How to Read a Cooking Recipe

Recipe Cards
Recipe Cards. Linda Larsen

Let's learn how to read a cooking recipe. Cooking and baking are the two disciplines in making food. While baking uses precise formulas, cooking is a little more tolerant. You can substitute ingredients and even change amounts of the ingredients, up to a point.

This recipe, for Simple Spaghetti, is easy to make. Cooking terms can be confusing, and most cookbooks aren't as detailed as many beginning cooks would like. Make sure you read through the Ten Most Common Recipe Mistakes too.

Cooking is a science, and a recipe is like a chemical formula. Once you learn the language, your cooking expertise and knowledge will grow by leaps and bounds!

The words in bold are explained below.

Simple Spaghetti

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 pound ground beef
  • 2 8-ounce cans tomato sauce
  • 1-1/2 cups water
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. dried parsley
  • 1 tsp. dried basil
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper
  • 4 oz. uncooked spaghetti pasta, broken in halfHeat olive oil in heavy skillet over medium heat and add onion and garlic. Cook and stir until translucent. Add ground beef and cook and stir until beef is browned and vegetables are tender. Stir in remaining ingredients except for uncooked spaghetti. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 3 minutes.
    Add uncooked spaghetti to the simmering sauce a little at a time, stirring to keep it separated. Cover tightly and simmer for 20-25 minutes over low heat or until pasta is tender, stirring frequently. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese. Serves 3-4


    • The very first step in cooking is to read the recipe all the way through, from beginning to end. This way you will know that you have all the ingredients and tools on hand. You will also be able to look up terms you don't understand so cooking proceeds smoothly. 
    • Most good recipes start with the ingredient list, and the ingredients are listed in the order they are used. In this case, the olive oil goes in the pan first, followed by the onions and the garlic.
      • Measurements in recipes are critical. When a recipe calls for a tablespoon or teaspoon, the author means for you to use actual measuring utensils, not spoons that you use for eating and serving. Use a graduated cup measure instead of a coffee cup. Use a set of nested measuring cups for dry ingredients, and glass measuring cups for liquid ingredients.
    • Even the order of words in an ingredient list changes the preparation of the foods. For instance, if a recipe calls for "1 cup nuts, chopped", that is different from "1 cup chopped nuts". In the first case, you should measure 1 cup of unchopped shelled nuts first, then chop them. (In the case of walnuts, a 'whole' nut is actually half of the nut. Don't get too literal!) In the second case, the nuts should be chopped first, then measured. The comma placement changes the measuring technique.
    • In the recipe above, the onions are chopped and then measured. The garlic is minced; that is, cut into very small pieces.
    • Canned ingredients are specified by the weight; 8 ounces of tomato sauce.
    • After you have read the recipe, gather all the ingredients, pots, pans, bowls, and measuring utensils you will need. Go slowly and double check all the steps and ingredients.
    • The body of the recipe contains the instructions about combining and heating the ingredients. In the spaghetti recipe above:
      • Heating the olive oil means place it in a skillet, turning on the heat to medium, and leaving the oil on the heat for 1-2 minutes, until you can feel the warmth when you hold your hand 3-4" above the pan.
      • The degrees of heat are usually marked on your oven dials. Turn the dial so it points to the lowest part of the heat setting. You can always turn the heat up, but overcooking food is permanent! Medium heat is right in the middle of the dial. Low heat is also marked, and is the bottom 1/4 in the range from off to high.
      • Cooking the onions until translucent means the color of the onions changes from pure white to a softer white that is more transparent.
      • Browning the ground beef means to cook just until the pink or red color disappears. Stir with a fork so the chunk of ground beef breaks up as it cooks and you are left with small uniform pieces. This does NOT mean to cook until the meat turns the color of dark woodwork.
      • Cooking vegetables until tender means that when you poke or pierce them with a fork, the tines of the fork slide easily into the flesh, with little resistance.
      • Simmering and boiling are degrees of cooking. A simmer means small bubbles rise to the surface of the liquid slowly. Simmering liquid doesn't make much noise. Boiling means large bubbles rise to the surface of the liquid quickly. Boiling liquid is quite noisy.
      • Pasta is tender when it is cooked all the way through. To test that, remove one strand of pasta from the sauce, rinse it with cool water and carefully cut it in half. There should be no white areas inside the pasta, or only a thin white line if you like your pasta to have more texture. Then taste it. The pasta should not taste of flour, and the texture should be tender but still firm, called "al dente" in Italian terminology.
      • Stirring frequently means to manipulate the ingredients with a spoon every 2-3 minutes. Make sure you scrape the bottom of the pan so nothing sticks and burns.
      • All recipes have a cooking time range. These times are tested using tolerance techniques in test kitchens. Begin testing for doneness at the beginning of the time range. In the recipe above, start checking the tenderness of the spaghetti at 20 minutes. You shouldn't have to cook the dish beyond 25 minutes, although many factors can influence timing. While baking recipes have doneness tests, just remember to start testing at the beginning of the timing range in cooking recipes, and remove the food from the heat when it tastes good to you!