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Cooking Basics: How to Read A Recipe

Just knowing how to read a recipe is a big step in making you a better cook. Try these tips and you won't get stuck or surprised halfway through making your meal.

1. Read the Recipe, Start to Finish

Think of it like reading the rules to a new board game. You wouldn't set up the game and start playing without knowing what you're supposed to do after the first moves. The first thing you'll usually see is a short description that might tell you the story behind the recipe, give you some idea how to serve it (is it an ideal centerpiece for a Superbowl party or a side dish for a light dinner?) or give you preparation advice. You'll see how many servings the recipe should make. Next come the ingredients, which should be listed in the same order that you're going to use them in the recipe. The ingredients will be presented a little differently depending whether you should prepare them before they're measured. For instance, "1 tablespoon chopped nuts" means that you should chop the nuts first and then measure out a tablespoon. However, "One tablespoon nuts, chopped" means you should measure out a tablespoon of nuts and then chop them. Finally come the instructions, a step-by-step guide for taking those ingredients and turning them into your finished dish.

2. Check Ingredients and Equipment

Make sure you really have all the ingredients and equipment called for in the recipe. Is that baking pan really a nine-inch round, for instance, or is it just eight inches? You may remember having two eggs in the fridge, but double-check now that no one else used them since you last looked. And maybe you could have sworn you had coriander in the spice cabinet, but it turns out it was really cardamom. You can often substitute ingredients or adjust cooking tools if needed, but it's better to know what you're dealing with at the beginning and make a game plan for plugging any holes.

set of pots and pans

Photo via Meredith Brand Licensing

3. Brush up on Common Cooking Terms

Make sure you understand the words and phrases used in the recipe. Directions like "slice" and "chop" are pretty straightforward, but if the recipe calls for, say, a julienned carrot, you'll want to look it up first and figure out that you're supposed to cut the carrot into pieces about the size and shape of matchsticks.

102244141_Mince_Dice_Chop_Onions_Photo-by-Meredith.jpg

4. Set your own Time Clock

Quick meals that advertise 15- or 30-minute recipes sound great. (And they often are! We have a whole section over here.) But not every cook works at the same speed.

The recipe writer might allow 2 minutes for chopping each onion, for instance, but if you know it takes you 5 minutes you'll have to adjust your dinner time accordingly. Another big warning: Watch out for recipes where the timeline doesn't account for your advance prep work. If it lists "1 cup chopped onion," that onion is already supposed to be chopped when the timer starts.

Master Do-ahead Tasks

Mentally schedule any advance prepping tasks. Most recipes that require an oven, for instance, will start out by telling you to preheat the oven. It takes time for it to reach the proper temperature. More complicated dishes might call for what's known as a sub-recipe, a separate recipe from a different page that you're supposed to have already made. (Some lasagnas and moussakas, for instance, might have bechamel sauce as an ingredient.) Also, be alert for recipes that specify ingredients should be a particular temperature, and allow time to get them to that temperature. Some recipes will call for you to melt butter, then wait until it's cooled before adding it to other ingredients. A lot of baking recipes call for your eggs to be at room temperature rather than straight from the refrigerator.

Artichoke Spinach Lasagna

Photo by Allrecipes Magazine

Ready to put your recipe reading skills to the test? Try experimenting on these Quick and Easy Appetizers, 15-minute meals and Everyday Recipes.

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About Rebekah Denn

Rebekah Denn, winner of two James Beard awards for food writing, wakes up thinking about breakfast and goes to bed remembering dinner. She is the curator of the "Edible City" exhibit at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry, and cooks at home with her omnivorous husband and three vegetarian children.