How to Read a Cooking Recipe

Recipe Cards
Linda Larsen

A well-written recipe is designed to make the cooking process as simple as possible; but no matter how basic and user-friendly, there is a particular way to read a recipe in order to achieve successful results and make the process as stress-free as possible.

Cooking is a science, like baking, and a recipe is similar to a chemical formula. Once you learn the language of recipes, your cooking expertise and knowledge will grow by leaps and bounds. If you are a baker and not necessarily a cook, it is important to keep in mind that cooking and baking are two distinct disciplines. While baking uses precise formulas, cooking is a little more flexible. You can substitute ingredients and even change amounts of the ingredients, up to a point, without ruining the recipe itself.

Cooking terms can be confusing, and most cookbooks aren't as detailed as beginning cooks would like. But if you learn how to read and follow a cooking recipe, you will be able to avoid the 10 most common recipe mistakes and turn out delicious and impressive meals.

Read Through Entire Recipe

Even when the dish looks extremely simple, it is important to read through the recipe from beginning to end before starting to cook. This way you can make sure you have all of the ingredients and tools on hand, while you also are clear on how to proceed with each step. Some recipes will list ingredients that need to be divided and the portions used at separate times in the cooking process, so reading the recipe all the way through first will assure you will not make a mistake during preparation. This initial review also gives you the opportunity to look up any terms you don't understand so cooking proceeds smoothly. 

Understand the Ingredient List

A well-written recipe will list the ingredients at the beginning and list them in the order in which they are used. For example, in a simple spaghetti recipe, the olive oil is listed first, followed by the onion and garlic. This is because the first step of the recipe is to heat the olive oil, and then add the onion and garlic and saute until translucent.

If ingredients are listed with the word "divided" after, it means the same ingredient is used more than once in the recipe, so you need to keep that in mind when gathering your ingredients. The only time an identical ingredient should be listed more than once in an ingredient list is when the list is divided into sections, such as for a traditional lasagna; milk is listed in both the section for the meat sauce as well as the bechamel (white) sauce.

Follow the Measurements

Although when cooking there is some flexibility with certain ingredients, the recipe's author (hopefully) tested the recipe several times and found the published measurements to be the ideal amounts for a successful outcome. When an ingredient list specifies 1 tablespoon, the intention is for you to use an actual tablespoon measurement and not a tablespoon from the silverware drawer.

Another thing to keep in mind is the difference between a dry and wet measurement. In order to be accurate, you will need both dry and wet measuring tools as they do not measure in the same way. If the recipe calls for 1 cup flour, you need to use a dry measuring cup; for a liquid ingredient like chicken broth, a liquid measuring cup should be used.

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.

Gather What You Need

There's nothing worse than burning the garlic because you were running around your kitchen finding the next ingredient. Before you begin cooking, lay out all of the ingredients—measured if possible—as well as the pots, pans, bowls, and cooking tools that are necessary. If the first step of the recipe is to preheat the oven, then do so before you begin cooking. Take your time and double check so your cooking experience is as seamless as possible.

Test for Doneness

All recipes have a cooking time range along with a description of what the food should look like, or what the texture of the food should be when finished. For example, a fish recipe often states "bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until fish flakes easily." These time ranges are tested using tolerance techniques in test kitchens; the range is provided because home stovetops and ovens can behave differently. You should always test for doneness at the beginning of the time range (so at 10 minutes for a 10- to 15-minute range). While baking recipes have doneness tests, cooking requires a bit more of a subjective perspective, so remember to start testing at the earliest time in cooking recipes, and remove the food from the heat when it tastes and looks good to you.

Sample Recipe

Of course, each recipe will have its own set of cooking terms, but there are a few that you will see repeatedly. This recipe for spaghetti with a meat sauce is a good example featuring universal techniques that you will employ in a variety of recipes. The words in bold are explained.

Simple Spaghetti With Meat Sauce

Ingredients

  • 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 half
  • Grated Parmesan cheese for serving

Directions

  1. Heat olive oil in heavy skillet over medium heat and add onion and garlic. Cook, stirring, until translucent.
  2. Add ground beef and cook, stirring until beef is browned and vegetables are tender.
  3. Stir in remaining ingredients except for uncooked spaghetti. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 3 minutes.
  4. Add uncooked spaghetti to the simmering sauce a little at a time, stirring to keep it separated. Cover tightly and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes over low heat or until pasta is tender, stirring frequently.
  5. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese.

Explanation of Terms

It is important to read the ingredient list very carefully—and more than once—to make sure you've caught and understood all of the terminology accompanying the ingredients.

  • Chopped onion: In this recipe for spaghetti with meat sauce, the onions are chopped first and then measured. Some, but not all, recipes may offer the approximate number of onions you will need to reach the chopped measurement; when that information is not given, you will need to estimate.
  • Minced: The garlic is listed as 2 whole cloves first, and then you are directed to mince it. Mincing means to cut into very small pieces.
  • 8-ounce: Canned ingredients are specified by the weight. This recipe calls for 8 ounces of tomato sauce. You will find the measurement on the can label. If you need less than the entire can, use a liquid measuring cup and follow the ounce markings.
  • Tsp.: Some recipes will list the ingredient measurement in the abbreviated term versus being written out. Teaspoon is "tsp." and tablespoon is "tbsp." The abbreviation of ounces is "oz."

Explanation of Terms in Instructions

The body of the recipe contains the instructions—usually in a step-by-step format—for how to prepare and cook the recipe. Again, it is wise to read the steps more than once so you feel you have a clear picture of how you will need to proceed, as well as making sure you understand all of the language.

  • Heating the olive oil means to pour it into a skillet, turn on the heat to the designated level (in this recipe, medium heat), and then leave the oil over the heat for 1 to 2 minutes, until you can feel the warmth when you hold your hand 3 to 4 inches above the pan.
  • 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; it does not mean to cook until the meat turns a dark brown. Stir with a fork to break up the chunk of ground beef as it cooks so you are left with small, uniform pieces.
  • 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 liquid. 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 and 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, which is referred to as "al dente" in Italian.
  • Stirring frequently means to manipulate the ingredients with a spoon every 2 to 3 minutes. Make sure you scrape the bottom of the pan so nothing sticks and burns.
  • The recipe offers a range of 20 to 25 minutes for cooking the pasta in the sauce, and also provides the description of "until pasta is tender." 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.