup chopped carrots,” that means that the carrots are measured once they’ve been chopped. On the other hand, if it reads “one cup strawberries, sliced,” you need to measure the strawberries before you slice them.
  • Don’t skip any steps. If the butter is supposed to be at room temperature, take it out of the refrigerator an hour early. If the flour is supposed to be sifted, sift it. If the beans are supposed to be soaked, soak them (trust me, you do not want to skip this step…you’ll regret it). Likewise, if the recipe calls for you mixing the wet ingredients and then adding them to dry ingredients that have been incorporated together, you need to do it this way. You can’t just throw the eggs and milk into the flour and then add some baking soda and expect everything to turn out o.k.
  • Please don’t neglect to preheat the oven or heat the pan before putting food into it—these steps matter.
  • Yes, dry measuring cups and liquid measuring cups are very different. You need both.
  • To measure dry ingredients, spoon the ingredient into the measuring cup until it is overfilled, and then use the flat edge of a butter knife or straight-end spatula to level it off. To measure wet ingredients, set the liquid measuring cup on a flat surface and slowly pour it into the measuring cup until it reaches the desired mark.
  • You can’t just swap healthier ingredients into your favorite recipes and keep your fingers crossed. For example, light margarine contains much more water than butter does. If you try to make a cookie recipe with light margarine, your cookies will spread and take over the entire cookie sheet. You can only replace about 1/3 of the all-purpose flour called for in a recipe with whole wheat flour before you seriously change the final product’s taste and texture. Skim milk is not a suitable replacement for heavy whipping cream. If you want to cook healthfully, purchase a cookbook with tested recipes or go to a well-respected website.

Recipes are indeed very similar to science experiments, but the hard work has already been done for you before the magazine or book is in your hands (and that’s a beautiful thing; thank you, cookbook authors!). So breathe and take it one step at a time. And keep the pizza place’s phone number close at hand, because no matter how many meals you cook and how many recipes you read, you’re going to have a complete flop occasionally.