How to Read a Recipe

How to Read a Recipe

According to my calculations, about 30 percent of the dishes prepared from written recipes go wrong because the cooks concerned didn’t actually read said recipe. Sure, we glance at them sideways, scan them, peruse them, peek at them, make grocery lists from them, but we rarely glean all the information we really need. This is especially true of dishes being prepared for the first time. Here are a few simple guidelines to prevent this from happening to you.

1. Sit Down: That’s right … sit down at the kitchen table and simply read the recipe all the way through. Don’t make notes, don’t make lists, just read.

2. Read It Again: Highlight any special procedures or sidebars that might change your timeline, i.e. bringing butter to room temperature or soaking dry beans (that’s the one that used to get me). Be careful to note punctuation. For instance, “1 cup chopped nuts” is not the same as “1 cup nuts, chopped.” Nor is 6 ounces of brown sugar the same as 3/4 cup brown sugar.

3. Gather Equipment: I always do this first because if there’s something esoteric on the hardware list, you may need to abandon the dish until you can procure a left-handed pasta roller.

4. Gather Ingredients: Pantry ingredients and dry goods should be corralled into a staging area. Anything that’s missing goes on the grocery list. I do the same thing with the refrigerator/freezer, collecting everything onto one shelf. Whatever’s missing goes on the grocery list. During this phase be especially mindful of ingredients that may need to be thawed, or brought to room temperature. Keep in mind, recipe writers list ingredients in order of use, typically from largest amount to smallest. This is also a cue for the cook as to how the ingredients should be measured and used. For example, if a recipe calls for both a tablespoon of honey and a tablespoon of oil, we call for the oil first so that the honey will be easier to measure.

5. Note the Order of the Steps: Heat the oven and prep the pans (soak the beans) before messing about with other ingredients. This will save you both time and heartache in the kitchen. And in the case of timely preparations such as egg foams, it may prevent an actual disaster.

6. Always Triple Note Cooking or Baking Times and their ‘Doneness Indicators’: If the biscuits should be golden brown or the butter should smell nutty, your eyes and ears can tell you more than a timer every will.

Above all, learn to enjoy recipes as you would literature. Many recipes you’d never actually cook make for intriguing reading. Just because you’re not going to actually cook Charlie Trotter’s recipe for Three Day Rabbit Stock doesn’t mean you won’t get a kick out of reading it.

How to Read a Recipe by Alton Brown


Add yours
  1. 2

    Putting aside arguments about weight vs. volume (let alone metric vs. Imperial), it should be standard practice in all consumer-directed recipes to EXPLICITLY state “weight ounces” or “fluid ounces” if the measures are not all weight. Simply omitting “fluid” is unhelpful.

    In the sample Southern Biscuits recipe, for flour, butter and shortening, some people will haul out the scale, while others their measuring cup and spoons.

  2. 3

    I like the “Plan Backwards” approach for the equipment. You do a backwards run-through for all the kitchen tools & counter space. Example: Fried Chicken with a shallow fry : Lay out the casserole dish & tongs & pot-holders you will use last. Tongs & skillet & oil & timer for the browning. Plate with rack for chicken to rest after dredging before going into the oil, bowls for the flour & egg wash. This organization can take several minutes but it is time you wont need to spend while something is burning on the stove while you wash the casserole dish you forgot was in the dishwasher.

  3. 10
    Dee Cheph

    Unless a specific order is called for in the procedure, do try ingredients, then water-soluble ingredients, then oil ingredients. It saves you from washing and trying your measure spoons and cups over and over again.

  4. 11

    For the inexperienced you sometimes need additional instructions. Ie.. You hand the child a pack of catsup and mustard and tell them to put it on their burger. You might need to add that they should squeeze out the ingredients even though the packets fit they are.

    • 12

      haha!! A little brevity on a sunny Sunday morning goes a long way. Thanks for the chuckle and nod of complete understanding.

  5. 13

    Hi Alton,
    As an Aussie, I cook using metric measurements. Whilst the US is undisputedly a superpower, it is one of only 3 countries left in the world not using it – the other 2 being Burma and Liberia! As it is surely inevitable that the US will join the rest of us unless they have joined some hitherto unknown ‘Axis of Metric Resistance’ to us, would you consider placing metric equivalents (in parentheses) after listing US ingredients? C’mon Alton, whilst probably not under President Trump, you or your ‘people’ will have to do this one day – why not now and take away one other obstacle to following recipes accurately?

    • 14

      Or you could quit being lazy and download a conversion calculator on your phone.
      They tried converting us to metrics in the 60s, it didn’t work then either.

      • 15

        Gee Mike. No need to get so insulting – this is not about my “laziness”. It is just a suggestion. Even if the USA attempted to introduce metric in the 60s and “it didn’t work then” doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t work again in the future. The hard part for those of us familiar with the ‘old system’ to learn to think in the metric system – actually takes years for some – I still think in feet for length. As mentioned in the original post, metric is used by every country in the world other than the USA and Liberia and Myanmar (Burma) so it would aid the USA communicating internationally about any measured thing – not just recipes – with the rest of the world easier ie everything is either a fraction or multiple of 10 and I dare say would also be easier for you in the US to do the math too. I am also only raising it in a forum about reading recipes accurately and I am not suggesting to Alton that he remove US measurements – just also add metric in parentheses. Hardly a suggestion that undermines the very basis of USA freedom and sovereignty! Relax, Mike.

        • 16

          When it comes to the difficulty in “change”, I agree wholeheartedly. I use a combo of both systems, just depends on what I’m doing. If I want/need something to be ultra precise, I use metric (grams v ounces, or cm v inch). I embrace both systems, but I think conversions across the metric system are far easier, requiring one to merely multiply or divide by a power of 10.

  6. 18
    Kat Gnagey

    Love this! Reading recipes over and over and truly studying them is what took me to the next level and my cooking. People ask me all the time how do I make the dishes that I do. I tell them I carefully studying the recipe for days sometimes weeks before I even make them. It really is a game changer, don’t believe me, try it for yourself!

    • 20

      Order of the words indicates the order of the actions.

      1C Nuts, Chopped means you measure one cup of nuts and then chop them – it slightly shortens the instructions section. They could have instead just listed 1C Nuts in the ingredients and then listed an instruction step to chop them.

      1C Chopped Nuts means you chop enough nuts to measure one cup. So take roughly two handfuls of nuts, chop them, scoop them into your measuring cup and see if you have enough.

      For something like nuts, I do not usually find this super critical. Something like Bananas, Mashed vs. Mashed Bananas or Parsley, Chopped vs Chopped Parsley makes a bigger difference.

  7. 23

    As a total nerd, I always do this! I read recipes for entertainment. If I am going to make a recipe, I read it over and over. And if you know something about cooking, if there is something “off” in a recipe, you can catch that before you make it. I love reading recipes and I don’t understand why some people say they can’t cook. Can they read? Then they should be able to cook. I don’t mean fancy, professional chef-level cooking – but anyone who can read should be able to follow a simple recipe. But then again, most people can’t figure out where to put their expiration tab/sticker on their license plate and that is ONE instruction!

  8. 25

    It can sometimes take a couple of days to get my act together to cook or bake, so I’ve learned a trick to refine the “ingredient staging” process. It includes the use of a permanent marker. I gather the pantry ingredients together and, yes, if I’m missing something it may take an extra day to get to the grocery store while the gathered items sit quietly in the corner. I use the marker to write on (usually the lid of) the ingredient to indicate that there IS A PLAN to use said ingredient in a specific dish that is planned for THISday. Otherwise, the fact that the ingredient (which has been sitting inside the pantry for, perhaps, weeks) is now in plain sight seems to give family members an overwhelming desire to have a snack of…cream of pig knuckle soup, or canned beans, or chopped fruit, or crushed cornflakes, or the very last of the toffee chocolate chips…. Good communication is a benefit to all.

  9. 26

    I have found a trick that I use when doing a heavy duty baking at Christmas. I typically make 15-20 batches of banana bread. So the week before, I measure all the dry ingredients into appropriate sized zip top bags, the place all the bags for each batch into a larger bag. Then I arrange the eggs, oil and buttermilk together on a shelf in the fridge so when the day comes to do the marathon baking, everything is in its place and there is not any running out to the store for a missing ingredient. I do the same thing for my candy making. Saves tons of time and heartache.

  10. 27

    My first Home Ec teacher made us measure and/or chop and arrange all ingredients in small dishes before we ever started the cooking process. I still do it this way much to the dismay of my husband who usually washes my prep items as I cook. LOL

  11. 28
    Dannette Cornelison

    I will leave this little story, though it makes me sound like a goofball. This past holiday season I found a recipe, hand written by my late mother, for a cake she would make on rare occasions. I took this as a sign that I should make said cake though I had only made one other “from scratch” cake. I, sadly, read the recipe and went about ingredients in my normal fly by the seat of my pants way. Halfway through the process of making the cake I realized the recipe was incomplete; yet I knew a “similar” recipe was in a cookbook I have. I thought somehow I could fill in the missing steps and stay on track…silly, I know. The end result was horrid and the cake ended up being trashed. I still have a wonderful keepsake of the handwritten recipe but let’s just say…Lesson learned.

  12. 29
    Old School Home Ec

    As a FaCS (Family & Consumer Science) teacher, I have often defined my curriculum as teaching How to Read the Directions. All the skills & nutrition info won’t help at all if someone is a) in too much of a hurry; b) too overconfident; c) too lazy.
    My middle school students are often upset that I “LET” them ruin food.
    Most of them are usually listen to me as we work through it the 2nd time, and are more careful. Few of them have ever been allowed to fail, with consequences that weren’t fixed for them. This is as awful as the fact that almost all states have dropped this subject – or schools cripple it by not giving it any supply money, so it is only taught out of a book instead of hands-on.

  13. 30

    I always read through it first. But the 1 time I didn’t, turned out to be such a pain! There were things at the end that should have been at the beginning, and stuff at the beginning should have been at the end. It was a MESS. The recipe was not written well at all. Tasted good but wasn’t presentable.

  14. 31

    As an engineer, if people are reading recipes wrong, then it is likely that recipes aren’t written as well as they could be. Someone on the interwebs surely has come up with an improved recipe format? Maybe one that starts with a list of vessels and tools required, then the steps, then the ingredients?

    • 33

      I agree with the broad strokes of what you are saying, though I would go with Equipment, Ingredients, Steps. Also, for the ingredient piece, I would break out anything that needs to be pre-prepped (eg, all those things that need chopped or chilled or soaked, or pre-cooked so that the recipe can be called “quick” and “simple” and “done in under *x* minutes”… as long as you don’t take into account any of the actual prep work that is supposed to happen before step one.) Effectively, you would order things temporally, and spotlight those ingredients that need preparation beyond taking the out of the fridge, off the pantry shelf, etc. for attention prior to step one of the recipe.

  15. 34

    I rewrite the recipe so it is easier for me to follow in order of the steps and then
    group my already measured ingredients for each step
    then place the groups in order of the steps
    Has drastically reduced my embarrassing moments for first attempts.

  16. 35
    Eric Gibbs

    Pick up a copy of the Hyde County Cookbook, from Hyde County North Carolina one day. Some great old Southern dishes with recipes written by old Southern Grandmother’s. Just make sure you can still get lard.

  17. 38

    agreed for baking but a recipe to me is just a place to start – I get creative half way through and have come up with some amazing dishes (a few disasters, too). But for baking, AB is correct! Left handed pasta roller -I don’t have one of those but probably should get one!

  18. 39

    A caveat to this great advice, it works with —well written recipes—

    With the emergence of social media recipe platforms like Pinterest, Yumly et al., there many poorly written recipes out there. I stick to top tier sites, like this one, where I’m sure the recipes have been tested, edited, and proofread.

  19. 40

    #5 note the order of the stepS. Don’t assume that the writer has actually organised the steps in the order you should do them. All too often I see a step involving adding a mixture or finishing with a garnish that is only explained at the time you need it, when it should have been explained as an earlier step and told you to set it aside until you have finished step X. When supervising others, I regularly have to rewrite the instructions to correct this problem.

    Alton: please assure me you would not give the oil measurement first to make the bogey easier to measure if the obey was needed first?

  20. 41

    I made the mistake of not reading through a recipe this very night, and it was AB’s Overnight Cinnamon Rolls! No harm done, because I ended up making cinnamon/brown sugar/butter topping for oatmeal and baked apples.

  21. 42
    Fred Schechter

    Oh wise and all knowing Alton. With the rise (unintentional baking pun) of all the great infographics. I wonder why there aren’t some better timeline based graphics that can be more mainstream to dictate, design, and inform Chefs of recipes that will help to curb some of the smaller issues people miss. I’m often baffled that prep, thawing, marinading, soaking, and cooking times are not included on an actual timeline for context with ingredients referenced along the lines. While we don’t all read Torah, a vertical line could do the same down the page while informing decisions in real time. I know the regular baking convention is useful, however I hope there may be some ways to improve on the old methods with more contextual information and timing.

  22. 43

    Not being an experienced cook, I don’t know how to follow this recipe! It calls for 1/2 c. of additional flour “for dusting,” but never gives any instruction about when or how to do that. Does “dusting” mean the act of lightly flouring the cutting board, as in step 5? Or do you actually dust the tops of the biscuits—and if so, would that be before or after baking? I find it really ironic that an article about “how to read a recipe” contains a recipe with such inadequate instructions.

    • 45

      When you are a newbie cook, it’s funny to find all the terminology so different. Words experienced cooks use are almost a jargon to someone just starting out. Like “dusting”….when i started baking (loooong ago) i couldn’t quite figure out why i’d need a duster…luckily someone straightened me out. I’m a little better at it now, though….

  23. 46

    No mention of reading any posted reviews. I find it incredibly helpful to read others thought, changes or ideas about a recipe. I also find often there is someone that notes it went wrong, and another that can point out why ie. Over knead, cold butter…
    This helps me from making the same mistake, or finding out an extra pinch of something puts it over the top.

    • 47

      You’re assuming that everyone reads their recipes online. There are still a lot of us who use real books to cook from and there aren’t “posted reviews” in most cookbooks. 🙂

  24. 48

    As a Career Tech Culinary Arts instructor I make my students fill out a Mental Mise en Place form which makes them list all ingredients in order used with proper measurements, all hardware they are going to need, and a full timeline for preparing the recipe. Then even if they are off they have had to read the recipe enough that they know exactly what they need to be doing when they step into the kitchen.

  25. 50
    AnnaLee Parnetta B.H.Ec. B.Ed. M.Ed.

    As a home economics teacher I struggle to use recipes directly from a cookbook. Why? Missing information. I find many recipes assume that the cook knows the unwritten parts. When one is teaching beginner cooks I take the time to re-write the recipe and add all of the missing information, whether that is in the ingredients list and/or in the directions. I do have a short list of trusted books I like to follow for my students as I know the recipes have been tested in a test kitchen by professionals. I will add that I love to use Alton’s “Good Eats” videos as teaching in my classes and I call Alton the “Bill Nye” of cooking and food science for my beginner cooking classes. Keep up the good work and great resources for us teachers to use in the classroom.

  26. 51
    John Rybock

    Overall, a very good list for everyone to follow. That said, there are plenty of instances where the recipe is wrong. People churn out cook books with hundreds of recipes, and not everything is meticulously tested. As a chef who has worked in a corporate environment, where we got “standard” recipes to use from corporate, even within that small audience, recipes can be very, very wrong. Beyond the ingredient showing up in the method but missing from the ingredient list, I’ve had dishes that are universally inedible if the recipe is followed (such as, one that I adjusted to using 1 piece of chipotle pepper in adabo sauce to spice it, while the original recipe called for 1 1/2 cans and 3 Tbsp of dried, powdered chipotle).

  27. 52
    Ginny Wilcox

    I’ve actually read Charlie Trotter’s Three Day Rabbit Stock and it was a great read! Reading before ever doing anything else is the most useful recipe wisdom ever written. Thanks for taking the time to write this all out and therefore proving I’m not totally crazy, only a little bit.

  28. 53
    Christine Venable

    My folks used to watch the weather channel like it was Ed Sullivan (or something similar.). In a similar vein, I read cookbooks like others read novels or nonfiction. I have a really old James Beard Cookbook that I read over and over. I have learned a lot. I still need to head to the kitchen to practice technique, but I read, read, read.

    • 55
      Trevor Castle

      The top picture is zoomed in, cutting off the final words. It’s not a typo, it’s just that the position of the cropping is unfortunate in that it does not indicate that it’s been zoomed in when you read it. If it were zoomed a little more, or a little less, where a word were cut in half, it would probably be more obvious to the viewer.
      As to why it’s zoomed in, only Alton or any graphic designers that helped compose this page, could say.

      There’s an actual typo in step 6, however:
      “… than a timer every will.”

  29. 56

    6 oz refers to weight. 3/4 cup of brown sugar is going to be packed in a dry measure most likely not weighing 6 oz. Baking is science and it will matter.

  30. 57

    Measurements by weight are far more accurate than by volume. Is your sugar packed? How tightly? Is the spoonful rounded? Sifted before or after measuring? You avoid all these variables when you measure by weight, which is why 6oz doesn’t necessarily mean the same as 3/4 cup.
    My baking got far, far better when I started doing everything by weight with dry ingredients. Thanks, Alton!

  31. 58

    Rebekah: ounces is typically by weight. While 6 fluid ounces of water (3/4 cup) weighs 6 ounces, this is not true of all ingredients.

  32. 59

    Very helpful advice: sorting out ingredients and these idiosyncrasies always trips me up. Grammatical note: In number two, I believe you meant to write “e.g.,” which means “for example,” rather than “i.e.,” which means “that is.”

  33. 61

    Question: how is 6 ounces NOT the same as 3/4 cup? 8 ounces in a cup, 3/4 cup is 6 ounces….OR were you alluding to WEIGHT and liquid measure? Thank you!

    • 64

      6 ounces, volume and 6 ounces, mass are different things. Sure, 3/4 cup of water is 6 ounces both in volume and weight, but if you put 3/4 cup of molasses on a scale it will be 6 ounces in volume, but will probably weigh more.

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