How to Read a Recipe

JoSele Swopes


The old saying is: if you can read, you can cook. Not true! Recipes are written with precise language, and you must learn that language before you can be a successful cook and baker.

Did you know that baking and cooking are two very different activities? Baking is really a science, with precise measurements of ingredients that are assembled and baked in specific ways. Baking recipes include those for cakes, breads, cookies, pies, cream puffs, popovers, muffins, and bar cookies. Cooking recipes include those for main dishes, soups, salads, side dishes, and many desserts.

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as many as you need


tbsp. = tablespoon
tsp. = teaspoon
oz. = ounce

Directions Step-By-Step

Of course, you should always follow a recipe closely. If you are an experienced cook you can substitute ingredients and even change the proportions a bit. But too much change can cause problems. If a cookie dough has too much flour, it will be tough and hard. If a cake recipe doesn't have enough leavening agent, there will be heavy wet spots in the finished product.

Cooking recipes have more leeway. Adding another 1/2 cup of liquid to soup isn't going to affect the outcome. And using 6 chicken breasts instead of 5 won't ruin an enchilada recipe.

So read through these directions for reading recipes. Even if you're a pro, you'll probably learn something new!
•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 recipe 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. Here's a basic chart of measures and equivalents. For our purposes, these are the recipe abbreviations I use that are fairly standard:•Tbsp. = tablespoon
•tsp. = teaspoon
•oz. = ounce
•Even the order of words in a recipe 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.
•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. I always 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.
•Stirring frequently means to manipulate the ingredients with a spoon every 2-3 minutes.
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. Just remember to start testing at the beginning of the cooking range, and remove the food from the heat when it tastes good to you!

I hope this explanation helps in your cooking adventures!