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The Basics of Reading a Recipe—Plus Some Tips and Tricks

It doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 35, everyone has to learn to cook at some point. Not every meal you make is going to require a recipe. However, they’re helpful guides in ensuring you get things right—even if you’re reading how to scramble an egg.

With that said, if you haven’t spent much time with recipes, trying to follow one can seem intimidating. It’s something you’re likely to find easier as you go, but it’s okay if you find yourself feeling a little stuck right now.

In this post, you’ll find some tips on reading recipes and information to help you understand them.

Before You Get Started with a Recipe

Recipe best practices begin before you touch an ingredient or utensil.

First and foremost, you’ll want to ensure you read the entire thing from start to finish. Many online recipes provide a story or extra information for context, but focus on the ingredients, instructions, and notes. You can save the rest for later.

Right now, you’re ensuring you have everything you need—ingredients, equipment, and the time (and patience) to cook it. Plus, sometimes there’s information hidden in the instructions that may make or break the process for you. For example, the chef mentions covering the food with foil, but you’re fresh out.

It’s best to find these things out ahead of time instead of when you get to that step.

Additionally, reading it beforehand will help you plan if you need to take something out of the freezer or bring an ingredient to room temperature.

How to Read a Recipe

Chefs often list their ingredients in order of appearance, kind of like movie credits. Someone will throw you a curveball now and then—which is another reason to read ahead.

When they place a comma after the ingredient, with a descriptor like diced or sliced, you complete the action of dicing or slicing after measuring the ingredients.

Listing the ingredient without a comma means you use that much of it, already prepared. So, you’d use a cup of chopped nuts instead of measuring a cup of them and then chopping them up.

Speaking of which, it’s best to do all your prepping before you start cooking. That way, you avoid rushing to get ingredients ready in the step you need them.

Prepared food on a cutting board

You may be able to multi-task later once you get the hang of cooking. Right now, you want to focus on learning.

As for following the instructions, you can get creative with a recipe once you master it, but the first time you follow it, you’ll want to do so step by step unless you’re sure you’re skilled enough to go rogue.

Other Tips for Reading Recipes

  • Check your source—when learning the basics, stick to reputable sources so you know you’re not following amateur advice. Everyone has their favourites, but some excellent sources are The Spruce EatsRecipeTin Eats, and Simply Recipes.
  • You may not always need the exact tool the chef lists in the recipe—for example, you might not have a pastry cutter, but two butter knives could do the trick. When in doubt, ask your favourite search engine for alternatives
  • Often overlooked, recipe notes are a goldmine of information when it comes to substitutions, troubleshooting, and other recipe enhancements or alternatives
  • Make your own notes on recipes as well so you know what you liked about them and what you’d change when making them again
  • Since ovens, stoves, and appliances vary, a recipe will often give you an idea of when your meal is ready. This can be describing the colour or texture of the food, letting you know what temperature it should be, or other methods to test—you’ll get more confident about this as you go, but going by the cooking time alone could result in eating uncooked food
  • If your meal doesn’t turn out looking exactly like the picture or it's not Instagram-worthy, no sweat. As long as it’s safe to eat and it tastes okay, your efforts were a success—remember you’re learning
  • Keeping a hard copy of your recipe is helpful so that you’re not scrolling through to find your place on your phone or tablet—some webpages also refresh and bring you to the top, or popup ads get in the way. Print the ones you know you will make, write them on a cue card, or pick up a cookbook with some of the basics. You could even copy and paste it into a new document in your notes app to keep things less distracting

Keep it Simple—Master the Basics

If you’re new to cooking, mastering the basics first will help you build the skills you need to take on more challenging recipes.

The Spruce Eats explains this well in its article 12 Cooking Basics Everyone Should Know. In that article, you’ll not only find a list of the skills, but exercises to help you learn them.

Hopefully, you found this information helpful. Check in soon for more posts on everyday cooking, cleaning, and chores.