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

67 Comments

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  1. 1
    Mark cullen

    first read the yield than read the serving size after that read the directions, follow the directions than ur food is ready to go and its good to eat

  2. 5
    Alan

    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.

  3. 6
    Bob

    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.

  4. 13
    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.

  5. 14
    Dave

    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 nicely.as they are.

    • 15
      Michelle

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

  6. 16
    Bea

    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?

    • 17
      Mike

      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.

      • 18
        bea

        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.

        • 19
          Ken

          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.

  7. 21
    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!

    • 23
      Meghan

      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.

  8. 26
    jen

    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!

  9. 28
    Suki

    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.

  10. 29
    Lynda

    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.

  11. 30
    Sherry

    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

  12. 31
    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.

  13. 32
    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.

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